Development Assistance’s Dilemmas

A frequent demand by NGOs that deal with developing countries’ affairs is that rich countries (i.e., mainly the European Union, the US, Canada and Japan) increase the levels of their ODA (=official development assistance). In fact, developed countries commited (40 years ago) to raise their ODA to a level of 0,7% of their respective GDPs. So far, only a handful met this obligation. Meanwhile, there are many arguing that ODA is doomed to failure, so it is a wastage of time and money to engage in development assistance at all. I think that the problem is rather more complex. It is not just about whether and how much to invest in ODA – the matter is, actually, how we do it. And there are many problematic issues in this area.

Not to provide development assistance, in one way or another, is, in many cases, equal to resigning to the fact that there are millions of people living in poverty – locked-in in the so-called “poverty trap”, unable to break out without help from outside. So, no assistance is not an alternative.

On the other hand, ODA in its current form has not been really successful so far.  There are many reasons for that. First of all, there is a tendency to “one-size-fits-all” solutions – regardless of specific local (cultural, historical, structural and so on) characteristics, there is a spectrum of measures that are supposed to work. Always and everywhere. Unfortunately, they mostly don’t. Furthermore, ODA is mostly concentrated in few large projects, mostly at the national level. Since many developing countries can barely be described as democracies, this gives rise to corruption and abuse. The alternative could be to conduct whole projects without involving local authorities (beside their general approval, of course) – but this has similar consequences to “one-size-fits-all” solutions (due to a lack of knowledge about local specifics on the side of ODA agencies) and raises problems as soon as the project is completed – how is it to be maintained when there is no-one in the country who developed it?

Another problem, pointed out to by the German ethnologist Richard Rottenburg, is that officials in the developing world often quite expect that they get ready-made solutions, and don’t want too much responsibility for themselves – either due to ignorance, or lack of competence, or just lack of ideas. Furthermore, such an approach (giving more responsibility for the project to local officials) also may give rise to abuse.

Theoretically, the best solution is in supporting so-called grassroots projects (as proposed, e.g., by Bertrand Schneider in a 1985 Club of Rome report) – i.e., small-scale projects, requiring the full involvement of local communities. But even this seemingly reasonable approach bears problems: first, even at the local scale there is often the need to negotiate with some representatives (e.g., tribe chiefs) – the danger of abuse arises again. Second, huge administrative effort by the rich countries’ ODA agencies would be needed, since they would be forced to coordinate all the disperse, small projects. And third, there are problems you cannot solve “from the grassroots” only – many development traps have their roots in institutional structure at the macro level (dictatorship, corruption, nepotism etc.).

I fear, there is no single “right” approach to development assistance. As I pointed out at the beginning, we cannot just accept that people are starving. But it is not enough to give their governments some money and some experts to conduct a few projects that are not suited for the specific local needs. So, it will not do if all OECD countries suddenly start spending 0,7% (or more) of their GDPs for ODA purposes. The first step should be to reconsider the whole system of development assistance and, especially, to accept that every single project – be it a small- or a large-scale one – has to be assessed with regard to the local reality. Then we may be able to provide some real help, instead of just salving our conscience.


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