History Repeating?

“It all goes in cycles you know, when I first arrived twenty years ago, water was big – every proposal had a sanitation component to it, then is was agriculture, recently it has been HIV and AIDS but I have the feeling that we might be getting round to water again soon.”

This casual observation by an experienced donor during one of my first meetings in Zambia was sufficiently shocking to stay with me throughout my stay. He went on to clarify that none of these particular issues had been resolved, simply that they each had been the focus of donor attention for a period of time before frustration or fatigue got the better of everyone involved and the caravan moved on to half-solve the next problem. Over time I began to realise just how telling his perspective had been.

Whilst preparing for a new development project, my friend Janno managed to access the department on development in Zambia national library’s. The experience broke his heart twice. The first was when he entered the room and discovered that the most recent book on the shelves had been published in 1980. The second was when he opened this dusty old tome to discover that the remedies they were proscribing then were exactly the same as the ‘cutting edge theories’ he had just been accessing from the internet a full 30 years later.

Both of these memories flashed in my mind as I read this recent excellent article by Dr Guy Scott in the Zambian Post newspaper last week. Now an opposition MP, Dr Scott is also a farmer and was at one time Minister for Agriculture. One can only imagine the sinking feeling of ‘deja vu’ that such experienced Zambians must endure when they are introduced to yet another intelligent and well meaning donor or NGO worker clutching the latest brilliant blueprint or cunning plan to end poverty, hunger, sanitation or whatever it happens to be this year.

Despite his weariness Dr Scott raises a number of interesting points for me. The first is the negative impact aid has on the development and maturation of markets. The savvy farmer he describes should be comfortably well off by now and employing countless other Zambians to do his hard work but due to the distorting effects of multiple handouts across the sector there is no real market for him to flourish within and to buy out less effecient or lazier producers. Instead he must confine himself to simply playing the game and taking what comes to him and everyone else, regardless of skill or comparative advantage.

Secondly, the development projects that seem to work best have some greater social glue holding things together (the Balinese monks or the Zambian Jehovah Witnesses). What is it that these projects benefit from? A greater level of social cohesion? A lower propensity for corruption? Or is it simply that religous folks tend to be in it for the long haul?

Which leads us rather awkwardly to that avowedly aetheistic group – the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China. You won’t find too many development folks glorifying their name but the fact remains that this organ has lifted over 1,000,000,000 individuals out of poverty in 30 years with close to no aid. Sure they have some questionable ideas about human rights, and their track record on environmental protection is pretty shocking (but then where we on either of those measures during our own industrial revolutions?) Don’t their efforts merit Alfred Nobel’s medal for peace more than Mr Obama’s have done to date?

So what is it that led the Chinese to succeed where so many African states have failed? Certainly there contexts are not identical but perhaps there are some lessons still. The Chinese brought their own quasi-religious zeal to the proceedings, they certainly harnessed the power of private enterprise (albeit with Chinese characteristics) and finally (perhaps most tellingly) they stuck at it in a consistent manner for a very long time. The first reforms began in 1980 and didn’t really bear fruit until well into the 1990’s.

So does all this mean we should stop with aid altogether or just take a longer time horizon? It is very hard to know. The former would certainly be very painful, at least in the short term, particularly given the culture of dependancy that has been generated in the last decades. As for the latter I will leave the last words to the same sage who opened this piece,”If only,” he lamented, “we were frank enough to acknowledge to ourselves that, like it or not, we are here for the long term, then perhaps we could begin to make some honest long term plans”

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