From heart of darkness; develop or civilize? to city of light

The objectives of development aid are not well defined. This is one of the reasons why it is so easy to claim that aid does not work. More narrowly defined sub objectives, like diminishing child mortality, or getting more children in schools (whatever they do there) are more specific, and success is more common and even measurable. Most often development is seen as poverty reduction, in the broad sense. however, poverty reduction does not give the full picture: development is wider. Values like respect and empowerment have only limited poverty reduction value, and they should be accepted as part of “development” in their own right. On their own, they are also better measurable than mixed up with all the other aspects.

In Conrad’s’ “heart of darkness”, Marlow, the captain,  before leaving for Africa, visits “the city of light” where he gets his contract as a captain on the Congo boat. The main discourse in that city amongst the chattering classes is not about getting rich but about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’.  As recent as the invasion of Irak, the civilizing mission was highlighted, more than the economical or even military aspects of the enterprise.
Marlow goes on:
I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.
‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.
The insensitive choice of words is not the issue here, I just want to highlight that even King Leopold’s exploitation of Congo was marketed and even bought as a noble task, aimed in the first place to transfer values.  Aren’t we development workers like Marlow’s auntie? We are still mixing up the noble development tasks and the mundane, and then claim everything is one and the same thing.  Going holistic.
Apart from the material aspects of development, there is a whole body of values that are considered as part and parcel of development. Gender equality, human rights, accountable government, the convention of the rights of the child, refer to values that are ingrained in development thinking. Most of these internationally recognized values are important on their own. When they are “taken on board” as a prerequisite for economic growth and whatnot, they end up diluted and compromised. Political correctness has linked these values to the overall development goal, mostly defined in shorthand as poverty reduction, or, economic growth. The noble values get mainstreamed instead of spearheaded.

Meanwhile, there seems to be little evidence that these individual rights and the values behind them really lead to faster economical growth, and we don’t need  a link between these separate goals. The results are bad economics, and very much compromised values.

I would like to argue for a more vertical approach, where you know that if you work on Child Protection or accountable government, you will not be accountable for economic growth, or when you work on small business development, you are not evaluated for gender equality. When you want to improve the life of women, it is often better to improve it than start an overall watch on everything everywhere, called mainstreaming. Indeed the different values and goals are  linked in some way, and a good problem analysis will show all the interdependencies, and help to choose those that must be tackled to get our results. Where values clash, it is worth to have a fight over it, and make choices instead of just smothering everything in a meaningless consensus.
It is possible that if  budgets are allocated for the separate values instead of for development as a general enterprise, countries would choose to fund only support for economic growth, or only child rights. I am not sure whether this would really be a problem, as some kind of market would be created, where a donor will have to find for a “fit” for its priorities with the recipient countries, with less demand for the more exotic choices, or for the same choice everybody else makes.

By Sam Gardner

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