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The Slow Death of #BigAid

25th February 2013

So there I was down at Bristol University at the weekend for the latest Bristol International Development Conference. An event impressive for the 200 or so people (mainly students, and overwhelmingly female) who turned out on a Saturday to mull over the practice and politics of development assistance under the subtle rubric "The Underlying Motives of International Development".

My role was a puny 30 minutes in which I tried to address that vasty subject, albeit in a way billed by the organisers as 'controversial'. I made various points with which readers here will be familiar, above all that a crushing failure of development 'theory' is the way it marginalises business and private enterprise.

Thus there in Bristol we heard much praise for 'social enterprise', seemingly a category of activity that is different from but somehow far better than squalid profit-seeking 'enterprise' on its own.

What exactly is the difference here? Simple.

It's all about motives. If 'social' enterprise in (say) Africa is favoured whereas private enterprise is not, the issue quickly boils down to our old favourite, Who Decides?

Easy. Those who have the money and hand out labels/categories of 'social' and its associated privileges and access decide, namely the development-industrial complex (or #BigAid as I wittily described it). In cahoots with their favoured partners in the aid recipient governments. And so on.

One speaker made a charmingly hypnotic presentation about ... everything, that turned out to be nothing. It squeezed in Millenium Development Goals with Justice, Climate Change, Governance, Accountability and a swipe at any evil UK energy policy that might include fracking. She intoned the case for a new global consensus around everything she wanted, seemingly unaware that eg in China and Russia and Brazil almost every single person would think she was dotty. As I said to the audience for my presentation, if I had had six weeks to talk to them I could not have covered everything I disagreed with in her analysis.

The speaker showed us a scary slide rather like this one - the champagne glass of global inequality, with a small number of rich people owning a huge 'top-heavy' slice of global wealth. Horror! Not fair!

What is so striking about this sort of cliché is that displaces serious thinking, but in a specific way - it takes a snapshot of a situation without explaining why it has come about.

Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that the reason for this champagne glass distribution is simple. Thanks to modern medicine and indeed 'development' of different shapes and sizes, the number of poor people having children who do not die young has soared. This and the soaring number of children who themselves then have a sizeable family sets in motion a demographic juggernaut that creates completely new realities over over a relatively short space of time (ie a hundred years or so).

The key thing is that as the juggernaut gathers momentum there are no policies available (other than war/plague on a startling scale) to stop a surge in the relative weight of poor people in the world's population. This in turn means that every day the 'rich' by doing nothing at all can be presented as getting get better off, since every day millions of new 'poor' children are being born and diluting the 'poor' share of the pie. In such a situation burbling on about 'eradicating poverty' as the UK coalition government does is almost literally senseless. In a poor country more poor people are born every hour than any conceivable aid programme can cope with.

So, back in real life, if you want to make poor people richer, you need policies to make that happen. That means using the resource base represented by those new people themselves, and encouraging their enterprise. That in turn means mobilising the money and cleverness that is in these societies already. As is happening in China and India and elsewhere where more people have emerged from poverty in the past 20 years than at any point in history! Hurrah! But even with that happening, the absolute number of poor babies still being born each day changes the shape of the graphs to make it look to dim people as if the 'rich' are cheating the 'poor'.

As I pointed out in Bristol, after its dismal decades of communism and then conflict Bosnia's per capits GDP was reduced by the mid-1990s to a pitiful average of some $5 per day. Yet even there, a calamitously poor place, $5 x 3.8 million x 365 = $7 billion was sloshing around in cash. That sum compared favourably with any credible assistance packages. So the development trick is to focus not on our money but on theirs. See also Singapore v Cuba over the past 60 years.

#BigAid of course mainly does not do that. Its motivation is 'control'. It necessarily loves its own processes and people who manage those processes. Development practitioners. Consultancy firms. Compliant local politicians. Acronyms. Elegant conferences in Geneva. Loyal members of 'civil society' and 'social entrepreneurs' who say the right things and never rock the development boat.

As I said in Bristol, this sort of thing leads to a profound corruption. Not because the development money is lost through cheating, although of course that happens too bigtime. But rather because everyone in on this game has an interest in it continuing. Everyone knows that the whole thing is sub-optimal, yet they press on with it. The taxpayers pumping in the development funds are cheated. And the mass of poor people in the recipient countries are cheated, as junk aid displaces private energies and skews incentives.

Luckily for Africa, I said, gazillions of Africans were getting mobile phones and doing brilliantly cool things despite #BigAid and despite their own governments. The paradigm was shifting. The tables were turning!

I concluded by comparing two South African liberation heroes, Steve Biko with Govan Mbeki. Biko believed that the problem 'blacks' had was that they had allowed themselves to be psychologically subdued. To nervous titters I quoted Biko's own joke: In a brains shop, why do black people brains cost far more than white people brains? Because the black people brains have never been used.

Mbeki by contrast came from an explicitly communist background and had no truck with self-help grassroots work - people needed to be liberated only by the ANC/SACP, not by themselves!

The slogan of Biko's Black Consciousness Movement was, I noted, 'Free the land - free the mind'. Africa at long last was enjoying the real freedom delivered by technical free market innovation, and starting to free its mind from dependency on Europe and 'development' ideology. Now the proponents of #BigAid needed to free their minds too. And this would happen. But not quite yet, alas.

Anyway, I had the feeling that only a few people there had the faintest idea what I was talking about. My presentation went far beyond the formalistic comfy categories they normally heard. As one Twitter person opined, I was 'eccentric'. Another vexed older woman sniffed that I had a very 'old-fashioned' view of development: she knew many people in Africa who wanted her teaching expertise, and realised that they could not 'go it alone'. I of course had not said that that they could or should go it alone, but merely pointed to the accelerating possibilities for informal networking that would create myriad new options and hopes, including for her!

Ho hum.

Luckily there was one smart young man there with an African family background who said afterwards that he completely agreed with me. His simple plan was to find out ASAP how airports worked in the UK, then get to Africa and build airports.

He and I are meeting for lunch soon. A luta continua!

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