Help that Hurts

Begin by becoming your own guinea pig to discover whether you are a socialist. Start that experiment with predictable results, with a premise. Make it: “historically there have been too many poor people, and even today, the number of the destitute is abnormally high”. Is your reaction “create opportunities that can make the immiserated better-off”? Alternatively, do you surmise that “to overcome poverty, existing wealth is to be redistributed through grants”? These recipes clash. No, this is not about shades of grey; we are dealing with contradictory assumptions here.

Now, having -as presumed- answered correctly, you are enabled to investigate an application of your preference regarding a fashionable way to help that actually hurts.

Is poverty the result of the wealth of some? Can pauperism be cured by eliminating wealth? Might it be that, by increasing incomes through transfers will enable the left-behind to participate in economic success stories? On the other hand, could it be that differences among men are a natural outcome of their divergent inclinations, some of which are learned while others come from the kind of accident that enables some of us to sink more balls into a basket than others can? Are these dissimilarities the trait that makes our kind so distinct that, unlike ants, to live and to work together we are capable to formulate rules that facilitate cooperation, avoid anarchy, and define zones within which individuals may act as they please? Is disparity a sign of an individuality that determines that different outcomes are a byproduct of freedom? Instead of dissecting the domestic aspects, we should turn to the global inferences.

We can easily agree that overcoming the differences between economic power, access to goods and political power are desirable goals. Disagreement arises once we proceed beyond this point. The approaches will be, as the global picture reveals, not only diverse, but also crucial in their consequences. The “right” response will bring rewards; the wrong one will cause stagnation in the state of misery.

Experience may be invoked here as we know of abundant external attempts to guide and to stimulate the rise of left-behind societies from backwardness. At best, the results are checkered. At worst, the finding rates between “ineffectual” and “failure”.
We can simplify the cases by noting that often the list’s items share, regarding outcomes, characteristics that go beyond the amount of succor or the accidental. In fact, certain successful regions have received less help to improve than did other, lower scoring zones. From our examples, we eliminate the data created by the Marshall Plan. Its purpose has not been to correct missed development; war damage had to be remedied. The values and the attitudes required for progress were, -even if shortly idled- already in place.

More relevant to us is the example of societies that remained, as expressions of their traditions, mired in a pre-modern world – backwardness once shared by Western Civilization. Here two “exceptions” are to be noted. The “West” did not need to catch up with the modern world as it had created it. The other is Japan. It tackled the task of modernization without support and by applying its own selective -and therefore effective- strategy. Within a generation, she closed the developmental gap and rose to become a major military player. All that in a “club” that had been until then “white”, western, and “Judeo-Christian”. Decolonization has facilitated modernization in some Asian entities. That the traits of the Western founders of industrialization are not preconditions for a nation’s rise, is also demonstrated beyond Asia, as the thesis is supported by Russia’s negative example. Her failure to “connect” impresses, even if her initial timing and situation -similarity to modern countries- had been more favorable than, say, Japan’s.

Now, to the attempts to kick-start the process to overcome stagnation with imported expertise and capital. The altruistic try to induce turbo-development has failed in entire world regions. Since reoccurring scenarios are unlikely to be accidental, a search for their causes is warranted as they point to globally significant lessons. One is that billions misallocated to float sunken ships, have been wasted.

Capital and knowledge are only components of successful modernization. It so happens that these ingredients are mobile that is, they can be easily transferred across state and cultural boundaries. Highly resistant to transfers are the elements of culture and way of life. These happen to be factors that determine whether local capital and skills will be generated and whether the efficacy of injected “aid” will be curtailed or enhanced.
Judged by their furtherance of modernization, the impulses from culture can be positive or negative. If tradition emphasizes honesty, discipline, the value of work and of knowledge, aid will generate convincing returns. This applies to modernized Asian countries as well as to some states in present-day Central Europe. A widely known case makes a point. Japan converted pre-modern samurai discipline into a force with which a modern industrial base could be constructed.

On the other end of the graph listing factors, such as the useful, the neutral, and the limiting, stands a curtailing cultural inheritance. This feature divides into two components. One is a tradition that sends the wrong signals. It might regard venality as a right of “officeholders” and as a dividend of power. Furthermore, there can be a view that work is something by which “fate” chastises the unfortunate. In this case, even quality work does not “ennoble” but suggests that those performing it lack dignity. Another prejudice assumes that whatever that leads to a profit and to success is a sign of crookedness. A revealing, but in itself minor clue is whether punctuality and precision are valued.
The second one of the “components” is the ability to examine old ways and to jettison those with damaging consequences. Are new ideas accepted for a scrutiny? Can there be a rational answer to determine which value can be recycled to serve improvement? Are those that call attention to deficiencies and articulate their kind’s responsibility for them tolerated, or will they be castigated as faithless traitors?

