Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The White Man’s Burden: a slippery slope in international development practice

When does an international development practitioner engage in racist condescension?  International development work is chock full of people, especially white people, who enter the field out of a desire to reduce poverty.  Recently, I passed by an advertisement for USAID depicting a white American working with poor children in Africa.  It was well intentioned, but my immediate response was to think of the famous Rudyard Kipling poem, which starts as the following:

Take up the White Man's burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.

(The poem of the White Man’s Burden was used as the title of the famous book of William Easterly, whose book made an important contribution but did not relate the development industry to colonial history.)

Still today, the general public in the West exhibits a kind of racism against much of the world where high poverty rates are found.  This can be found in most characterizations of Africa and South Asia that are presented in the media. 

What is missing in this context is the history of colonialism, a system that was arguably essential in establishing the standard of living found in the West today.  The same system led to countless deaths in the victim countries, as well as slavery and a decimation or warping of local institutions, among other results.  Still today, developing countries generally struggle to make the resulting government, market, and social institutions work (which I call the original sin of development, something for future posts). 

In the international development community, outright racism is rare.  One seldom hears of broad generalizations about the inherent characteristics of a people.  There are elements of the White Man’s Burden that I have encountered in international development work.  I would identify three particular areas. 

1.     White people who brag to their friends that they are helping the poor

The picture of the white person surrounded by African children exemplifies the bragging by development workers that they help the poor.  This bothers me along several dimensions, which requires a basic historical context.  The West decimated local institutions and exploited the poor throughout the world for centuries.  Now, their relatively privileged citizens are showing up in the countries to help the poor, when the pretense for colonialism was similar.  Rather than bragging, the West has a historical obligation to do something genuinely good, in order to begin to make up for centuries of exploitation. 

Other obvious criticisms arise as well, such as the lack of acknowledgement of local partners and national staff who generally do most of the work and get little of the credit.  The white people try to position themselves in the front to get recognition, either from their friends in the case of the photo, or in a professional environment, from their managers who will promote them and from their funding agencies.   For example, I recently became familiar with a U.S.-based civil society association who, when providing financing for local partners who have been working for decades, either claimed that the association itself implemented the project, or stated that they jointly implemented the work - even though the association only provided a small fund recently.  Additionally, the absurdity of the situation increases because most development agencies do not adequately measure the impact of their work, which due to the short time that the white development practitioners stay in the country, is usually a temporary relief at best. Bragging about something so superficial seems ridiculous.

2.     White people who dictate how things should be done in a developing country

I have personally witnessed, and heard of a number of cases, where white development practitioners go into a government office and effectively tell the official how to run their department.  The same occurs occasionally but less frequently in the NGO sector, where the international NGO worker tells local staff how to do things.   I am sometimes astounded at the lack of diplomatic skills present among many staff.

The basis of the problem in this case is effectively the money and the resulting power dynamics.  Government officials and local NGOs desire outside financing.  As a result, they are willing to submit to these demands in order to please the white people so that they will finance projects.  These are obviously the wrong motives for undertaking any initiative, and usually lead to haphazard and temporary implementation of the desired program or policy.

3.     White people who naively intervene –i.e. with little contextual knowledge and using their own biases/ limited knowledge

Of course, it is easy to have opinions on how things should be done.  “Experts” abound in the international development field.  But then you have to wonder what this expertise is built on, and whether it has been contextually adapted.  Without extensive time spent working in a developing country, along with a certain street smarts, white people rarely have the contextual knowledge of what might work. The lack of familiarity not only endangers the activities to be undertaken, but may also make the dictates of the development practitioners damaging if implemented.  The source of knowledge and the way to do things is often steeped in a technocratic vision of the world, based on a bias of how organizations work that often doesn’t even apply to their home countries.  Data, plans, laws, instructions for local staff, regulations, and other recommendations are often ineffective steps in an environment of strong interests and institutional norms that resist them.

I’ve personally come across two common examples.  First, in order to reform a government institution, the government needs to pass a law.  A foreign expert writes the law.  The government is then pressured, or effectively bribed via a loan or grant, to pass that law.  Not surprisingly, the law is never implemented.  Second, too often one hears of the need for an organization to write a plan, which will then be used to bring in funding.  Once again, an outside expert is brought in to develop the plan.  The implementing organization then more or less ignores that plan after receiving funding.

Each of these three present-day concerns has ancient historical roots, with damaging consequences throughout the world.  We hope that international development practitioners would learn.  However, these mistakes still exist in the international development field.  At the very least, development practitioners should study the basic history of colonialism, if only to realize their own relationship to this history.

The next question is, how can we prevent this behavior?  Unfortunately, real accountability only comes from those who finance the organizations.  There is an asymmetry of information in these cases, and only imperfect means of correcting this.  The recipients of project financing are unlikely to push back for fear of losing the money, though an increased number of sources of project financing may help.  The governments and donors that fund these organizations are unlikely to detect these subtle styles, and probably don’t recognize their importance.

As a white person in development, I struggle with these issues.  They give good reason for an extreme position, that white people should just stay out of development altogether.  Or that white people should simply support local efforts from a distance, and stay out of the way.  Both of these approaches have their own risks, such as denying important resources and naively throwing around cash.  As a rule of thumb, three individual approaches seem reasonable: humility, diplomacy, and a deep contextual knowledge.  A deep contextual knowledge will help in tailoring initiatives to the local context.  Humility will prevent practitioners from imposing themselves in a damaging way.  And diplomacy will generate a network that will provide both knowledge and the ability to influence things productively behind the scenes.  Unfortunately, without systematic change in how aid works, the recruitment process for international organizations seems to be the best opportunity for minimizing the White Man’s Burden approach to development.

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