Rethinking the Development Aid Paradigm

Despite various debates in the development community about how to approach aid, there seems to be little concern for two fundamental problems with the overall development assistance framework.  First, development aid is generally seen as charity or as a resource flow from rich to poor countries, despite the fact that it often comes in the form of loans.  This semblance of charitable goodness continues to play to old racist paradigms that may be likened to a ladder of progress where Europe is at the top, and Africa is at the bottom as an underdeveloped “them” on whom we should take pity and try to “save.”[1] Whether we realize it or not, this seemingly altruistic notion is born of a sense of paternalism that has its roots in the racist colonial structures that advocated for the development of inferior peoples.

Secondly, the aims of development are narrowly defined—the end result is expected to look the same everywhere.  The model lacks sufficient flexibility.  For one thing, the state must support a deregulated economy compliant with the contemporary model of free trade. The much sought after sustainable local ownership, “empowerment” of women, and other such catch-phrase necessities that are paid policy lip service in development programs cannot be achieved without questioning the assumption that what works in one place will work everywhere else despite enormous economic and cultural diversity.

Fanon captures much of what is wrong with the paradigm early on, in 1961, when he writes that, in a colonial context, Europe’s wealth is a direct result of the plunder of its colonies, not a result of free trade between sovereign states.  So “when we hear the head of a European nation declare with hand on heart that he must come to the aid of the unfortunate peoples of the underdeveloped world, we do not tremble with gratitude.  On the contrary, we say among ourselves, ‘it is a just reparation we are getting.’”  He argued that for development aid to work, it must be the result of a “dual consciousness” in which the colonizers understand that they owe a debt and the colonized understand that they are due this debt—a conceptual framework in which, for Fanon, aid as charity is unacceptable.[2]

Some alternative development frameworks have arisen to address this.  After the Cold War, the IFIs (International Financial Institutions; the World Bank and IMF) began to acknowledge the failure of structural adjustment, and, perhaps, to capitulate to global activist pressure to forgive the poorest countries’ financial debt.  In the 1990s the IFIs introduced the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper approaches, in recognition of the importance of poverty reduction and national ownership.[3]

Yet these initiatives are still charitable in nature, and they still adhere to a particular ideal in terms of what the end result of development should be.  As Samuel M. Makinda of Murdoch University put it, “Although I recognize that the international community has a moral responsibility to help its poorer members, [the terms “failed” or “collapsed” state] partly stem from the mistaken belief that all states, regardless of time and geographical region, are expected to exhibit similar characteristics.”[4]

One attempt to engage in a broader interpretation of development is the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report, which assesses human development through a unique statistical tool called the Human Development Index (HDI).  Assessing development only in terms of economic indicators fails to take into account the realities of the people that economic growth is supposed to benefit, and fails to predict or anticipate possible instabilities that may arise as a result of human rights abuses or growing inequality. That is, not just economic inequality, but political and social inequalities that may also result from rapid economic liberalization and any accompanying economic growth. The Human Development Index attempts to correct these inadequacies.

The HDI approach came about in reaction to the failure of structural adjustment, the Washington Consensus, and market liberalization to make concrete improvements to quality of life or to ameliorate the effects of inequality in developing nations.[5] The work of Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq was the basis for this new approach, which emphasizes human development as a process in which health, knowledge, freedom, choice, and a decent standard of living are made accessible to all.

While the HDI has its limitations, as do most purely quantitative tools, it is a far cry from the more conventional practice of looking at rigidly defined economic indicators in that it allows for a much more flexible and in-depth analysis of how economic growth may or may not be improving quality of life and, conversely, how quality of life may improve even in the absence of economic growth:

A rights-based approach to development sees people not as beneficiaries of charitable services or aid, but as rights-holders. This also makes governments, financial institutions, and transnational corporations duty-bearers.[6] In 2003, UNICEF released a comprehensive publication on the rights-based approach to programming. The report detailed how people living in poverty are not just “passive beneficiaries” of aid. Rather they navigate their daily circumstances, actively making decisions and choices based on the resources and information available at any given moment. Their active role in their own lives cannot be counted out in development schemes.[7]

Development aid should be more than a project designed to facilitate the peaceful integration of a peripheral country into the capitalist world system[8] so that it may continue to be exploited by economic powers.  “Development” should be a process in which people and their well-being are prioritized over an exclusive focus on income-generation; where economic security, broadly defined, is paramount, but is only one of a number of components of human security; and where people are at the center of “development.”

[1] See Uzodinma Iweala, “Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2007, p. B07.

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963; translated from the French by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004) p. 59.

[3] The International Monetary Fund, “Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), A Factsheet,” April 2008.  Accessed via the IMF website at on 4/24/09.

[4] Samuel M. Makinda, “Disarmament and Reintegration of Combatants,” in William Maley, Charles Sampford, and Ramesh Thakur, eds., From Civil Strife to Civil Society: Civil and Military Responsibilities in Disrupted States (New York: United Nations University Press, 2003) p. 310.

[5] United Nations Development Programme, “Origins of the Human Development Approach.”  Accessed via the UNDP Human Development Reports website at on 4/24/09.

[6] Peter Uvin, Human Rights and Development (Bloomfield, Kumarian Press, 2004) p. 129.

[7] Urban Jonsson, Human Rights Approach to Development Programming (UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office: UNICEF, 2003) p. 28.  Downloaded from the UNICEF website at on 4/20/09.

[8] See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System, volumes 1 – 3, and other writings.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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One Response to Rethinking the Development Aid Paradigm

  1. Pingback: Mbuyuni Development Youth Group: A Contribution to A Day Without Dignity « USALAMA

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