Archive for the ‘Colonialism & Independence’ Category

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.

A yardstick measure of inequity

No development project can possibly benefit everyone equally. E.g. a project aimed at creating jobs and other economic opportunities will disproportionately benefit the able bodied. Most people would agree that is not a reason not to undertake such a project.

Some donors attempt to get around this by mainstreaming support for so-called disadvantaged groups, and requiring projects they support to incorporate some kind of support for disadvantaged people into their work. I think this is a fairly silly approach. For a start you are never going to capture every single disadvantaged person: women and HIV/AIDS sufferers are the most commonly supported, mentally ill people rather less often. Secondly bolting on such adjuncts comes at the expense of project focus, and leads to project managers overseeing work in areas in which they are far from experts. Much better, I reckon, for donors instead to support a wide portfolio of projects that ensure disadvantaged groups are given a chance. (Different donors could even specialise in supporting different disadvantaged groups.)

But if we are to accept a certain inevitable degree of inequity in project design, how much inequity is acceptable? And by this I do not just mean how much is acceptable not just to us, but to the would be community of beneficiaries? Here is my suggestion for a convenient yardstick.

Probably the single biggest dimension of inequality in the world is the nationality of your parents and/or where you were born. And yet, a few philosophers apart, this is not an inequality that gets many people especially riled. Envious: yes, angry: not so much. My guess is this is because there is no human agency involved. The outcomes are very unequal, but, by and large, poorer people have not suffered a specific recent injustice perpetrated by identifiable rich people to cause this inequality. Even with colonialism, when taken as a whole, it is hard to argue that people born today in ex-colonies are poorer as a result, and plenty of people argue colonialism brought various developmental goods in exchange for lower freedoms.

Instead most people can accept without a deep upwelling of anger that even if you are born in the bottom 5% of the population in the UK, you will probably be able to watch TV every day of your life that you want to do so. Indeed, even if you do not have a job, the UK government will pay you enough money that you can afford to watch TV when you want to. Whereas if you were born in rural Malawi, say, you might only occasionally ever get to watch TV.

Thus my yardstick is this: does your project appear to introduce more inequity than this basic starting inequality? If so you should be worried? If not, you may well be ok. In many ways it is not a very good yardstick: rural Malawians and poor Brits are not living side by side, and so the inequity is remote, hidden even. Moreover the key point is that poor people do not really have anyone to blame for this starting inequality, whereas project staff and managers are clearly identifiable for local ire if unfairness is perceived. But it does provide a philosophical anchor point that could be useful during project conception if ever you are worried about differences between winners and losers that could arise from a new project.

Maybe someone else has a much better yardstick?

Not for the first time, and why we might foul it up again

Owen Barder is keeping a nice list of major public figures’ claims that “For the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to end extreme poverty within a generation.” in the words of World Bank president, Jim Kim, the latest to so pronounce. The list goes right back to Woodrow Wilson addressing the League of Nations in 1919. Obviously previous generations have not lived up to such lofty aspirations. Why not? And why should we be any different? I present some wild speculation …

Back in 1919, perhaps for the first time, the western powers could say they truly knew most of the world. The major features had been well mapped, and many distant peoples had been ‘civilized’ (aka colonised by racist imperialists). The sun never set on the British Empire and the industrial revolution had made some Americans fabulously wealthy. There were a lot of poor people in the world, but not so many, and Westerners had a surfeit of confidence as to their capacity to achieve great things. Moreover, in a world before the widespread existence of welfare states, it is possible they were not aiming that high.

What happened? Two major changes. Developing countries won their independence from the colonial yoke. This hugely increased their welfare in one important dimension (political freedom), but possibly impeded progress on technocratic goals such as raising average incomes due, in part, to the need to first concentrate on building the capacity of those new states. One signal success, nonetheless, does stand out: the drastic decline in infant and maternal mortality rates. So while economic development was stalling in many countries, populations were exploding. Suddenly it became a lot harder to eliminate poverty.

Fast forward to 2013 and we have passed an important inflexion point: now the number of desperately poor people in the world is declining in absolute terms, and not just in China. The zero goals some people are suggesting should follow the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015 appear tantalisingly in reach.

