Monday, September 16, 2013

The Unsustainable Nature of Aid-Giving Social Work

Out there in the rich world, despite all the ruckus about economic downturns and youth unemployment, there seems to be still a strong ideology of action-based do-gooders out there.  Young people in the so-called developed countries, disillusioned by what they feel as "corporate pragmatism" increasingly distanced from the "real world" of unending poverty, disease, and hopelessness in the so-called developing world, dreams about swashbuckling alternate lives saving people in the Earth's remote, underdeveloped corners from misery.  They, so they believe, can miraculously apply the experience of the rich world directly to the poor.

And despite the lack of public funds during this ongoing economic downturns, the rich world still carries on the traditional institutions of foreign aid that attract these idealistic youths.  From national organizations of the rich world like USAID in US, AusAID in Australia, and JICA in Japan, to international organization funded by the rich world (usually prefixed with "UN-" or suffixed with "Development Bank"), money still sloshes around these fronts for aid-giving that the good-hearted young men can find themselves sponsored modestly for a social work position to satisfy their cravings for saving one poor person at a time.

The author has no problem with this arrangement.  In fact, he considers himself, to an extent at least, part of this community of hot-head globetrotting world-savers.  But the author does have a problem with the mentality that has since developed surrounding this whole aid-giving institution, both on the givers' and the receivers' side.  An increasingly entrenched desire for giving aid for the reason of repeatedly "feeling good" (as if a drug-induced euphoria) has created a political economy of aid for the sake of giving aid, and not for the purpose of encouraging self-sustaining development in a way that makes the aid unnecessary over time.

On the ground in a place that receives (and certainly deserves) much foreign aid, it certainly feels that the money, the human resources, and the appreciation for the foreign efforts are increasingly all being misdirected after decades of similar (but not at all progressing in anyway) projects in place.  Local villages receive one generation after another of idealistic young men and women, who, with little background knowledge of the local language/culture or the subject matter they are projected for, enthusiastically attempting to spread some supposedly helpful skills/ideas/techniques to a confused crowd, to no visible effect on their lives.

Instead, in its place is a severe side effect of "aid-centered economy."  The villages receiving aid money simply consume the money in a non-sustainable way, burning the cash on goods and services that are in reality, totally dependent on more pouring-in of foreign money.  The existence of extremely expensive high-end hotels and restaurants in some of the most impoverished and thus most aid-receiving countries in the world (East Timor, to speak of something in the neighborhood) is a strong illustration.  The young aid workers, instead of introducing economic self-sufficiency, simply fuels the aid dependence with spendings.

Perhaps the most disheartening of this situation is that most young aid-workers seem to be completely oblivious of (or at least choose to be so) how their aid-giving is not moving the host society to a path to independent development.  By enthusiastically sharing their stories of how their pet projects have double the yield of one farmer's field, or made one family's handicraft more accessible to the market, or increase the village's quality of education, they are very much guilty of missing the much bigger picture: the very fact that what they see as personal accomplishment is, well, personal only and will not last after their departures.

Of course, their host societies have no problem compiling with this arrangement.  There is every political and economic incentive to play the poor man in the relationship.  But showing the weak side, one make friends with patronizing major economic powers, who provide economic support and political protection on the international stage.  The aid-induced investment inflows, for many small economies, is enough for the ineffective government to project itself as efficient and pro-economic growth (with the hard statistics to show as evidence) to appease a dismayed populace trapped in chronic public underinvestment.

The author, saddened by all of this, pleads the young do-good aid-workers around the globe to think slightly bigger than their own little projects.  To think that an accumulation of little development projects, without top-down changes in the political and economic structures of aid-giving, can lead to a "developing country" becoming "developed" over time is simply naive and immature.  Their sometimes condescending attitude of "the rich guy sacrificing comforts of the First World to save the poor" should be humbled by a more cynical but definitely truthful narrative of their being doped to waste their lives on unsustainable social work.

1 comment:

  1. you finally hit the spot with the last paragraph right there. Now, which aid-receiving country would like to graduate from receiving aid? None. Sure, they would love to take pride in their development wherein they can finally stand on their own and not be hand-held by some former colonial masters (as we see a bit too much of in Africa and here in SE Asia as well), their pride does not mean that they no longer want the fee money or knowledge transfer. So, why ever graduate?