Despite Good Intentions

Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed

Thomas W. Dichter
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Despite Good Intentions
    Book Description:

    For more than thirtyfive years, Thomas W. Dichter has worked in the field of international development, managing and evaluating projects for nongovernmental organizations, directing a Peace Corps country program, and serving as a consultant for such agencies as USAID, UNDP, and the World Bank. On the basis of this extensive and varied experience, he has become an outspoken critic of what he terms the "international poverty alleviation industry." He believes that efforts to reduce world poverty have been wellintentioned but largely ineffective. On the whole, the development industry has failed to serve the needs of the people it has sought to help. To make his case, Dichter reviews the major trends in development assistance from the 1960s through the 1990s, illustrating his analysis with eighteen short stories based on his own experiences in the field. The analytic chapters are thus grounded in the daily life of development workers as described in the stories. Dichter shows how development organizations have often become caught up in their own selfperpetuation and in public relations efforts designed to create an illusion of effectiveness. Tracing the evolution of the role of money (as opposed to ideas) in development assistance, he suggests how financial imperatives have reinforced the tendency to sponsor timebound projects, creating a dependency among aid recipients. He also examines the rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the industry, arguing that assistance efforts have become disconnected from important lessons learned on the ground, and often lessons of world history. In the end, Dichter calls for a more lighthanded and artful approach to development assistance, with fewer agencies and experts involved. His stance is pragmatic, rather than ideological or political. What matters, he says, is what works, and the current practices of the development industry are simply not effective.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-082-6
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Great Paradox of Development Assistance
    (pp. 1-10)

    Thirty judiciously spent minutes in a small-town public library will provide enough random facts to dramatize the plight of the world’s poor:

    In 1998 more people were living on less than one dollar a day than in 1996.

    In 1999 the assets of the world’s two hundred richest people were greater than the combined incomes of the lowest 40 percent of the world’s peoples.

    The world’s rich-poor gap has more than doubled since the 1960s. The rich world at the end of the 1990s earned about sixty times what the poor world did; in 1999 the top 20 percent earned...

  6. STORY ONE Romance Morocco, Thanksgiving 1964
    (pp. 11-18)

    Ben Rymaker was so excited he hadn’t minded the eighteen hours on rickety buses. The mountain town he’d arrived in was quiet at eleven in the morning. The air was cold, and the bright sun made the poplar trees silvery.

    This would be his chance to see his friends from training, to be an American again. Turkey, stuffing—he couldn’t imagine how Bing had put it together but believed the promises he’d made in his letter.

    The two months since he’d begun his job at the ancient Koranic university to which he’d been assigned seemed like a long time, though...

  7. STORY TWO Illusion Marrakech, Morocco, December 1964
    (pp. 19-22)

    By the middle of December, Ben’s days had become so routine that he began to feel he had lived in Marrakech as long as any old-time resident. Not only did he know his way around the medina, but he also began to believe that he knew what was going on. He had a regular vegetable seller, knew the man who picked up his garbage in a donkey-drawn cart, chatted amiably with the butcher, knew how to choose mint for his tea from the man who sold ten kinds of it, and even had a regular spot at a café in...

  8. CHAPTER ONE The Developing World and Its Condition
    (pp. 23-30)

    An inveterate observer of poverty whom I knew in the late 1960s used to calculate how much time it would take for a cigarette butt dropped on a city street to be picked up by someone else. When he dropped a butt on a busy street in Fès, Morocco, and it just sat there for minutes, attracting no interest, he declared definitively that Morocco was not poor.

    Academics and development professionals would not be content with such a method, though it does establish, albeit crudely, the idea of thresholds of poverty. In any case, classifying the developing countries has evolved...

  9. STORY THREE A Straw in the Wind The Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 1971
    (pp. 31-36)

    Ben did not begin to understand poverty until Karim died. Or at least he had not yet realized that its essence lay far deeper than surface effects such as the cardboard paper slums he’d seen. Every week Karim’s father, Abdulhaq, whom Ben had hired to supplement his regular Arabic lessons, came into town from his village to sit with Ben for ninety minutes and converse in colloquial dialect. Ben had returned to Morocco as a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. candidate to do his anthropological fieldwork in a small town in the Middle Atlas. In that quiescent period in Morocco between the end...

