Duncan MacLaren talk

Developing Countries : Charity or Transformation

Duncan got quickly to the nub of his talk.  He wanted to talk to us about transformation of ‘developing countries’not charity.  His key point being that aid agencies such as Oxfam, Christian Aid or SCIAF, while known as charitable organisations, seek to transform rather than give charity.  Giving meals, books and pencils, to poor communities in so called ‘undeveloped countries while well intended, cease to have value once the charity has dried up.  Such interventions can also cause local friction where one village receives the charity but the adjoining one doesn’t.  This results in resentments between the haves and haves nots’, an unintended consequence!  In short, this kind of charity does harm.

Mary Anderson’s, a US sociologist, message to charity workers is ‘do no harm’ – a maxim now for aid agencies. Putting this in context, Duncan explained that when humanitarian work is undertaken in disasters such as the Asian Tsunami in 2004 or in the war in Syria, the aid agencies respond quickly with the aim to return things to normality as soon as possible.  The relief work is phased.  Firstly to provide shelter, water, food, latrines and medical supplies.  The next phase is to rehabilitate homes, schools, clinics, etc so that people can return tonormality, including earning an income.  And, the final phase, is to transform communities, not to make them more comfortable in their poverty, and to make them more resilient to withstand changes in the climate such as by constructing cyclone centres to provide shelter during future storms.  This transformational development is what we mean by Integral Human Development (IHD).

In the aftermath of WW2, Harry Truman led the way by promoting ‘development’ in undeveloped countries to share the benefits of ‘progress’.  At that time development was very much focused on economic progress.  Economist, Walt Rostow, said poor countries had to move through a number of stages of growth.  These included giving up their communitarian culture for a capitalist, competitive one; giving up their indigenous culture and religion; moving from agriculture to industry and finally adopting mass consumption as in the West.  The model, Duncan summed it up, wasdisastrous!

He had observed the approach at play when he worked in Australia.  The Australian government, through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), tried to show how the inhabitants of Tonga could all end up with large cars if they followed Australia’s neoliberal policies.  Given what we now know about Global Warming and sinking Pacific islands, not the best of advice and guidance.  Sadly, however, an approach not yet abandoned by some governments.

IHD is a development which encompasses all of human life.  That is, a development programme has to be centred on the individual and their community and must include the social, cultural, political and spiritualelements of life.  People are not economic units.  The community has to be able to flourish.  Their culture, including their faith tradition, has to be respected.  This is what the people want themselves.  Duncan observed that in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami the people of faith,often the poorest people, after the emergency phase wanted to build a church, mosque or temple because that was where the community drew their strength. Underlying this motivation is the universal truth that human beings have an innate dignity to be respected.  It must be allowed to be centre stage in any developmental process.

Duncan noted wryly that The UK and EU bodies often rely on consultants or recipient governments to measure success in development projects.  However, they don’t ask the beneficiaries of such projects.  So often the effectiveness of the aid provided is not properly evaluated!  This needs to change if aid is to lead to transformational change which is sustainable.

In this context Aid Agencies are not always seen in a favourable light.  Indeed, they are sometimes seen as the ‘enemy’.  To bring this to life, Duncan shared a James Bond like experience from an aid scheme in an Islamic town in the Philippines where, because the Americans had bombed Libya, death threats were mad against the ‘American’. There he had to be bundled out of the locality by the local Muslim population wedged between two bulky bodyguards in a Jeep for his own safety!  In this instance Duncan made the point that often these aid schemes involve peace building and reconciliation.  He sees this as a key part of delivering successful Integral Human Development.

Duncan amplified the IHD approach by describing various projects in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Kenya.  There isn’t space here to do them justice.  However, there was a consistent message for the need for aid agencies to use empathy; ie to find out what local people wanted.  Duncan stressed that this meant finding out what the poorest wanted.  Simply finding out what the local ‘middle class’ wanted because they were easier to find and consult wasn’t good enough.  Thus aid agencies such as SCIAF have become much better informed and placed, through local participation and empowerment, to deliver long lasting transformationalchange.  Communities and individuals thrive when they are given back their self respect through self help with effectively targeted aid.  Last but not least, in strife ridden communities the IHD approach can also help in peace building and reconciliation, a further positivecontribution to sustainable development.

This was a grave talk and intently listened to by the Club as was evident from the calibre of questions at the end.  These received full responses from Duncan anddemonstrated his extensive experience in his field.  This was a very rewarding talk and the Club is in Duncan’s debt.


Duncan MacLaren talk