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Feb 28, 2005 6:27 pm

Development, Colonialism, Statism, and the Like

Over yonder in the blogosphere, James Dunnigan is raising some relevant questions about NGO's and development. As an Africanist, a number of my fellow academics either chose career paths in development (including one close friend who recently ended years of work in Angola and Serbia and made the wise move of taking a posting in Fiji) or frequently worked with NGO's or government agencies as a sideline.

By and large, most of them had to deal with a clash between their early sense of mission and idealism and the often gritty and heavily politicized reality of how development and peacekeeping projects actually work. Many were unable to make the transition, and many others survived -- but at the cost of having their idealism replaced with cynicism. Perhaps the best work I've seen on the political complexities of the system writ large is Ferguson's The Anti-Politics Machine.

The lesson here is that development is far more complex than offering a helping hand to those in need. More significantly, the nature of development work (handling large sums of other people's money for the benefit of yet another group of people) is itself a potentially corrupting influence -- leading at the very least to"institutional creep" and at the worst to rampant graft and corruption. There should be a warning here for folks who think the US mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is somehow going to avoid exactly the sort of mayhem currently rife in NGOs and the United Nations. US administrators and military officials may have a degree of professionalism that render them resistant to such temptations... but they are certainly not immune. And the longer the process goes on, the more that resistance will probably wear down.

Believe it or not, this makes me think about Lindsay's Against the Dead Hand. Lindsay's basic argument is that an"industrial counter-revolution" of socialism, collectivism, and"statism" derailed capitalism and globalization in much of the world. As somebody who has spent rather a lot of time examining colonialism, however, I think that Lindsay far underestimates the impact of colonialism in creating"statism." Lindsay does mention imperialism as anti-globalist, but this is a different point. I think the creation of a large colonial bureaucracy may well have played a role in spreading a"statist" mindset in European governments. Let's face it, it is way easier to run things when you aren't bothered by the presence of citizens, and administrators familiar with the relative ease of telling people what to do in the colonies may well have developed a desire to wield similar influence back home. Mind you, I don't have the specific research to back it up, but call it a hunch that colonial administration styles could easily have"feedback" into home administrations in Europe. For example, much of what we think of as Nazism was fairly pedestrian German colonial policy -- and didn't raise many hackles until it was applied to other Europeans. Anyway, I think there is a dandy dissertation or monograph to be written on the subject.

Thus, the second warning here is that in addition to needing to fear"mission creep" and corruption in the course of the"rebuilding" of Iraq and Afghanistan, US citizens should also keep a very careful eye on leaders (or administrations) who have grown accustomed to the relative freedom of administering non-citizens. Many say that the reason to fight the war on terrorism abroad is to protect civil liberties at home. There is a logic to that argument, but I for one fear that the more entrenched our presence in overseas administration becomes, the more our political system risks being infected a quasi-colonial statism.
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Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005

Reading this I'm struck by the analogy between the international aid community's attempts to help development happen and the "White Man's Burden"/mission civilitrice rhetoric. The first differences, of course, is that the aid agencies don't intend to colonize or have independent bases of power, and that development is their first, not last, priority.

But there's still that overtone I can't quite shake, and your description of the corrupting nature of developmental agency power and resources has this Joseph Conrad tone to it that I can't quite put a finger on.

I think a good comparative study of colonial administrations and development aid would help immensely, both to clarify (and, I hope, put to rest) these echoes.

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