  10. STORY FOUR Being Useful or Being Used Sanʿa, Yemen, 1979
    (pp. 37-47)

    A shower of khat leaves lands with a smack on the windshield of Ben’s Mitsubishi. It is early afternoon and the national ritual—khat chewing—is under way. The leaves come from the truck in front of him. Ben can’t see the driver, probably because he’s a twelve- or thirteen-year-old child. In this unregulated land, no one cares that half the truck drivers don’t have licenses. As long as they can see above the bottom of the windshield—even if they need a cushion to prop them up—kids can drive the heavy rigs. But all drivers, young and old,...

  11. CHAPTER TWO The Evolution of the Idea of Development
    (pp. 48-74)

    There has always been some kind of development. American history—or, for that matter, ancient Roman history—attests to that. It has usually been slow, often sporadic, and sometimes it “just happened,” a shorthand way of saying it resulted from such a complex interaction of forces that it is impossible to determine that any single one made it occur. Most important, almost no one in the past really saw where they or their nations wanted to develop toward, as in “What we need is the institution of property rights” or “We’d like to become modern.”

    Reading history reveals two distinctions...

  12. STORY FIVE Warm Bodies Washington, 1984
    (pp. 75-89)

    “Yes?” Ben said as he answered the phone.

    “Hi, Ben, I’m John Becker from ProjectSuccess International in Washington. We’re about to respond to an RFP for a two-and-a-half-year integrated health project in the Philippines. Your name came up in our database, and we’d like to put you forward as the Chief of Party.”

    Thirty months in the Philippines! Ben had been thinking it would be fun to go overseas again. The expat life is a good one, and few opportunities like this come up anymore for Americans. And to go as COP (Chief of Party) might even be therapeutic—Ben...

  13. STORY SIX Sliding toward Dependency Ada Foa, Ghana, 1985
    (pp. 90-97)

    Ben had an hour to kill before John Dogbe would take him to meet the management staff of the Rabbit Project at the Chinese restaurant in Ada Foa. Because the coastal town had no hotel deemed good enough for a foreigner, Ben was to spend the night at the old guest quarters of a defunct road construction project a few kilometers away.

    After the bumpy three-hour drive from Accra, Ben needed to stretch. He took a walk through the abandoned construction camp, a concrete graveyard of rusted earthmoving equipment. The massive machines—Caterpillar front loaders, Kumatsu road graders, bulldozers—looked...

  14. CHAPTER THREE Development Assistance as an Industry (the “Dev Biz”)
    (pp. 98-110)

    At a September 1984 conference on NGOs held at the United Nations in New York, one of the speakers used the term “dev biz.” He meant to distinguish between a relatively innocent past when development work was more of a calling, and an image-conscious present, when the same work has become more of an industry, like “showbiz.” Many since have come to use the term “industry” quite routinely to refer to the development establishment. Most use it without irony.

    Industry used to mean simply a branch of manufacture or trade: “steel industry,” “automobile industry.” These terms roll off our tongues,...

  15. STORY SEVEN Dedication Rift Valley Province, Kenya, 1988
    (pp. 111-123)

    Mr. Mwonge climbs the makeshift steps to the office of the Aberdare Water Society and timidly knocks on the door. He is stocky and strong, about forty years old, and has the hands of a laborer, which he is. Today, though, he is wearing his Sunday best, a threadbare pinstriped suit coat, second- or, more probably, thirdhand. It is an early afternoon in March. The weather is cold and cloudy, typical for this mountainous part of the country on the edge of the Rift Valley. Most people are inside their huts. There is no activity in the village square other...

  16. STORY EIGHT Trying Simply to Help Eastern Europe, 1990
    (pp. 124-127)

    In the late 1980s, a couple who had made so much money that it was a slight moral embarrassment to them decided to start a private foundation. They had lived part of their childhood in Africa and loved the continent. They believed in education. They also believed in simplicity and had made their money by acting on one of those time-honored, commonsense business fundamentals: They made their business moves on the basis of trust in individual people rather than sophisticated analyses of markets or economic trends (though they did not skirt these entirely). Most of the time their instincts about...

  17. CHAPTER FOUR Avoiding History
    (pp. 128-134)

    Although the past is never an accurate guide to the future, there are broad patterns from the past that provide valid lessons which ought to inform our expectations of what development assistance can accomplish. In this chapter I look at several lessons about which the development assistance industry appears consistently to avoid thinking.

