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Foreign aid didn’t work. Then we started to look at tradition

Emma Wakpi
Emma Wakpi


PORT MORESBY - Foreign aid is an evolving concept burdened with historical biases that it’s trying to shed as it endeavours to achieve equity in a world where power and politics are intertwined with charity and moral obligation.

Aid has not worked as effectively as we would hope, but the mistakes made are lessons in how it can be improved for the future. 

Foreign aid had its beginnings in early evolutionist ideology that defined modernisation by western development standards with little regard to social relations or established transactional processes in non-European nations.

European anthropologists in the 19th century used evolution to explain their advanced superiority in technology and monetary transactions to justify the colonisation of lesser nations.

In doing so, as VY Mudimbe wrote, evolution was used to “repress otherness in the name of sameness and thus fundamentally escape making sense of other worlds.” Foreign aid as a development assistance concept was birthed on 20 January 1949 under the influence of this ideology.

US president Harry Truman in his inauguration speech rallied America and its modernised friends to assist what was seen as primitive nations with stagnant economies and inadequate food to catch up to modern world standards.

Capitalism and technology had fast tracked development for the western world, and it was assumed this would be the same for the non-western worlds. It was not to be.

There should always be awareness that the melding of different world views in the pursuit of development will create an altered outcome of goals.

These deviations should be used as lessons to understand how aid can assist, not hold back, the development agendas of recipient nations.

However, the historical bias presumed all aid programs to be positive contributors to the development of recipients. From the 1950s to the 1980s, infrastructure development, skills development and improvements in labour productivity were undertaken by numerous agencies, but with no sustained success.

By the 1990s there was still no significant impact on the overall development of poor nations and the consensus that foreign aid programs were ineffective started to gain traction.

James Ferguson stated that foreign aid had created a global phenomenon: development had become an industry where aid was arbitrarily implemented by various western agencies without coordination, accountability or systems checks to ensure recipient countries could handle the push of western capitalist ideas upon societies.

Foreign aid programs had been impervious to deeply embedded social structures that influenced and altered their development outcome agendas. Traditional culture was flippantly used to justify program failure and it was seen as the barrier to true progress.

Ferguson refuted this assumption, claiming that development should not be concerned with the people to be “developed” but rather the “apparatus” that would be doing the developing. And he identified this apparatus as the traditional culture embedded so deeply within a nations psyche that planned development initiatives would be negligent to not account for it.

The West realised that it underestimated the impact of traditional structures in non-western societies and started to address its own embedded ideological bias. This resulted in the Paris 2005 Declaration against Poverty in which five mutually reinforcing principles were established:

Ownership: Developing countries must lead their own development policies and strategies, and manage their own development work on the ground.

Alignment: Donors must line up their aid firmly behind the priorities outlined in developing countries’ national development strategies.

Harmonisation: Donors must coordinate their development work better amongst themselves to avoid duplication and high transaction costs for poor countries.

Managing for results: All parties in the aid relationship must place more focus on the result of aid, the tangible difference it makes in poor people’s lives. They must develop better tools and systems to measure this impact.

Mutual accountability: Donors and developing countries must account more transparently to each other for their use of aid funds, and to their citizens and parliaments for the impact of their aid.

This declaration by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) acknowledged Ferguson’s critique and responded accordingly. And so critique of weak delivery structures and arbitrary donor activities has been addressed through principles of harmonisation and managing for results.

Also his claim concerning the lack of understanding for culture and how it influences developmental agendas has been addressed by the alignment and mutual accountability principles.

In 2008 and 2010 recipient countries were also invited to OECD’s meeting so there has been a conscious effort in establishing discourse. This shows respect and acknowledgment of the need to work together to achieve equity.

History has shown us that foreign aid failed in the past but lessons have been learned and a willingness to listen and change has been shown.

As long as there is injustice and poverty in the world, there will continue to be a need for foreign aid. The challenge will be to understand current events, the political maneuvering and strategies and the cultural context in which aid can be delivered for maximum effect.

