Waylaid Dialectic

April 25, 2010


Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:50 pm
Tags: , ,

Helen Epstein has an interesting article on aid, human rights and development in Ethopia in the New York Review of Books.

The condensed version: Beguiled by Meles Zenawi and cajoled by Bob Geldof, the world’s aid agencies pump money into Ethopia, but don’t solve the real development issue – circumscribed human rights. And until people’s rights are fully realised, development will not take place.

Three thoughts:

1. I wonder what Owen (an aid worker who lives in Ethopia) thinks of the article? Me, I know nothing about the country other than what I’ve just read.

2. The case for development work taking account of human rights is simple and wholly convincing: human rights are an integral element of the good life and should be observed for their own sake. Any development without human rights is not full development. In the article Epstein extends this basic argument further, claiming that rights denied stymie other elements of development (particularly economic and human development). This is part of Amartya Sen’s thesis in Development as Freedom and I instinctively support it. Yet it’s contentious and the piece doesn’t contain much systematic evidence. Or at least not enough evidence to overcome ‘what-about-China type’ counter claims. I still think she’s right but guess I need to read more academic work to get this one worked out in my head.

3. Epstein’s welcome to blame the charms of Zenawi, and the heckling of Bono, Bob Geldof and Make Poverty History for aid donors’ reluctance to pull money from Ethopia in the face of corrupt practices and crackdowns on civil society, but I can think of two more convincing arguments, one of which Epstein mentions, one of which she effectively glosses over.

The reason mentioned (quite rightly) by Epstein is that some donors probably still act more on the basis of their own political interests than on the needs of the people of aid recipient countries. This was a huge issue in the bad old days of aid and it still exists to an extent.

The reason that’s glossed over is that there’s a genuine dilemma here: if you withdraw aid from badly governed countries nothing may change except that all of a sudden there won’t be any money for health clinics and schools. The government will probably stay in power and may get nastier still (both the revolution inspired by the withdrawal of aid and the improvement in governance inspired by the removal of aid to-date remain largely theoretical/hypothetical creatures).

To be fair Epstein does sort-of acknowledge this in passing. Yet in my mind hers would have been a much better article if she’d done a bit less pop star bashing and a bit more discussing of what aid donors might actually do. It’s a dilemma they encounter everywhere but also one without readily apparent solutions.


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