Anna White, Pambazuka
Last year, former World Bank economist Dambisa Moyo made waves with
the publication of her controversial book, ‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not
Working and How There is Another Way for Africa’. Over the past 60
years, she laments, at least US$1 trillion of development-related aid
has flowed into Africa, yet the number of people living on less than a
dollar a day has nearly doubled. She is not the first observer to
contrast the size of the multi-billion dollar development industry and
the blatant lack of progress on its stated goals.
Over the past few decades, a number of development insiders – William
Easterley, Robert Calderisi and the like – have condemned the impotence
of the aid industry and offered their critique of its failings.
With the publication of her edited anthology, ‘Missionaries,
Mercenaries and Misfits’, Kenyan newspaper columnist Rasna Warah adds
her voice to this disillusioned set. It was whilst working as a UN
bureaucrat herself that Warah first began to question not only the
effectiveness of development assistance, but its entire philosophical
basis. ‘Like most professionals in the development industry,’ she
writes in her lucid introduction, ‘I had failed to see that my work and
the structures within which I operated were self-serving.’
Echoing the arguments of post-development provocateurs such as Susan
George and Arturo Escobar, her conclusion is that ‘development’, in the
form of donor-inspired policies that perpetuate the exploitative
economic relations of the colonial era, is largely to blame for
perpetuating poverty in Africa. What distinguishes this radical
perspective from that of others frustrated with current aid practice is
the belief that development cannot be ‘fixed’ – that change must
instead be conceived in completely different terms.
While it is scepticism of the development paradigm that links this
assortment of essays together, the book itself offers no sweeping
theoretical justification for its position. Rather, it gives the reader a
series of diverse, often quite personal glimpses into the
contradictions and failings of the development industry in Africa. The
contributors, who range from journalists and activists to leftist
scholars, are for the most part either based in East Africa or have
worked in Africa as developmentalists, providing a much needed local
critique of a process driven largely by outsiders.
In a fascinating account of the Maasai’s struggle for land rights,
Kenyan writer Parselelo Kantai reveals modern ‘development’ taking the
form of a US$100 million loan from the World Bank’s private sector
lending arm granted to a foreign-owned company exploiting soda ash on
traditional Maasai land. When the Maasai demonstrated against the
renewal of the illegal leases upon which the loan agreement was based,
the Kenyan government violently suppressed the movement. Kenyan
independence, he argues, merely led to a ‘change of guard’, with
nationalist elites protecting a profitable post-colonial arrangement
rather than addressing the legitimate grievances of one of the country’s
poorest ethnic groups.
While Kantai’s account focuses on the complicity of African
governments and the World Bank in replicating colonial power
structures, Fahamu director Firoze
Manji draws attention to how development NGOs have, wittingly or
unwittingly, played an integral role in reproducing the unequal social
relations of post-colonial Africa. The very existence of the
‘development experts’, he argues, is justified by a discourse framed
not in the language of rights and social justice but in a ‘vocabulary
of charity, technical expertise, neutrality, and a deep paternalism
which was at its syntax.’
This inherent inequality between ‘developers’ and ‘developees’ is at
the heart of many of the narratives to be found in this anthology.
Whether a UN bureaucrat on an inflated salary or an NGO volunteer
‘doing their bit’ to help Africa, the very existence of this advantaged
development set depends on and is justified by the gross inequality
that exists between local and foreign elites and the majority poor. By
treating poverty as a ‘problem’ to be solved by technical expertise and
outside assistance, the donor-driven development process ignores, and
even contributes to, the very issues that are at the heart of Africa’s
‘underdevelopment’: the erosion of African peoples’ sovereignty by aid
dependency; the perpetuation of post-colonial economic and social
relations by corrupt elites; and the negative impact of the
donor-prescribed neoliberal policies on African economies.
It is not only the big development players whose failings are
scrutinised. Social justice activist Onyango Oloo targets the
anti-globalisation antics of the ‘activist elites’ at the World Social
Forum. Often seen as the antithesis of donor-driven and top-down
development, he claims this ‘annual jamboree of navel-gazing,
self-referencing civil society global trotters’ merely hijacks the
ideals, struggles and aspirations of real social movements. In a call
echoed by many of the book’s contributors, he challenges self-proclaimed
champions of the poor and marginalised to get down from their high
horses and do some serious introspecting on their activities. Author and
scholar Issa G. Shivji extends this rebuke with his admonition of what
he calls the ‘silences in NGO discourse’.
If African NGOs are to become true catalysts of change, he maintains
they must not only re-examine their relationships with donors, but the
entire philosophical and political premises that underpin their
Presumably, the main target audience of the book are the very
protagonists whose professional raison d’être is being questioned. For
anyone actively interested in the plight of Africa’s poor, it has the
potential to provoke some serious soul-searching on the value of
‘development’ – not only as an industry, but also as a paradigm for
understanding the relationship between the rich and the poor.
While this thought-provoking and often entertaining look at the
failure of Africa’s development machine tears apart the romantic
illusions upon which the aid industry is based, it does not seek to
offer any grand alternatives. There are a few scattered, and in some
ways contradictory proposals for the way forward, but these act only to
further illustrate the diversity of perspectives that challenge the
status quo. Warah’s anthology is not an introduction to a world beyond
development, but rather a challenge to begin imagining one.
* Rasna Warah’s ‘Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits: An Anthology’ (ISBN: 9781434386038) is published by AuthorHouse.
* This review was originally published by Share The World’s Resources.
* Anna White is the editorial assistant at Share The World’s Resources. She can be contacted at anna [at] stwr [dot] org.