It is the moral responsibility of individuals and nations to ensure resources and services are equitably distributed and the concept of foreign aid will continue to evolve to address issues that the world will face tomorrow.  


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John K Kamasua

This is great and provides for good discussion. Historically development aid has never worked as well as they should in countries where corruption was high and governance systems lacking.

The African continent provides glaring examples of that!

If donors closed their offices and withdrew their presence in the country, and the private sector gradually left PNG's shores, the country would be in a dire situation indeed.

Philip Kai Morre

Foreign aid creates a dependency syndrome and we become beggars in the midst of mining booms, rich natural resources and sitting on a sea of oil.

We should manage our own resources prudently and our leaders must perform a duty of trust and responsibility.

Our problem now is not foreign aid but political. Politics in PNG is getting out of hand and sooner or later we will experience revolution.

Barbara Short

Australia gave PNG its Independence in 1975 and then gradually the expats from various countries who were working to help set up the schools, hospitals, universities, government systems, police force, etc etc left PNG and let the PNG people get on with job of running their country.

The Paris Declaration against poverty 2005 sounds great.

I have been embedded in the Facebook social media for the past 5 years and have been involved with trying to help solve all the current problems of PNG by working with my past students and their children especially.

It is fascinating to be part of the PNG community and to grow to understand how they see life. So much has changed so dramatically but at the same time so much has remained the same.

When they come to visit me I'm just one with them again and can understand the way they think. I guess there is this blend of the cultures that I can understand.

I have watched the "foreign aid" during the recent Kadovar volcanic eruption and now the recent earthquakes in Hela, SHP and other areas.

Foreign Aid has certainly helped a lot. It sounds like the PNG government funds are very low and they certainly don't have any PNG government agency capable of tackling these sorts of natural emergencies.

Of course, "foreign aid" can also come when foreigners try to help PNG people e.g. like Phil and Keith and Paul and so many of the contributors to PNG Attitude.

Emma's last sentence is strange to me. God has distributed the resources, e,g, gold, copper, coal, iron ore, oil, LNG, etc around the world and my European ancestors came out from England and Scotland to Australia during the Gold Rush times.

Today PNG is a country with much unexplored mineral wealth which of course has attracted the attention of people around the world. It also has had wonderful forests but Malaysians and Indonesians and Chinese people and others seem to be the ones that have become rich from this natural resource. The same goes for its plentiful supply of fresh fish.

When it comes to Health services we have a real problem. So many PNG doctors have been trained but where are they? The PNG government seems to have shown contempt to their own health services. Why? Well, I guess, when they get sick they know they can just pop off overseas somewhere to a good hospital with all the top doctors. Meanwhile so many die when they could easily have been saved with the help of a good doctor and some simple medication.

The schools have struggled. The students have struggled. Why? Is it because the politicians are scared? So many of them are really not highly educated and their actions over the past have shown their disinterest in educating the masses.

I think it is good that the Australian government seems to be offering more and more scholarships for PNG people to study in Australia. But then when it comes time to "go home" these very intelligent people find they may face dilemmas of all sorts.

Yes, Emma we want our aid to be effective. Sadly at the moment most people in Australia are not interested in PNG. They can't go there for their holidays.. too risky. Now they all seem to have seen the terrible things happening in Tari and seem to think that is PNG today. How can we help solve this problem? They know Bali and Fiji, so I guess tourism is the answer.

Anyway, for me it is back to Facebook. I can try to help people all over PNG through talking to them and encouraging them and letting them share their worries with me.. via their small mobile phones. A new form of Foreign Aid.

Paul Oates

The other unanswered question that might be considered after reading Stephen's post is that of direct aid from donor to the coal face and excluding the recipient government and it's greedy cronies.

What happens then must be monitored and just who will do the monitoring and using what benchmarks for success?