So why might we fail again? What new issue might once again expose our hubris? I give you two words: climate change.

South-south cooperation and the embarrassment factor

This just occurred to me. South-south cooperation can be more politically palatable to developing countries than the patronising tone that can come with technical advice from traditional aid givers. That’s old news. But what about further down the food chain? A big problem around here is that lots of civil servants cannot be a***ed to do their jobs properly, and require their palms to be greased before they will consider rousing themselves from today’s newspaper. Will they respond any better to technical advisers from slightly richer countries who are nonetheless seem in some ways as ‘one of us’? In short can officials be embarrassed into action by an apparent friend who is aghast at their lack of enterprise? Or will the inevitable divide between expatriate technical adviser and local staff prove more powerful?

Admitting it’s not good enough

The call to be open about failure in development projects has much to be said about it, as I have blogged before. But between success and failure there is a middle ground in which many conservation and development projects cluster. Sometimes acceptance of this result is appropriate; it may not be appropriate to expect rich country levels of achievement in some of the poorest countries. And such compromise is de rigeur in any policy processes, whatever a country’s level of economic development.

But when it comes to project implementation I think that too often we are too ready to accept this half-baked mediocrity, write up our ‘success’ reports and move on. Unfortunately short term papering over of the cracks can lead to long term failure, although by that point usually the main protagonists have long since moved on. Many times this takes the form of an initially successful project that has been poorly scaled up into a programme that grinds on for years based on its initial fanfare, before eventually donors get tired off the lack of progress and pull the plug, often one at a time so it limps on for quite a while with ever-diminishing financial support. My guess is that this kind of failure rarely even gets noticed as anything other than a sense of regret amongst those who were involved that so much early promise should amount to so little in the end.

But sometimes the failure can be more dramatic, such as the drastic short-comings both morally and militarily that have been brutally exposed in the Malian army over the last 12 months, despite years of capacity building from the US previously. Todd Moss laments the tendency to see those policies and results through rose-tinted glasses. I’m no military man, but allow me to guess a little at what might have happened: the junior officers on the ground would have reported the good start they made whilst making their reservations clear that there was a long way to go. These reservations were subsequently air-brushed out by senior officials and politicians keen to declare success and move on. Doh!

The even bigger difficulty occurs when that conversation needs to take place across the cultural boundary. How do you tell the local partner that while their efforts are nice and appreciated they do not, ultimately, deliver on the requirements? That technically their output is lacking a necessary level of sophistication? Arrogance does not become one, and us oh-so-enlightened Westerners are guilty of that far too often. Smooth diplomacy, however, can only get you so far: either you need to accept the product delivered with all its flaws, or you need to risk giving offence in pushing for improvements, whoever is tasked with delivering them.

At this point budget strictures can come into play. Few project designs incorporate budget for doing anything twice (although a contingencies budget can help). So as well as having the courage to reveal the hard truths to local partners one faces the challenge of finding the budget and/or fessing up to the donor how you stumbled. Little wonder then that many project managers opt for the easy way out. A little less neo-colonialism, may come at the cost of a lot less development. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess which outcome the target beneficiaries would prefer.


Before I get deluged in a pile of hate mail, I should point out the big but in this. There is obviously a huge slippery slope starting with robust and honest assessment of technical quality of local partner outputs and descending to rampant neo-colonialism, and at the bottom of which one is likely to find the target beneficiaries having very different views. Alternatively you can just call the bottom of the slope charter cities, on which it seems the jury is still out, and will almost certainly stay out, until one is actually attempted.

I should also like to add that such eventualities as I describe above are not the rule. Many times I have seen excellent outputs produced by local partners. But neither, unfortunately, it is as rare an exception round here as one would like, especially when dealing with quasi-governmental institutions who do not have a meritocratic culture.

Not smart politics

A lot of times development and conservation struggle to get much political and media traction, and are thus starved of the oxygen of publicity. At other times, though, I wonder whether certain issues wouldn’t be best off in the shadows. This is not a call to depoliticize development into a purely technocratic discipline, for many of the most critical issues in aid are deeply political, and little progress can be achieved without political engagement.

