Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Getting Beyond Paternalism in Development


Paul Theroux, the famous travel writer, weighs in on the pathologies of aid and development in Africa. ("The Rock Star's Burden", The New York Times, Dec 15, 2005).

As a former Peace Corp worker in the 60s, Theroux knows a bit about Africa first hand. Reflecting on his experiences then and what's become of Malawi today, he has some useful and informed perspective. Theroux criticizes rock stars like Bono for a simplistic approach to solving Africa's problems, like encouraging more debt relief and increasing more aid. While Bono has probably done some good in raising these issues, throwing more money at Africa's problems will likely make things worse. In fact, as I've seen in many situations -- whether it be improving national security to innovation projects -- an increase in funds, while logically sound and humane on the surface, in practice can increase waste, dependencies, and the status quo. As Theroux puts it:

When Malawi's minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa's problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid... Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing. (My emphasis.)

Interestingly, given the Bono reference, Theroux draws a parallel between Malawi and Ireland. "Both countries were characterized for centuries by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs, malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather." Of course, Ireland is now the poster child for prosperity, an outcome few people could have imagined given its hapless history. The suggestion is that countries and communities in Africa can make similar turnarounds. Things aren't as hopeless as they seem:

Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.

In other words, very often our stance vis-a-vis Africa -- and many "save the world" projects -- reflects more about our psychological needs than the needs of the places we are trying to help. This is not to diminish the importance or impulse to make a difference. But we should do so with a sense of humility and a healthy level of self-awareness about our own motivations, especially how these might drive our actions and perceptions about the solutions. We also need to be better skilled at surfacing some of the out-dated assumptions in our development approaches, many of which are hard to see, so embedded they are in our institutional arrangements and cultural outlooks.

Theroux concludes:

Africa has no real shortage of capable people - or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa's belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for.

At the end of the day, I believe the highest leverage point in creating a better world is to bolster the degraded sense of human dignity in these communities. More than any aid package, this will deliver "increasing returns" in terms of social and economic benefits, to use the complexity scientist Brian Arthur's phrase. Focusing on dignity is a solution-set that's so simple, yet also so complex in practice because this goes against the grain of mainstream approaches to development, not to mention political history and baser human instincts. These challenges notwithstanding, as a student of systemic change, one thing is clear: the light ahead starts with a shift of mindset, not more money. And that's something we find very hard to do.

Bookmark and Share


This is a good, thought-provoking post, and Theroux's editorial, if a bit prickly, raises many questions that have long been swept under too many convenient rugs (by donors, by African elites, etc. -- and maybe even by Peace Corps volunteers!).

But what does it mean, exactly, to do something to "bolster the degraded sense of human dignity in these communities"? What does a development "project" or "package" that focuses on dignity actually look like? How would we recognize it? Who would "deliver" it?

I agree with Nicole-Anne, this is about mindsets. But it is also about actions -- choosing to do some things, and not others. Which actions?

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 16 Dec 05

How about providing a solar power setup to each house of a small community. Then cell phones and a repeater to each member of the community, recharged from the solar power. Then a water purifier that might provide clean water in large amounts, powered by the solar power setups. Then support for their schools with educational DVDs provided in their own language (TV and player powered by...oh, you know...). Put all of this in a community that wouldn't be likely to have it all stolen by the military (or para-military), and see how they develop. I don't know enough to chose that place, but someone might. THAT would be a good use of funds that would be less likely to be stolen by the political bosses.

Posted by: barry on 16 Dec 05

Hmmm. The whole problem is with _giving_ it at all. In the donor/recipient relationship it is easy to set up the dynamic of "we have all the stuff, and are giving it to you - aren't you grateful?"

In a course I took a few years ago, someone who had been working in a developing country said that although they had tried really hard to avoid that, and had provided a facility that the village had wanted and needed (a meeting hall), it still happened that the village people never really took ownership of that hall - some years later a request was made for the aid workers to "come back and fix _your_ hall, it needs repairing".

It appears to come down to how the aid/development people interact with the locals on the ground - are they seen as equal and valuable partners in the work, being trained and coached in whatever expertise is needed, or are they merely recipients of aid? Certainly the first approach is a more time consuming and demanding approach, but then, a swipe of disinfectant and a band-aid is just not going to cut it.

I like the model of microenterprise loans that seems to be working well in south east asia. People in the community already have ideas of how they can improve their lives - they just need a tiny bit of capital and some training in business management (basic stuff, including literacy and numeracy). They get the loan (provided from the aid organisation) and, working to their business plan, make a profit and pay the loan back to the local group. In Africa the political instability would make this difficult in some countries, but it must be occuring in others (I myself live in S-E Asia, so that's what I hear of).

