Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Towards a world without "development" ?

Sixty years of development assistance later, the poor remain poor, inequalities are growing, and hopes for change are becoming few and far in between.

"In the long run, and all other things being equal, foreign assistance dependence, like drug addiction, destroys rather than enhances the institutional capacities of the users, paralyses national initiatives ... and erodes the very basis of national sovereignty" (Servine Rugumamu)

Is development assistance just like a drug addiction? It certainly seems like it at times here in Mbandaka. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a particularly sobering example of how international involvement has failed to improve, maybe even in parts worsened the situation. Fact is that the average income is lower in 2013 than it was 1960 (the year of independence). Who is to blame and to whom can the Congolese turn to for help?

Certainly the infamous cleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko is on top of the list of culprits, followed by the United States of America and other international donors that supported his destructive regime via loans (often funneled through usual suspects such as the IMF or the World Bank). They knew of Mobuto's blatant disregard for the welfare of his people, and not just since the details report of the German Bundesbank employee Erwin Blumenthal, who was sent to investigate the financial situation in 1979. Yet the monies continued to roll in.
In more recent years Rwanda and Uganda can be added to the list, but the congolese elite and government never missed out on the action aka a piece of the pie. They are on my list of culprits without a doubt.

How would it seem to an alien if he/she/it had a look at our planet and noticing that the country with the most accessible natural recourse wealth is the poorest country on the planet? Probably something like WTF? But at the same time, it underlines the huge potential that rests within the sleeping giant in the heart of Africa.

Just like critics of Lumumba often point out his lack of patience and focus on the past, instead of seeing a future ahead, a re-focus is in order. What can I do to help the average Congolese on a path towards a more healthy, happy, safe and sustainable future? Well, probably something in between not very much at all, and absolutely nothing. Nevertheless the universe has brought me here and the question of what to do - philosophically speaking - nags me.

I decided to go back to school with the hope of working in a "developing country" based on the countless wonderful experienced I had all over the world. I carried a strong believe in humanity, especially the less privileged, and a pretty strong anger against the  persisting  structures that allowed inequality to continue. I still carry the later in me :) Living in the Equateur region of the DRC has brought me to doubt the prior though.

My naiveté concerning the self-less, loving people of a developing world can not be underestimated. Call it luck or difference between travel and living somewhere. Either way, things have not been as dazzling in the DRC as during my travel through Honduras, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Mexico, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Malawi, Lesotho or South Africa. As much as each of those countries has their problems I encountered the kindest, most carrying people, going out of their way to help a girl traveling by herself.

In fact all the Eurocentric clichés of Africa have found their way into my mouth and mind here in the Mabandaka: corruption, lack of discipline, arrogance and deceptiveness (this might be my personal cliche based the last months), laziness, oppression of women ...  is it their own fault!?!  What happened?

What exactly am I expecting when "yet another yet another white girl arrives to 'help' those poor souls" of the Congo? In the "industry of development" one runs the risk of implying that poor themselves have caused their poverty - that poverty is caused by the lack of knowledge, expertise, entrepreneurship, fertile land or maybe even good fortune on the part of the the poor, and with a little outside help all will be good again. Well, history as well as common sense tells us that this is a false assumption.

Not for no reason did I stay away from the study of "development" and instead opted for the less condescending sounding International Relations (also with the hopes of finding a job more easily in later parts of my life - how self-less of me..) My mind must have turned off sometime in between the applying to UCD and graduation. However, this week I was lead back to what I have been pondering about, and provided with a term for it too: Post-Development Theory. This theory suggests that we need to look at the relations between the rich and the poor to understand the origins of poverty (instead of coming dressed in white linen and long hair to save the children of the dark continent - as I always depicted myself living in these parts of the world.)

So really: What creates poverty? What are the mechanisms of impoverishment? Don't the causal chains which are leading to impoverishment in Africa have their origins in Europe? Is that were we should be fighting the battle against injustice and entrapment in poverty? Probably.

After all we know that 5 times the amount of monies are flowing out of this continent as it is entering via aid. And where does it flow? To those little islands, also beloved by our financial sector - TAX HAVENS. Huge issue. Super big, huge issue - really for all of us. And without having stood in front of one of those slick lawyer or accountants, I'm pretty sure they are educated up north and most likely were born there too. Other accounting standards such as Transfer Pricing, to avoid even the minimum of taxes, are a favorite of the MNCs. The problem again starts in the north. Doesn't mean the south is not tacking advantage of them. Greed and destructiveness knows no color.

