This blog post at the Development Policy Centre’s blog from a few weeks ago is – by quite some margin – the most commented upon post I’ve ever written.
In a way that doesn’t surprise me — I know the subject, whether aid workers should lead comfortable lives in developing countries, is one that many aid workers agonise about. On the other hand, I think the impact of this issue on overall aid effectiveness is much less than many of the other topics I’ve written about for Development Policy’s site.
And yet, I can understand the agonising that goes on — the discrepancy between aid worker lifestyles and the lives of people in developing countries is the place where the contradictions of global capitalism become personal. When there’s no longer any escaping the fact that, in some strange way, we benefit from all the mess.
For what it’s worth having read all the discussion following the post, my concluding thoughts are as follows:
1. Ethically, it is impossible not to feel uncomfortable at the inequality involved. But don’t mistake its source. The inequality that lies between the lives of aid workers and the lives of those they try to help isn’t a product of the ‘aid industry’ it is a product of our incredibly unequal world. Ethically speaking, aid workers should feel very uncomfortable about this inequality. But they aren’t the only ones. Everyone living in comfort in our poor, divided planet should feel this discomfort. Not just the aid workers.
2. Practically, the real question is: what is the optimal level of inequality in terms of increasing the likelihood of aid succeeding? On this question my guess is that almost always the positive impact of having rested, safe aid workers clearly outweighs the increased overheads associated with this and any negative ‘divide’ related impacts that might impede aid work.
There are many, many problems with the world of aid, but many of these are essentially problems of our world more generally, not just of the world of aid.