Letter from Guatemala

by A. Jay Adler on May 2, 2012
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Development Ideology – Fraud or Nuisance?

by Dercum Over

(Dercum Over recently completed a two-year service with the Peace Corps as a volunteer Healthy Schools coordinator. The Peace Corps officially discourages independent journalistic expression by serving volunteers, so he waited until his two years were concluded before writing this essay. Parts of it were published in the annual in-house Peace Corps Guatemala journal The Id in 2010. Publication of The Id was suspended without explanation in 2011. This is the first of two parts.)

“Cultural exchange starts with misunderstanding. We are not afraid to misunderstand.”
– Isamu Ohsuga of Byakko Sha, a Japanese Butoh dance troupe.

The first time I recall seeing the term “sustainable” in the context of development was in a rather smug popular news-magazine article in Time or Newsweek published some time in the 1970s. As I recall, the piece accused the Soviets of bumptious behavior for trying to provide agricultural development aid in Africa. They had sent 20 tractors to a cooperative farming effort in a Socialist-aligned emerging nation. (I think it was in Tanzania, but I can’t find any reference on the web. Since this detail exists in pre-digital limbo, it probably isn’t even fair game any more. History seems to have rebooted 20 years ago.) Anyway, these hapless Soviets had created a Big Noise with their tractors in the early days of their project, chuckled the author, but they had also failed to provide support in the way of a supply of parts. After a year or two of the trademark ignorance, fraud, and lunacy inherent in the Communist ideal, the author comforted us, the Africans had remaining in their new Socialist Eden a single working tractor and 19 others disassembled for parts. He then triumphantly condemned the tractor project as hopeless folly because it had been “unsustainable.”

His conclusion is perhaps slightly ironic, because that time frame also included another example of hopeless folly in foreign aid known as the Vietnam War, which also finally proved to be unsustainable. But never mind; the concept of sustainability, of designing aid programs with the future in mind, was considered – surprising to me now – a new approach back then.

In keeping with the Modernist ideology of that era, foreign aid projects were typically big-ticket infrastructure items such as the Aswan dam, a product of Soviet foreign aid, or the Thai national power grid, a project financed by the Western-aligned World Bank. In brief, Modernist ideology purported to address international social problems by throwing money at them – by inundating them with electric dams, roads, tractors and refrigerators. Critics cited spiraling Third World debt and the exportation of Consumerism as tools of Western hegemonic neocolonialism.

Ideologies evolve, if slowly in terms of utility for the average Peace Corps volunteer. Some social scientists mark the year 1972 as the end of Modernism, punctuated by the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. Back story: in 1954, at the height of the American Modernist era, city planners condemned an urban community of low-income black homeowners in order to erect a monument to the modernist ideology that advancing technology – in this case a high-rise apartment project – will ameliorate human misery. The completed “projects” quickly became a poster child for all the social ills of high-rise slum tenements everywhere, and the ensuing social disaster was untenable. Scant 16 years later, these enormous, blighted buildings were dynamited, and the Postmodern era was born.

The disillusionment resulting from the collapse of all those Modernist social fantasies when taken to their inevitable extremes led to a new series of ideological generalizations: appropriate technology, “teach a man to fish,” downsizing, human capital, bottom-up design, “train the trainers”, and – lording over all – sustainability. These are the catchphrases of Postmodern ideology in social development. In catchphrase terminology, we no longer “throw money at it;” we now “develop a consensus.”

To those of us dealing with the international development field right now, in the heart of the Postmodern era, (or is it possibly the ass-end?) this whole global development folderol seems to be taking its sweet time to get rolling and accrue some demonstrable success, let alone respect. One specific example, in 1995 the World Health Organization sponsored a gala global garden party to initiate the “global school health initiative”, an idea that had already been in vogue in Central America for a decade, to more than 100 eager member countries, representatives of which got to visit Geneva for a week that summer. Sixteen years later, there are lots of Healthy Schools government office desks that have printed lots of brochures at the national level of these countries, (Guatemala has such an office desk too,) but fewer than 10 actively funded and staffed programs. Of these, most work with fewer than a dozen schools.

