Paternalism in Development

Bill Easterly bizarrely posits feminism as the anti-thesis of paternalism, arguing that paternalism in development is a bad thing, and because he is against paternalism, he must be some kind of feminist. So I’m going to be a bit controversial and suggest that a bit of paternalism is almost essential in many aid projects. Hopefully no-one will interpret that to mean I am an anti-feminist.

First the obvious: paternalistic approaches are inherently condescending and patronising, and can rapidly descend into sexism, racism and probably a bunch of other undesirable -isms too. (Feminism can thus be viewed as a countervailing force to some aspects of paternalism, but that is only part of the story.) Paternalism also comes with a strong current of hubris, and misplaced paternalism explains many of the failures of the past 50 years of international development aid.

But … whilst respect for the knowledge and skills of the community is a minimum requirement for effective development work in any remote, rural community, we must also recognise the following:

  1. Said poor people want to become richer people, and to live lives more like ourselves.
  2. They tend to be very poorly educated and, as such, do not know much about how ‘our’ world works.

(These arguments hold much less water in poor urban communities who are more exposed to what a modern economy looks like.)

Hence these poor rural communities are often heavily reliant on us advising them and acting upon their behalf, often advocating to other elites what we perceive to be their interests. (A strong trust relationship with the communities we’re supporting is a prerequisite.) And if we’re not doing it you can be sure the various local and national government authorities will be doing so, often, unfortunately, with worse results.

Does doing this make me feel uncomfortable – yes it does! Is there an alternative? Yes, but it involves so much capacity building that it would take a generation before the community are really ready to take on the necessary roles, during which time next to no development would take place. (You can guess which option the poor would go for, though they certainly appreciate the capacity building too.) So in practice we have to make paternalistic decisions on behalf of the communities we support on a fairly regular basis. Sceptics are entitled to call us out for our hubris – indeed I think such questioning plays a vital role in keeping our paternalism in check – but practical alternatives are thin on the ground.

A good example of this in current conservation practice is the desire for full free, prior and informed consent before initiating land or resources based projects such as REDD+. The principles are incredibly important, but there’s a limit to how much you should sensibly invest in such a process before you need to move forward with a project. Anyone who claims a community was 100% fully informed before such a decision was made is deluding themselves; either they’ve over-simplified the situation, or not everyone understood, or (most likely) both.

Two more points bear making. Firstly, I suggest that it is next to impossible for a charitable donation between two people, or groups of people, who do not know each other not to be inherently condescending and tending towards paternalistic. So, if we do not want to dump the whole aid thing altogether, and thus cannot avoid one of the key downsides of paternalism, I think we should also celebrate the potential upsides of a certain degree of limited (!) paternalism.

Finally, is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic? Who exactly does the paternalism sceptic think he/she is?

I now look forward to all the contrary comments from those who disagree with me …


10 responses to this post.

  1. “They tend to be very poorly educated and, as such, do not know much about how ‘our’ world works.” – There is a good movie on this tension but I cannot remember the name of it for the life of me.

    If we think of paternalism in the domestic sense, one example of this exists in language. There are expectations and assumptions based on how a person uses language when speaking and writing. The wrong tense of ‘to be’ or say ‘axes’ rather than ‘asks’ are deemed incorrect in taught English. There is a measure of paternalism in ‘normalizing’ speech so that people can thrive.

    In development, can’t we say that the batch of behavioral economists are exercising some amount of paternalism? They are using ‘nudges’ to encourage behaviors but that inherently comes from a place of knowing.

    Thanks for getting these thoughts going, MJ, I am curious as to what others think.


  2. Important discussion. Important questions, particularly “Is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic?” Keeping our paternalism in check (everyone, development economists or aid practitioners on the ground or naïve do-gooders) is, I believe, one of our biggest challenges in making aid more effective. I agree with Easterly in that prevalent negative attitudes, behaviors and perceptions towards local people and organizations in the aid world is something that has been under-reported, insufficiently documented, and poorly-studied.

    Yes, all aid workers have to make their peace with the “discomfort” of the aid industry and our role in it. In my experience, however, some of the worst purveyors of paternalism are those who don’t understand or respect the potential harm of it. And that can be anyone – man, woman, rich, poor, North, South, expat, or local.


  3. “Finally, is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic? Who exactly does the paternalism sceptic think he/she is?”

    In my very inexperienced opinion, this is an excellent discussion in which few actors are willing to take part. Development is messy and grey and not many are willing to truly admit that, let alone dive in and analyze that messiness, and/or accept ownership of actions which fit within it. Instead, surface-level manifestation of issues-such as paternalism-are identified without a deeper analysis of the result of embedding those issues into our actions, whether purposefully or not. Interestingly, it takes a certain amount of humility to perform that analysis and admit hypocrisy. Thus, such an analysis is a direct counter to paternalism.

    In the end, development is, by its very nature, paternalistic. As an actor, just knowing and admitting that is probably the easiest way to counter and minimize paternalistic actions. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.


  4. Posted by Philip on May 16, 2011 at 11:55 am

    You could sum your argument up like this:
    (1) Course of action a (leaving poor people and societies to develop at their own pace) is not an option.
    (2) So let’s follow uncertain and condescending course of action b (development work) which we know is problematic.

    I would argue that the whole problem with development is the idea that ‘something must be done’. Even when we don’t know what. And even when we know that the things we do are fraught with problems, like paternalism. The inability to sit back and do nothing causes a lot of harm. You also see it in other walks of life: the bombing of Libya being a pretty good example.


    • Hi Philip,

      Whilst I could quibble with the exact framing, I think your summation is reasonable. And I think too much aid does indeed follow that argument, e.g. in many cases option (1) is not viable because governments have already to decided to spend some money …

      But, where there are practical things that we can do, then I am in favour of intervention. Sitting back is also what the Americans did v Hitler for the first three years of WW2.

      Of course, the tricky thing to do is to judge the difference: when do we have a practical, positive course of action? Here I think there are no clear rules. I know little about the situation in Libya, but, from what I have heard, I think NATO have taken the right course of action.


    • Posted by Philip on May 16, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Hm, well let’s not get into an argument about Libya or WW2, but let’s just say that your argument doesn’t countenance any counterfactuals in those cases.

      But back to aid, to put it in the terms of my comment, there is likely a course c that does work, but we just don’t know what it is yet. Or at least, there could be. But because we’re too busy engaging in course of action b, we never get around to c.


      • Well some of us do like to think that we’re at least working towards (c) with an iterative approach that acknowledges failure. It ain’t easy tho.

        Conversely, people like Owen Barder make the point that larger aid programmes can apparently have a big positive impact given the right conditions. So I’m not sure that it’s all doom and gloom in option (b), tho I certainly see plenty of reasons to suppose that around here.

  5. Posted by Samuel Maruta on May 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    After decades of development assistance, generally from the global north to the global south, almost every community if not whole nations are already ‘paternalised’. But the fact that this issue has come up for discussion means that there is something not quite right with it and something needs to be done to ‘rectify’ it. The challenge is where to begin and how far to go, ironically without risking further paternalism in the process. Yet, as a ‘southerner’ myself and experiencing first hand the harm done by this paternalism, I believe that something must begin to be done.


  6. […] assist blogger MJ debated a paternalistic inlet of development and because infrequently a bit of paternalism is essential in many assist […]


  7. […] Work in the poor, remote rural communities in which we work inevitable has a strong tinge of paternalism, however much one might shy away from the implications of such a relationship. That said, when I […]


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