Posted by: staceyw on 17 Dec 05

to add to this:
from maginal revolution via ny times via tim hartford:
For say, a banana picker in the Central African Republic...The trade barriers at the borders of the rich world may have disappeared, but if our picker wants to sell his bananas abroad he first has to get them onto a ship bound for America or Europe. That takes 116 days, and an incredible 38 signatures -- each one an opportunity for some official to collect a bribe.

That is by Tim Harford, from today's New York Times. Today in fact was Tim Harford day, here is his Slate piece, which, among other things, recounts

Tim's slate piece:

I.E. part of Africa's problem is that it's got as many taxes and forms as medevial France. Even if the WTO can deregulate farm subsidies in Europe and America hence opening a market for Africans to sell goods at better prices and improve their profits it will still be scarred by the internal problems of getting food to port or through distribution chains. This is a problem South American is unlikely to face due to Brazil's streamlined and modernized system of distriburion (they even got RFID to keep walmart happy). My point being, Africa can cure some problems by solving internal problems, they need to free up markets so they can have better inter-African trade and hence can have better international trade.

More p2p loan systems wouldn't hurt either.

Posted by: andrew on 17 Dec 05

just an idea: has world changing considered having forums? then we could debate about this stuff all day and work out sound programs etc. maybe a just a nice wiki etc. take each country in africa, work on networking micro-finance banks together, share knowledge of what's working where, etc.

maybe even set up a paypal or something so that people could donate to plans they want to help set up that the community has decided are worth acting on.


Posted by: andrew on 17 Dec 05

Please be aware of the Savory Center's work on decision making:

They have big experience in inside out decision making and the land and its peoples that maybe even we can learn from.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 17 Dec 05

The reason for the problem is there is no real good reason for many of these people to make things better. They are ***OK*** as is and wont realy try to make things better and in some cases will fight against things getting better.

Now in our part of the world what we did was we brutaly murdered all such people we came across and even made a party of it. But now thats a no no and so africa is screwed.

You just cant get there from here.

All this getting along and being nice will doom you in the end.

Posted by: wintermane on 17 Dec 05

"The reason for the problem is there is no real good reason for many of these people to make things better. They are ***OK*** as is and wont realy try to make things better and in some cases will fight against things getting better."

Ok first of all even in the better parts of Africa i.e. South Africa most people still in poverty in fact being in S.A. is probably worse becuase of the economic inequality between it's rich patrons and it's mostly poverty ridden areas.
Second, most people from Africa seem to want to make it better. But then again this based entirely off Africans I've meet who are in the U.S. or Korea on various different scholarship programs to provide them with higher education and most of those dudes are pretty smart dudes trying to make a good living and get out of their current living.

"Now in our part of the world what we did was we brutaly murdered all such people we came across and even made a party of it. But now thats a no no and so africa is screwed."

Africa is well known, at least for the last few decades, as a place for slaughtering people. In fact genocide has happened there several times. It hasn't helped.

" You just cant get there from here."

Several different ways of getting there have arisen including Brazil's system of alleviating the poor (not the most effective), India's outsourcing and micro-credit (probably the most humane and p.c. or all the different ways to boost your economy), China's FDI by brutaling seizing land, paying people almost nothing for their land, and then selling the land to foriegn/ chinese companies to make factories on while artificially keeping the value of their money low, and the Japanese-tiger economy system of high tariffs that use the multiplier effect to boost local economies while it's international companies have to compete in the world market providing the residents of it's closed economies with decent locally made and designed products. There's others out there too after all Indonesia is the 4th fastest growing economy right now, The Phillipines is growing too, and of course Malaysia and Singapore and others. If anything there are tons of models for countries to use to boost their economic prowess think of the EU and eastern-europe amongst others. The problem seems to be that countries in Africa aren't taking advantage of inter-African trade, make it hard for people to start businesses, lack of finical services, and then of course faminine, plague, political instability, etc. Of course China is investing Africa in order to provide it with low-cost materials for it's manufacturing so I'd assume some streamlining will come to Africa soon if it hasn't already started.

"All this getting along and being nice will doom you in the end." So basically your saying we should just kill everyone?

Posted by: andrew on 17 Dec 05


Too many peoples too many cultures in one small spot.

Brazil hasnt exactly been known as a hven of love and peace for the past few decades...

India... peace and love... a bit too much loveing and its not exactly been peaceful for the last century.

Genocide. A word bantied around entirely too much these days. Read up on the true genocides of the past.

There are only a few ways to do this. Get the conflicting groups to move away from each other... Has happened a few times even these days with entire societies moving to america en mass to get away from THEM.
Get ALL the different societies to get along and trust and like each other... drugs drugs more drugs alot of money and yet more drugs can do this.. tho it does wind up killing alot of people. Booze can do it too if you can supply enough for long enough.

Most every other method has formed a mass that is unstable and blows up from time to time.

