Reexamining the aid/dev paradigm

April 15, 2011 Uncategorized

I started writing this over a week ago and never finished — particularly the end [where I’m supposed to make a good point..] is not flushed out at all.. but I’m going to post it anyways or it will never get looked at again.


Reading this article yesterday about the ongoing violence in Cote d’Ivoire got me thinking more about prevalent attitudes within the international aid and donor community which largely drive the approaches taken toward aid: who is prioritized, who gets more money, who gets response quicker, who is viewed as a ‘poster child’ for development success [and through what lens are we looking?], and then who gets ignored?

As a disclaimer, I should note that I am still very new in the development sector. My knowledge at this point is mostly a product of my education, paired with a few brief on-the-ground internships that gave me a taste of how the systems in this field operate – but I’ve only just begun my first real job with an international organization, so my views here are by no means the most informed. Far from it. In that light I welcome the opinions of others and am open to criticism.

That said, issues of representation, power and privilege are something I get pretty worked up about. And I think it’s impossible to deny that the deliverance of aid, whether it be relief or development [..also a fine line at times], is guided by the priorities of donors and the authorities they are connected to. These priorities can be about pushing foreign policy doctrine, or opportunities to exploit commodified resources [i.e. oil, gas, coltan], protecting it’s own citizens, or more generally about the hierarchies of privilege placed by whites upon black and brown bodies. Often, it seems to be a combination of all of the above.

As Essa explains in the context of Cote d’Ivoire, and the lack of attention there despite its currently grave state:

With international attention focused primarily on events in North Africa and the aftermath of the Japan earthquake, the ongoing violence in Cote d’Ivoire has already largely been relegated to the scrolling text at the bottom of your screen. This of course, might change if cocoa production stalls completely and there is a worldwide chocolate-bar shortage. Will Nicholas Sarkozy, Barack Obama or Willy Wonka send troops to save the Ivorians then?

Unlikely, says Kouakou. “Cote d’Ivoire really doesn’t represent a very large and deep geopolitical interest for the so-called international community at this stage. There are no serious mineral resources of grave or vast interest for the West in particular. Nor will the fall of cocoa production get Presidents Obama, Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron to rush to the rescue of Ivorians. No chance. That’s why the international community is very quiet. They will get involved if and when UN, US, EU citizens are killed or kidnapped.”

“Only when their [the wider world’s] pains are real and linked to that of Cote d’Ivoire’s will they be more vocal and act promptly. Until the humanitarian crisis gets closer to them, and in their pockets, they will remain quiet,” he adds.

If not immediately an interest of the government, it seems the level and speed of aid response given to a nation or community often depends on whether it has received significant media attention and garnered adequate public and government support for the issue. This is where the prioritizing of identities comes in. I would venture that this factor of public attention is, commonly, largely framed by hegemonic [Northern, Western, white] views toward the Other: whether it’s a romanticization/exotification/imperialist nostalgia toward a culture(s) or region of the world, or  the perceived inherent capacity of different racial, ethnic and religious groups in the South to achieve satisfactory levels of development and stability [especially in a way that further benefits the capitalist drive of the North]. [by North and South, I’m referring to the somewhat outdated  North-South divide]

Whatever the case, as I don’t believe everything fits into one formula, this proves the need for countries and peoples to demand agency in their plights, to take more control over determining their own futures. This is certainly easier for me to say, than for those in crisis and chronic conflict to achieve. But it’s still valid:

Owono believes it is time for Africans to intervene themselves, to take up the challenge of shifting the status quo. The future of the continent, she says, depends on it. “People in Africa are tired of wars. My generation is a generation of action, we want to see our continent develop. We have witnessed what South American or Asian countries have done in the past 20 years. We are aware of the potential of the one billion inhabitants [of the] continent, and we are also more than ever conscious that development can never be achieved in times of war.” [bold font is my own emphasis]

In my mind, this is true not just for Africa, but for Afghanistan and so many other regions downtrodden by decades of conflict. Again, much easier to say than to see it happen, due to both the chaos and lack of safe structures through which to affect change internally, and to the pressure exerted from the outside [donor agencies with agendas who can derail a capable populous from taking true ownership over their own development] This is the reality that gives me a job here! I am criticizing the very system that secures my contract, and it’s a strange, privileged and hypocritical position to be in. Of course there is a reality echoed by many locals here that say they wholeheartedly want outside help to build their capacity and that we are welcome here, but it’s just so much more complex than that. So much grey space, nothing is black and white.

Whatever the answers are for various countries and communities to achieve peace and sustainable progress, the baseline need that I was trying to get at here is for a serious paradigm shift within the int’l aid community on attitudes toward capacity of these nations to determine their own futures… and I dont think anyone can agree yet on what that looks like.


  1. Hill says:

    I hear you and wish I had a magazine to publish this in, dear colleague. More noteworthy is that you’re writing such things when any other woman would like to lay on the floor and do shavasana for the rest of the day. I’m so proud of you. I’m proud that we wrote a paper together once upon a time.

  2. Brandi says:

    I’ll echo Hill’s response here; proud to work along side you, in whatever capacity that looked like, and will look like in the future.

    What’s so interesting to me in reading this (at this moment) is how very similar this conversation is to the one we’re having (and actually had today) as a local anti-trafficking community (human trafficking, to be specific). For instance, switch out a few words to make it “…to achieve [justice] and sustainable progress, the baseline need that I was trying to get at here is for a serious paradigm shift within the [culture/legislation/policy/insert any number of appropriate words here] on *attitudes* toward capacity of these [individuals] to determine their own futures…and I don’t think anyone can agree yet on what that looks like.”

    We had yet another meeting today, involving local law enforcement, local anti-trafficking organizations, foundations that support economic self-sufficiency for women, organizations that work on issues directly relating to latina communities, university programs, district attorneys and sex workers’ rights groups…all sitting around a table trying to figure out what it means to “move forward” in this issue…and what it means to define “demand reduction.” In the end, it always seems like our attitudes toward letting others be completely self-determining that gets in our own way and finds us bumbling for any real answers.

    Answers that are *never* black and white. Answers that are nuanced and complex and must always be contextualized.

    In re: to development…it’s great to read your thoughts here. Loving this conversation, as usual. Thanks for posting, friend!

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