Regrettably, in several world neighborhoods -the vagueness is intentional- forces are at work that produce negative answers. Not accidentally. An experience tends to precede belated awakening. It reacts to militarily weakness, confirms vulnerability, and suggests that progressive mankind bypassed one. The most frequent response is nationalism with a chauvinistic tendency.

Nationalism, once a flaw is admitted, can attempt first learn from the successful, then copy it, to finally match it. More typical is that insulted nationalists opt to follow two incompatible paths -and do that at the same time. Learning from aliens seen as hostile and regarded as morally inferior, limits adaptability. The reaction that provokes a “we” against “them” stance is that, limiting traditional ways that had earlier served society well become enshrined as traits that define the group’s “soul”. This reassertion of outdated values -as exemplified by Islamists- prevents the closing of the developmental gap. The conflict between a useful and a useless tradition and the response to a progressing world, can nurture the desire to solve the problem of backwardness by destroying the advanced world. If earlier glory can be invoked, then that intention will gain in force and pretend to restore the natural world order. If catching up demands that one becomes, at least in some areas, like the others are, and if those others are despised, then the inherent contradiction blocks progress.

The mistaken assessment of the problem, its cause, and a misguided response to that finding, is a frequent reaction to the psychologically trying need to modernize. Aid injected from the outside can contribute to the problem of blockage caused by a chauvinism-fed reactionary instinct that, by refusing to adjust, wishes a renewal but also to protect a traditional identity.
Regardless of miniscule returns, aid projects repeat old mistakes hoping for “better outcomes next time”. The strategy might meet the definition of stupidity, as the unsatisfactory results are hardly accidental. Help that throws around millions indulges in several mistakes. One is to ignore that, in an order in which the mass is in a prone position, the funds will not go to raise dependent subjects to become achieving citizens. The historic order of a narrow elite lording over a deprived majority -a cause of backwardness- is not overcome by funding the ruling class.

Money handed to privileged clans means that they retain their power by being made independent of society with foreign subsidies. In a democracy, power flows from below to the top and not the other way around. The subsidy to stimulate betterment, will benefit its direct recipients and only drops will percolate down. The returns of venality will fatten, and the confirmed old assumption that power is its own justification, will fuel the corruption that misdirects the grants. Not the emancipation of society, but ample bank accounts abroad, will be the upshot. Moreover, the governing cabal that benefits of backwardness is hardly qualified to initiate and implement large-scale, long-term projects to overcome the heritage of a bad past.

Unsurprisingly, even if not admitted, it is generally known that, if general poverty profits a power-elite, then it will be unlikely to terminate a condition that “pays” handsomely. If this is of merit, then it is an argument in favor of a break with the hither pattern of foreign aid.

The thing to do is to assign a determining role to the giver in the practical application of the help that he extends. That donor is an outsider with an interest in good outcomes. As such, he is not bound by old loyalties, needs not make friends, or pay tribute to prove loyalty because he stands above those irrational commitments that are validated by tradition only. Nevertheless, aid projects emphasize in principle and follow in practice, that action is not taken directly but only through local government and its agencies.
The justification of donor bureaucracies that set up unsupervised projects is that “respect” is to be demonstrated for the receiving government. Rigorous monitoring would insinuate its corrupt incompetence and appear to be neocolonialist tutelage that overrides sovereignty.

The government making the gift can feel validated by having done “the right thing” and enjoy its bought moral stature. Its responsibility for those derailments that cannot be covered up -easy for it is impolite to check- is limited, while the credit for whatever is achieved on paper is accepted.

From a point of view that prevails over the interests of PC agencies and of recognized governments, the damage is great. The supply of everything that is of value is limited. That applies to the inefficiently spent millions created by taxpayers. Even more significant is that we are practicing a form of help that hurts those it pretends to benefit. Bad governance, a major source of backwardness, is kept alive through the infusion of money. Often enough, aid makes artificially profitable an order that preserves old failures by preventing new success. Thereby, a probably dictatorial system is perpetuated that benefits from a defenseless society’s immaturity. Easily accessed money is easily stolen: kleptocracy is made to thrive. Therefore, in the final analysis, permissive projects motivated by post-colonial remorse support dictatorship and the sway of a disabling tradition that needs to be overcome. A rational revision of policies is imperative.

8 comments to Help that Hurts

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner