What kind of development includes street vendors--like this man in downtown Buenos Aires?

What kind of development includes street vendors–like this man in downtown Buenos Aires?

Among my staff colleagues who work with the United Church’s global partners these January days, we found ourselves joining an emerging debate over international aid and development.

One side might be called “Death of Development,” or the wish, perhaps, that we would address the systemic obstacles to what some have called “an economy of life for all.”  The other side is known as the “Narrative Project,” and represents an attempt to rebuild public trust for international development.

Readers of my Unwrapping Development blogposts will have noticed that I have focused on what development workers do to restore dignity to those from whom it is taken, and what we do together with social movements that seek to transform systems for the sake of global economic, social and ecological justice.

The contemporary concept of international development was born from U.S. President Harry Truman’s 1949 inauguration speech. Inspired in part by successes in rebuilding Europe after World War II, Truman announced a program of technical assistance to less-developed countries that was called “Point Four.”

Now, more than 65 years later—and after the creation (and some dismantling) of dozens of government agencies and hundreds of non-governmental organizations—there’s a growing sense that, whatever we once meant by “development,” and whichever adjectives we stuck in front of it (human, sustainable, etc.), the concept is seriously challenged.

In late November, Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics published an opinion piece provocatively entitled, “The death of international development.”

Faced with a crisis of confidence (as global inequality and numbers of impoverished people continue to increase), Hickel and others call for radically new approaches. Writes Hickel:

The aid project is failing because it misses the point about poverty. It assumes that poverty is a natural phenomenon, disconnected from the rich world, and that poor people and countries just need a little bit of charity to help them out. People are smarter than that. They know that poverty is a feature of the global economic system that it is very often caused by people, including some of the people who run or profit from the aid agenda. People have become increasingly aware—particularly since the 2008 crash—that poverty is created by rules that rig the economy in the interests of the rich.

Cummings Park, near Georgetown, Guyana

Cummings Park, near Georgetown, Guyana

But Hickel says that, instead of taking political action to try to change the rules to bring about greater equality, many non-governmental organizations are only trying to change the way we tell stories.

Globally, there is in fact, a “Narrative Project,” backed by (among others) the Gates Foundation. Hickel is critical of this effort, saying it “is nothing more than a PR campaign—a bid to ‘change public attitudes’ by rolling out fresh language that will be more effective at securing public support and donations.” He serves as an adviser to The Rules, a U.K.-based economic justice campaign that offers a useful critical analysis of the new development narrative.

In Canada, the Narrative Project plays out as the “Redefining our Narrative” initiative. Imagine Canada, working together with a variety of charitable groups, has created a “narrative toolkit,” issue sheets, and a short video to assist organizations—not just development NGOs, but all charities—as they reshape their stories. In the United States, the Gates Foundation and Oxfam America are talking about “effective aid champions.”

The development institute of Nicaragua’s Moravian Church, “created to bring in a practical and united manner the Christian principles… based in the liberation of all peoples from every type of oppression.”

The development institute of Nicaragua’s Moravian Church, “created to bring in a practical and united manner the Christian principles… based in the liberation of all peoples from every type of oppression.”

Might these approaches co-exist? Certainly, we need to be more creative as we talk about international aid and its role in improving livelihoods for all people—and not feed cynicism about the role of government or about development assistance. I confess that I struggle when I have to explain (and this happens often) that reconstruction efforts in Haiti led by many churches and their development agencies working with Haitian partners have gone quite well—we’ve met our goals. But we are all hampered by a weak Haitian state and by the large-scale, foreign-backed efforts that seem to miss their mark: why hasn’t the promise to “rebuild Haiti better” been kept?

I think we need to be more honest about the limits of what we can do through development assistance alone. In the face of the globalization narrative—“things are getting better, thanks to the spread of free-market capitalism”—we need to join pleas for new rules, a “new financial architecture,” or “an economy of life,” that, as called for by the World Council of Churches (among others):

  • is based on the principles of economic, social and climate justice;
  • serves the real economy;
  • accounts for social and environmental tasks; and
  • sets clear limits to greed.

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