Thursday, November 08, 2012


I blame my lecturer at Uni.  She sent me left.

The year was 1995, the subject 'Health 3', and over the course of a semester I was introduced to New Internationalist, Noam Chomsky and a whole new way of thinking.  We were taught to view health from a global perspective, and as my outlook on health expanded, so did my worldview.  My major assignment was a project comparing the effectiveness of various modes of foreign aid.  Much of what I believe today about poverty, development, justice and politics can be traced back to what I learned in the process of writing that assignment.

'Aid' from the IMF or World Bank was the pits - it was often granted for large scale projects that ended up wreaking devastation on the very people it was supposed to be helping.  What stuck in my mind were the stories of large scale dams for power stations which resulted in the most vulnerable people's homes being flooded.  Meanwhile the recipient countries were saddled with enormous debt and crippling interest rates which resulted in greater poverty.  Should the struggling countries fail to repay their loan according to the strict guidelines, they were slapped with financial sanctions that resulted in even greater poverty.

Intergovernmental aid was slightly better.  When a developed nation provided aid directly to a developing nation the country received the financial benefit, rather than being lumped with a burden such as those created by IMF and World Bank aid.  Sadly, the general population often continued to live in poverty.  Their government received the foreign aid, but large amounts of it were embezzled or wasted.  The overall benefit to the people who really needed it was not as great as intended by the donor nations.  In terms of effective foreign aid, there was still a way to go.

Enter non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  These much smaller organisations operate at a grass roots level.  Principles of community development are often embedded in their structure and modus operandi.  Foreign aid given through an NGO is most likely to reach those who really need it.  More than twenty years have passed since I did this assignment, but I don't imagine much has changed.  My understanding is that a significant proportion of the Australian Government's foreign aid program is channelled through NGOs, although I haven't looked up the figures.  This would seem to suggest NGOs still provide the best bang for foreign aid buck.  (Incidentally, I found that child sponsorship was a poor way of sending foreign aid.  In those days it meant individual children being singled out for favour and fortune while the community continued to suffer.  A lot of that has changed now, with a child sponsorship being the hook for getting donations but the support structure behind the scenes ensuring the whole community benefits from the sponsorship. Some organisations have gone so far as to move away from child sponsorship altogether, focusing instead on community building projects.)

And thus my distrust of institutions began.  I remained oblivious to the cynical way foreign aid was and is at times used to shore up the economic and political security of donor nations (that came later), I just knew that if the IMF and World Bank wielded their considerable power in such a way that their 'aid' damaged the people it was supposed to help, then I wanted nothing to do with it.  And if governments with the best intentions in the world could not get the aid to where it needed to go, then what was the point?  I threw my lot in with small scale projects built from the ground up.  I became passionate about consulting the people who needed help.  I decried bombastic solutions applied from above.  In short, I became a bleeding heart lefty.

It took another nine years before I broke with the familial voting tradition and instead voted in line with my own left leanings (a situation partly created by missing an election or two during my sojourn in the United Kingdom), but once I made the break I could never go back.  Through lack of use I've lost some of my familiarity with the development lingo, but I remain as passionate as ever about these issues, and much of my study and reading since has followed these lines of thought through the years.


At 12:08 am, November 09, 2012, Blogger kris said...

like :) Have you read 'small is beautiful' by E.F. Schumaker? if not, you might like to, it goes into a lot of detail on the problems we face that you mentioned.


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