By Nora Lester Mund
Perhaps I am skeptical because I live in Palestine among a people whose rights to self-determination have been denied for 65 years and who experience daily violence, theft of natural resources, impoverishment, inaccessibility of services – all while being among the largest per capita beneficiaries of international humanitarian and development aid.
But from where I sit, I don’t see too much hope for post-2015 development, which is driven by a deceptively benign-sounding ideology that manages only to alleviate symptoms of disease that it simultaneously perpetuates.
I call the ideology “starting from scratch,” and it is especially disappointing to hear this ideology expressed by highly-regarded aid reformers like Paul Farmer. His recent article re-thinking foreign aid says that aid is needed to alleviate human suffering, and he calls for more aid to be delivered through local public systems. It’s a worthy-sounding argument, but it starts from scratch, ignoring the causes of continued vulnerability of children, of non-literacy, of inaccessibility of basic infrastructure and services.
Can we know how aid affects problems without also understanding what is causing the problems? Without analysis, not only of the historical roots of current problems, but also of the ways that need is recreated and perpetuated in the very fabric of today’s global society, we end up with an unexamined assumption that poverty just “is.” This implies that poverty is somehow innate or genetic to those who experience it. With that worldview, any effort to address poverty is going from nothing to something, from stasis to action, because we are “starting from scratch.”
But there is an alternative ideology. More and more aid critics and development justice activists espouse the view that development is an ordinary, instinctual, human process that, if allowed, will proceed naturally with the momentum of gravity and humanity. We are not “starting from scratch” but rather joining ongoing processes driven by inherent strengths and utilizing historically-nurtured assets and capacities.
Working from this ideology, the task of the international development community should be first and foremost to get out of the way. The second task should be to stop others from getting in the way. Only then should the international development community embark upon the third task—to humbly inquire if there is any way they can help. I call this ideology “supporting responsibly,” and if taken to heart, this would require a fundamentally different approach to international “development” work.
Development actors would need to find the existing developmental energy–which means recognizing its value–analyze and confront the obstacles that impede those natural forces, and remove the obstacles (which will likely require them to give up privileges). This is political work, systemic work, and self-work. It is not comprised of conducting assessments, running workshops and producing reports. Working from the “supporting responsibly” ideology would require development actors to be self-reflective, power-aware, and sensitive listeners, never competing with, ignoring or looking down on “locals” and certainly not trying to transform them.
Sadly, Paul Farmer, like so many other well-intentioned development actors, seems to be caught in a trap of oblivious self-righteousness that I consider part of the problem. He says the phrase “Local solutions for local problems” is “a commonly encountered liberal piety of development work.” He explains: “Many problems originate outside of people’s own communities: most trade regimes, all epidemics, and just about anything to do with climate change.”
This is true! But he goes on to argue that vaccines, pedagogic materials and shoes should not be manufactured locally. To me, this is a non sequitur. If Farmer admits the problems originate outside, then they should be solved outside (in other words, fix the trade regimes!) rather than alleviating the symptoms with externally imposed, short-term fixes, that enable the perpetrators to keep on causing damage.
Moreover, Farmer’s wrong-headed “starting from scratch” ideology leads him to say, “If we are able to strengthen in-country capacity so recipients can manage their own affairs, one day we will eliminate the need for anything other than partnerships.”
But if he spoke from the “supporting responsibly” ideology, he would say, “If we stop actively and intentionally destroying in-country capacity, then surely recipients, like all human beings, can manage their own affairs, and until then, anything we do except in full partnership with locals will be contradictory to that goal.”
Without understanding aid-givers’ role in creating the problems they seek to address, then it’s impossible to assess if and how aid may be “helping.” To use a harsh analogy: Should home invaders pat themselves on the back and take credit for letting hostages eat from their own refrigerator?
The expiration of the Millennium Development Goals provides an opportunity for those who claim to care about development to think about what’s next. I suggest we think first about how we got to the state of inequality, unnecessary suffering, and climate devastation that we find ourselves in now.
Nora Lester Murad is a writer and activist in Jerusalem, Palestine. Her blog, “The View from My Window in Palestine” at covers issues of aid, development and life under Israeli military occupation. She is a dedicated volunteer with Dalia Association, the first Palestinian community foundation, where she works on aid reform, philanthropy promotion, and civil society accountability.