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Donating for development: How hard can it be?

  • Published at 08:30 pm May 29th, 2014

This. This right here? This, is the tale of the two Escobars. One is Arturo Escobar; a Columbian anthropologist who has either studied or taught at some of the premier institutions of the world from Cornell to UC Berkley. The other is another Columbian by the name of Pablo Escobar. Born in December of 1949, he met his end with a bullet to the head almost 44 years from today, running from the cops on the rooftops of Medellín, his home town. In these 44 years, he built a drug empire estimated by Forbes to have been worth around $25bn in 1990, which to this day makes him the richest criminal in history. In his peak, he controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine trade and was responsible for more than 50,000 drug related deaths in Columbia during the early 1990s.

But what could bring two men of such difference in an article? Well, let’s start with the Escobar which doesn’t have blood on his hands. Arturo Escobar, he is famous in development circles for his critique of modern development practices by the West. He argues that after the end of the World War II, the developed world started to view the itself as a series of homogenous, poverty stricken, illiterate states that just needed some Neoliberal loving (not Arturo’s words, mind you). To this end, they created institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and various other spinoffs to implement their view of what development should be in these less fortunate countries. Hence we find the presence of these institutions in every developing country in the world today, paving the way for a brighter future for these poor souls.

This approach towards development by these supernational institutions has also come under criticism from various quarters, citing the fact that there is very little actual, sustained development that takes place in these countries through the efforts of these institutions. Now, this could be because of the large bureaucratic tangles in these organizations, or the fact that they are so detached from the culture and mindset of the countries they operate in. As one of my lecturers of a Development Economics course put it, “how is a Harvard Graduate from America in a 2 tonne, air conditioned SUV going to know what a farmer in Rangpur considers to be development?”

The various issues regarding this sort of institutional approach to development from an ethnocentric approach (insensitive to the uniqueness of societies) has caused citizens of developed countries to question the usefulness of their donations. This has led to calls for such things as “impact investing,” which focuses on real, quantifiable performance measures of social and environmental impacts in addition to financial ones relating to the projects undertaken by development organisations. This has been followed by calls for an entirely new approach to development, an approach that calls for giving the poor cash directly and doing things that affect the poor in direct ways.

Now, enough about Arturo the anthropologist; let’s move on to Pablo the psychopathic drug sniffing maniac. As stated, he was shot dead on the roof of a building after successfully evading the cops for almost 16 months. Police officers celebrated this fact with flailing arms, waving their guns in the air. So you would imagine that the general public would share in the joy and that he would subsequently be buried in a quiet funeral somewhere unknown. No, not quite. Thousands turned out to his funeral wailing their eyes out; men and women of all ages, united in tears for a man who had the blood of thousands in his hands.

Why? Well, you see, Pablo was a paradox. Despite his criminal tendencies, he engaged in the development of his people the way Arturo suggested; by knowing their views and feeling their pain. Pablo was born into extreme poverty and knew what it was like to go hungry. That is why he built schools, churches, football clubs, and many other social institutions. He even built entire housing estates so that people at least had a place to sleep. To this day, the people of Medellín regard him to be a hero.

Now, here’s the $25 billion dollar question: How could a murderer such as Pablo Escobar gain the affection of thousands while well dressed, well meaning (read suspicious), men from lands far away with wads of cash pouring out of their suits get nothing but scorn from locals as well as their own people? In my opinion it is because a local who spends directly for his people, keeping in mind his culture and the things they value does more for development that Ivy Leaguers roaming around in Land Cruisers trying to spread what they think is development.

So, we should put emphasis on donating, what little we can, to foster development in our own country instead of relying on a “one size fits all” strategy by the World Bank and its brethren institutions. After all, development means different things to different people and only we know what the people of Bangladesh would consider to be development the same way an Indian knows what a person from Rajasthan would consider to be development. Or as the Kuwait Fund’s tagline would put, we should help people help themselves.