Sunday, January 25, 2009

Development

Prompted by a reader, I’m going to give my thoughts on foreign aid and development.

I took an International Politics class in college that I enjoyed very much. One article in particular that made an impression on me (don’t remember the author) suggested that there was no correlation between foreign aid and development. The money that rich countries give to poor countries has no effect on their development. It’s a pretty depressing claim.

The article had two big flaws, in my opinion. First was that it measured development based upon a country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which, for reasons that I will discuss in greater detail below, is not an accurate way of measuring a country’s growth. Second, the article failed to take into account the fact that some aid was given during natural disasters and thus will not lead to economic growth. Countries that receive aid in times of turbulence will probably see their GDPs decrease because of the disaster (not because of the foreign aid). Failing to account for this could have thrown off a possibly real correlation between aid and development.

Nonetheless, the author and others like him ask an important question: why is it that countries that receive so much aid (particularly African ones) are still so poor and only a little better off than before? The argument is that foreign aid resources are poorly distributed. Although I believe aid has become less of a political tool now than it was during the Cold War, aid is still often given to corrupt governments. Rather than benefiting the people of the country, the aid is concentrated amongst the powerful.

In fact, by supporting these governments, foreign aid has the perverse effect of allowing them to further establish their dominance. Dictatorships can spend more money on police and security. Moreover, since the government’s treasury is filled by foreigners, it meant that it is less accountable to its people. For those familiar with the idea of “resource curse,” it’s basically the same idea: when a government does not have to depend on its citizenry for taxes (because it has oil or gold or foreign aid), the government can be more autocratic. (Quick side note: I just finished Thomas Friedman’s “Hot Flat and Crowded” and the idea of resource curse is given nearly a whole chapter in the book. I recommend that anyone interested in the climate change discussion read this book.)

Another common problem with aid (domestic or foreign) is that it is often wasted in unnecessary projects. In my town, which is the seat of commune (our town and 7 surrounding towns), a new community center was recently built. The commune was given money by a Moroccan foundation to build it. They finished working on it in July, but it has yet to be opened. It sits locked and unused. The project cost some 3 million DHs ($375,000), which is a lot of money in these parts. I am currently trying to fund a 300,000+DH project that would bring free, clean running water to 800 people. With the money from the (unused) community center project, I could fund some 9 similar running water projects. You tell me what’s a better use of resources. I don’t think this sort of waste is uncommon. The problem is that there is no dialogue between the organizations giving resources and the community in order to establish need.

Given how poorly aid is distributed, I find this argument that aid is often ineffective fairly compelling (and depressing). Despite this, I joined the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps is not listed as a development agency. We have such a meager pool of grants and financial resources at our disposal that we are not on the same level as an agency such as USAID. The Peace Corps has three goals: 1) to improve Americans’ understanding of the rest of the world, 2) to improve the rest of the world’s understanding of America, and 3) development. So, to ourselves, we are both a development organization and a friendship one. I think the “friendship” goal is important, but in my opinion, that is not a job (of course many Peace Corps volunteers do not treat their service as though they are employed).

The question posed to me was: what do you think of the idea that foreign aid is a waste now that you are working in development?

Well, I think that development is possible and that outside forces can be helpful in that process. I don’t really have any experience in foreign aid distribution since Peace Corps has no money. But we do have resources that we can distribute, if we do our jobs well.

Our resources are primarily knowledge/information based. We are educators. I am a health educator. If I do my job well, I will improve the lives of the people in my community by talking to them about ways to live healthier. Mostly these are small improvements, like dental hygiene or teaching about vectors of disease transmission. Once in a while they can be a little bigger, like improved birthing practices or getting people to treat the water that they drink (which drastically cuts down on diarrhea, and thus infant mortality). I’m also (unsuccessfully so far) trying to get people to think about their environment and how their actions are hurting it. Specifically, the fact that if they keep cutting wood down at the rate that they are, they will not have any wood to cut down in 10 or 20 years.

None of these changes will impact the GDP of Morocco in a significant way. I suppose reduced infant mortality could bump GDP up a little bit, but GDP growth is not the goal of this sort of development work. And that’s my gripe with using GDP as a measure of growth/development. If I and every other PC health volunteer in Morocco were wildly successful (which we aren’t) we could significantly improve hundreds of thousands of lives without affecting GDP. By measuring growth through GDP, I think that development agencies can lose focus on the most cost effective ways to improve quality of life.

Now, can I (and others like me) be successful?

It’s difficult, but I believe that Peace Corps’ approach to development is the right one. I think that working with people on a local level is the right way to do development. Peace Corps is very concerned with sustainability; they make empowering local organizations one of their greatest priorities. The idea is that once the Peace Corps volunteer has finished his/her work in a community, development will continue because communities and people will have the tools to help themselves.