Posted by: wintermane on 17 Dec 05

I have just belatedly read Paul Theroux's biting critique of this new generation of "great white hunters" now reformed and intent on saving Africa from itself, with or without our full consent and understanding. I agree in part with his disdain for the generic template of development, etched elswhere and then forcibly imposed on Africa, all with good intentions of course. But the reality as with most things African is more complex than it seems at surface. The surface which unfortunately is where most of the tens of millions of Aid dollar is smeared without any real understanding of or desire to examine the underlining pathologies of Africa's chronic underdevelopment.
To fully understand Africa's challenges, we must also look outside Africa, to the WTO, DOHA IMF and the other alphabet soup of international financial organization. financial regimes and political stictures that seem designed to hold Africa and much of the developing world in suspended inanimation. Having said that, we also must as Theroux argues also insist on transparent, open and accountable governments and governance processes as the transactional basis for doing business with African governments. To demand less, is to foster the paternalistic (even racist) acceptance with which the West does business with Africa. African governments may balk at this new standards because they prefer doing business the old way, but I assure you Africans are ripe and ready for change, real positive and quanifiable change. Indeed a lot is happening beneath the radar. In Nigeria for instance, long the poster child of corruption, there are some far reaching economic and political reforms afoot, for example, for the first time in Nigeria's history, the state is enforcing the rule of law by arresting, prosecuting and jailing promiment members of the political elite on charges of corruption, money laundering and embezzlement. So far, the National Police chief has been convicted and jailed with a previous Senate president in court as well as a state governor impeached and about to be extradited to UK on money laundering charges and for bail jumping a London court. Small ordinary things to non-Nigerian perhaps, but really a seismic shift in attitude among Nigerians and increasingly among Africans clamouring for change. There is also the admission that we will necessarily need help from elsewhere, but it has to be help we can use. Right now the "vengful philanthropy model" is counter productive and needs to be jettisoned for a more inculsive model that takes into account the collective wisdom and input of those we we wish to help. Perhaps as one contributor suggests in an earlier post, there should be an expanded forum for online discussion and debate about how "WORLD CHANGING IDEAS AND TOOLS" can be deployed to help Africa one village at a time.

Posted by: Tunji Lardner on 18 Dec 05

Maternalism, anyone? Brothernalism? What's in a name?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 18 Dec 05

A wondeful, WCg post - (not too verbose either! - unlike this post) I was wandering through christmas markets, pondering **dignity** and how some local traditions, evident at the markets, were a sign of cultural dignity. Efforts to give impoverished people from developing nations the chance to understand what the average life in 1st world nations is really like (ie that's it's far from utopia), helps them to realise that their lifestyles are not automatically and absolutely inferior by comparison, so therefore they needn't immediatlely discount elements of their own culture.

As one eg, the programme that allows tourists to pay to work in the hills of Tibet where a new highway/railroad heralded the last days for the ways of the local population. The fact that rich tourists would PAY to live and work side-by-side with peasants reportedly amazed and gave a feeling of self-respect back to the locals.

I think the efforts of most charities these days to picture individuals with dignity, rather than starving fly-ridden kids, is a good move. By affecting outside attitudes, this in turn will affect the treatment of the nations concerned. The photo blog by locals featured on WC recently was another dignified campaign. People are naturally more likely to help disadvanataged others who are making efforts to help themselves.

Considering the nature of poverty in most developing nations, restoring rural smallholder agriculture and supporting rural industries (for which microloans are extremely important) is crucial. If people can't feed themselves, either via their own produce or by earning enough to buy produce, then they lack dignity and hope. Education for all is an important part of this. And government interventions (eg temporary work for food programmes) to avoid famines (see the work of A Sen on the often very localised and imbalanced causes and preventions of famines). The recognition and impartial protection of property rights is also very important for securing livelihoods for these people.

wintermane u should read the rise & fall of the 3rd chimpanzee - an earlier book by jared diamond. He has a good discussion on genocide (& how common & pervasive it is). Rather than too many cultures, it seems we have too few cultures and an imbalance of cultural perspective. We've already killed off and absorbed many of our cultures, breeding further intolerance. The nations with the deepest problems are ex-colonies... they never proposed a 'be nice & get long with each other' agenda in the beginning so your point is weak. Such pessimistic (& I think, sarcastic irony) does you a disservice.

Posted by: Corn Flower on 18 Dec 05

Not enough cultures? Id expect there are 50x as many cultures in africa then your giving em credit for.

For one thing there are alot of different nomadic groups and alot of small fractured bits of old cultures that the europians intentionaly broke apart to weaken and set at each others throats.

And then you have quite a few younger gen cultures that have popped up in the absense of anything else due to war famine and aids creating soo many orphans.

Its not impossible but its going to be alot more difficult then many say it is simply because your working against so many things stacked against you.

And as global wrming starts to take its toll guess where all the money and aid will go? Right back home and out of africa.

I hope things turn out well but id plan for them not if I were anyone living over there. Its just too iffy.

Posted by: wintermane on 18 Dec 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg