Disillusionment in Development
A talk given at the Sociology Café by Dr. Rami Zurayk
If you Google “Disillusionment in Development” you get more then a million hits. Most articles, posts and analyses raise similar issues. The following is a typical account by the disillusioned, excerpted from an interview with David Korten, a leading anti-globalization activist, at a conference on Local Living Economies in the US in June 2006
“I spent 30 years in international development in Ethiopia, Central America and Southeast Asia on a mission to end rural poverty by disseminating U.S business methods. And what I came to realize was that every place development seemed to touch, it was excluding more people, deepening poverty, resulting in environmental destruction and breaking down the social fabric. And the more I reflected on that, the more I came to realize that’s actually a consequence of development models driven by corporate interests. One of the most basic aspects of economic development is that every project needs to be evaluated on which design choice will maximize financial return. As I began to look at development projects, they usually involved driving poor people off their land and giving the resources to people who were already better off.”
Korten addresses key issues here, all related to the central tenets of the neo-liberal economic model: US business methods, corporate interests, and maximal financial rates of return. Because of this, he says, development projects often worsen poverty. This made him move towards Local Action.
My own experience in Yemen, Lebanon and the other countries where I have worked (Algeria, Bahrain) seem to confirm Korten’s as well as other reports. Over time, I have found that:
1. Project benefits ended with project’s end.
2. In most cases, only the local elite who were already endowed with assets and capital could really benefit from our interventions.
3. The number of TRUE beneficiaries was dismally small.
4. We developed professional expertise in management, report writing, massaging statistics, evaluation and self evaluation, but lost commitment and motivation. It became a job, but one that held high moral grounds.
5. In 20 years, our projects have “touched” hundreds, impacted tens and changed the lives of a few. This is the scale we work on.
And we have learned very little: each time we get offered money to “do development” we end up doing the same type of projects, knowing full well that it will only make a small difference at the end.
Neither Korten nor I are the first to look critically at development and development aid, and ask whether it actually serves any purpose. In a recent book on the topic, Chakravarti (2005) reports that aggregate data from studies in over 100 countries between the 1970’s and the 1990’s show no significant effect of development aid on growth. Other horizontal studies report some very small positive effects, mostly in countries with a strong policy framework.
Things are so bad that vanguard academic institutions are already looking for a replacement. The following quote is taken from the promotion web page of a program called Beyond Development at Brown University in the US:
“Development is Dead-or so it is often said. Post-modern and Post-colonial scholarship of all kinds argues that the entire development enterprise was little more than an extension of control from the powerful elite to the rest of the world. Globalization advocates and the powerful Bretton Woods institutions claim that only worldwide free markets produce increases in wealth and that any other attempts to create development are doomed to fail. Aid practitioners and policy makers admit that development aid tends to become part of deeply political processes of exclusion and violence, thus failing to produce development.”
Development is dead. No wonder we’re in limbo.
Why this talk?
Only a handful of the million or so hits from Google originate from, or address issues in, the Arab world. The aim of this talk is to contribute to the global debate, through a critical self analysis of nearly 20 years of development action in Lebanon and the Arab World; and to pave the way to a larger-scale introspective exercise by the Arab development community, with the ultimate goal of coming up with alternative ways of doing things.
Why is the Arab World (and especially Lebanon) interesting?
When I refer to “the Arab World” in the talk, I will mean the countries of the Mashrek and the Maghreb, in addition to Yemen. Other countries of the Arabian Peninsula (Gulf countries) will not be addressed: their economic environment is too different. The countries I am focusing on have many shared characters: There is a dearth of real social policies, especially since most have adopted the International Monetary Fund’s package of structural reforms. Thus, they rely on aid money for development, which increases their dependence on the North. Arab nations are often economically and politically manipulated and their leadership subservient to the North. Corruption is rife, and nepotism is the rule. Our nations are in the crucible of the New Middle East, according to the Bush doctrine: Democracy without Sovereignty and Order without State. Added to that is the existence of strong religious currents, many of whom are involved in development (but that I will not address here).
