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Food for a not really altruistic thought


Human Rights Reader 276


The human rights-based framework opens our eyes to the outdated traditional model of aid. Since the new human rights narrative focuses on global justice and on pluralism, it criticizes international development agencies as ‘a cosmopolitan elite that is wrongfully embracing Globalization’ and it challenges the latter’s supremacy.


*: Also referred to as foreign aid, development aid or overseas development cooperation (ODA).


For foreign aid to be effective in reducing poverty it must first and foremost be disbursed in good faith for that purpose –without political naiveté or double talk.


Unfortunately, aid is still seen as ‘temporary assistance’, a sort of noblesse oblige on the part of rich countries (whose riches, to begin with, derived in good part from the impoverishing exploitation of many of the present aid-dependent countries). (S. Taylor and M. Rowson)


1. The notion that today’s aid dependent countries can, with the right macroeconomic framework and new trade rules, grow into fiscal independence within an ethically-defensible-time-frame is simply mistaken. (S. Taylor and M. Rowson)


2. The evidence that foreign aid presents to us, namely that mostly technology will save the world is, these days, less and less plausible.**

**: Take two examples:

i)The UN-sanctioned human right to nutrition is often –but should not be– interpreted as the right to food aid. It is communities that have to decide their own food policies thus exercising what is referred-to as food sovereignty. (M. Arana-Cedeno) From that perspective, the right to nutrition should also be understood as an economic right, a cultural right, as well as to include the right to safe water, the right to participate, the right to information and the right to a sustainable environment. (D. Alhindawi)

ii) As regards the human right to health, foreign aid investments on quality health care services and on actions that tackle the social determinants of health (SDH) are not alternative pathways; they are indeed complementary. In the case of AIDS, this means that HIV is more than a virus; as someone said, AIDS is about power relations in the bedroom and in the boardroom of both donor and recipient governments. (M. Sharma)


3. Actually, foreign aid disarticulates the state from the citizen; governments listens to the concerns of donors rather than those of their own citizen.


4. Foreign aid cannot work when it is donors who identify the different needs of people rather than letting the people concerned actually articulate their needs. So donors must get away from doing so much of the talking and moving more towards listening. (A. Vaatz)


5. What is essentially missing in development cooperation is for it to consistently strengthen the people’s understanding of democracy and of their rights as individuals and as communities.


6. Therefore, for foreign aid to work, it needs to move towards a convergence of different, but compatible interests between donors and end-recipients (claim holders)…and, so far, human rights (HR) are not part of those converging compatible interests.***

***: Moreover, too often, politicians and civil servants have interests at odds with ODA.


7. Furthermore, to comply with foreign aid conditionalities, governments make administrative reforms as required by the donors rather than in response to the civic and political struggles of its citizens.


8. Let’s call a spade a spade: Donors have a clear political presence in many a country; they seek to influence change in that country through their financial leverage. In that effort, there are intense internal political struggles. Donors thus exert patronage through networks of clients within and outside government.**** This, because aid officials need to demonstrate to their head offices that they are having a tangible influence on the local scene. ****: If needed, donors use informal ‘shadow conversations’ that are at odds with government policy. (R. Eyben)


9. Putting many foreign and national experts in a room does simply not guarantee that one will get the best answers. [Not unless one starts by asking the key right questions… which is more important than knowing all the answers]. The same applies for guru-like experts and jet-set consultants that are regularly brought in from the North.


10. Development agencies purport they know the solutions to given problems… and others should benefit from that. For instance, the World Bank considers itself a ‘knowledge bank’; it thinks progress is intrinsically linked to knowledge and knowledge transfer is supposed to be the key to accelerate progress in poor countries. This raises expectations in the latter: People there hope-for and expect advice and expertise from outside.


11. The recipient country ownership rhetoric only hides the fact that the donors continue to pull the strings. Donors do not want to make themselves superfluous. Period. The talk of ownership is thus a lie; wouldn’t you agree? (A. Vaatz)


In human rights work, we put our money where our ideals are…i.e., where the risks are.


Human rights activists oppose aid more because it is borne out of compassion than because it is ineffective. (G. Garcia Marquez)


12. Donors have a continuing obsession with project management tools –prominently so with the logical framework matrix (or logframe for short). This allows them to pin everything down from the outset. Logframes are  primarily used in an effort to (narrowly) demand and interpret accountability. Ask yourself: How much detail can/should a logframe contain? With too much detail it becomes cumbersome and, over time, inaccurate. From the HR point of view, the most important part of it is the rightmost column which lists the Risks and Assumptions –most of them falling under the structural causes of underdevelopment.*****  In that case, the logframe’s Objectively Verifiable Indicators (OVIs) should then measure changes in structural conditions and in HR principles (rather than measure the achievement of sectoral objectives and activities).

*****: A typical example, of an assumption with structural implications would be: “The government will be actively responsive-to and will complement project-launched activities by, alongside, investing its own resources and demanding a participatory decision-making planning and implementation”.


