A Response to Paul Farmer’s “Rethinking Aid”

This post originally appeared on WhyDev.org.

Perhaps I am skeptical because I live in Palestine among a people whose rights to self-determination have been denied for 65 years and who experience daily violence, theft of natural resources, impoverishment, inaccessibility of services – all while being among the largest per capita beneficiaries of international humanitarian and development aid. But from where I sit, I don’t see too much hope for post-2015 development, which is driven by a deceptively benign-sounding ideology that manages only to alleviate symptoms of disease that it simultaneously perpetuates.

I call the ideology “starting from scratch,” and it is especially disappointing to hear this ideology expressed by highly-regarded aid reformers like Paul Farmer. His recent article re-thinking foreign aid says that aid is needed to alleviate human suffering, and he calls for more aid to be delivered through local public systems. It’s a worthy-sounding argument, but it starts from scratch, ignoring the causes of continued vulnerability of children, of illiteracy, of inaccessibility of basic infrastructure and services.

An Oxfam tank, the only thing left standing after Israel demolished donor-funded structures at Al Farisiye, West Bank.

Can we know how aid affects problems without also understanding what is causing the problems? Without analysis, not only of the historical roots of current problems, but also of the ways that need is recreated and perpetuated in the very fabric of today’s global society, we end up with an unexamined assumption that poverty just “is.” This implies that poverty is somehow innate or genetic to those who experience it. With that worldview, any effort to address poverty is going from nothing to something, from stasis to action, because we are “starting from scratch.”

But there is an alternative ideology. More and more aid critics and development justice activists espouse the view that development is an ordinary, instinctual, human process that, if allowed, will proceed naturally with the momentum of gravity and humanity. We are not “starting from scratch” but rather joining ongoing processes driven by inherent strengths and utilizing historically-nurtured assets and capacities. Working from this ideology, the task of the international development community should be first and foremost to get out of the way. The second task should be to stop others from getting in the way. Only then should the international development community embark upon the third task—to humbly inquire if there is any way they can help. I call this ideology “supporting responsibly,” and if taken to heart, this would require a fundamentally different approach to international “development” work.

Development actors would need to find the existing developmental energy–which means recognizing its value–analyze and confront the obstacles that impede those natural forces, and remove the obstacles (which will likely require them to give up privileges). This is political work, systemic work, and self-work. It is not comprised of conducting assessments, running workshops and producing reports. Working from the “supporting responsibly” ideology would require development actors to be self-reflective, power-aware, and sensitive listeners, never competing with, ignoring or looking down on “locals” and certainly not trying to transform them.

Sadly, Paul Farmer, like so many other well-intentioned development actors, seems to be caught in a trap of oblivious self-righteousness that I consider part of the problem. He says the phrase “Local solutions for local problems” is “a commonly encountered liberal piety of development work.” He explains: “Many problems originate outside of people’s own communities: most trade regimes, all epidemics, and just about anything to do with climate change.”  This is true! But he goes on to argue that vaccines, pedagogic materials and shoes should not be manufactured locally. To me, this is a non sequitur. If Farmer admits the problems originate outside, then they should be solved outside (in other words, fix the trade regimes!) rather than alleviating the symptoms with externally imposed, short-term fixes, that enable the perpetrators to keep on causing damage.

Moreover, Farmer’s wrong-headed “starting from scratch” ideology leads him to say, “If we are able to strengthen in-country capacity so recipients can manage their own affairs, one day we will eliminate the need for anything other than partnerships.” But if he spoke from the “supporting responsibly” ideology, he would say, “If we stop actively and intentionally destroying in-country capacity, then surely recipients, like all human beings, can manage their own affairs, and until then, anything we do except in full partnership with locals will be contradictory to that goal.”

Without understanding aid-givers’ role in creating the problems they seek to address, then it’s impossible to assess if and how aid may be “helping.” To use a harsh analogy: Should home invaders pat themselves on the back and take credit for letting hostages eat from their own refrigerator?

The expiration of the Millennium Development Goals provides an opportunity for those who claim to care about development to think about what’s next. I suggest we think first about how we got to the state of inequality, unnecessary suffering, and climate devastation that we find ourselves in now.


  1. paul okumu says

    Worth reading.
    The only challenge is- we have a broken system- a broken UN, broken Security Council, runaway NATO and governments that are at the call of private sector any day any time. The private sector not only control trade, they control what is traded, how it is financed and even the politicians who decide on that trade. I was recently at the World Economic Forum-that “club of the dreamers who believe they own the earth and the rest of us should give way”-and it was interesting to see the performance put forward by Presidents-as if their entire life-literally-depended on their ability to please these corporate players.
    I have begun to take a critical view of what we call Aid….and will soon find some path. But here is what I wrote in response to a global dialogue that was going on among INGOs on what areas should form the priority for post 2015
    My intention is to ask if we can perhaps find a middle ground on the issue of reconciling(or opposing) the development agenda that increasingly has larger and increased push for private sector(read Multinationals) dominance without tilting the scales on trade and local development is something that we have struggled with-and in Istanbul Ziad from the Arab NGO Network raised it several times.
    In fact Ziad raised it so many times that at some point he almost walked out of the meeting in frustration!