The difficulty is that changing behavior is very hard to do. Anywhere in the world, people have a way of doing things and a belief system that justifies those habits. Here in my community, one frustration I have is convincing people that the water they drank or a microbe they ingested has made them sick with diarrhea and not the cold or the sun. Every single person I have met, educated or not, believes that the sun and the cold are the main vectors of disease transmission. And for every time that I tell someone that a microbe made them sick, five other people will tell them that it was the sun. This difficulty is complicated by the fact that I speak the language poorly (making a convincing argument difficult) and that I have no credibility or authority. I’m a 23 year-old kid who doesn’t know how to do anything. I can’t plow a field, I can’t go to the mountain and get my own wood, I never dress warmly enough, and I’m not married. People here worry about me surviving because they think I am incompetent. Being an American gives me some credibility, but not enough. Which is why I’ve always tried to work with local people who give me credibility.

Generally, my impression of Peace Corps volunteers is that they are mildly successful in their development work. There are some volunteers who Peace Corps calls “super” volunteers. They learn the language, they integrate into their communities, and they have small-scale projects that do make an impact. But the fact that a volunteer who does his/her job is described as “super” shows how low the bar is set. There is a culture of failure and disappointment in Peace Corps. Many people come in with good intentions and energy for the work they want to do, but struggle. Volunteers are often discouraged by how their work is going. Either their language isn’t good enough, they have difficulty motivating local organizations, or the community itself may not be receptive to change. In my opinion, these difficulties arise because of 1) poor training on the behalf of Peace Corps, 2) the volunteer themselves, and 3) the real difficulty that doing grassroots development presents. It is not easy.

As I alluded to above, having money for projects would greatly improve my effectiveness as an aid worker. Why doesn’t a big aid organization (like USAID) pair up with Peace Corps volunteers in order to better distribute resources? It seems to be a good match as they have the money and we have the time to do the proper research. I have a couple ideas on why this doesn’t happen. First, if PC volunteers were given actual responsibility, then PC would have to recruit better-qualified individuals and pay more. It would change what it means to be a PC volunteer. Second, giving money volunteers money to work with would probably distract from their attention to education. If I had tons of money at my disposal for infrastructure or other big projects, I might be less inclined to deal with the frustrations of small steps achieved through education.

So, in conclusion… working for Peace Corps has confirmed a lot of what I learned in my International Relations class: development through foreign intervention is difficult to achieve. Resources are wasted. Aid is not distributed through the community but eaten away by corruption. And doing grassroots development (like in the Peace Corps) is a long, slow process. But I think that change is possible through dedication, patience, and hard work.

Update

It’s still cold here. My host mom has gone to see her family for a couple weeks, so my host dad is now all alone in his house. I’ve been going over there more often to keep him company. In a typical day, he comes over to my house for a lunch that I’ve cooked (I always cook him the same thing: a tajine, because it’s the only thing that I can cook that he will eat) and I go over to his house for a small dinner meal and help him with some household chores. Given that the health center has been closed recently (nurses appear to be allergic to cold) and that the school is on vacation, I’m happy to have a little something to do everyday.

A Moroccan told me: the conflict in Gaza will have a significant, long-term impact on the attitudes of Muslims in normally moderate countries. It will lower their trust in the United States. It is a blow to democracy. A couple others (seemingly the minority opinion) have told me that Morocco and other Arab countries are also to blame for their inaction. Mostly what I say to people is that it was a catastrophe and that I am ashamed of my government.

On the positive side of things, Obama. He gave a speech at the State Department a few days ago in which he said he would work on withdrawing from Iraq, close Guantanomo, and stop torture. First of all, it was awesome. Second, people here love him for it. Especially for closing Guantanomo. If it weren’t already obvious, he will improve the world’s impression of America.

My work is currently in a lull. It’s cold and people don’t want to do much. Like I said, I’m happy to be helping my host dad out while his wife is away. The water project has made a huge jump forward, however. The commune said they would put forward 260,000 Dhs (of 312,200 Dhs). I can get a little bit of money from Peace Corps. I’ve found a couple organizations that might give a little. And now I’m trying to fill in the rest. So if anyone wants to give a couple thousand dollars (or knows where I might apply for it) let me know.

2 comments:

maryellen said...

hey dunc, this fran and mom. we enjoyed this recent post. fran is immersed in s african apartheid political text / history. all this is COMPLICATED. i guess we work as effectively as we can and hope to move / motivate others.

fran departs tues; she will have talked to you before then. we miss you! love, your fam

Morocco For Investors said...

Dude that's cool your blog, but i think you show the image of a poor African/Morocco i think you visited our big cities and you know that morocco is more complex and deversified than you wrote, like Brazil, you can find rich and poor sides and contrasts among the population.