LAST week I had the pleasure of attending an international conference on peace and sustainable development, courtesy the German Development Agency.
It was highly romantic to listen to papers for a week in an academic environment in Belgium about alternative methods of peace-building and economic development.
The emphasis was on interfaith dialogue success stories, interaction between parties in conflict through the assistance of European and American donors, and projects for the empowerment of indigenous communities.
Although the participants were supposed to take home lessons about how conflicts can be resolved through investment of funds and efforts by external and internal players, some of us were equally inspired to question the above-mentioned methodology. While it might sound silly to be sceptical, the fact of the matter is that the ‘project’ approach to peace, development, poverty reduction and empowerment creates islands that do not necessarily inspire change in the world around them.
For instance, it was quite emotional to hear a Jewish-American peace activist/academic, an African pastor and a Muslim woman from Egypt talk about how they abandoned their personal prejudices and are now fostering love between communities in their areas. However, such cases do not necessarily address the wider lack of understanding of other faiths and the anxieties felt by different communities. You can spread love until kingdom come and yet not release the tension which arises primarily because we live in a fiercely competitive world where the Thomas Friedmans have no sympathy for the ‘other’, and where there is definitely no scope for human dignity and self-respect. (The market economy, as the Europeans as opposed to the Americans are learning, does not exclude social justice.)
Maybe the conference organisers or the community of financial donors and peace-builders need to seriously ask themselves why their financial investment does not have an impact. Is it that the people in Africa, Asia and Latin America are genetically unintelligent and comfortable with corruption and bad governance? Is it that societies in developing countries are inherently praetorian and hence cannot have a better system of politics and governance? Or is it because some religions (as opposed to others) cannot deal with democracy, modernity and development? Or is it that non-secular societies just cannot modernise? These are not simply questions; they reflect how the donor community conceptualises problems in the developing world.
The aforementioned analysis naturally leads to a certain type of solution, such as supporting segments of indigenous communities that are considered better than others. This means providing political and financial assistance selectively to individuals and institutions. This is also when Samuel P. Huntington’s or Morris Janowitz’s argument that militaries or bureaucracies are the most modern institutions begins to make sense, and when Idi Amin, Francois Duvalier, Saddam Hussain, Slobodan Milosevic, Ziaul Haq or Pervez Musharraf are born. Moreover, the emphasis is on providing funding for select projects which concurrently benefit citizens of the donor countries — a lot of the funds are milked as fees for foreign consultants — and create a class of local people who get rich from being consultants. Also, the donor strategy considers western democracy and secularism to be akin to modernity.
There are four obvious problems in this development approach. First, it builds on the principle of exclusion rather than inclusion. The underlying assumption is that since a particular society is too backward or underdeveloped, it would be best to salvage part of it. The ones who become partners are always those who are also fit to serve the larger strategic interests of the donors. Second, the ones bailed out are not necessarily integrated with the rest of the community. Since the rest of society remains underdeveloped, those on the receiving end of investment tend to partner with their international benefactors or the local elite that has partly facilitated the process, thus drawing a wedge between different segments of society.
Third, and more importantly, since western donors in particular equate secularism with modernity, the people chosen in this case are part of the elite and given to corruption as a group. This is not to suggest that religious, conservative people are not corrupt but to point out that using secularism as a benchmark does not help either. Finally, most of the development work is routed through the ruling elite whose behaviour both politically and financially is questionable. In fact, the major flaw in the donor-driven development approach is that it depends too much on a select group of people who are often part of the elite or aspiring to it.
If the developed world would care to look more closely it would begin to notice that in certain societies poverty, underdevelopment and conflict become cyclical processes that do not seem to end despite all efforts. For instance, Iraq is no better today than when Saddam Hussain was there. Pakistan and Afghanistan have not improved in spite of the funds poured into the two countries by the donor community. The two common denominators in these three cases or those similar to them in other continents are: (a) rent-seeking and corrupt elites and (b) soft and hard foreign intervention.
The fact of the matter is that rent-seeking states can never get out of the cycle of underdevelopment and conflict until the ruling elite agrees not to loot and pillage and to become productive. So, for instance, the temporary boost in Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves or the expansion of the mobile phone market does not necessarily mean development. There is no sustainable economic development due to a lack of stability which Pakistan will never have until the elites understand that they have to become productive and negotiate resources with their rivals and the general public.
The reason that this maturity does not come is because there is no pressure to mature. Since the elite is dependent on outside power for resources and political legitimacy, the political logic is entirely different. Social justice and improving governance are not the priorities because the domestic elite’s main audience is not its people but the governments outside.
Thus the internal-external link becomes a driver of poverty, corruption and underdevelopment. The recipe, then, for bringing improvement to African nations, Afghanistan or other countries is this: western governments must de-link themselves from the elites and governments of those countries. Let them find their path to survival. Unless the elites become answerable and responsible to a domestic audience, there can be no sustainable development.
Developed countries cannot ignore this formula just because they have shut their own doors pretty tight through strict visa regimes. This underdeveloped world is bound to haunt them one day.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.
Source: Dawn, 25/7/2008