But when big international politicians wade into issues quiet, nuanced discussions can all too easily get out shouted by megaphone pronouncements. A recent historical example concerns Zimbabwe; for every time the likes of Bush, Blair or Brown, likely as not driven as much by domestic political calculations, opened their mouths on economic and political mess that ZANU-PF had created, it made it all the easier for Mugabe et al to frame their arguments in the context of oppressed masses throwing off the colonial yoke. Many Zimbabweans, even if they agreed with what was being said, had no wish to hear such tickings-off from the ex-colonial master and their allies.

I fear the same thing might happen now with Gordon Brown’s call to action on the plight of women in Pakistan. It’s hard to disagree with Brown’s aims; the fate of Malala Yousafzai was a dramatic illustration of the challenges faced by women and girls in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I cannot see how improving their situation would not make life a whole lot better there, ultimately including for men and boys too, such is the multiplier effect in development of investing in education for girls. But I am far from convinced that there is a practical straight line from Gordon Brown’s intervention to the outcomes he seeks.

Security clearly continues to be a major concern in that part of the world. From what I understand, improved development outcomes could certainly help in the battle with the Taliban and other jihadists for local hearts and minds. But the pay off from investing in girls’ education will accrue over time, while security concerns are immediate. More to the point, girls’ education is a central battleground in the ‘clash of civilizations’ there. So it seems to me more than possible that promoting girls’ education could actually worsen security concerns, potentially making life overall worse for women and girls rather than better. At the end of the day it is the job of politicians to weigh up such trade-offs, and I know too little about the local situation there to do anything other than ask these questions. But did Mr Brown, his team, and allies such as Avaaz, ask themselves such questions before they picked up the megaphone?

The return of guilt money

There is a view of  international development aid that holds it is (at least partly) payments of guilt money by countries who grew rich subjugating and then exploiting their less technologically advanced brethren who now bear the moniker ‘developing countries’. I do not particularly ascribe to that point of view for a number of reasons:

  • The principle behind the legal statute of limitations. Much of Europe was at one time part of the Roman empire, should Britain and others be seeking reparations from Italy? (Just think of the compound interest that might be due on that!) The latter day empires were only the last in a series which all followed the same overtly nationalistic / racist approach to other societies.
  • The European colonial empires were creatures of their time. The British empire appears to have been no worse than its competitors, and may, from time to time, even have operated more benignly towards it foreign subjects than other empires.
  • It does not appear necessary to once have had an empire in order to now be rich, see for example Sweden. Ergo it does not follow that  Britain’s current wealth is necessarily a direct product of empire, which in fact mostly spent itself defeating Nazism. (Indeed, come 1945 Britain was substantially indebted to one particular ex-colony who, 200 years earlier, had refused to pay for another war Britain had fought on their behalf.)
  • My family’s ancestry is decidedly humble; we ourselves certainly did not get rich subjugating foreign lands. Even the amazing education I received was substantially funded by endowments originating somewhat further back in history than the British empire.

So whilst I am sure it would be nonsensical to suggest that the current division of wealth around the world was not at least partly shaped by the experiences of empire, I surmise that much of that wealth was subsequently derived from how individual people and societies took advantage of simple and peaceful business opportunities that were presented to them rather than as a direct result of plunder.

All of which is a rather long preamble to arrive at the observation that this case of affairs may not apply for much longer. Already, in international climate change negotiations, it has been suggested (and accepted in principle by many) that developed nations should pay developing nations for the costs of adapting to global change almost wholly caused by rich countries (and now being exacerbated by the newly rich). This strikes me as only just the beginning.

The film The Age of Stupid was so titled because we are the first civilization in history to be able to see environmental catastrophe coming, and yet are still doing virtually nothing about it. I am somewhat more optimistic that we will come to our senses before, as the film implies, we wipe ourselves out with our own stupidity. But many climate scientists now gloomily predict that significant global climate change is inevitable; coral reefs and polar bears will be consigned to history, and many of the poorest countries in the world, e.g. low-lying island states, are expected to suffer the most.

Who then will be to blame? It is not too great a stretch of the imagination to envision astronomical claims for compensation being laid at the door of polluting businesses. Whether American or other courts would force them to pay up is quite another issue. But the real climate-gate, when it hits, won’t be just about a few emails hacked from a university computer system, and the claimants will have real moral force on their side.

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