Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Foreign Aid Shell Game

In many ways, government use of foreign aid to further foreign and even domestic policy agendas makes sense. If we accept the human construct of the nation (for, what else is it?), then on some level we must accept that those who are members of the nation have shared interests at stake, both domestically and internationally, that must be protected. As I’ve stated before, I’m still not convinced that there are many good arguments for caring about people in other nations that aren’t implicitly or explicitly moral. If we assume that the nation is not a moral actor, then using foreign aid to support national agendas makes perfect sense. Why else would a nation do it? The biggest problems with this approach are 1) “national interest” is often full of contradictions; 2) members of the nation do not always have an agreed-upon image of what the “national interest” is; and 3) the inherent short-term nature of democratic government makes “national interest” a politically moving target.

So, in response to eninnej’s question, is it a bad thing that NGOs that receive government funding are complicit in furthering government aims, I would say that it depends. It depends on the purpose and the moral stance of the NGO. If the moral stance of the NGO happens to be in line with the national interest stance of the government, then as far as the NGO is concerned, who cares? Take the money and run. On the other hand, if the moral stance of the NGO is at odds with the government, as it often is, then I would say that NGOs in this position that take government funding lack integrity. We can’t expect all NGOs to agree with us as individuals, and these institutions have no representative role vis-à-vis the larger national population. However, an institution that supports and actively implements what are, essentially, a government’s foreign policy objectives has no business portraying itself as neutral.

NGOs that implement the US government’s foreign policy will never rock the boat enough to create meaningful social change (more another time on how, if at all, they might do this; see also Saul Alinsky). If development NGOs do make positive change in the lives of people as individuals, through microfinance, agriculture, or education programs or what have you, great. But saying that there is an improvement is still making a value judgment: this is better than that. Sure, I believe that individuals are capable of making that judgment for themselves on the basis of their unique situation. I like living in a house better than living in an apartment; that statement is culturally bound, but it is individually arrived at by me in my unique circumstance. However, I can’t extrapolate from that and say that living in a house is better for everyone.

NGO workers will certainly be more at risk the closer the ties are between their funding source and the Department of State. In many of the places where these hard-working and well-meaning folk strive (like Sisyphus) to bring justice and progress, they will be targeted because their employers receive funding from the US government. Eventually, all NGO workers, funded or not by the US government, will be targeted, because the terrorist’s weapon is blunt. Their work will surely be negatively affected.

2 comments:

eninnej said...

Quality stuff. I updated my post with a link back to this one and blathered on a bit about 'improvement' and indicators. You can always vent to me about USAID, talking points, and organizational spinelessness if you get tired of silently stewing!

RDR said...

Humanitarian Aid, Development, and National Interest

I assume that the work done by governments and NGOs in response to an earthquake, a tsunami, a drought, or an epidemic is humanitarian aid., in so far as the work brings the area back to its pre-existing condition. Housing, food supplies, water availability and health are as good as before the event. We provde blankets, temporary shelter, medicine, and food as a quick response. Do or should we rebuild in the impacted area? Do we relocate those impacted? When does humanitarian aid stop and development begin?

Development would the be something that changed the initial situation in the area. For example; a new water well, a micro-finance scheme, a new school, improved farming techniques, improved health care, better use of resources and better distribution of there returns, or some change in infrastructure. Often no plans are made to deal with the issues raised by those who are displaced by the development.

It is my observation that “development” often brings about conditions that stress the resources of an area. For example: fewer deaths from disease result in a growing population and the cultural practices in the area can not support the larger population; or new technologies are introduced which allow early adopters to increase their output but those without the means to adopt the technology fall farther behind, a new water well permits more cattle to be moved into poorer grazing areas and the next drouth wipes them out. The result often is that migration to areas of poorer resources, in the hopes of scratching out a living, or to areas of denser population, in the hope of finding employment, stresses the capacity of the government in dealing with the changing population.

National interest would seem to include actions to bring about political stability, encourage economic development to enhance trade and limit conditions that give rise to terrorist activity. I assume that national interest may not always coincide with the desires of the leadership in the area of interest. For example: it is in our interest to avoid the development of strong totalitarian states. We therefore attempt to use diplomacy and perhaps force to limit the expansion of the number of states with nuclear capability. At least some in our country have determined that it is in our national interest to establish democracies in countries that are under totalitarian rule. Yet, the results of elections bring about leadership that is opposed to the interest of our leadership and perhaps the interest of the majority in our country.

Perhaps of greater importance than Governments or NGOs, to aid and development in the 21st century, are the multi-national corporations. They move capital to the areas of cheap labor, providing employment and raising income of workers in the LDC. To the extent that they do not exploit the under privileged, the increase in capital relative to labor can be seen as a correction in the balance of resources.