This seems to me to be a fair indication of top-down development-project dysfunction, sort of like those Soviet tractors. I hope it’s not too cynical to observe that, for most of those W.H.O. jet-setters in 1995, it’s taken 16 years to print some brochures, and not too trivial to wonder how many people got paid how much to arrange for these wonderful publications. Possibly, the authors of these top-down international development schemes ought to figure out a sustainability parameter for their own grand global initiatives. (Full disclosure: I am gratified to observe that Healthy Schools Guatemala, a bottom-up development design, is by far the most advanced of the lot. After 16 years of continuous hands-on trial and error and persistent evolution, the program has grown and matured. It now encompasses several hundred schools in a disciplined program design that includes realistic goals and progress monitoring into the future. It could provide a model for other countries, should they wish to model on success. This is the program I was lucky to work with during my volunteer service.)

Lamentable global progress, to be sure, but actually, the applied science of altruistic social intervention as an organized human endeavor isn’t that old. The International Bank of Reconstruction and Development – today a branch of the World Bank – was initiated in 1944 at the Bretton-Woods Conference to deal with the cost of rebuilding the planet after the war, and it became the leading institution for fostering global development, albeit with the unacknowledged caveat that American businesses get the lion’s share of the carcass. Before that, international development aid was either faith-based – a vote for our deity is a vote for your next meal – or else a matter of direct private investment in local infrastructure in order to more efficiently extract a colony’s wealth. The Nairobi-Mombassa railroad is an excellent example of this second example of early development.

It doesn’t do to get too hyperventilated about our post-Bretton Woods national altruism. No one forgot to include tax exemption in the mix. My favorite example of the American approach to development run amok is the corporate American charity that once arranged a federal tax write-off for the donation of natural-disaster support in the form of 12,000 Maidenform bras to earthquake victims in Asia, an exercise in ironic irrelevance that exemplifies the American “free market” priority in foreign affairs – completely divorced from supposed altruistic first principles of international development.

Altruistic first principles – that glossy term might seem to express an optimistic or naïve assumption. The topic might merit a separate examination (by someone else,) but briefly, I assume that international development aims to accelerate the access by the world’s poor to better health, education and economic opportunity. By “accelerate” I mean that development initiatives are playing catch-up, that poor people are trapped by a gap in opportunity, and that we in international development are partnering with those affected to try to close that gap.

It is also possible to presume a malign intent for international development initiatives. If the First World status quo were only interested in promoting its own hegemonic control of other economies, what better misdirection than an elaborate charade of altruism with which to stumble along in meaningless endeavor, promoting extraneous ideologies and rewarding mediocrity (USAID, anyone?) To misappropriate the catchphrase, “Sure, teach a man to fish, but only if you have a monopoly on fishing poles.”

You don’t have to consider yourself a hard-line Marxist to understand this cynical worldview, but you probably do have to consider yourself a hard-line Capitalist to condone it. From my two-year internship in development work in the Peace Corps I have seen clear examples of both these approaches to international aid. While reality probably falls somewhere in between, it is no longer clear to me that people with a vested personal interest in maintaining the existing status quo should be making decisions that determine a change in the status quo of others. (Another full disclosure: I don’t have either kids or a mortgage, so my personal identification with the North American chapter of the global status quo is decidedly tentative. I am committed to the understanding that coercing the destinies of people in other nations simply to profit on the price of bananas is both repugnant and bad for future business relations, let alone future crime control. For further reading on this position, google Guatemala, John Foster Dulles, Col. Oliver North, and cocaine.)

So – 67 years after the idea of institutionalizing international altruism in order to promote the United States’ version of the status quo, we have realized that big dams and big roads create unmanageable debt, and that big dreams have unintended consequences, but what else have we learned?

Next: What else we’ve learned.

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