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.