    In Africa, this is not just something we read about-it is our life.
    We see it in the way DFID and the EU are increasingly seeking to re-direct ODA in the name of “leveraging” resources.
    We see it in the way “support for small holder agriculture” is in fact a camouflage for opening up space for large scale farming by western players.
    The current push for an East African Integration is part of a larger agenda to open up the market to private sector players from the North-even though it is being promoted as creating a larger market for East African citizens.
    The Economic Partnership Agreement EPA discussions (that are currently ongoing here in East Africa) are so sensitive that any NGO in East Africa that has attempted o get into it has been de-funded with immediate effect-and in some cases red-flagged by a whole group of donors.
    Speak about the global factors for conflict and the contribution of international actors and global private sector and you may not get your next invitation to an international meeting!

    So increasingly I am thinking that we should agree that we see things differently and we may not all collectively agree to push one agenda with the same passion and zeal.
    And maybe it has always been like this-only that we have never been pushed to the wall in the same way as today.

    We may need to recognize that increasingly Civil Society means many things and has many motivations.
    And perhaps like governments under the United Nations-we need to accept that we do not share the same passion, the same agenda and the same push-and perhaps we need to agree on what we are able, and let us take different paths on those areas that some may find difficult due to the different glasses that we wear.

    And maybe that is not such a bad thing.
    Because then we can be more honest with one another.
    Its why we have the coalitions in Governments- the G77, the G20, the LDCs, the Small Islands….
    And yet they are all still part of the UN

    The truth,and nothing but the whole truth, is that when we are honestly judged, there is increasingly great division among us CSOs on what priority areas we should take.
    There are those of us that a senior ECOSOC staff I spoke to said are called “AID and Son”
    These are those among us who still believe that they exit to “fix” the South through getting them some crumbs left by the big boys-whether it is a push for 0.7% or for more, its still about “fixing those poor guys”
    Then there are those of us who are in fact part of the larger global system.
    We are in the NGO sector, but in order to protect our funding base and careers,we are silent champions of what the global actors stand for. We keep silent when the discussion gets “difficult” because our survival is at stake, or because we actually are silently on the side of the global players.
    In between are a group that is wondering what this fuss is all about. They would like to see us “get on with the job” of supporting the poor, and not worry what the larger and bigger boys and girls stand for. They see this as a dichotomy-they do there job of economic growth, we do ours of development outcome.

    But there is a final team.
    Those who see all these are interrelated.
    They are able to see through the camouflage of what we call AID and see that it is structured to continue to feed the system.
    They see “innovative” financing for what it is.
    They know why the world is increasingly edging out those who are asking questions-hard questions,and demanding answers.
    They are frustrated because the system is not structured to listen to them.
    They are called rebels, activists, lone rangers.
    Sometimes our own colleagues question their “constituency” and “legitimacy” because they are speaking with a passion that others feel is not reflective of the collective pulse of the majority.
    Sadly history is on their side.
    It is summarized in three proverbs I would like to share with you-one from Pakistan, one from North Africa and one from Sub Saharan Africa
    A cat does not chase a mouse merely to please God-lesson-we all have some personal motives and interests in what we do. The issue is whether that interest aligns with the society-and that depends on how close we are to the pain that society faces.
    ” Those who boast about living in an oasis should always be reminded that in the long run the desert always wins”
    Lesson- history has taught us that the oppressed will always have their way-no matter how long it takes.
    An animal running after a meal will seldom outrun an animal running after its life
    Those who have the passion for the oppressed and the poor may appear to be losing and running a futile race dominated by the big players.
    But in the end they have more energy and staying power.
    Because as a famous King once said while leading his troops to defend their land
    “To them it is a territory to conquer. To us it is our land to defend. Our motivation and passion is greater.”

    So I think there is a middle ground- a sad one, but maybe a reality to all of us.
    We perhaps need to agree that as a sector we view things differently,and our priorities are different.
    Some of us live in difficult circumstances, and we experience the pain of the new world order on a daily basis.
    But there are those of us who stay in comfort, and they only read about poverty when they access OECD data or when they receive a report from their “partners”
    It is perhaps too much expecting that these two people will have the same view, or even share the same passion.

    • Nora Lester Murad says

      You are, as always, a poet and a wise man. I have given up on the idea of reconciling agendas, perhaps for the reasons that you so eloquently convey. It’s about accountability for me. If people or organizations say they want to do development, real development, then I will attempt to hold them accountable. This need not be confrontational or conflictual, it’s just a matter of trying to live up to being the best human beings that we can be.

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