Thursday, January 20, 2005

If you want to help - get out of the way

The development community is a schizophrenic bunch. On the one hand, they are working on the noblest of causes: A better world, reducing poverty, giving all humans safety and choices in life. On the other hand, it’s not really clear if their efforts are successful. There are plenty of stories of developments projects that have only benefited a few rich locals – and kept the salaries coming for the experts that were flown in to manage the project while the budget was still there.
Things are progressing. The World Bank estimates that the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped from 1.5 billion to 1.1 billion between 1981 and 2002. But obviously, this was mainly due to China, India and other Asian countries bootstrapping their economies – not because of well meaning advice from the development community.

Over lunch, in splendid French diplomatic settings, Inge Kaul, director of UNDP office of development studies, was kind enough to explain her philosophy to me – and it seems that her line of thinking is indicative of where development efforts may be heading.
"Get out of the way. Don’t go and tell the developing countries what they should do". In stead of investing in imposing our solutions on them, we should remove the obstacles and shackles that make it so hard to move forward.
The enormous agricultural subsidies for EU and US farmers severely distort world market prices and makes it hard for local farmers to compete even in their own region.
The debt burden from past ill advised and corrupted development programs means that a country like Zambia spends 5 times more on paying back loans than on health – in the middle of a ravaging AIDS epidemic.
In short: At the moment we’re insisting that a significant part of the taxes collected in the developing countries are used to pay back loans to the rich countries, we are subjecting their industries to unfair competition in the very market we tell preach that they should enter – and when we generously donate, it’s usually in the form of programs that do what we feel should be done.

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