How to unseat foreign aid mantras?

by | Oct 2, 2011

I just finished a fantastic and provocative book – a wake up call to the aid and development ‘industry’ (of which I am a part so good to be woken up once in a while)…

The book is ‘Delivering Development ’ by rising star of the blogosphere Edward Carr (see his blog Open the Echo Chamber and good posts on all sorts of stuff). He’s part of what seems to be a growing group of people who have academic backgrounds, blogs and work in policy or what Nora Lustig calls the ‘scholar-practitioner’. In fact he is currently on secondment to USAID from University of South Carolina, working on issues at the intersection of development and climate change.

Ed has an interesting background. He went to Ghana to do an archeological dig, became more interested in events in the present, and ended up a social scientist mashup of geographer/anthropologist/aid and development policy wonk, focused on understanding how the global poor manage economic, environmental and other challenges in their everyday lives.

Given Ed’s book draws on his work in Ghana, it illustrates many of the contradictions of globalization that were in various headlines last week in the business press on Ghana’s incredible oil boom. The size of the Ghanaian economy grew by a third in just one year and there’s been a massive expansion of mobile communications in a country where average incomes are still only about $3/day per person (exchange rate conversion) and 1 in 5 live under the poverty line of $2/day (PPP$s) (see data here and there’s a reasonable but mixed picture on the UN poverty goals in Ghana – see here).

In July Ghana became the latest of a range of formerly poor countries to reach middle-income country status in the World Bank’s country classifications (see here).

This is partly due to the expansion of the mobile communications sector which led to a recalculation of GDP figures (the previous ones didn’t include all output – see here), but also due to an oil boom which together have, induced a year-on-year GDP growth of 34% (yes 34%!) due to the oil boom which is adding new state revenues of $1bn/year but worryingly, there’s no government plan yet on how to spend the new revenues.

The book has a lot to say to these kinds of contradictions of economic development and globalisation.

The book is also a great read – great because it’s very much weekend reading – nice narrative; colourfully written and best of all thoroughly thought provoking and nicely capturing the zeitgeist on a number of fronts in current aid and development debates which are unseating a lot of long standing foreign aid mantras.

Here’s a quick summary of the top 3 takeaways from the book:

i) Policy needs to be seen more like an unpredictable catalyst for (hopefully) good change

Development is, at best, a catalyst of change in extraordinarily complex socio-ecological systems – it is almost never as simple as “we do X, and good thing Y happens.”  We start processes in complex systems, and they shift in unpredictable ways (See great blog ‘aid on the edge of chaos’).  We need to make peace with this and build on it, because many times these complex changes create a negative experience of development for those ‘we’ mean to ‘help’ that may not be reducible – that is, uncertainty and negative outcomes may be inherent to the process, and we should be planning for them to ameliorate these impacts. Helping some of the poor may be to the detriment of other poor people in the same country – there may be important trade-offs especially amongst heterogeneous groups.

ii. People are the best judge of their managing risks to their livelihoods and their own wellbeing, such as by opting in and opt out of global connections via ‘strategic deglobalisation’ when the risks get high and reentry when the opportunities are good.

We need to spend more time asking how people have come to face challenges to their wellbeing, instead of erasing history and prescribing ‘development’ as a cure.  As Ed lays out in the book, a lot of these challenges are the product of long engagements with global processes such as colonialism and development, both of which serve as vehicles for globalization.  So when we start prescribing aid/development as a solution for these challenges, we might be prescribing the cause of the problem . . . worse, we might choose to program the very thing that caused the problem in the first place, when other options were available.

For example, Ed argues that globalization is not a one-way process: people opt in and out of global networks and connections through what Ed calls ‘strategic deglobalization’ (see globaldashboard post here). While many might see a lack of connection to the global economy as a problem to be solved, in this case the ability to deglobalize provides a level of safety for them that is necessary due to absent safety nets, etc.

Because we assume that globalization is only a process of connecting people to the larger world, we misread this opting in and out – a major reason why it is so difficult to understand the patterns of development (or absence of development) along what Ed’s book calls “globalization’s shoreline”.

iii) What we choose to measure is often based on our own ‘lens’ which is tinted by often-faulty assumptions

What we assume shapes what we measure, which then supports what we assume. But our assumptions are often wrong, which means we are measuring the wrong things if we mean to understand what is happening in the world.  Ed argues that this process is creating an echo chamber of meaning and practice that has us reproducing bad ideas, and makes it difficult to intervene in contemporary development practice. To address this, he argues for more serious efforts to empower the global poor to speak for themselves, and to one another, to search for innovative solutions to problems of poverty and environmental degradation that have the potential to impact us all, wherever we might live.

All-in-all, the book is a riveting read, horizon broadening and next time I’m writing about aid and development good to remember how Ed’s book takes a somewhat unusual path towards challenging the dominant paradigm that complements other, parallel efforts.

If there are two ways to challenge orthodox thinking on foreign aid or ‘foreign aid mantras’ (I feel a blog coming on the the latter soon) – you can find a pile of evidence that runs a mile wide, but maybe not all that deep, or take a really, really deep dive on a particular case – and I tend to go for the former but Ed’s book is very much the latter – and needed – it takes a perfectly average kind of place and uses its history, and a meticulous accounting of life in that place, to demonstrate that several development assumptions – or foreign aid mantras – don’t actually play out in the real world – and if we are wrong in one place, we are probably wrong in a lot of places…

All-in-all, a must read for aid wonks everywhere.




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