Friday rant: ‘development’ is not the same as ‘aid’. Got that?

A recent headline in my RSS feed flicked my ‘Activate Rant’ button. ‘This Video from Uganda Highlights Everything ranting-homerWrong with Global Development’ it shouted. I knew what the video was about – some young white American missionaries getting into trouble for ‘dressing up native’ and singing ‘get your mission on’ provoked outrage in various quarters. I hadn’t found it interesting enough to blog or even tweet about.

But what got me riled was the headline’s claim that this had something to do with ‘global development’ – you know, that amazing process whereby billions of people have worked their way out of poverty, sometimes with the help of/sometimes in spite of their local nation states. What on earth did these kids capering about in a road in East Africa have to do with that? Answer, nothing. Once again, we seem incapable of grasping that ‘aid’ and ‘development’ are two largely (and increasingly) separate things.

I have a similar beef with the term ‘development effectiveness’. If you take Amartya Sen’s definition of development as the expanding freedoms to be and to do, then development is always effective – the combination is redundant. What the phrase really seems to mean is ‘effectiveness of aid, plus other international flows that don’t qualify as aid, like foreign investment’.  OK, we need a new term for that wider flow of money, but why on earth call it ‘development’?

caution-rant-in-progressShackling something huge and life-changing (development) to something much less important (aid) is a form of self-aggrandisement by the aid sector that takes me back to my disgruntlement with the overclaiming around the Make Poverty History campaign. Sort out aid, trade and debt and ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ are) can MPH. Um, no ‘we’ can’t – does anyone really believe that? What will make poverty history is national development, politics, the evolving social contract between citizens and states, with ‘us’, as in the aid business in a role that is always secondary and sometimes (think China) irrelevant. That makes campaigners, aid workers etc always a sidekick in the drama – we can aspire to be Robin, but never Batman.

Words matter, and conflating development and aid is both politically and factually wrong. Rant over. Very therapeutic – do you mind if I do more of these?

And here’s the offending video for anyone who missed it (sorry, it’s been removed from youtube after the furore, so can’t embed it)

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9 Responses to “Friday rant: ‘development’ is not the same as ‘aid’. Got that?”
  1. Andrea

    I am not a mother tongue, but from what I recall, an underground water source that is still in its natural state is “undeveloped”. After building a well that will lower the water table every year more – and possibly deplete the entire resource after few years if not sustainably managed – that same resource is “developed”.
    If this is the “development paradigm” to be applied to “developing countries”, then it will be better the keep the water underground.
    “Aid”, on the other side, is something resembling the following attitude: “Oh poor guy, let me help you”.
    We should not give them fish, and not even teach them how to fish, because they know better than us how to fish in their own environment.
    We should just allow them to grow, which is something we, the “developed”, are not always willing to do.

  2. Christian Freres

    Interesting rant! I agree on the need to not confuse aid with development. I also have problems with the concept of development effectiveness, but not for the same reason. I have always seen it as a vague term the main effect of which has been to water down the already limp requirements of the aid effectiveness agenda. In fact, since Busan donors have felt less and less pressured to focus on improving their effectiveness (disclosure: I work for the Spanish aid agency, although these opinions are personal).

  3. Andrew R

    Sadly, for sheer syllable count and simplicity, use of “aid” tends to win out over “development” or “development cooperation” in headlines, documents, mental shorthand etc. Can we coin a new word?
    Also, it must be time for an updated rant about “innovation”. Anyone else sick of at donors prescribing us to be innovative, agile, flexible, acrobatic, nimble, fleetfooted, beanbag-driven, dashing, sexy, etc?

  4. Andrew Wells-Dang

    Conflating “aid” and “development” is bad enough, but (to continue the rant), the even more pervasive error is to equate “development” and “growth” – as in “sustainable growth”. Growth is an increase in the size of something; development is an increase in quality – as in quality of life, freedom, or capabilities (thanks Duncan for channeling Sen.) Sometimes (economic) growth and development go hand in hand, but growth often seems to increase inequality, damage societies and the environment – which are all the opposite of development. These points have all been made long before!

    The effectiveness question we should be asking is, how often and under what conditions does aid (or other inputs) actually result in improved quality, as defined by the people benefiting? It sounds simple but is often hidden in the “aid effectiveness” agenda. Also, if we understand development in this way it no longer makes much sense to talk about “developed” and “developing” countries when one really means differences in GDP. Can we add these to the list to be purged from the lexicon?

    • Josh Ayers

      Andrew Wells-Dang – You highlight something that I have felt for a long time: the equation of development with growth. Thanks for the reminder. You say, “These points have all been made long before.” As I try to relay this point to others, can you share a few sources that make this point succinctly? Thanks!

  5. John Egan

    Whoa there, Neddy. You need to take a chill pill. You’re overthinking things way too much.

    First, you need to embrace the energy of the young people wanting to do good. My son is a UNIVOL (University volunteer) doing great things in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. He’s not singing Kumbayah, admittedly, but he is making a contribution, building personal and professional relationships and understanding through it all that development is a process that takes time and that is complicated. Perhaps your young missionary friends may discover that through their experience. And perhaps they will become supporters of Oxfam or Save or Goal or Plan or any of the slick marketing machines that present development from the base as something worth investing in. Or perhaps they will go out on their own and do something worthy at the base. Or vote for a party that things that achieving 0.7% of GNI as ODA is worthwhile. Or……

    You can rile all you like at the term “development effectiveness” but in Nairobi over the coming 2 days there will be 4,000 people talking about how we can improve the effectiveness of development co-operation. By this I don’t mean ODA alone. And I don’t mean the type of community development and other sorts of development that Oxfam does. Nor any other specific form. It’s about ALL forms of development co-operation whether from government, civil society, trade unions, philanthropic organisations or any other actor; it’s also about ensuring that local government is involved, that parliaments are involved and that when business invests it does so in a sustainable and responsible manner. If any of this is not effective we are stuffed (to use a phrase from my part of the antipodean world. Your colleagues from Oxfam are joining us; shame you’re not but no worries. Fingers crossed it comes out with something that achieves what we all hope for – more effective, more impactful and better quality development co-operation no matter which actor is involved

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