International Development is a racket

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but I know it’s not gonna win me any friends, so I’ve been putting it off. Also, I am speaking from my experience on the ground, not from years of academic study so I’m sure there are many who would win an argument with me. But I’m not interested in arguing, just telling the truth.

International development is a racket.

In the 1960s, when I was a child, someone coined the term “the military-industrial complex” to describe the completely intertwined relationship between the military and the private industries that serviced it. It used to be said with negative undertones, but now it is such a simple fact of life, that the negativity is not much noticed.

These days, international development works much like military aid, including a whole collection of large international NGOs that exist primarily to serve the interests of Western or developed world governments. Many of the largest US-based international NGOs receive the vast majority of their funding from the US government in order to implement the government’s agenda. (You can easily see this information if you read the financial section of the organizations’ annual reports.) Of course, when they market themselves to individual donors, the public, they don’t talk about this. So “Jane Doe” donor who gives $50 or $100 or $1,000 believe that their money is “making a difference.”

In truth, Western-based international NGOs are focused on serving their donors—be they individuals, foundations or government agencies—far more than on serving their “beneficiaries.” Because, of course, their existence depends on their donors and beneficiaries only increase their costs.

This phenomenon has definitely gotten much worse and more widespread over the past twenty years. Under the guise of “effectiveness” and “accountability”, standards from the for-profit world have seeped into the non-profit world and there is no lack of consultants who will help any non-profit move in this direction. Just as corporations are beholden to their shareholders, non-profits and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are beholden to their donors.

And donors themselves have been well-trained. Someone who gives $5 wants to know what difference their contribution will make and how much of it will be used for “administration” or “overhead.” They want to “invest” in “social change.” So, organizations focus their work on things that can make donors feel like they are “making a difference” rather than on finding out what those they are nominally serving actually need and want.

This leads to absurdity. Recently I heard a story on an NPR (National Public Radio, from the US) podcast about the famine in Somalia. The reporter said that many Americans were asking if food aid will make a lasting difference. Seriously, that is a question? Are people so ignorant? Or out of touch with reality? Of course food aid won’t make a lasting difference! That is not the point, purpose or intention of food aid. It is an emergency measure. But people are so conditioned to think that really being engaged, really caring means asking whether their donations is going to “make a difference” that they have totally lost touch with reality.

Not every contribution is going to “make a difference” or be an “investment.” Sometimes, you just need to share your lunch with someone who is hungry.

And, the truth is, it shouldn’t be about YOU, the donor. God forbid those who have much should just be generous. . .

All that being said, I am personally inclined to think that Africa, at least, would be better off if it was left to “develop” on its own. Why do we think that Africa will develop in any way differently than Europe or the US or Russia or any other area developed? (Well, maybe we want it to develop differently than America. . .) The flood of money coming into the continent is NOT going to poor people and not particularly helping them. It is breeding corruption in government at all levels. There may be many very well-meaning people in the international development industry and many seem to think they have “the answer” to Africa’s problems (can you say “Millennium Development Goals”? Ugh). Honestly, I have to say that their track record is pretty dismal, but even if they do have “the answer” that seems to me irrelevant. Development, or rather growth and evolution, is not about answers and results and things that can be quantified and monitored and evaluated and shown to donors to prove that they are making a difference.

I think it is even debatable that the vision of “development”—that is, having the technology and infrastructure and stuff that Europeans and Americans have—is the best way of living on the planet. Maybe there is a better way? Maybe there is some wisdom among the peoples who have inhabited the earth longer than any other cultures? Maybe speeding headlong into the consumer culture is not actually the most sustainable model for humanity’s future?

But to know that, we would have to be willing to respect the people and thinking and experience and way of operating of Africans. We would have to be willing to let things evolve—for better or worse—and allow for something to emerge. At the very least, we would have to interact with Africans as equal partners and, if we are so moved, provide the assistance that they ask for, on their terms, for their purposes and interests.


About Seth Longacre

primal health coach, vision fast guide, itinerant discalced Episcopal Deacon, barefoot runner, photographer, spiritual director, yoga teacher, minimalist, pilgrim
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One Response to International Development is a racket

  1. Jill says:

    Great Thoughts, Tracy. I am forwarding it to two of my NGO friends. I will also share with others. I do believe that cultural insensitivity leads to much bad decision-making.

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