Saturday, November 28, 2009

USAID and the Gumdrop Forest

Evidently this is one of those situations where punctuality does more harm than good, since I spent a good chunk of time on reading/blogging material that we don't actually need for class. On the bright side, I liked the second assignment a lot more than the original, but I'm still kicking myself. *sigh*

I took some issue with Dutta's assessment of E-E programs, although I did agree with the bulk of his argument, which I'll summarize as follows: (1) E-E programs tend to reflect the values of the designers (usually from wealthier, more politically dominant nations than the E-E recipients). (2) Participatory E-E programs reflect some bottom-up input regarding solutions, but (3) to be truly participatory and beneficial, they ought to include bottom-up input on identifying problems as well as solutions. This all makes sense.

My contention was with his characterizing USAID as a tool for Big Commercial Monoliths. I have no doubt that it's possible to find evidence of people extolling USAID's value for commercial development. I'm sure it's even more likely when the extollers are addressing people with commercial interests. But I've known quite a few people who have worked for USAID and I can promise you none of them spend their weekends stroking their villainous goatees and dreaming up new schemes to benefit U.S. corporations at the expense of underprivileged foreigners. Most of them have a genuine commitment to development for the sake of the people it benefits, and it's naive to pretend that development efforts--whatever their intentions--have black or white outcomes. They don't. Progress has benefits and disadvantages, and those benefits and disadvantages are often unequal. It's unfortunate, but that's how it works.

So what if USAID does open up the Third World for foreign investment? Foreign investment is not an evil unto itself. And altruistic motives are no guarantee of perfect development solutions. I'm all for bottom-up participation in the development process. But let's not idealize it. Development is a messy business. Some people are going to get hurt. Some people are going to mess up. But ultimately, it's the path progress takes and it has many benefits. By all means, include the "subaltern" community in the process, but don't expect bottom-up development to lead straight to the Gumdrop Forest and don't assume that top-down processes will necessarily lead to the perpetuation of core-periphery dynamics.


  1. Hi there! Thanks for the comment and link to your post-- your points are well taken.

    I would only add that the larger problem to which Dutta dramatically points (with a flourish!) remains not with the well-meaning employees of USAID, but with the language of its overall mission, which is admittedly a bit steeped in post-cold war thinking, and will always have the problem of being tied to the aims of whatever administration is in power in addition to the more general aims of 'development', if that makes sense. As was shown with Bush's efforts towards AIDS relief, USAID can also be hampered by the American people, or rather, social advocacy groups who oppose condom distribution, or funding for any foreign health provider that performs abortions (this includes Doctors without Borders (MSF), which is sometimes one of the only health providers in an area for miles and miles).

    As you say, the issue is much messier than USAID people sitting around and plotting evil...

  2. Laura-I can't help but agree with you again, I do believe that Dutta was way too harsh on USAID and that as you mention development is not quite as simple as it may appear to be. Similarly, I do think Dutta was accurate in assessing that it is necessary to include the subaltern population in the development process, but as you mention it is naive to assume that this approach will always lead to success. I think I would've appreciated his piece much more if his article wasn't written in what I felt to be a bit of a closed minded manner...

  3. You have a point, just because the subaltern population gets a voice does not mean it will lead to a utopian world. And development as everything else in life has its advantages and disadvantages, so we cannot concentrate solely on the negative side of things. Some development efforts have to have had some sort of positive results, if not they would not continue to be carried out.