Of more specific relevance to this talk is the observation made by Samir Taher - an Iraqi writer and poet living in Sweden - about the Arab Left and Development (Al Aadab Jan-Feb 2007). Taher quotes the Arab Organisation for Culture and Science on the number of illiterate people in the Arab World: 70 million in 2005, twice the world average. The largest number of illiterate people is in Egypt followed by Sudan. This is especially interesting when one considers that Egypt is the second largest recipient of US development aid after Israel (nearly $1 billion a year not counting another billion and a half in military aid). Taher blames the passivity and the detachment of the Arab Left from development issues for the current disastrous situation.
Lebanon, a sectarian state, is especially interesting because it is a country of hidden inequalities. It is little known that Lebanon has one of the highest inequality ratios in the world for land (Gini Coefficient of 0.69) and income (Gini Coefficient of 0.57). Moreover, in Lebanon, 0.5% of the people own 50% of the arable land; 30% of the Lebanese live in poverty; and 10% are destitute (approximately 400,000 people). There are 200,000 farmers, representing at least one million people, of whom 40% are too small to even get on the Lebanese market (data from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).
Development: a hold all concept.
It is not the purpose of this talk to debate the meaning of development. Academics and development institutions have invested massive amounts of time doing that, and the general outcome of their cogitation has been that development is a hold all concept. For the sake of simplicity, I will use Barbanti’s (2004) approach, which refers to development interventions as those actions that are intended to move societies and people from a situation in which they are believed to be worse off, to situations in which they are assumed to be better off, while acknowledging the controversy on what determines who is "worse" and who is "better”. I will also focus specifically on those development actions aimed at improving the lot of the rural poor. In Lebanon, as in the rest of the Arab World, the rural poor have, throughout history, traditionally been the most marginalized sector of society.
The Development Triad
I realize that the title of this section carries a value judgment. It is intended to.
Three main actors are involved in doing development. They are: the State, the Donors and the Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). There are also other stakeholders like the academic sector, international organizations, and, of course, the local community - which is supposed to be the main actor, but which in reality, is often a passive recipient.
The members of the triad are connected through a variety of linkages, but also via hybrid entities that provide the interface. For example, branches of international NGOs, working alongside national NGOs, often provide mentoring, supervision and control on behalf of donors. The United Nations system, which specializes in technical assistance, is also often an intermediary between donors, state and local recipients. Donors and state can also be linked in projects implemented directly via international consultants placed in ministries. Moreover, the State is connected to the NGO sector institutionally through specialized outfits that manage any subcontracts, such as the Council for Reconstruction and Development (CDR) in Lebanon.
However, the state is also linked to NGOs via a special type of NGO I will call “Ruling Class NGOs”. These include the Hariri Foundation, Issam Fares Foundation, Makhzoumi Foundation, Moawad Foundation, etc… While these are non-governmental organizations or foundations, their main purpose is to promote the image of wealthy politicians, usually members of the government or of the ruling elite. This is Lebanon’s answer to Syria’s oxymoronic Governmental NGOs (GONGOs).
One way to understand our developmental predicament is to look at the role, functions and duties of these 3 main actors and try to see where (and if) things are going wrong. I have reviewed recent obituaries of development from Lebanon and other countries, and I have identified a few pointers that may be of use for us to initiate a debate.
The State: hijacked from the citizen
The Lebanese State (like other Arab states) is sectarian and discriminatory. Politicians and state employees are not accountable. The state also fosters bureaucracy, corruption, clientelism and nepotism. It is incapable and weak. Its employees are incompetent and unwilling to learn. This is the essence of the discourse of both the Left and the NeoLibs. I don’t buy that.
There is no doubt that the Lebanese State gave up on the needy long ago. The rich and ruling go about their business accumulating wealth, which they call “economic growth”. We somehow convince ourselves that trickle down works. Those who are left behind are expected to be picked up by NGOs, sometimes subcontracted by the State. In the best case scenario, the state sees its role as a supervisor, a neutral referee, providing stability and an enabling environment. To what extent does it succeed at that? I leave you to judge.
