Good development work is not enough

In a book titled The Myth of Aid Denis Goulet noted that “primary emphasis in discussions is given to aid, which is but a single facet of a much larger issue, development.” The Myth of Aid was published in 1971. Forty years on, Goulet’s complaint still rings true. NGOs claim to be concerned about development, but in fact, we concern ourselves mainly with the issue of aid. Questions about how to better apportion Western development assistance, and how to improve NGOs’ on-the-ground development work are the basis of both discussions and action. The fact that the last half-century has not seen this approach lead to development in South is not often dwelled upon.

Back in the days of slavery in the southern US the abolitionists would help small groups or individual slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. Though this alleviated the suffering of a small number of slaves, which was a great thing, the abolitionists understood that this is not how the institution of slavery would be brought to an end. They understood that ending slavery would require them to wage a political struggle. Thus, they engaged the public in order to bring popular opinion onto their side and make ending slavery politically viable. They distributed pamphlets, orated, wrote literature to raise the public consciousness and push for reform. Some even went as far as taking up arms and ensured that the issue could not to be ignored in the media and political circles.

Today, the approach taken by development NGOs in waging a political struggle over issues relating to poverty could perhaps be likened to the abolitionists demanding only that slaves be treated better and their living conditions improved, and not that slavery be abolished. A more complete analogue would have the slave owners partly fund the abolitionists’ activities, and have them come to their plantations as contractors to help improve the living conditions of a very small number of slaves.

Development assistance given by rich countries is not meant to alleviate poverty. Its purpose is to win economic advantage by securing influence over poor countries, and gaining diplomatic and military support. It also serves as great PR; it creates a smokescreen that obscures the West’s true intents and seeks to veil past and ongoing crimes committed against the South.

By jumping onboard the aid bandwagon NGOs end up serving the interests of empire. They help whitewash the criminal behavior of the West and ultimately do little to forward development. In fact, by ignoring the structures that keep poverty in place and insisting that more/better aid and development work will lead to the eradication of poverty, NGOs help further entrench the odious structures and harm the cause of development.

“Good intentions are not enough” is a much-repeated line in development circles. I would like to suggest that the following line also become a centerpiece in discussions: “Good development work is not enough.” Good development work is analogous to, at best, helping a small number of slaves run away along the Underground Railroad. Though, it can more closely be compared with helping better the living conditions of some slaves on plantations. Good development work will not, on its own, lead to the eradication of poverty, just as relying on only the Underground Railroad or helping improve their living conditions would not have led to the abolition of slavery in the US. Destroying the structures that allow the South to be economically exploited will lead to development.

This is not to suggest that development work should not be done. Helping to improve the lives of a few people or communities is a wonderful thing. At the very least, however, development work should be done in a way that ensures it does not further the interests of empire. Though, to be earnest in full it should be coupled with an active campaign against the powerful.

History teaches us that working to make the world a better place is not easy. Doing so can help one make lots of enemies. From Spartacus to Gandhi, those who stood up to fight for change were made into villains, had their activities suppressed , and were tossed into prisons. This should provide us with the insight that if the same sort of thing is not happening to us while we’re working for change, then perhaps we’re doing something wrong. If instead the powerful are showering us with laudations, as tends to happen with development NGOs, then we’re doing something very wrong.

It’s a tough thing to actively challenge power. It is, however, as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, the only way towards progress:

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.


8 responses to “Good development work is not enough

  • Pascal R.


    Keep up the good reading and the incredible links you make. Chomsky is an ant compared to your cockroach insights. I really like how you stay super constructive even though we can feel that strong fire burning in you. Is the guy a Quebecer? Let me know if you pass by Tamale or Nyankpala anytime soon, and bring that other book if you finished it.

    Thanks for reminding us where we stand in this game.

    • Umair

      Denis Goulet, you mean? On Wikipedia it says that he went to school in Paris and that his work was inspired by a bunch of French religious intellectuals, so he was probably from France.

      P.S. Your comment about Chomsky is beyond blasphemy. 🙂

  • Saqib

    I dare say this was an inspiring piece.

  • Stacey Gomez

    Hey Umair,

    I’m glad I stumbled across your blog! Very thoughtful piece that resonates with me. Ever read the book “The Revolution Will Not be Funded”? It offers a critique of the non-profit industrial complex, which I think you might enjoy (It’s on my reading list…).

    Interesting thoughts to contemplate within the context of EWB…


    • Umair

      Glad you liked the post, Stacey. Thanks for suggesting the book. I hadn’t heard of it. It looks great. I’ll definitely be picking it up.

  • Cyril

    Good stuff.
    Recommend the book “Bury the chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves” by Adam Hochschild. Good stuff about the abolition movement in its infancy.
    Keep em comin!

  • majdal

    Reminds me of Slavoj Zizek’s talk about the role of charity in our society and in the capitalist system. A short video that i highly recommend:

  • The Junior Fellow program and its discontents « Jana Ghana Mana

    […] focus on aid and development work, as opposed to a focus on the larger issue of development (see my previous post), make any lessons learned not easily applicable to other fields of activism, or for that matter, […]

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