The Moment of Truth III: Development (of) Beliefs

One of the first books I read about development aid industry.

In the last blog post of the series, The Moment of Truth II: Working Towards a Dream, I mentioned how I had lost faith in the development-aid industry and that I would have more to say about that in another post. This is that post.

From when I had started my academic career in the US in 1990, I devoured literature about the industry and was constantly learning about it. I had come to believe that when I ultimately returned, it would be to work in the development field. Toward the end of nineties and beginning of this century, disillusionment with the industry started setting in.

By then I had learned that most development-aid work were top-down impositions. I had noticed insufficient effort expended on establishing relationships. As far as I was concerned, the bedrock of collaboration and cooperation between people of different nationalities, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds is relationships. I shared that in the concluding remarks to a presentation — about tourism and development aid in Mustang district — at the Red Cross Nordic UWC in the spring of 1997: “First has to come the relationship, then understanding and respect, and then mutual cooperation.”

By the time I contemplated a timeline for returning home for the first time, the summer of 2009, my faith and trust in development aid had taken a complete nose-dive. In all the intervening years of work and travel around the world as an international teacher, I had not seen sufficient evidence of real, tangible, long-lasting relationship-building between big bilateral and multilateral aid agency workers and their beneficiaries. Bilateral- and multilateral-development-aid-agency driven work wasn’t producing sufficient results, anywhere.

One of the problems was that bilateral and multilateral aid agencies were always big. They came with their own large group of international directors and experts, huge budgets, huge projects, and overheads. The bigger they were, the farther they were removed from the lives of those they were ostensibly serving. The bigger they were the more disconnected the agency and the experts were from the worlds of the beneficiaries. Additionally, the bigger their budget, the bigger was their overhead, and the greater was the lack of accountability and transparency. What little there was of cost-benefit analysis of huge projects implemented by such aid agencies were not very reassuring.

Another problem was that I felt the models of development foisted on the developing nations were doing more harm than good. In Nepal, for instance, it had created a “dependency culture.” The culture was not only stripping the dignity of the people but also feeding the wealthy and connected (the ones with source-force), corrupting pretty much every single system in the country. The progress being made as a direct consequence of those works was nowhere near commensurate with the money, time, and efforts expended.

Worse still, development aid, in some instances at least, appeared to actually even be extractive. While development aid grants ostensibly was always shown to flow from the developed countries to the developing countries, most of that money, invariably, ended up back in the developed countries as salaries to the experts and as payment for materials requisitioned from companies based in the donor countries etc., to say nothing of the loans!

There was a period, during my time in Malawi, when I even contemplated whether the solution lay in kicking out ALL multi-lateral and bilateral aid agencies from developing countries!

Anyway, I came to believe that the solution mostly lay in the locals, with the locals. Sustainable progress –- social, economic and political progress –- of developing nations mostly rests in their hands. They could and should take responsibility for — and ownership of — developing their own communities and societies through small, locally-conceived, locally-driven, and locally-implemented projects.

One early example of the success of such a small-scale development project I came across was the micro-hydroelectricity projects implemented in my district of Mustang. The environmental and social cost of such projects were minimal compared to the benefits. Mega hydroelectricity projects such as Arun III, in the nineties, were predicted to have devastating environmental and social impact on the area and people. From what I understood, that was partly the reason for the project being shelved two decades ago when it had been first proposed! 

Locals have the potential to make real and lasting difference to their communities, their societies, and their country for two simple reasons: firstly, they have long-term vested interest in them, and secondly, they know their community and their needs intimately. Well-meaning international aid workers who pass through the revolving doors of the aid industry complex — with their grand plans, visions, funds, and enviable life styles, on the other hand — don’t! I am NOT suggesting that non-locals have no role to play in that however.

Regardless, it was for that reason that when I was an international teacher, I did not participate in social work aimed at the “development” of the area even once. I did teach and travel in countries that were considered underdeveloped. But I NEVER volunteered for a cause during my entire international teaching career. I felt it would be a little arrogant of me to think that I could make meaningful and lasting impact in the lives of a people in a place where I was a temporary guest.

Anyway, I turned down the job offer on February 12, in 2013 to return to Nepal to contribute to the development of the country — as a local. Friends, colleagues, supervisors, and teachers had always told me that I had the potential to contribute significantly to my country and people. By that time, I also felt I had educational, professional, and life experiences that most Nepalis did not have and probably will not have, and as such could provide perspectives and expertise many in the country did not have. 

(Little did I know, within three years of returning to the country, yet again disillusionment would set in and within five years of being back, I would quit my job as a social worker to start yet another phase of my life.)

What do you think?



Added after the publication of the blog post because of their relevance.

Submission by Thomas Bell to the International Development Committee enquiry into DFID’s programme in Nepal. I came across this the first time in March 2015, not long after Thomas Bell himself made it public. It’s a scathing document on development aid and our extremely corrupt leadership. On public education, he had this to say: “On the matter of areas in which multilateral organisations supported by DFID are working but where things are not going well, I would point especially to education (funded by the EU and others). The rate of failure here – only 13% of government school students who enrolled ten years earlier left school with a basic qualification (the School Leaving Certificate) in 2014 – is an unconscionable scandal condemning a generation of children to a life of futility. There is profound corruption in the public education sector, as exposed on a weekly basis in the newspapers and well known to all for many years. Donors must be seen to publicly and transparently take responsibility and take action where they are mired in such a mess. If their sense of embarrassment and bureaucratic expediency is given sway, how can it be expected that the Government of Nepal will behave differently?” [Added on January 28, 2019.]

Impunity and Political Accountability in Nepal. Another document I had come across a long time ago and had read and came across it again when going through the above document. (It’s referenced in it.) [Added on January 28, 2019.]

The Kathmandu Post (March 18, 2015). Democracy in crisis. “Nepal’s democracy is in crisis because the mainstream political parties are not interested in carrying out political and constitutional reforms that can promote inclusion and unleash growth.” It reaffirmed a couple of Thomas Bell’s observations. [Added on January 28, 2019.]


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