    From its beginnings the development industry has focused narrowly on doing and measuring things. It has avoided facing the historical evidence that Bauer refers to above: economic achievement depends on the conduct of people and their governments. Determining what that conduct means is, of course, not so...

  18. STORY NINE The Helper and the Helped 1968–1989
    (pp. 135-142)

    One day in the late 1960s, Nate Stoppard, scion of an old Yankee family, summarily stepped off a career path that would have guaranteed him a position as the chief executive officer (CEO) of a major company, left the big city and started an NGO over a store in New Hampshire. He was thirty-three years old. The summer before he had accepted a challenge by the pastor of his family’s church to volunteer in a hospital in Africa. He had never traveled to the third world and knew nothing about hospitals, but he had an MBA in addition to his...

  19. STORY TEN Confusing Stakes South Asia, 1991
    (pp. 143-151)

    “Damn these flies. Time after time I’ve told these guys the fruit has to be clean before it’s put on the drying trays. They still don’t get it!”

    “But that’s the way they’ve always dried them. They like the way they taste, flies and all; why should they change?”

    “Because if they want to make some goddam money for a change, they’ve got to get with the program. They have to compete. They think these crappy apricots are wonderful! Try selling ’em down country. Try exporting them. Ha! No way.”

    Malcolm is a horticulturist. He has been seconded to the...

  20. CHAPTER FIVE The Consequences of Avoiding Certain Universals of Human Nature
    (pp. 152-163)

    In 1899, when he was twenty-five, Winston Churchill ruminated about colonialism in his account of the reconquest of the Sudan by the British in the 1896–98 “River War,” during which he served as a cavalry officer under Lord Kitchener:

    What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and...

  21. STORY ELEVEN Spare No Expense—the Very Best Pakistan, 1994
    (pp. 164-174)

    Ben’s heavy-duty ear protectors muffled the sound of the helicopter blades. He was uncomfortable enough sitting in the big machine with the six prominent members of the Program Development Committee with whom he’d have to behave so diplomatically over the next week. Not being able to talk for the next hour was a relief. Anyway, they were busy looking out the chopper’s windows as they flew up the Indus valley. Ben had done the trip a few times before, and as he was in a middle seat, he just closed his eyes and reflected on what he had learned about...

  22. STORY TWELVE For the People, By the People Bangladesh, 1994
    (pp. 175-179)

    Ben was dozing; by noon the heat was getting to him. He was in the front seat of the lead jeep. There were three jeeps altogether, carrying ten visitors, not including the drivers. This was yet another of the over-organized development tours Ben had come to dislike. Along with his colleague on this evaluation assignment, Ramesh from Nepal, there was a USAID project officer (USAID was the lead donor in this multidonor community development program), two officials from the Bangladesh government, a local government official, and three senior staff of the Bangladeshi NGO Village Mobilization whose job it was to...

  23. CHAPTER SIX The Mismatch of Organizational Imperatives and Money
    (pp. 180-196)

    Any large-scale effort that is in the slightest way complicated needs to be undertaken in an organized form. Indeed, organizations have become the quintessential framework for much of modern life (factory, corporation, government body, military, voluntary association, and so forth). In the development assistance field, organizations are so self-evidently necessary that no one has questioned the form, and rightly so. Yet the more development assistance takes place through the medium of organizations, the more the natural imperatives of organizations run counter to the real mission of development. What are these imperatives, and how do they arise?

    The core characteristics of...

  24. STORY THIRTEEN Position, Not Condition India, 1996
    (pp. 197-214)

    Kendra was insistent. “We’ve got to have an AC car, Ben. We must make sure they order one, otherwise we can’t go. Ben, I know Uttar Pradesh at this time of year. It simply has to be AC.”

    Ben and Kendra were scheduled to fly the next day to Uttar Pradesh. Ravi, the executive director of Humankind’s India office in New Delhi, would have a car waiting at the Varanasi airport to drive the consultants to the project area, three hours further away, on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Record high temperatures were killing people all over...

  25. STORY FOURTEEN Headless Chickens World Bank, late 1990s
    (pp. 215-225)

    Ben had got used to it. Every time Charles Taber forgot to do something he said he would, didn’t respond to a query or a memo, lost a report in one of the piles around his desk, or in any of his myriad ways screwed up, he’d slap his palm on his forehead and say, “Oh, what a flake I am!” Ben couldn’t get mad, even when he saw how much his disarming style was intended to disarm. Nor could others who worked for Charles. That was the surprising part.