The problem is not that the State has failed to provide an enabling environment for those who are only too happy to fill in for it. The problem is that the State is increasingly divesting itself of social welfare and basic needs, along with support to the sectors of the poor, like agriculture, or to the marginal regions, like Akkar, Hermel, Baalbeck and the South. These have become the responsibility of NGOs.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that the State has no choice, and that, because of its alleged weaknesses, it is not responsible for what it is not doing. In reality, the State is strong in the areas it chooses to be strong in, and weak in areas it treats with disregard. This same State was able to impose the appropriation of the Beirut Central District by a private company. It was able to impose a Value Added Tax and to collect it with a large degree of success. There are many other examples that demonstrate that the neglect of the poor is not caused by an inherent weakness, but by a conscious decision. I do not believe that the state can be exonerated and declared “irresponsible”. It would be too easy.
Donors: money to act but not to think
Before I start this, let me say that not all donors are alike. There is bad and there is worse. I also believe that, to a large extent, we are responsible for the way donors act and operate and impose their visions and their agendas in our countries.
In this talk I will only address the classical donors, those originating from the North or from international organizations such as the United Nations. Although there has been a recent flurry of activity of Arab donors, their interventions are still too fresh to be properly evaluated.
Development aid is the profession of donor organizations. They see development as a set of rational managerial prescriptions. For many beneficiaries in Lebanon, development is a direct transference of Western values, synonymous with “modernization”. Many recipients are trained to think this way: this is part of the package deal. The World Bank, the USAID, the EU and even the UNDP have been known to impose expertise and authority. They have also been accused of silencing alternative voices, promoting a dependent path to development, and keeping their eyes closed to the power imbalance they create. The job needs to be done, and often, these power imbalances are part of the job, and not just an externality.
Donors operate according to a semi-declared agenda related chiefly to politics (USAID) or politics and trade (EU). They impose strict conditions on the employment of consultants (international becomes a euphemism for “from donor country”). They recycle the funds in purchases and employment, and use aid to dump excess food production and distort local markets, with total disregard to citizen’s preference and health.
But things can get more dramatic and more sordid. In the 1980’s, I resigned from my post of country representative of a British NGO in Yemen in the wake of the first Gulf war. I had repatriated all my British staff and hired Arabs to train the Yemenis (which made more sense as they could speak Arabic). The British Ambassador called me and invited me to his office. He reminded me that the British government funded a great part of our projects, and asked me to report to him on any fundamentalist Islamic activities in the villages and in the countryside. Yemen was aligned with Iraq at the time, and the Saudis had retaliated by expelling over a million Yemenis, many of whom had never set foot in Yemen. I resigned from my job. I found out later that many of the British project workers had kept formal and informal contacts with the embassy, which was always informed of the state of restlessness of the natives.
Donors’ generosity is part of a political and ideological offensive. They bring their catechism with them. Some of the chapters are entitled Governance, Gender and Participation. Others are called Marketization, Commodification, Privatization and Liberalization. Many are useful and desirable, at least in some form, but it is the way they are shoved down your throat that makes you gag. Eventually, we end up swallowing them. Perhaps we are convinced with them. Perhaps we are worried about losing a funding opportunity. Perhaps we are too lazy to argue with the donor and come to an acceptable compromise.
Take the issue of cooperative work, a noble goal in itself. However, for some reason, agricultural cooperatives have been very difficult to sustain in Lebanon. But a coop is often a precondition for accessing development aid by small farmers. Driven by our donors’ agendas, we, development workers, coerce poor farmers into creating a cooperative, and they usually passively obey. Once we stop injecting it with funds, the coop dissolves and fades away. Of course, there are some successes, the exception is necessary to prove the rule. But out of the hundreds of coops that were created in the past 10 years, only a few are still functioning. The response of some organizations, like the UNDP, has been to declare forfeit: the Lebanese do not know how to cooperate; it’s not part of their culture, so let’s not support any project requiring people to work together. We fail the participation test.