13. How can a logframe address HR accountability then? The project implementation process must be focused on overcoming the structural ‘risks and assumptions’ and this requires continuous active engagement of both claim holders and duty bearers. For accountability purposes, the challenge is to identify and move to change the constraining structural conditions thus fulfilling all HR principles. (D. Curtis)  Given the inadequacies (and abuses) of the foreign aid system, the corollary to this is that the actual processes that foreign aid sets in motion must be more important than its volume. This additionally means that, when providing technical assistance or policy advice, donors must be guided by both HR principles and standards.


Foreign aid: Can human rights impacts be foreseen?


14. In a way, HR impact assessment (HRIA) overlaps with poverty and social impact assessment exercises. The three of them offer empirical evidence on the likely social consequences on the living conditions of different social groups in society. The information that comes from them has the potential to foresee and thus mitigate negative consequences or even prevent them. These impact assessments determine whether measures are politically feasible by considering existing power relations and possible opposition to the new measures. They open up space for dialogue among claim holders and duty bearers. But unless policy makers take into account the results of HRIA exercises, even the best analyses will be useless. HRIA ownership thus matters greatly. Findings usually support the position already for long held by large parts of civil society. They provide claim holders with a negotiating platform with donors. HRIAs are best if implemented by independent teams.


15. Economic partnership agreements (EPAs) and free trade agreements (FTAs) simply must have HR impact assessments and audits. To us in PHM, this is non-negotiable.


Foreign aid: wrong focus?


Often trapped in a ‘growth-only’ delusion, development cooperation vows to focus on poor people, but instead primarily focuses on poor countries…The HR-based framework definitely focuses on poor people –everywhere.


16. This is most important, because 72% of the world’s poor live in middle income countries (MICs). And there, the ratio of bilateral to multilateral aid is 2/3:1/3.


17. MICs can, in principle, support and emancipate their own poor people, but their poor lack power (are not empowered) and their governments lack any real determination and commitment to end poverty.


18. Mind you, even if –with foreign aid– the MDGs are met, there will still be one billion poor people by 2015… almost ¾ living in MICs.


19. Donors complain of unresponsive governance there; they consider ‘bad governance’ the most dangerous trap. They purport to address it face-on. The question is: What changes do they insist on? For them to engage in debates on frontally tackling inequality should not be considered an infringement on sovereignty, but a step towards HR. But do they?


20. If rich countries purport to provide poor countries with development resources, it is not at all against their own interests to do so. Otherwise, why would they do it? Much more ‘real aid’ would be for them to:

  • cut subsidies to agriculture in the North,
  • forgive the overpowering foreign debt of the South,
  • not steal the resources (both human and material) of the poor countries,
  • not dump their cigarettes, their toxic waste, their genetically modified seeds… on the countries of the South,
  • not sell weapons and train the South dictators’ armies, etc.

But this would be too costly, drastic and inconveniencing for them.  Traditional ODA is just a more cozy niche to be in…


21. Does the reader really think any of the above is ever going to happen in our rich-countries-dominated-unfair-world?


22. Any time people start talking about development aid, I just automatically assume they are on the wrong side of the horse, no matter how well intentioned they are. (M. Anderson)


23. Bottom line, donor governments have been and are very selective in their support for HR (focusing mostly on civil and political rights –especially in their conditionalities). The selection of HR which donor governments choose to address (mostly chosen by narrow self-interest considerations) more often than not ignores addressing economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) and its principles (participation, non-discrimination, rule of law, etc.).


24. But the violations of ESCR destroys social relationships, the social fabric, social cohesion and overall trust. Donors can indeed contribute to stop these violations and thus prevent these tensions from flaring up –which seems to me is in their long-term interest. But the million dollars question is: Will they?


25. After all the above is said and done, consider: A domestic fair progressive taxation system and other redistributive policies (including decisive action against capital flight) are, in last instance, more important than ODA.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


Adapted from Contact, WCC, Issue 186, Nov., 2008; Development in Practice; Globalization and Health: Pathways, Evidence and Policy, R. Labonte, T. Schrecker, C. Packer and V. Runnels Eds, Routledge Books, 2009; D+C, 36:12, Dec.2009; D+C 37:5, May 2010; D+C 37:7-8, July/Aug 2010; D+C, 37:10, Oct 2010; The Broker, Issue 19, Apr 2010; The Broker, Issue 23, Dec.2010/Jan2011; and The Broker, Issue 24, Feb/March 2011.



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  1. 1Iftikhar Soomro

    “Foreign aid cannot work when it is donors who identify the different needs of people rather than letting the people concerned actually articulate their needs. So donors must get away from doing so much of the talking and moving more towards listening”

    It is where our instututes and organizations are compromising, a peti borgoise mind set have not only provided an access of IFIs to work for their agendas, they also participated in violating the human rights.

    So many organizations claimed that they have anticipated HRBA in their work and programs, but none or less have went through any scan of HRA or have any evidence or to discuss HRA.

    Participation and accountability is still big question mark for the institutes/organizations to value them and incorporate them at the mind set level.

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