15 August 2013

Criticizing aid for fun and (non)profit

As Egyptians seek ways to resolve their current violent clash of values, the USA's foreign policy establishment is caught in a familiar dilemma: how to influence events to our "advantage" by finessing our foreign aid commitments to the country. So often, aid policy seems to put the needs of distressed people in last place. Does it do any good at all?
To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”
Ross Coggins, source.
There are probably few fields of human activity as rife with possibilities for righteous one-upping than foreign aid--oops, I mean international development assistance. Just think!--intensely cerebral idealists and shameless opportunists alike (not to mention semi-disillusioned former practitioners like me) can question:
... while actual people living in bondage don't get a word in edgewise. And, just as with theology and doctrinal disputes whose urgency is linked to our concepts of salvation, the whole debate is electrified by the high stakes involved. According to UNICEF, 29,000 children are dying each day from preventable causes.

Having seen development philosophies cycle in and out over the last forty years, I now assume that any development doctrine, no matter how progressive or fashionable, will eventually be denounced as wasteful or imperialistic or self-serving or somehow fatally inadequate with the passage of time. And these devastating critiques will be undergirded by horror stories of failures (like the Norwegian fish-freezing plant on the receding shoreline of Lake Turkana). And our own local church-based attempts to confront poverty will be equally vulnerable to unintended consequences. See these posts by Jamie, the very worst missionary, for examples relating to short-term missions.

Is abandoning international aid the answer? I'd argue that it isn't, because any such decision is just as corrupt and self-serving as the various doctrines and channels of foreign aid have turned out to be. It turns out that we give money to panhandlers in part to stay human, not necessarily to feel virtuous or provide durable help to the panhandler. Nations are no different; if the USA were to indulge itself in an attitude of economic and spiritual isolationism in a world plagued by chronic economic distress, one of its core values--unaffected generosity--would die completely. Indifference is fatal. To struggle to find our way among admittedly imperfect solutions is far better than doing nothing.

Some critics of USA's aid might argue that "unaffected generosity" is already a myth. That may be what the American public thinks it values, but that's because most people are unaware of (1) how microscopic the USA budget for non-military overseas direct assistance is, proportionally; (2) how much of it goes (and in terms of official assistance, MUST go) to USA-based suppliers, carriers, and agencies. This argues, not for less aid, but for more honesty.

I remember a conversation with a USAID representative in Jamaica after one of the hurricanes devastated a part of the island. He said, in effect, that one of the priorities of the aid effort was, by way of the various emergency projects, simply to flood the affected area with money. They knew full well that the money would not necessarily be spent efficiently or 100% honestly, but at least it would begin circulating in areas that had been bled dry by the disaster. Somehow I appreciated both the honesty and the pragmatism of his explanation.

Development aid will always be a messy business, because we're humans, and we can't help getting our narrow worldviews and multiple agendas mixed into the process. Arguing about which channels and methods are best reminds me of endless Quaker debates on evangelism: do we emphasize the Quaker stuff or stress the need for (unbranded) salvation and conversion? I know I'm right about my own viewpoint, but the reality is that different approaches can work together in partnership, and when they irritate each other, it's not the end of the world. So here are some ideas on development aid that seem sensible to me, at least today:
  • systemic and palliative approaches are forever one-upping each other, but both are needed, ... just swallow your damn pride and keep each other informed!
  • waste is inevitable; keep things transparent, but don't get stingy just because not every penny of your own precious dollar is spent exactly the way you'd like (and don't take advantage of "convenient alienation," which is when individuals or churches are happy to find flaws in a denomination or charity so that they can cut their contributions and save money!)
  • fund the aid bureaucracy--competency in transmitting and monitoring resources is worth paying for!--but demand transparency, accountability, and participatory approaches at every point of the chain
  • relationship is supreme; beware of the "project" mentality that relies on forms and procedures instead of waiting for relationships to mature; remember John Perkins' three imperatives and the order they're in: relocation, reconciliation, and (gulp) redistribution
  • instead of blasting your fellow practitioners who are somehow less sophisticated than you or I, focus your withering rhetoric on government policies that can, in one stroke, neutralize all the good you're doing by increasing tariffs or holding aid hostage to favorable U.N. votes
  • always keep God at the center, and if you need a bit of a theological scare to stay focused, remember Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's words: "Apathy in the face of relievable human misery is radical evil."
This is a list that I hope you'll add to or correct! In the meantime, here are some related posts:

"If you know what's good for you"
Intentions and results
Give a man a cliché...
On giving and receiving
How will you distribute your 2010 donations?

Here are a couple of samples of the conversations that have gone on in development circles: "From Poverty to Power"; "Is Aid Working?"

Right Sharing of World Resources has always operated on a human scale, placing a high priority on relationships. Relationship-building is also at the very heart of Marafiki, founded for "collaboration in development" by Retha McCutchen.

Get involved in "Helping Without Hurting."

"Public Prayer Places": "So I ask myself are we missing a trick here in our evangelistic practice."

"The Public Listener: A conversation with radio host Krista Tippett."

"Christians & Hollywood: Twenty moments of tension."

"U.S. drone strikes must comply with international law."

"Putting War Back in Children's Culture." An excerpt from an important book.

"Hound Dog" comes to Moscow, with Olga Lisikova.

No comments: