Development cloaked in emperor's new clothes

October 9, 1998

The new jargon of international aid agencies loses sight of the goal - to fight poverty, says Helen Hintjens.

All the evidence suggests growing absolute and relative poverty in the "developing world" over the past two decades. Countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and much of Africa have experienced economic collapse and social upheaval. As Bangladesh recovers from floods, Mexico's economy teeters on financial collapse, and refugees flee across borders, humanitarian agency personnel scratch their heads and wonder what to do next.

At the same time, the language used by international development agencies has become increasingly idealistic and flowery. Poverty alleviation through micro-enterprise is not enough, for instance. Development projects must also encourage participation, empowerment of the poor, gender equality and democracy. A new participatory development gospel has emerged and is being promoted by most development agencies, including the World Bank.

Poverty, disease, environmental disaster and civil conflicts are to be overcome by a better form of development intervention. Good governance, participation, democracy, empowerment, conflict resolution, gender equality and environmentally sustainable development express this hope, and non-economist social scientists have become purveyors of such "new, improved" varieties of development intervention. The harsh realities of poverty in the Third World are now separated from this kind of refined aid "conditionality" by the yawning chasm of aid funding. As demand for aid far outstrips available funds, it becomes harder to allocate funds in a fair way.

Rather like the tailors in Hans Christian Andersen's story of the emperor's new clothes, development studies experts find ourselves promising development that will be "extraordinarily beautiful", woven in the "most marvellous cloth" of people-centred, holistic and culturally sensitive project design and implementation. Project managers in developing countries are obliged to make wild promises.

Yet not much concrete, cloth or anything else is being delivered. As conditions become more complex, the language of development becomes more jargon-laden and hyperbolic. High-sounding language can certainly help to maintain morale among development professionals but the reality seems that development's new clothes are largely invisible, and it now stands naked before the huge task of eradicating world poverty.

A small group of initiated courtiers in developing countries has learned to appreciate the subtle qualities of the new, invisible clothes in which development aid is clothing itself.

In Andersen's story, it is an illiterate boy who wakes everyone up, exclaiming: "But he doesn't have anything on!" People finally admit "He has nothing on!" In development terms, this new set of development aid conditionalities requiring participation, empowerment, democracy, gender equality and sustainable development does not work; it is not happening.

No amount of development conditionality will bring about heaven on earth. Before we are equal, empowered, participating and democratically governed in sustainable economies, we will all be dead.

Development studies as a field of social science research, teaching and practice, has never been more important, with all the problems of poverty and global recession. If the subject is to gain category status before the next research assessment exercise, its academic representatives must show more commitment to development studies as a field of both applied and academic research.

At the Development Studies Association's annual conference in Bradford in September there was evidence of increasing awareness of the undesirable uses to which advice can be put by policy-makers. To restore to development studies its intellectual integrity and academic independence requires an honest look in the mirror. Are donors sometimes just being given what they want to hear? Is the growing convergence in language and outlook between policy-makers and academics in the field not a bit like that in the emperor's new clothes, where "all the men of great importance who had comeI stared and stared; but they saw no more than the emperor had seen, and they said the same thing he had said, 'It is lovely'."

When in power, it is wise to seek advice from as many sources as possible. The Labour government has taken a step in this direction recently in arranging a series of development policy forums in nine British cities. The next of this year's forums will take place in Belfast on October 13 (details at uk) but if you miss this year's, go in a year's time. Don't miss the procession!

Helen Hintjens is lecturer at the school of social sciences and international development at the University of Wales, Swansea.

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