Western Aid at the Crossroads

“Yes, that’s like it is!” has always been the answer when putting forward to an aid practitioner the principle of permanent acceleration: When a certain type of project or program has become mainstream, right before results are visible, the aid community moves on to the next, much more ambitious and difficult task.

The new book on Western aid

But you will hardly find comments on Western aid at the crossroads – the end of paternalism, the book which breaks down this principle when analyzing the history of aid. The Norwegian authors Oyvind Eggen and Kjell Roland have both been practitioner at the frontlines of development aid for the last 30 or more years.

In the 1950s and 1960s development aid started with the idea that capital and technology transfers create growth and lead to poverty reduction. The single-purpose project was the “tool”. In the 1970s and 1980s the aid community began to realize that a reform of policies, governance and social organizations is needed to ensure that aid benefits the poor. “Integrated rural development“ and “wider sector approaches” became the norm. Until in the 1990s/2000s, when large-scale transformations of states, policies and societies became the objectives of “policy dialogues”, institutional reforms, and civil society developments. – Eggen and Roland describe in much detail and with many examples how aid has become ever more ambitious and more complex.

The new normal

While Western donors were still reaching out for “large-scale social, institutional and political engineering” in order to transform recipient countries and societies according to Western blueprints and models, all of a sudden the outside world has changed.

China, India, Brazil and other emerging countries entered Africa, until then a sole Western domain. They behaved and worked differently and they were successful. The West still calls them “new donors” although they base their relations with African countries on mutual interests rather than one-sided relationships of donors and recipients. They overthrew the Western dichotomy of aid and business.

The Beijing consensus has become “the new normal” in Africa: „We are not here to help but to make business in the interest of both parties“.

The knowledge gap

So, why hasn’t the book got more attention in the Western development scene by now? Why hasn’t a broad discussion on the fundamentals of the Western aid system started? The authors provide part of the answer in Chapter 4 of their book: Because of ever increasing ambitions, the aid system had to create a new field of knowledge with an own supply chain of academic research and consultancy and professional experiences stemming almost exclusively from within the aid system. A huge isolated knowledge industry has been the result, detached from other sectors and resilient against experience.

A specific logic of aid has been generated and ever more refined with one fundamental irrevocable assumption: Any problem in a recipient country can be resolved with aid. If, in any case, aid doesn’t work, it is because it hasn’t been well designed or implemented. Hence, more new knowledge and aid interventions have to be produced.

So, why should the players of the aid system bother with fundamental critique, their inherent logic tells them to go on and further accelerate the pace of aid.



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