Given the demonstration a few years ago in Australia where the federal government decided in it's wisdom to give $1,000 to every taxpayer, the result was a vast buy up of such items as flat screen TV's and other one off material purchases that undoubtedly assisted the retailers and the country of origin but did little to alleviate poverty in Australia.

Sure it may have bought some votes but a week's a long time in politics.

The essence of the issue is that people only appreciate what they have to work for.

Give people the opportunity to help themselves rather than just give money or goods.

Of course that's so boring isn't it and doesn't get the giver's name in the media.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There are probably three important players in any aid deal, the giver, the taker and the intended recipients who are supposed to benefit from the aid given.

In the PNG case I think the givers and the takers understand each other well, be it aid from China or Australia.

When China gives aid to PNG the politicians who receive it well-understand the hidden costs. Because they are greedy they ignore these costs or cannot see far enough into the future to know what they actually mean.

It is only the recipient, often left out of the loop, who, if they receive the aid at all, must deal with the cultural problems.

Stephen Charteris

Emma has presented an excellent summary of factors underpinning the success or otherwise of development aid. So, is this the recipe for success? What might it mean in practice?

A question for practitioners on both sides of the donor-recipient equation is who gets to decide development priorities/strategies? And possibly more importantly, who gets to own the outcomes? The intended recipients - or someone else?

No one would challenge the notion that it is recipient governments that decide their priorities. But I would argue that even under the most auspicious circumstances these priorities generally translate into precious little sustainable benefit for people at community level.

If we are concerned about alleviating poverty, creating economic opportunity, addressing health or education indicators we are invariably talking about people who live in rural or peri-urban communities.

Delivering the enablers from their perspective that benefit them and their children sufficiently for them to own the outcomes and sustain those activities is in my view the real test of a development assistance model.

Much too often aid is owned by someone sitting in an office far removed from its intended actions – it matters little if that person is a natural citizen of the recipient country, or not – the program will invariably fail its objectives.

Too often the objective is narrow and the delivery deeply embedded in a top down methodology when at the bare minimum a robust bottom up component is required.

There is the place for central agency driven interventions but in PNG I would argue there is a significant role for more holistic community focussed and owned interventions.

They are usually unglamorous, hard work, focussed on the long term, not bankable and rarely the stuff of headlines.

However appropriately designed community owned and driven initiatives across health, education, access to energy, clean water and small enterprise are enablers to sustainable improvements in wellness, empowerment of both sexes and greater ongoing economic opportunity.

Such initiatives don’t happen in a vacuum. It needs support from funders with a sense of vision around how recent and emerging technologies might be applied, how existing resources might be value added without disenfranchising people or despoiling the environment and how social enterprise coupled with mobile money might have a valuable a role to play alongside established services.

With reference to the excellent advice offered by Emma, if any development partners are looking to refocus their assistance I would recommend they take a serious look at community driven, multi-sectoral models that empower people, address indicators, create opportunity and in so doing support the National development goals.

Chris Overland

This excellent essay deals with the specific problem of finding a way to deliver foreign aid within a given cultural context in order to achieve real and lasting benefits.

In doing so, the author has pointed to the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to international efforts to bring the benefits of modern civilisation (I am using this term advisedly) to the so-called developing world.

The elephant in question is culture and the associated persistence of systems of belief, thinking and living that are not inherently compatible with those of what we habitually describe as western civilisation.

Culture impacts much more profoundly upon how we humans see the world than is commonly understood. I confess to having only fairly belatedly come to understand this rather important point.

Typically, we humans as children are inculcated with a whole set of values and ideas about the world that originate in the lived experience of previous generations. These we tend to uncritically accept as reflecting objective reality, even when this is invariably wrong.

In turn, this leads us into potentially grave error in developing an understanding of the world around us and, especially, in interpreting the ideas, motivations and actions of those who do not share our cultural background.

