Symposium: a short recap
Symposium: The future of Western Development Aid
A short recap
Organized in cooperation with the Soeterbeeck Programme and NCDO
March 16, 19:30, Aula Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Attendees vote on statements - Photo courtesy of Amy van der Linden / SFV De Cycloop
Nowadays, Western development aid is no longer above criticism. An increasing number of experts from the Netherlands and the South seriously doubt the value of continuing development aid as before. As economic balances in our world are shifting, countries are no longer demarcated between haves and have-nots. Some might argue that emerging economic powers like China, Brazil, and India seem to tackle widespread poverty without any external help. But do other underdeveloped countries still need the help from the West? And is development aid the right way to foster social progress, or is it becoming a concept from the past?
During this symposium, Kon Kelei LLM and Dr Praful Bidwai gave voice to the South by talking about the future of Western development aid from their own perspective. The symposium was moderated by Dr Lau Schulpen, from the Centre for International Development Issues Nijmegen (CIDIN).
Kon Kelei LLM was a child soldier in southern Sudan. He escaped and eventually fled to the Netherlands where he studied law at the Radboud University Nijmegen. After graduation he returned to Sudan where he now teaches at the University of Bor. During his years in the Netherlands he became a well-known ambassador for War Child. He was founder of the Cuey Machar Secondary School Foundation, which aims to improve secondary education in southern Sudan. He played a part in Marco Borsato's movie Wit Licht (White Light) about the plight of child soldiers in Africa.
Dr Praful Bidwai is a prominent Indian journalist, social scientist and human rights activist. He is one of India's most read columnists and writes for The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Il Manifesto. He worked as an editor of The Times of India for several years, eventually becoming its senior editor. He published several books and articles on political economy, sustainable development and international relations. Today, he serves as a scientist for the renowned Transnational Institute, a worldwide network of scholar activists. In 2000, Dr Bidwai received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize.
Slightly later than planned, the symposium officially opened at 19:40. The turnout of the evening exceeded expectations, as some 150 people filled the Academiezaal. Jeroen Huiting (United Netherlands) opened the symposium with a short introductory speech and the outline of the evening program. He then gave the word to Dr Lau Schulpen, who started off with providing a crash course in development aid for the attendees that were not yet acquainted with the subject. Despite the complexity of the matter, Schulpen managed in just about 10 minutes to provide insights in definitions of development aid, the forms and the purposes it serves, and motives behind development aid, where he contrasted ethical motivations versus self-interest.
Secondly, Schulpen raised the question “How much?” He discussed the amounts of development aid, highlighting interesting facts, such as the relatively small share that aid compromises, compared to the total financial flows to recipient countries in the South.
Furthermore, he addressed the growing complexities within the global aid system, partially due to the growing amount of bi- and multilateral donors. He concluded by raising his worries upon the shifting public opinion towards development aid in a more negative direction.
Dr Praful Bidwai
Dr Bidwai started by addressing his view on the current structural inequalities between the global North and South. According to Bidwai, these inequalities were inherited over centuries and have been perpetuated in the post-colonial era through unequal terms of trade, investment regimes biased in favour of the North, and macro-economic policies based on the Washington Consensus, imposed on the South. These North-South inequalities have become more skewed under global trade agreements driven by monopolistic intellectual property rights, among others, calling this the choice for “free trade instead of fair trade.”
Additionally Dr Bidwai continues by bringing forward the “peculiar perversity” which lies at the heart of climate change. The principal responsibility lies with the North, as historically, its emissions account for the largest share, 80% of total global emissions, while the main victims are situated in the South. He sees a crucial need for North-to-South financial aid and technological transfers to combat climate change. However, current development aid needs to be restructured, in a “less top-down and more participatory” manner.
Bidwai concludes by raising concerns over social inequality within India, despite its fast growing GDP, exemplifying this by stating “the country that contains the most poor people in the world, is also one that contains the most billionaires.”
Voice from the North
After a short question round, the floor was given to PhD student Thomas de Hoop, who presented the audience a rather satirical column, as a so-called “Voice from the North.” He questions why everyone does have its opinion ready on development aid, while at the same time, the average Dutchman or American cannot name one Millenium Development Goal.
After a 15 minute break, Kon Kelei kicked off his lecture with a Dutch “Goedenavond.” Kelei shortly goes back into history, using the 1948 Marshall Plan as a – although politicized – very successful example of development aid in post WWII Europe, and compared this with current development aid in Africa. Kelei brought forward several pitfalls of this current aid system, such as the underminig of local experts and know-how, using a tunnel vision in aid implementation and poor cooperation between NGOs. Kelei further addressed that development research, e.g. for the UNDP is mainly done by Western (American and European) universities. Although these may contain strong content academically, often such research is conducted with too little “knowledge from the ground.”
Kelei partially quoted Jeffrey Sachs: “If Western aid transfers money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries, who does enjoy the benefits in the end?” He then ended his lecture with his own recommendations: Development aid needs to be co-managed by donors and the beneficiaries; local expertise needs to be utilized; focus on education at different levels; accept risks to achieve good results; and Western initiatives should stop thinking and planning for the receiving countries – “Let’s do that together.”
The evening rounded off with a discussion round, where Schulpen presented a statement or question, and the audience agreed or disagreed by using their red or green placards. This resulted in an animated discussion, with often contradicting opinions. After raising a question “Why should we continue providing aid” Bidwai answered that it should continue, but in a different way, starting by “carrying the debate to its outer frontiers.” Furthermore, both Kelei and Bidwai agreed that aid ownership is needed to enhance its success. After a subsequent question: “Should donors follow locals in their actions?” Kelei answered by underscoring that knowledge transfer is a necessity. “People build wells and go away, while locals do not know how to repair them. It should not stop there.”
Another statement questioned if problems with aid are due to political leaders in receiving countries. Kelei disagreed, and states that problems are mainly inherent to the dependency that comes with the current aid system. Bidwai followed up with another example, where not political leaders, but a government failed in implementing effective measures. He illustrated this by the Indian government, which developed large residential housing projects for its poorest urban dwellers. Yet, many of these houses are misused, sometimes even as cow sheds. “The responsible architects and planners did not know how these people live their daily lives,” Dr Bidwai asserted.
During the conclusion of the evening, Kelei is not “that pessimistic about the future” and Bidwai sees opportunities when “money is put to a greater effect.” The event concluded at 22:00 with a large applause, where afterwards everyone was invited to reflect on their new insights while enjoying a drink afterwards.
By Wouter Sterk