However, farmers in villages cooperate, but in distinct and specific tasks that have a beginning and an end, like harvest, repair of a roof, or building of a house. With the coops, we have been trying to engage them in long term, open ended cooperation with duties and responsibilities defined by laws. When it did not work, we just gave up. Nobody explored the third way, based on indigenous practices.
There are two other areas in which donors strongly impinge on the development process: de-development (also called undevelopment) and the issue of food and agriculture. Both are highly relevant to this talk.
The concept of de-development must be quite old, probably since Tamerlain burned all of Baghdad’s libraries (along with most of the city) in 1258 AD, heralding new dark ages. But we only started writing about it in the wake of the first Gulf war, when the US bombed Iraq with the intent and purpose of destroying its economic and industrial infrastructure. In his memoirs, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf reveals that Richard Armitage who was then US deputy secretary of state threatened to “bomb Pakistan 20 years back” if Pakistan did not join the war against the Taliban in 2001. Yehuda Olmert, not someone known for his creativity, used the same formula when threatening Lebanon in July 2006. With the help of Lebanon’s main development aid donors, the US, the EU, and the complacent UN, he nearly achieved that. This, of course poses the great question of whether net development aid should be calculated as the sum of positive development aid (funded with millions of USD to Lebanon) and negative development aid (funded with billions of USD to the Israeli war machine), in which case simple arithmetic will reveal why the development balance is always negative. Of course, similar, but more dramatic, analyses can be made for Palestine: after the second Intifada, the Israelis went on a rampage, systematically destroying all the small industries and service companies that had been set up with aid or private investments.
But it is in the sector of food and agriculture development that the contradictions of the industrialized North become most flagrant. This is where they drop all pretence of market liberalization and free trade. The North’s agriculture, our main source of food imports (a bill of billions of USD) is heavily subsidized. But the North prohibits countries of the South from even thinking about farm subsidies, whatever the cost may be in terms of poverty and social dislocation. Heavily subsidized agriculture produces surpluses which are dumped on the world markets, distorting prices and preventing small holders in the South from constructing decent livelihoods. Rural development aid from the North is conditional on denying poor farmers any subsidies. Instead, they are encouraged to go swimming into the big World Market sea where the capitalist sharks roam freely. No wonder they get devoured! With the current terms of trade, the small holders cannot even compete in their own country. The Industrialized nations did not develop by treating all economic sectors equally, on the utilitarian basis of rates of financial returns. But this is precisely what they impose on us, with aid as the carrot and sanctions as the stick. “Do as I say not as I did” is the North’s mantra.
NGOs: pleased to oblige
Clearly, NGOs are not one homogeneous body. One can distinguish: 1) local branches of international development corporations, such as World Vision, Mercy Corps and others. They are in the development industry, and to them Lebanon is a business opportunity; 2) the Ruling Class NGOs, and other party political NGOs such as the Hariri Foundation and Jihad al Bina’a. They are aimed at enhancing the image of politicians and at rallying political support in exchange for services; 3) the religious foundations, often an off shoot of a mother organization located elsewhere (Caritas for example). They have their own policy and strategy aligned with the goals of the mother institution, but they can sometimes genuinely engage in pro-poor action; 4) civil society NGOs. They include all organizations that do not fit any of the other 3 categories. Some may be secular (like Green Line), while others may have confessional or sectarian inclinations and may be influenced by local politicians. They are the subject of this talk.
There is no doubt that over the past 20 years, NGOs have significantly contributed to the expansion of the democratic space in Lebanon. Their work has set the stage for action towards a fairer society. In war - as in peace - NGOs have stepped in to replace the State where the State has failed or been absent.
