Friday, March 25

Candle Power

This essay summarizes Pundita's points, scattered through several essays, about US foreign aid and development policy as applied to helping the world's poorest. I saw the need for this exercise after reading a blogger's published thoughts on Pundita's Finger of Shame essay. The blogger, Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye blog, refers to Joseph Nye's 'hard-soft power'concept and places Pundita's outlook in the soft power category:
The notions of hard and soft power derive...from the work of Joseph Nye. Hard power—military and economic power—is making other people do what you want them to. Soft power is making them want what you want. You don't employ or deploy soft power. You either have it and it's working or you don't and it won't...Hard power and soft power can work together synergistically. In what is certainly the most lucid article on the World Bank (and development banks generally) that I have ever read, Pundita suggests foregoing our hard power(in this case economic) strategies in the developing world in favor of a soft power approach...
Clearly Dave was unaware that Pundita nominated Eliot Spitzer for World Bank president. Short of dropping a bomb on World Bank headquarters, my suggestion doesn't get more hard power than that. Schuler closes by observing:
It's pretty clear that we have not made an opening in attacking the problem of the poverty of the poorest of the poor. Can it be accomplished with a soft power strategy? Do we have the wit and skill (and faith) to exploit it?
Pundita's reply: Not unless the wits are considerably sharpened. Development policies for the world's poorest haven't made headway because the policies are on the moon. They're on the moon because they're thought up by people who live inside theoretical bubbles, which float high above the doings of mortals down here on earth.

Yet there are many good-hearted, brilliant and well educated people from all over the world laboring in sustainable development. These are people who eat, sleep, and breathe the problems of the world's downtrodden. So how is it that so many smart, concerned people ended up on the moon?

Part of the answer lies in the development 'system' and mechanisms by which development policy is actualized; e.g., the development loan model, which was not created to solve the most pressing problems of the world's poorest.

Part of the answer is that developed nations have used foreign aid/development banks not so much to help the poorest but to further strategic aims. There's nothing wrong with trying to further such aims. But when this impulse is mixed with development policy it sets up a mental screen, which makes it hard to see things simply as they are.

A famous example of this type of blindness is shown in a movie based on a Graham Greene novel set during the Cold War. The US delivered food aid to a Third World country as part of a strategic initiative. The food was delivered to the docks in crates stamped in English "A gift from the United States of America."

During the night Soviet operatives crept onto the docks and stamped on the crates "A gift from the Soviet Union" in the native language of the people who were to receive the aid.

The other part of the answer can be hard to grasp; as soon as one tries to explain people interrupt with, "Oh I see. It's prejudice, bigotry."

Then how come dogs put in charge of minding small children display the same attitude? Within a few weeks the dog starts treating the kid like an idiot. The dog's not a bigot. There is something deeply rooted in mammalian nature that you don't want to mess with, but which when poured into looking after people who are perpetually in a weak position manifests in behaviors that are something like benevolent paternalism.

Of course the paternalism can mix with bigotry, class-consciousness and the Enclave mentality. When you put all that together, you get the attitude famously associated with West European colonialism. Pundita terms this brew of traits Sahibism.

Now one would think that Sahibism is not found among aid and development bank workers who come from the very regions of the world that were under Colonial rule. But as any Indian or African who remembers the tail end of Empire can tell you, there you would be very wrong. The 'natives' elevated by the Colonialists to administrative positions eventually took on much the same attitude toward their fellow natives that the Colonials displayed.

That makes sense if you realize the attitude is not rooted in bigotry. It's rooted in human nature. But when the attitude is mixed with development policy or even charitable giving, it sets up another mental screen--one that also makes it hard to see facts on the ground.

That is why, for decades, the World Bank simply replaced valuable equipment that was repeatedly stolen from the same Bank project construction sites in 'third world' countries. That is why an otherwise intelligent Western Christian missionary defended the Africans who repeatedly stole from his hospital by saying it was their culture to steal.

How can you arrive at intelligent aid policy, if you hold in your mind the attitude that the people you're trying to lift out of abject poverty are overgrown children? Thus, President Bush's approach, which is remarkably free of Sahibism, is a breakthrough. That is why Pundita supports the general idea behind Bush's Millennium Challenge Account, which tags US aid to governments that make strides in adopting and strengthening democratic government.

To return to Nye's concept, the Millennium Challenge Account is hard power--bone-cracking economic clout. Bush doesn't want to hear the laundry list of excuses from national leaders who've learned to play US administrations and the World Bank like a fiddle. Bush's position is either get with the democracy program or forget getting more money. That's treating leaders from nondemocratic poor countries as if they're adults in full possession of their mental faculties.

The Millennium Challenge Account doesn't have much funding, which for the short run leaves US aid/development policy still dependent on the USAID agency and international organizations such as the World Bank. That means things are still not looking up for the world's poorest. However, Pundita can't give unqualified support to the MCA because I don't know exactly how the program works out in practice. Giving money to governments that have made strides in democratic reforms doesn't necessarily equate to strides with real transformative value.

To think intelligently about helping the world's poorest requires first a different way of categorizing the poor. If you look through the list of the 77 "poorest" countries that make up the G-77 (See Pundita's sidebar), you'll note that some of those countries have oil wealth and other valuable exportable resources. Other countries on the list are narco states or Money Laundering, Inc., which means they're rolling in dough.

In short, there are oceans of money sloshing around in several of the countries that the World Bank and other international organizations categorize as the poorest. So clearly there's something screwy with the criteria for determining poverty. A close inspection shows that many countries, including several in OPEC, are poor because their governments spent decades making a complete mess and blowing export revenues on the wrong projects.*

But I think the majority of poorest countries are poorest because the class that put the government in power doesn't like to cough up at tax time, and because crime syndicates don't file tax returns. Yet pouring development and aid money into countries that don't have an adequate tax base to develop and maintain infrastructure and basic social programs is pouring into a bottomless pit.

Intelligent development policy should be grounded in that observation. Here we come to a snag. Multilateral development lending agencies and US aid programs are not set up to go after tax cheats. Nor do they have the authority to strong-arm governments into hounding the richest in their country to pay up on back taxes and raise taxes on the rich from a pittance percentage.

That is why development policy is on the moon. It's like the fable of the man who searched under a street lamp for a lost object in his darkened house because the lamp threw more light on his search. So making headway in helping the world's poorest is not really a matter of hard or soft power. It's a matter of lighting a candle to guide thinking back to earth.

Thanks to Dave Schuler's essay for galvanizing Pundita to summarize her writings to this point on aid/development policy.

* Seven of the 11 nations that make up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are poorer (or no richer) today per capita than they were in 1974. For an overview on why OPEC nations are crying poor these days, see the Christian Science Monitor report at


No comments: