Back when I first entered graduate school, I was passionate about having some kind of career in international development, so I could help end the absolute poverty that still exists in many parts of Africa and Asia. But as I progressed through my coursework and actually interacted with students who had previously worked for the World Bank, who had volunteered in the Peace Corps, or who had other sorts of work experience with international development, I began to realize that international development was a complicated, cliquish affair.
For my classes, I read endless graphically appealing reports put out by the World Bank and other development agencies. They used lofty language and feel-good terms like “country ownership,” “local participation,” and “accountability.” These agencies weren’t about exploiting the poor, as protestors claimed! But the reports also said poor countries need to do “x,” they need to do “y,” they need to do “z” … on and on. How could some developing country run by an undertrained, inexperienced, oftentimes corrupt, bureaucracy really manage to execute such a laundry list of reforms, all while harmoniously coordinating with an array of “stakeholders” — citizens, NGOs, donor agencies, local governments, etc.?
I came to the belief that ultimately, only the people themselves in a country can help themselves. Rich country donors can have a secondary, auxiliary role, but ultimately, the initiative and effort must come from the people themselves. Countries that have been pulling themselves out of poverty, such as China and India, have had some of the least outside help/interference.
Today, with all these new epiphanies, I think the idea that the United States could go into Iraq and bring about a stable democracy was a profoundly naive one. The world hasn’t been able to build stable democracies and eliminate absolute poverty in many developing countries. Billions of dollars have been thrown at Africa, and there is relatively little to show for it. It’s difficult enough to accomplish anything in a stable country. How can the United States pull it all off in a country full of insurgents and ethnic cleavages?
But I would like to be proven wrong. I want democracy to succeed in Iraq. I would rather be wrong and have a functioning Iraq than be right and have a deteriorating Iraq.
And while I’m currently disillusioned by the current state of affairs in the arena of international development, I’m not about to abandon my commitment to it. There are some powerful voices out there who are clearing the air and advocating for much-needed reform. One voice is that of Thomas Dichter, who wrote the aptly titled book Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed. Another is that of William Easterly, who wrote The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good. (He also wrote a great op-ed for April 22’s Washington Post.)
The United States has undertaken a grand, utopian social engineering project in Iraq. It took the United States nearly 200 years from independence to get to a point where women could vote and the races had equal rights. The country had its own separatist movement and civil war in the 1860s. Descendents of Europeans decimated the Native Amerian populations in the United States’ own version of sectarian strife. The American experiment with democracy unfolded organically over centuries. Now the United States thinks it can orchestrate it all again with the wave of a magic wand in a distant country with a different historical trajectory.
Like I said earlier, I want to be proven wrong.