Today there are hundreds of NGOs in Lebanon. Because donor money is the only source of funds, many are affiliated with one or more international development corporation, sometimes to the extent that they lose their independence. In recent years, the most successful among them have become akin to small private businesses, with increased professionalism (which is good), but with decreasing internal democracy and unelected leaderships.
Many NGOs are well meaning in intent and action, but they tend suffer from ideological deficiency. Many describe themselves as apolitical, which allows them to seek and obtain funds from any source. Because they shy away from political analysis, especially from class analysis, they tend to address issues divorced from their cause. But how can one combat poverty just by addressing its symptoms and without challenging the root causes of inequality?
The apoliticisation of NGOs is one of the main hindrances to effective development and change. It pushes NGOs towards the path of least resistance, which is single issue campaigning. This limits their capacity to develop holistic vision, to create effective action networks, and to build solidarity with other movements, such as the workers’ unions, that share the same ultimate goals.
In today’s Lebanon, and at a time when sectarian polarization is at its apogee, the disappearance of NGOs from the political scene is especially worrying.. When a group of 12 NGOs called for an anti-war protest in Beirut on March 3, 2007, only 200 people showed up. Where were the secular NGOs? Why aren’t they mobilizing against sectarianism? A few weeks ago, the Paris-3 reform document, a neo-liberal manifesto, was passed without raising a single NGO eyebrow. How many of the NGOs working to alleviate rural poverty have taken a position on the Paris-3 reform package? How many are campaigning for progressive taxation on the rich, and for wealth redistribution through increased provisions for the poor? How many are aware of and oppose the unequal trade agreements our governments have signed on behalf of our children? These are the real issues and the real problems in combating poverty.
Many NGOs have been very active in development action. But many are also driven by donors’ agenda and obscured by their apolitism. These have become, willingly or not, advocates of the neo-liberal economic package of trade liberalization, market fundamentalism and the commodification of resources. We know, by looking at the industrialized North, that this package cannot help the poor and the marginalized, and that affirmative action has to be taken to seriously address issues of inequality. It is impossible to support the poor while at the same time supporting the very policies that make them poor. NGOs will have to make a choice here.
It is time for us, who work in development, to review and redefine our principles and our core beliefs. We have to decide where we stand on the crucial issues that are shaping today’s world: globalization, free trade, protectionism, dumping and market distortions. And we need to harmonize our actions with our principles. Civil society activists in the Industrialized North are constantly lobbying for a fairer trade environment for the developing nations. The final declaration of the Euromed Civil Forum in 2006, included a strong call to give the Mediterranean Partner Countries (Lebanon included) the right to protect their food security, instead of insisting on “reciprocity” in on-going and future trade negotiations. Meanwhile, development NGOs in Lebanon and the Arab World go about their work in expanding economic opportunities without daring to challenge the neo-liberal agenda of their donors.
Conclusion: towards an action agenda
We, in Lebanon, are going through the same prise de conscience other activists are experiencing in Seattle, Rio, Dakar and Bangkok following their disillusionment with corporate development. This has to be looked at positively in order to use it as a catalyst for change. New paths have been cleared by the new development community, and they appear to be promising. The focus is today on international solidarity based on equality of status between organizations and people, rather than on the classical paternalistic donor-recipient relationship. Development action is being refocused towards strengthening local economic networks, defending the right to produce food and the right to fair markets. In this new vision, for example, smallholder farming is not an economic nuisance, but an environmentally conserving activity and a social safety net for the rural poor. Development action is also being harmonized with political activism. The rationale is simple: if we are fighting poverty, we cannot partner with the system that creates it. We need to oppose such systems and confront them and to lobby the State to adopt appropriate policies.
We cannot afford to give up on the state, for it is the only entity that can take our pilot successes and upscale them into successful programs. We need to scrutinize donors and donors’ agendas, and make decisions based on principles rather than opportunism. For that we need to review our experience, and develop our new paradigms, in collaboration with like minded activists and militants around the world. We must fight disillusionment with action rather than with despair.
March 15, 2007