Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Would Be a Legitimate Role for Western Development Workers in Developing Countries?

There's an interview with Yash Tandon on that is well worth reading for people working in development or thinking of doing so. I find it relatively rare to hear what Africans really think of development. My aim in coming to East Africa to work in development was to find out from people working in development here what form development should take. Given that both recipients (as opposed to beneficiaries) of development programs and those working on the programs often agree that things have been going wrong for a long time, how should things be put right?

Tandon criticizes the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness on the grounds that it was "conceptualized by the donors, and not by the people that were supposed to be assisted". Which is little different from a lot of development decisions, before and after the declaration. Tandon goes on to say that "the so-called development aid never did promote development" and that " The result is that the aid industry has no longer any legitimacy."

It's ironic, considering how often people working in development use the term 'dependency' when referring to recipients of aid, how Tandon turns things around and points out that there are "at least a million people in the Western countries that live off the aid industry". Tandon feels that aid, or whatever term it goes under, was always intended to serve the interests of donor countries. I agree, and Tanzania, with its massive potential for gold, uranium, natural gas, arable land and other resources, is a case in point. The resources remain underdeveloped and underexploited until some wealthy foreign country comes to do the exploiting.

Tandon singles out Oxfam for criticizm as an organization that started out with good intentions but is now part of the very machinery that ensures the smooth operation of aid policies that are intended to benefit Western countries. And he raises a very interesting question: why do we call a lot of 'aid' programming by that name when it is actually just business? The Chinese and the Indians call it business, so why do many Western countries wish to dress it up as philanthropy? It must be a slap in the face to big Western donors to be told that the Chinese do it better when they seem hell-bent on persuading people here that the Chinese are only out for what they can get!

Another couple of sacred cows Tandon slaughters are the imposition of certain 'values', perhaps by church based organizations, which are dressed up as 'solidarity' or some other touchy-feely concept; also the assumption that Western aid agencies have the right to "encourage women who raise their voices against practices that violate their human rights" (for example). Tandon says the latter is not the business of outsiders, that "the initiatives of rural women in Africa against oppression are very strong and very strategic. They know what will work and what will not". I hope his last statement is right; I have not been exposed to initiatives against oppression that are strong and strategic, though I would very much like to be.

These are all perplexing issues for people who wish to work in development without becoming part of the problem, serving as mere instruments of the self-interested Western agenda. Much though I would love to follow Tandon's advice, I have not come across many people who say 'this is what we want and this is how we intend to achieve it'. Rather they tend to say 'how do we get some of this money/assistance/resources'? Perhaps they are now also mere instruments and are currently unable to serve the intersts of those they hope to serve. But how do they change course and set the agenda? If there is an indigenous aid agenda in East Africa, where is it articulated?

I wholeheartedly agree with Tandon's conclusion that "All development is self-development", but I want to work with self-development, with self-developers. I think that the development industry can do a lot more good in developing countries by advocating against certain things, such as land-grabbing, resource theft, imposition of genetically modified organisms and other inappropriate and failed technologies, Western use of cheap labour, exploitation of lax human rights legislation, commodity dumping, unfair trade agreements, etc, something I have called 'Development by Omission' for want of a better phrase. But I wonder if Tandon thinks there is a legitimate role for people who work in development to continue with, as long as they are committed to an agenda set by their adopted country, and if so, what is this role?


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