Jon Stovell’s Notebook


“Aid” for “developing” nations and Western ideological imposition

In reply to this post by Michael Raburn regarding international aid to Africa:

Very interesting. One of the points the author makes, regarding the debilitating effects of governmental corruption, gets close to what appears to be the heart of all this problem, but doesn’t quite state it. It is this: most everything that is “wrong” in the “developing world” is the result of the imposition of culturally alien standards and structures onto these people and their societies. At the most abstract level, the very notion that they are “developing” is a (patronizing) imposition of Western values onto other cultures; their societies and economies don’t work like our industrialized and urbanized ones do, so they are “behind” us on The One, True, Universal Scale of Human Development. But what if we were to think of these cultures and their corresponding socioeconomic structures as simply “different” rather than “developing”? What if living in a hut with a tatched roof, or being a nomadic herder were recognized as the perfectly valid ways of living that they really are? It is only when we show up and over centuries of forcible domination tell them again and again that their own ways of life are deficient and they should aspire to emulate our civilization (as opposed to pursuing the organic, ongoing development of their own) that they then come to think of themselves that way. But once the notion that the Western way is the better way has taken root in other cultures, the problems become entrenched. 

Several concrete examples of how this works out come to mind:

1) Famines in the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Famines are not natural phenomena, but rather culturally created ones. *Droughts* are natural phenomena, but when a society of nomadic herders faces a drought in one area, they just take their flocks and herds to another area. For a famine to occur, people have to be tied down to a particular plot of land and unable to cross borders into non-drought-stricken areas when a drought comes. The imposition of the idea of land ownership, territorial borders, and other such concepts derived from agricultural societies, is what has caused famines in these traditionally nomadic civilizations.

2) Urban slums. These happen because people think they can find a “better life” in the city. Why? Because the definition of “better” is derived from Western ideals. But Western urbanization took shape naturally over time as a result of the ongoing cultural changes in our societies. We developed the cultural, social, economic, and physical structures necessary for this way of life in an ongoing “feedback loop” between those four different levels, such that the cultural values, social and economic systems, and physical infrastructure all worked (more or less) together. In “developing” countries, on the other hand, the physical and economic structures of Western civilization are being grafted onto cultural and social structures that are fundamantally different. The mismatch means that the system doesn’t work as expected; there aren’t jobs available for all these people because the demand for their labour isn’t there because the demand for the kind of economic goods and services that Western-style urban economies are suited to create isn’t sufficient.

3) Political corruption. The imposition of democracy, which arose out of centuries of cultural development in Western civilization, onto other cultures has usually resulted in rampant corruption for a fairly simple reason: the power structures of democracy don’t fit with the indigenous social structures and cultural values of these societies. When your culture has always been a tribal one, for example, where gaining leadership was a matter of seniority and demonstrated wisdom and relations with others outside the tribe was conducted in terms of clearly demarcated lines between “us” and “them” as the primary social reality (i.e. you are a member of your tribe, not an individual, and you act in solidarity with your tribe and for the collective benefit of your tribe), democracy and its attendant power structures don’t fit. Voting for someone who is not part of one’s own tribe is *betrayal*, not thoughtful political engagement. It is culturally expected that a person with power or wealth will use that to the advantage of his or her tribesmen; to not do so is morally dubious. But when a democratic system is put in place that grants the election winners power and access to the wealth of an entire country, the combination of these cultural values and norms with such power structures virtually inevitably results in state-wide power and wealth imbalances, selective enforcement of policies, and exploitation of those who are not part of one’s own tribe in favour of those who are.

If we really want to help, we should mostly focus on helping people set aside our foreign systems and ideas that we have previously imposed on them, and encourage them to develop new systems of their own, based on their own cultural values, history, and social and environmental contexts. “Aid” won’t be the issue any more; engagement with a respected and self-sufficient Other will be.