Paternalism and development: can charity lead to parity?

The Africa for Norway “music” video is a tongue-in-cheek, poignant albeit facetious response to a highly relevant issue in today’s international development and humanitarian aid sectors, i.e. of the ongoing discussion on the polarising narratives of international development policy. Documentaries like Poverty, Inc. have further highlighted this and brought it to the forefront of public discourse. On the one hand, there are international aid volunteers and organisations that come to less developed areas with the best of intentions and moral aspirations to help rebuild the society; however, the manner in which this is carried out can be considered intrinsically paternalistic, given that aid is provided based on what the givers consider to be important for the communities, without asking/consulting with said communities on the actual needs. International donors might justify this unequal transaction by gaining the trust and backing of local governments (and therefore convincing themselves that they have received backing from the communities), often failing to realise that a majority of these underdeveloped countries lack democracy, basic rights, and a strong legal and rule of law system; the donors therefore create partnerships with corrupt local governments, which don’t propagate the true needs of communities. In giving aid to communities, local governments might later “owe” the donor governments, which may be redeemed through the approval for the host country to build pipelines, rigs, and factories in the country, reduction/removal of taxation for conglomerates, votes in the UN Security Council, amongst others. The inherent backbone of these transactions creates an unequal power relationship; they are not partners, but are “givers and takers”. The giver is kind, virtuous, and powerful, while the receiver ought to be thankful for the kindness bestowed.

Paternalism has been the primary theory underlying developmental policies in the past few decades, and we are slowly seeing the cracks within this system with a clear conscience, but a fragile foundation for implementation. While once considered noble and endorsed by various celebrities, the paternalism of international aid creates and perpetuates a vicious cycle of a lack of rights, poverty, and dependence on aid. We live in a complex world, and catchphrases such as “giving back” and “save the world” place a far too simplistic (albeit catchy!) notion on developmental economics; they strip local markets of their economic power, governments of their political platforms, and people of their voices. Development and economics go hand-in-hand; the economy must be fed in order for development to run, and development cannot run too far without sustainability. Analysis on local markets and needs assessments on communities should be conducted in order for people to be given the tools to sustain themselves the way they want. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

This sector needs a platform of reason between the various social, cultural, and historical definitions of international development, and the most effective and inclusive means to go about it. No system is perfect, but continual discussions and critiques of current social structures and theory are vital for holistic growth and development. Most come with honest and true intentions in this sector, but good intentions must be cautiously backed with theoretical knowledge and practical know-how gained from precedents to prevent long-lasting mistakes that could gravely and adversely alter the world. We need more organisations that provide the bridge between ideas and their implementation by awakening the “doubting Thomas” in each of us and broadening our perspectives in order to brainstorm ideas, question and be questioned, and facilitate sustainable and holistic growth to those most in need.

Mallika is an international affairs and development professional with an academic background in Sociology and Public Administration. She has experience in programme and information management, social and economic development, education and human rights within non-profit and international organisations. In her spare time, she likes to learn (and brush up on) language skills, play Scrabble, and watch (and rewatch) The Office.