Cynicism about development aid

13 March 2013

Cynicism about development aid

Jan Marijnissen

I must have been about seventeen when I co-organised the Peace Week Teach-Ins, as they were called back then. On one of those evenings a speaker spoke about the exploitation of the Third World by multi-national corporations. It must have been a persuasive discourse, because just that same night I painted on the pavement outside Organon (which at the time was still owned by the multinational Akzo) Akzo exploits the Third World. When, next morning, curious about the results and the reactions, I went to take a look, I saw that council workers had already been busy and all the paving stones which I’d painted with such gusto had been turned around. So much for action.

Many people in the 1960s and 1970s felt heavily involved in the so-called Third World. The first moving pictures of hungry and starving children caused a shock. I myself still have a black and white image of the war in Biafra imprinted sharply on my retina. I see two emaciated girls of seven and two years old. The first is trying with all her strength to help the little girl to take a few steps forward. It went on and on but….

The widely-felt involvement amongst people in such horrors in the Third world led in time to spontaneous actions and also to development aid organised by the state. It seems that support amongst the general population for this aid has declined ever further during recent decades. What you actually hear almost exclusively is such aid being spoken of in cynical terms. “It makes no sense, it doesn’t solve anything. Who gains from it? How many are getting their cut?”

What has happened to give development aid such a bad image? Is it just because altruism has been replaced by egoism? Or is the aid industry also somewhat to blame? I think that both are true. From the 1980s the dominant image of humanity’s relationship with society has seen ‘we help each other’ change to ‘every man for himself’, ‘every woman for herself’, on the international level too. And yes, the aid industry and the government shouldn’t have frittered money away in such a fashion. People do indeed see few concrete results.

The internationally agreed norm of 0.7% of GDP for development aid has been met by hardly any countries. Our own country did do so, but has now joined the long list of those who don’t keep to the agreement.

People always help people. When we see pictures of what a tsunami can do to a country and to the people who live there, we reach straight for our wallets. We do that also for local actions, for example when a teacher from our daughter’s school left to go to Africa to set up a school there.

Even if I no longer paint on pavements, I’m still convinced that we must help each other on a global scale, with aid and trade. But we have to do it in an effective and publicly accountable manner.

This column first appeared on 13th March 2013 in the Ditch national newspaper NRC.

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