On of my favorite subjects of course are the trade agreements. Since the (almost unreadable yet) incredibly insightful "FAIR TRADE FOR ALL" by Joseph Stiglitz the new way of colonizing and keeping developing countries, exactly that: developing, is clearl: trade. Since the World Trade Organization has been unsuccessful in bringing the Doha round to a close, mainly because of countries like Brazil and China that have become to powerful to 'take this shit anymore,' bilateral agreements have been on the forefront. Between the EU and Africa it's been the Economic Partnership Agreements, in a nutshell pushing the weak(er) economies of the south to open up their markets, to ensure benefits for the companies of the north. This goes exactly counter to the economic theory Stigilitz received the Nobel Price for and make sense to any child: If you want to develop your economy you have to first protect it. After all we don't sent our two year old to the port to unload ships.   That comes after feeding and training him for a few years ; ) Ho-Joon Chang backs it up with the example of South Korea, which was just as (under) developed as many African countries in the 1960s, yet through smart trade laws (aka protectionism) developed to be on of the raising stars and strongest economies worldwide.

Other destructive forces include the arms industry - quite literally. Ridiculous percentages of  budgets worldwide go into "defense". The production and sell is to be found in the north, with the USA, Russia, Germany and France on the "top". Room for improvement? For sure.

Every story has two side though. And after my experience here it is very clear that we had a willing buyer for all of the above in the Congo. The DRC has been a shocking example of how things can go wrong. At times it feels like a post-appocaliptic society. No trust, no hope, lack of food, water, paved streets and working government. Can the Belgians be blamed? Mobuto and the rest of the list of culprits? Or does the international aid community have to share this burden? After all the DRC is one of the largest aid receivers on this planet.

"Development Projects ... often unintentionally encourage people to see themselves as incapable of solving their own problems, and present models from outside as solutions to these problems" (Matthews, 2006). 

Post-development in parts argues that the concept of development is a fundamental extension of Western hegemony, and therefore must altogether be rejected. They criticize the representation of "the Third World" as backwards, problematic and in need for development.

 .".. but is their a place for NGO's to help revalorising people's own strategies, knowledge and beliefs. Because many disadvantaged communities have had their world views denigrated, it may be difficult for them to reject values and ideals with have effectively been imposed upon them and to reassert their own way of seeing the world". (Matthews)

Similarly to Paulo Fereire "Pedagogy of the oppressed" in which he argues that oppression is overcome through a mutual process between the "oppressor" and the "oppressed"- Dialogue being the main key to freedom - mental and physical.

"Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion" (Paulo Fereire)

But who is the oppressor these days in the DRC? In my opinion the congolese elite, which is seemingly happy with the satus quo and not in the mood for chit-chat with the miserable million on the bottom of the pyramid. Certainly the west plays its (supporting) role. The current president is doubtfully better than previous autocrats of this country, yet challenging voices of the international community are missing. Getting a roundtable-discussion-revolution going with any of those actors seems rather unlikely. But pressure on both sides should and can be asserted.

The leaders of the international community carry a responsibility to live up to all their rhetoric to shape a more just and equal world: with fair trade agreements, crack-down on tax evasion, good governance with responsible and accountable leaders, and a focus on helping the weakest in society by establishing frameworks and support that help the disenfranchised to help themselves - everywhere.

That would be nice.

Obviously I don't have the solution for development or international politics, and I'm certainly plenty confused about my role in this all. But why attempt to learn from mistakes and try something different from what has failed us the last half a century in terms of aid. These guys here, just like anywhere, need to be independent, proud and productive people on their own. Towards a world without development, I say. 

Hunsmann, Moritz, ‘Alternatives to Development’ and Acute Dependency: HIV/AIDS as a Blind Spot of Post-Development Theory?

Siemiatychi, Elliot, Post Development at a Crossroads: Towards a 'real' development

Matthews, Sally (2006), Responding to Poverty in the Light of the Post-Development Debate:Some insights from the NGO Enda Graf Sahel, African Development, Vol.XXXI, No. , 2006, pp52-72

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