Thursday, October 06, 2011

Don't Assume Benign Interests in Sustainable Development

In the GWU seminar on UNESCO last night, students presented policy briefs that they had developed over the last few weeks relating to the key cross-cutting policy topics of the UNESCO program, Gender and Africa. I was reminded that students seem too often to assume that people are motivated by goals that we would hope that they have.

Call Me Cassandra

They assume that the United States Government seeks economic development of the countries that it provides with foreign aid. Aside from the tendency to reify an organization, that assumption ignores the fact that a lot of U.S. foreign aid is in the form of military equipment. A lot of foreign aid is explicitly intended to promote the security of the United States. Other aid is intended to help people get out of the worst problems of poverty, and some is provided to victims of disasters. The last thing that the Congress is likely to do with U.S. tax payer funds is to support economic development in foreign nations that is likely to create competition with U.S. exports from those nations.

Call Me Cassandra
The students seem to assume that NGO leaders will want to do what is best for long term development of the countries in which they work. I wonder whether they will more often seek to find a course of action that is a mix of their own personal interests, the interests of the NGO, the immediate interests of the beneficiaries of their organizations' services, and their long term interests. Half the households in the United States donated to Haitian relief after the terrible earthquake damage of January 2010. That fact illustrates a more basic truth, that the donors on whom the NGOs depend for their financial resources are stimulated to donate by vivid stories of immediate suffering, not be the opportunities for long term development. The NGO's serve a real need in quickly providing food, water and medical attention to the disaster victims, providing the homeless with temporary shelter, all vital services. But they may not be equally effective in building the institutional capacity of the host government to continue to serve the people over the long run, nor indeed might the officials of the NGOs be equally motivated to do so.

They assume that people in Haiti will want to tell people conducting surveys the truth, assuming also that the surveys are intended to obtain information as the basis of policies intended to help people like those being surveyed. I wonder whether Haitians are more likely to assume malevolent intent of people asking them questions (perhaps correctly) since that was so often the case in Haitian history. Will Haitians want to tell people the truth, or will they want to tell people the safest thing that they can think of?

In Africa, beset with failed states, weak states, states in some form of transition, and corrupt states it is especially dangerous to assume that government leaders and officials have only the (relatively benign) conflicts of interest found in their counterparts in advanced democracies.

Students have much more faith than I do in the ability of local governments, bilateral donor agencies, multilateral donor agencies and NGOs to work out relatively well targeted development and coordination strategies.


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