    Ben was not building a career at the World Bank...

  26. CHAPTER SEVEN The Professionalization of Development
    (pp. 226-238)

    As with getting organized to do something complex, so with becoming professional—it seems folly even to question such trends, much less suggest they have negative consequences. Yet in the case of development assistance, they do. In this chapter I focus on the professionalization of development: the ways in which the people who “do” what has become the “work” of development have come to think of themselves as trained professionals; the ways in which the language of development reinforces specialized knowledge, and how these tendencies have created another set of imperatives that is counterdevelopmental.

    I may be romanticizing the past,...

  27. STORY FIFTEEN Too Many Cooks Malawi, 1997
    (pp. 239-245)

    Professor K and Ben wait outside the office of Minister Grace Lumba. The professor, a former high official in an earlier government, now works as a private consultant, as does Ben. Ben is the “outside” consultant on this assignment, brought in by the UN Development Program (UNDP) to assess Malawi’s readiness for a new program in microcredit. Professor K is Malawian, therefore he is the “local consultant.” For two weeks they have gone everywhere together, and the professor’s contacts—he knows virtually everyone in the capital—have made the work go smoothly.

    A large, modestly dressed lady comes out to...

  28. STORY SIXTEEN Rhetorical Support Netherlands, 1998
    (pp. 246-256)

    The woman Ben spoke with on the phone had a Dutch accent, but because the organization she represented had an English name, he didn’t realize it too was Dutch. The name—World Initiative for Poverty Eradication, or WIPE—though awkward and more than a little unfortunate, sounded to Ben like those of many development organizations. He had never heard of it.

    Marie Louise identified herself as the new head of research and evaluation for WIPE. She wanted to know if Ben would be interested in leading a team of consultants to look at how her organization was positioned for the...

  29. CHAPTER EIGHT Marketing Development
    (pp. 257-270)

    A cousin of mine in California refuses to go to funerals because they are “too depressing.” She does not deny death; she knows that the people whose funerals she avoids are dead. She simply prefers not to walk up to reality in all its full-frontal three-dimensionality when she does not have to do so.

    Like my cousin, the general public’s avoidance of a negative message about poverty has become more urgent. Povertyisdepressing and threatening. Polls show that Americans want little to do with poverty in the third world. Perhaps this is because of our prosperity or how tenuous...

  30. STORY SEVENTEEN Unintended Consequences Kamuli, Uganda, 1998
    (pp. 271-280)

    Ben has been on roads like this so many times that he worries he’ll forget which country he is in unless he takes careful notes. He removes his steno book and pen from his shoulder bag and forces himself to start, though he’d rather doze off. While the jeep bumps along, he shakily scribbles a couple of boilerplate notes just to get his hand used to the effort: “Classic development dilemma—how can you help people become self-sufficient?” Then he looks out the window and continues: “A single-lane dirt road to a place called Kamuli, north of Jinja, thirty miles...

  31. STORY EIGHTEEN The People’sProgram Zimbabwe, 1999
    (pp. 281-285)

    The community meeting starts off slowly. No one seems to want to say anything.

    It is getting harder and harder for Ben to sit on the ground. He kneels on one knee for a few minutes and then shifts to the other. But he is as comfortable under the circumstances as he could be. The shade under the trees is refreshing. Katerisa District is in the hills, and there’s a breeze too. No one speaks, but the meeting leader isn’t rushing things. No one is in any hurry.

    Neither is Ben. Thomas, a Zimbabwean man whom Ben had met the...

  32. CONCLUSION The Case for a Radical Reduction in Development Assistance
    (pp. 286-294)

    In his 1949 inaugural speech, Harry Truman proposed four major courses of action directed at undeveloped areas. He began his fourth point by saying:

    More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.

    For the first time in history humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people.

    The United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development...

  33. Epilogue
    (pp. 295-296)

    This book was written before the attacks of September 11, 2001. After that date, I wondered if those events had altered my conclusion that we need less development assistance money, less direct foreign aid, not more. As the book goes to press, what is happening in the world and in the development industry remains completely consistent with what I have been saying in this book, in some respects so much so that even I am surprised.

    In early 2002, the subject of development assistance began to be discussed on newspaper front pages and in op ed pieces, a prominence development...

  34. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-300)
  35. Index
    (pp. 301-303)
  36. Back Matter
    (pp. 304-305)