Global aid: a double edged weapon

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jun 18 2005, 05:30am hrs
Two years ago, Indias withdrawal from bilateral aid had incensed the global aid community and even some governments of Europe who were shunted out of the official donor stream. And six months ago, Indias polite rejection of official aid for post-tsunami relief was again met with outrage by many on the outside, never mind that Indias own domestic resources and efforts were mobilised effectively, a fact now widely appreciated. On both occasions there was genuine puzzlement, set amidst otherwise contrived over-reaction, on how a poor country could act so stupid and, in their eyes, also a bit ungrateful.

The global aid movement has become a powerful social, economic and political force, with large non-governmental organisations in many countries often competing with governments for international credibility and access to funds. There is not a single large international organisation, like the World Bank or the United Nations, or even a single large economic and infrastructure project that does not at least make a public relations obeisance to civic society. In fact, one of the most important international trends of the last generation has been the spectacular rise in funds, power and reach of non-governmental organisations.

The global aid and NGO community has done immense good, and the world is indeed far better with them than without. The ban on anti-personnel landmines, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the whole spectrum of green movements and the attendant spotlight on environmental degradation, the dogged promotion of human rights even in the most inhospitable of regions, all these are juts some of their contributions to our lives. But, the flip side is that, at least unwittingly, global aid often promotes a culture of dependency, confrontationist and extreme rhetoric, not to mention finely disguised political interference by foreign countries.

There are many wonderfully insightful essays and books out there and not all written by rightwing loonies on the global NGO movement and how it can easily mutate into a self-perpetuating machine that combines a posture of morality, huge sums of money and little accountability. One such book is Civil Society Romanticism: A Skeptical View by Bjxrn Mxller, director at the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute and a well-known NGO leader himself.

But what about those in the global aid community who are actually sincere and honest - how close is ground reality to their messianic zeal and sense of mission I got a brief insight some years ago while on a visit to Sweden when, among others, I also met senior people at Sida (Swedish International Development Agency). Sida was created in the 1960s to export the ideals of the Swedish welfare state and to serve as a subtle instrument of foreign policy.

After meeting various academics, journalists, economists and internationalists of all hues, I realised that Sida is the mother of all employment agencies for Swedish intellectuals, the public-sector equivalent of the Wallenberg Empire. Almost everyone has either worked there, interned there or has received some funding from it. Structural adjustment, water harvesting, ecotourism, media freedom, adult education, community participation, gender inequality, rural development; you name it, they have it. It is an NGOs delight, a pure smorgasbord of do-good intentions with munificent purse strings. In many countries, they dont know Sweden but they know Sida.Swedish ambassadors posted abroad might strut around at official functions, but the low profile Sida country-head has the real bucks. It might even be that Sida is a huge publishing empire in its own right; it relies so heavily on printed reports and information dissemination. Except, survey after survey, many conducted by Sida itself, reveal that nobody really reads these reports.

However, there was no doubting their genuine empathy and wanting to make a change abroad. In fact, their sincerity is often so overplayed that on some issues, such as media freedom and transparency, the harshest critique of Sida can be found in its own self-assessment reports.

The real problem with global aid is not what it has set out to do, which is laudable on the whole even if debatable in specifics, but what it has unintentionally done. Which, at least in the case of India, is pampering a veritable army of careerist NGOs who blow up negative statistics to get funds and then write fancy reports and arrange finely-scripted visits to some village project. A classic situation where good intentions by sincere donors has created a whole class of insincere middlemen, etc.

Many NGOs in India, and indeed around the world, think they can do no wrong and that their word ought to be final. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard or maybe past experience, but there is a certain unspoken distrust towards authority and a sense of only-we-make-this-world-better. Both are traits often found amongst us Indians, and it makes you wonder whether global do-gooders and Indians were not meant to be.

The writer is editor, India Focus