The much vaunted multi-culturalism of places like the USA, Canada and Australia is, in practice, a large scale social experiment based upon the idea of cultural convergence whereby, to quote the USA's national motto, e pluribus unum (out of many, one).

There is some real evidence that cultural convergence is real and achievable, but it does bring with it a good deal of potential for misunderstandings, tensions and conflict. Hence, the USA's continuing problems with things like immigration and law enforcement as it pertains to people of non-Caucasian origin.

This is not just a problem for the USA, as the recent troubles in places like Britain, France and Germany have demonstrated all too graphically.

Given this context, it is very important for both aid givers and receivers to be able to freely and openly acknowledge the impact of the cultural assumptions that underpin how that aid will be or ought to be used.

Thus, the priorities as perceived by the giver may be greatly at odds with those of the receiver. Sorting out why this is the case seems likely to be the key to making sensible use of aid funds. This requires a level of honesty and clarity in the transaction that, it seems, often may not be present.

Right now, PNG is going cap in hand to China seeking aid. In doing so it is dealing with a culture vastly schooled in extreme political subtlety, not to say deviousness.

I mean no disrespect to Papua New Guineans generally when I say that political subtlety is not a cultural strong point for them. In fact, a certain disarming directness tends to be more a feature of traditional cultures in PNG than many other places in this world.

For this reason, despite Emma's wise and insightful words, there are reasonably grounds to fear that PNG's dealings with its new great and powerful friends may not work out as they believe or intend.

Certainly, this has been the pattern elsewhere in the world when developing nations have sought to do deals with other great powers.

Australia is hardly exempt from this observation either, given its own relationship with the USA.

We can only hope that PNG's diplomats are alive to the issues raised in this forum and so guide their political masters wisely.

Paul Oates

Thank you Emma for a very thoughtful article. In your last paragraph I suggest you target the nub of the problem very succinctly.

The concept of 'moral responsibility' is something that is axiomatically linked to the ethics of the society or culture of the person.

As an example, people who belong from an entrenched culture of reciprocity can actually be very offended if they are given something of greater value than they can reciprocate.

Christian teachings and expression in western cultures are often based on the notion of giving without expecting to receive. This is promoted as a good thing and so it can be, given the right circumstances.

The problem with any gift is an expectation of receiving something even if it is not of a material nature and involves just a warm and fuzzy feeling of having done something good.

The problem unfortunately then puts a significant onus on the giver to understand in an holistic way, what is actually taking place between the giver and the receiver. That understanding at the point of transaction is often misplaced.

So we arrive at the nexus between the desirable feeling of being able to do something nice for another person but ending up possibly insulting them by our action. There is also the risk of then claiming a philanthropic advantage especially if the giver has a lot and the receiver is down and out.

Millionaires often claim national recognition for their philanthropic deeds when it doesn't actually cost them anything since they haven't really given up their standard of living.

Before the original Christian message got mixed up with church dogma and hundreds of years of personal beliefs and written law, it was simply saying don't let the material desires influence your spiritual thoughts.

Easy to say and hard to do.

Overseas aid has many objectives and the nub of any aid program is to understand the process in an holistic manner.

I suspect the world we will face in the future will be a very troubled one and in troubled times, it is far better for friends to stick together rather than drift apart.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very erudite and enjoyable essay Emma, congratulations.

Clearly, Australian aid into Papua New Guinea is modelled on the older "we know what's best for you" system and is delivered with little appreciation or understanding of Papua New Guinean culture.

Does Papua New Guinea actually have a development plan? I know there is a document purporting to set out its national goals or vision up to 2050 but that is basically window dressing and just pretty words that everyone ignores. It certainly doesn't address the nuts and bolts of development or provide clear guidelines for where aid money should go.

Perhaps its time for Australia and Papua New Guinea to sit down and work out such a plan, or if it already exists, review and update it.

It would have to be a politicians-free exercise of course, otherwise it would run the risk of just being another talk-fest.

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