Is international development a system of "racialized social control?"

Examining the neocolonialist power structures of the Western international development establishment

“Would you turn off the cameras?” the gentleman asked with an air of caution. We obliged.

“Who’s going to see this documentary?”

“Hopefully everyone,” our director Michael replied with a smile that went unreciprocated.

Our interviewee whispered: “You must understand. These people are like the mafia.”

This gentleman - we’ll call him Paul - runs an SME (Small-Medium Enterprise) in Haiti paying taxes and providing dozens from a struggling community with dignified employment. Those he was fearful of speaking about: the international development community.

To my ear, likening nonprofits and multilaterals to organized crime feels unfair, but the raw unease compromising this otherwise energetic entrepreneur’s spirit unveils an alarming undercurrent of fear induced by the residual colonial power dynamics in what Haitians pejoratively call “the Republic of NGOs.”

“When I see the country heads drive around in their posh cars and living in their big houses,” echoes Ghanaian software entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse in Poverty, Inc., “I see multiple colonial governors. We are held captive by the donor community.”

It’s 2016 and the Millennium Development Goals have just been updated with the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for ending global poverty “in all forms, everywhere” by 2030. It’s an especially appropriate time to use resources like Poverty, Inc. to help us examine the question: Who really has the power, and who should have it?

“We have reached a defining moment in human history,” declared U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last summer in a speech that seemed drafted from a template. “The people of the world have asked us to shine a light on a future of promise and opportunity.” It’s an empowering statement for “us,” but for the implicit “them” it’s a tired refrain built on the false premise that people in poverty regard Western elites as their only hope for a better life. 

With 169 targets the Economist calls “so sprawling and misconceived that the entire enterprise is being set up to fail,” the SDGs represent a continuation of the same top-down power structures that our friends in developing countries have long been decrying (see talks by Africans from TEDGlobal 2007 in Tanzania). 

Let’s table the fact that our most recent Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton can find no statistical correlation let alone a causal relationship between aid and development. Let’s also put aside the rampant aid profiteering documented by NPR on the Red Cross, HBO’s VICE episode “Haitian Money Pit,” and others.

Let’s instead consider our fundamental premise. “We can end extreme poverty,” we are told. “That’s what has fallen to us to do.” It’s intoxicating. It gives us purpose and meaning. It allows us to celebrate the multibillion dollar “white savior industrial complex” (Teju Cole) we have erected. It justifies our position of power.

“Who put us in charge?” asks Deaton in his book The Great Escape: Health Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality

Indeed, the West has made itself the protagonist of the development narrative. The very term “international development” subliminally imputes this outside-in mindset. We blanket this power structure with altruism, minimizing its failings with anecdotes of success, independent impact evaluations that are not actually independent, and the steadfast belief in the false dichotomy that it’s better to do something that doesn’t work than to do nothing at all. We convince ourselves it’s only the local elite who reject our presence while we are there for the poorest of the poor. We have conversations about how to overcome outdated cultural and religious values such as those inhibiting our population control programs, which Deaton calls “the most egregious example of anti-democratic and oppressive aid” and which Guatemalan economist Carrol Rios de Rodriguez calls “racist.”

Let us not forget, during the age of colonialism the “It’s for their own good” rationale was commonly deployed by colonizers to ground their presence and authority in virtue.
As Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow, a must-read book on the mass incarceration of black and brown minorities in America, longstanding systems of racialized social control like slavery, Jim Crow, and colonialism are not so easily defeated; they tend to reincarnate under new, more benevolent disguises even more difficult to defeat. How can we question efforts to keep our streets safe from criminals and drugs?

How can we question efforts to serve the poor? If you’re not with us, you’re against us. It’s a powerful rhetorical device that dismisses the existence of alternative solutions.

Is international development, a growing field garnering tremendous social capital and an increasingly popular major on university campuses, really a system of racialized social control?
Let’s not be quick to dismiss the possibility with reflex responses such as, “Most people in the development space are sincere and committed to building local capacity.” We know that. But one of Alexander’s great insights is that it is precisely the participants’ sincere and forceful commitment to what they believe to be right (i.e. how they conceive of justice) that makes the system so forceful.

The fact is, this question, in one form or another, is one keeping the more introspective in the aid industry up at night (see the Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker column where these reflections can be voiced anonymously) as they grapple with the disenchantment that comes from experiencing these power dynamics first hand.

“I bought my first house on the proceeds of foreign aid,” English physician and former development consultant Theodore Dalrymple confesses in Poverty, Inc. among a chorus of insiders pulling back the curtain on a framework of good people operating with broken incentive structures. “It’s aided me immensely. It’s allowed me to have an interesting life, to travel, live in good conditions, be well paid, no tax — couldn’t be better.”

Here I always take the temperature of the room during a screening of Poverty, Inc. At the mostly white International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, you could cut the tension with a knife. At Harvard Business School’s Africa Business Conference, the predominantly African audience was uproarious, laughing and applauding Dr. Dalrymple’s refreshing candor.

These disparate reactions reveal disparate assumptions stemming from wholly divergent experiences. In 91 minutes cut from over 200 interviews shot in 20 countries over seven years, Poverty, Inc. aims to help bridge that gap. 

The people we met making this film changed our lives and shaped our perspectives. Their voices are resonating with people across the political spectrum, bringing to the table groups that don’t normally hang out together. “You’ll never look at poverty and the Third World the same again,” says filmmaker Michael Moore. On the flip side, the film won the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award run by the libertarian Atlas Network.

It isn’t the whole story of poverty and development, and despite the critical focus of this piece, it certainly isn’t all gloom and doom. But it’s a side of the story we must pay more attention to if we are sincere in our desire to see our friends in developing countries break the shackles of neocolonialism to achieve true freedom and lasting prosperity.