More than 140 heads of state and government, civil society leaders and Hollywood stars are gathering in New York City this week for the 69th United Nations General Assembly. It features appearances by President Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and Victoria Beckham, among other luminaries.
The U.N. agenda, which is dominated by climate change, the crisis in Ukraine, the menace of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, also includes negotiations on a new set of development goals. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire next year and require a successor. As with the MDGs, the proposed new goals, tentatively known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasize, as the U.N. puts it, “poverty eradication” and “freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency.”
While buzzwords such as “sustainable development” are often tossed around at the U.N., little agreement exists among economists and international nongovernmental organizations on the methods, meaning or even utility of a one-size-fits-all development paradigm as a means of helping the world’s poor. Wedged between the greed of autocratic local governments and an aid industry that is uninterested in addressing the failings of the current system, the world’s poor will continue to suffer through another 15 years of the same failed ideas.
Cash versus cow transfers
Some economists, including Columbia University professor Chris Blattman, have taken issue with the way aid is disbursed to the world’s poorest people. Rich countries spend nearly $150 billion each year on aid, but only about a third of that amount is paid as cash transfers. Other forms of aid include paying for cows, goats, beans, textbooks and microloans. Blattman argues these models are not only expensive but also grossly inefficient in alleviating poverty. Citing studies on microloans in India and vocational training programs in Uganda, he shows how both initiatives failed to significantly reduce poverty. Instead, Blattman suggests, cash transfers that allow individual actors to decide what they want to do with the money are far more successful. “Poor people,” he concludes, “don’t always make the best choices with their money, of course, but fears that they consistently waste it are simply not borne out in the available data.”
But focusing on the means of disbursement sidesteps the fundamental problems with development. For one, international charities that serve as the primary conduits for development aid don’t seem to be concerned with the autonomy of the poor to make decisions regarding their welfare. For instance, a coalition of prominent global NGOs — including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, Oxfam, Save the Children, One and CARE — is devising a new PR strategy to “reverse the decline of public support” for development work and fight the growing view that aid is “a good idea, done badly.”
The problem with aid, the group argues, is the language used by development actors in donor countries. Hence a different marketing strategy would be adequate to turn the tide, revive the flagging faith in the poverty alleviation project. Its focus then is on responding to critics by realigning its public relations machines away from celebrity-driven aid messages and abstract terminologies. In simple terms, it suggests creating parity and partnership with aid recipients to keep the current development paradigm going and pre-empt critiques that have accused the aid industry of promoting stereotypes of the poor as lesser humans, lacking agency and good sense. A recent internal memo from the group provides few details about what these development partnerships would mean, how they would be enabled and whether they would be only new gloss on old ideas.
The problem with aid, however, goes much deeper than the debate on transfer methods or a new spin on the language of development. In his new book, “The Tyranny of Experts,” economist William Easterly argues that prevailing ideas of development originated from 1919 to 1949, a time when colonialism and racism were still considered acceptable. He argues that their legacy remains essential to the current development paradigms. To substantiate this point, he quotes John Huxley (the first director of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), who once said that the African “native” had a “childlike belief in the white as an inherently superior being.”
The U.N. General Assembly will soon unveil new goals that will guide international development for the next 15 years, accompanied by billions of dollars in new aid commitment. But little of the money and work will make the world’s poorest better off.
Moreover, Easterly argues, international NGOs continue to rely on a blank slate approach, in which they treat development as a technical problem with one-size-fits-all solutions, independent of the political and historical conditions of the countries in question. This, he contends, facilitates the idea that development can justify alliances with autocratic regimes. In other cases, development is imagined as a value-neutral undertaking that does not challenge the local cultural or political precepts.
In one example, Easterly points out the Gates Foundation’s use of incomplete or flawed data to tout their “success” in helping reduce child mortality in Ethiopia. This technical framework applied to complex problems such as child mortality thus creates a myopic view that interprets short-term changes as a reflection of actual successes. In the long run, these Band-Aid approaches of solving complex problems with shortsighted and donorcentric technical solutions are unsustainable. But, as Easterly points out, it creates a win-win situation for all participants except the poor: Autocratic regimes can misrepresent the data and skew the results to keep development aid rolling in, while international NGOs use the same data to report success stories back to Western donors to raise additional funds.
The need for change
The current development model cannot be saved with simple linguistic changes that do not empower the poor. Unfortunately, this realization has not dawned on the U.N. agenda or the coordinated PR campaign by global NGOs. The later seem far more interested in propping up an existing system that justifies their role as intermediaries with some superfluous rhetorical tweaks. As a new survey by Devex, an online platform that connects the development community, suggests, this approach is likely to fail. Nearly two-thirds of development executives polled ahead of the U.N. General Assembly said the “global aid industry will undergo transformational change in the next decade.” They cited the fact that “nations from the global south are increasingly challenging the dominance of Western donor governments, most notably by imposing different development paradigms” as the primary driver for this change. Obviously, the world’s poor are not happy or content with the way they have been talked about or treated by the aid-industrial complex, and they are starting, to the extent some of them can, to rebel.
In July the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which represent 46 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, created a development bank based in Shanghai. The impetus behind this initiative was that developing countries feel that their place at the decision-making table of international institutions is not proportionate to their growing economic power and that there are serious flaws in the current system of international development. Among the BRICS nations, China adopted the MDGs but did not integrate them into its five-year national development plans.
As for developing countries with less clout, the United Nations will continue to formulate a set of development goals for them to adopt, despite their different conditions. They will accept these directives, since they remain dependent on aid. And an influential machinery of report writers, project evaluators and other middlemen, who hover close to U.N. decision-makers to insure their own livelihoods, will lend credibility. To great fanfare, the General Assembly will unveil these goals, which will guide international development for the next 15 years, accompanied by billions of dollars in new aid commitment.
Little of the money and work, however, will make the world’s poorest better off. Instead, they will simply bend, accept their handouts from rich countries and pretend that they are benefiting from them instead of stating what they actually need.