“Yesterday I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer! Tomorrow I move to a small African village with no electricity or running water! Lets do this!” -Someone I know
I struggle to understand aid workers really I do. I see the passion and emotion with which they feel for their prey, but I don’t understand why. Pathological Altruism, Crusaderism, its not hard to see from an outside perspective, or if one is self aware. I recently listened to a podcast which brought me to a all too familiar conclusion. Good intentions do not good results make and more importantly do not make sustainable change. I’ve understood this since I was very young. Not that I had any evidence, but it makes and made a certain amount of sense to me. I would say I’ve been spending part of my life finding evidence to support my conclusion, but I think the history of most aid programs speaks for itself. I think the most telling example which comes to mind was from a history class I took in high school. The Japanese rapidly industrialized in a period of 20-30 years during the late 1800’s.
Think back to history class, how did modern economies evolve? Nothing complex just the simple version. There was a production surplus and workers began to specialize. Eventually modern states arose. That’s all one really needs to know to figure out why this project was doomed to fail. Modern States had never rose de novo in the poorest regions. While China and Japan had been technologically backwards they had the sociological and governing structures in place. The catch up effect (economic convergence) took care of the rest.
The important thing to note is that all of these things are absent from these villages. No modern governance, no advanced societal structure and no heavily specialized industries. Trying to pull these societies out of poverty ignores the history of human development. A village needs more than a well, it needs to know how to build the well, how to maintain and pass down that knowledge and, just as important, a societal structure which can maintain and improve on that level of civilization.
Aid creates a subsidization of behavior. What sort of behavior is very important to know. One does not necessarily need to understand economics or psychology, just people. Not in a general but in a specific sense. To help someone one must intimately know them and what they need. This is not to say one needs to be an expert in the academic sense but in the cultural sense. To help an American it is best to have another American help them. The cost of effectively helping someone grows exponentially the farther you are away from them both, personally, culturally and economically. The development of a town in Austria is going to look very different from one in India.
Education is a form of capital and for much of the developed world it is an important one. It is a signal of desirability for investors, namely employers. However, a product’s value is subjective and even the seeming magic elixir of education cannot solve all problems. If there are no employers, or they do not value education, education is worse than worthless it is a miss allocation of resources both for the parents, those funding the school (could be parents) and worst the children. While children are in school they are not building other sorts of capital such as experience or helping their parents earn money. Let us not forget that Europe, the Middle East and China all dragged themselves from the much of subsistence farming before modern schools were ever conceived. Even America was well on its way to becoming the richest country on Earth before public schools were established nationwide. That is not to say that there was no education, but that it certainly didn’t take the form of the modern primary school system (which on a side note has a tenuous track record). Schools are a luxury, a specialty, the type of investment a society makes when it has mastered the art of feeding itself and possesses excess capital. One might point to the success of education in India or China but this is a comparison of apples to oranges. Education has and had value in those countries because villagers could move to areas, primarily cities, where education had value. Villagers did not innately value education they only sought the investment of those who valued it. Nowadays the investment has spread outside of the cities in search of cheap labor and land. But that sort of investment in villages again requires access to external investments and markets. A few steps ahead of a impoverished village in Africa. So much of aid focuses on the trappings, the aesthetics of growth and ignores the economics and social technology necessary.
The assertion that we need to help Africa because white colonists destroyed it, by temporarily bringing in more white people is absurd. This is simply a mutated version of the white man’s burden. Progressive egalitarianism is truly a secular protestant by-product. Inequality is the state of nature. Inequality is the state of civilization. Equality is an illusion of primitive societies who lack the social and economic tech to show just how unequal they are. The more civilization the more inequality get over it.
Finally go read this if you already haven’t: http://radishmag.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/come-back-colonialism/
PS. There is such thing as exploitative inequality, but that is bad because it is exploitative not because inequality. Making everyone equal will not fix exploitation and fixing exploitation will not make everyone equal. I use exploitation to roughly mean parasitism, fraud and anarcho-tyranny.