I am sorry for you, you mean well: trust and history in the making of a better world

Why do foreign aid and advice so often fail? A transformative social vision means nothing without humility.

Rosalind Eyben
24 June 2014

The author non-reflexively instructing a Guarani community about holding the state accountable. Bolivia 2001. Credit: Rosalind Eyben. All rights reserved.

My soft wool, tailored Jaeger dress was fresh from London’s New Year sales. I had lots of business cards to give away, and a mental list of what I wanted from the meeting. But as the taxi pulled up on Manhattan’s swanky Park Avenue I had little time to consider my surroundings - except for the vivid primary colours of the mural on the wall that greeted me as I stepped out of the elevator, directly into a large reception room. Diego Rivera? I didn’t ask. I was there for other reasons.  My host, a senior British diplomat, had organised a lunch for me to meet with representatives from the G77 group of ‘developing’ countries.

After his Filipino husband-and-wife team of domestic servants had placed a plate of cucumber soup in front of every guest, our host asked me to speak about the importance of something I was working on in 1999 for the UK Department of International Development (DFID) called the “global social policy principles:” labour, health and education standards that all governments would be encouraged to implement, and the World Bank to respect, when negotiating credit agreements with borrower countries. To make the principles legitimate and not just another donor imposition, they required the agreement of the G77 at the UN General Assembly in New York.

“Globalisation,” I said, “is generating great wealth. This could be used to massively reduce poverty worldwide and to reduce global inequality. Latest estimates suggest that the world’s richest 225 people have a combined wealth equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 per cent of the world’s people.” My fellow diners slurped their soup and clanked their spoons. “The question for all of us is what is to be done to manage this new era in a way which reduces these glaring inequalities and helps to lift millions of people out of poverty.” 

Born in Britain to radical parents who were founding members of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, I had inherited their commitment to transformative social justice. That commitment shaped my work as an international development practitioner, and the social policy principles seemed a step in the right direction.

By this time the Filipinos had quietly taken away my untouched soup and replaced it with a plate of congealing roast beef.  Conscious of my audience, I stressed: “The United Kingdom sees the social policy principles as an important guide to helping poor people realise their economic and social rights. We definitely do not see this as the imposition of conditions.”

But that was exactly how my listeners saw it.  In November 1999, the World Trade talks in Seattle broke up in disarray. ‘Developing’ countries objected to a rich-nation cabal that planned to impose onerous labour standards on them while continuing to subsidize their own non-competitive agriculture and industries. Yet my inner sense of purpose deluded me into believing that all would be well. With sufficient force and demonstrations of good will, everyone would be convinced that the principles made sense.

Some months later the conversation moved to a country house in upstate New York donated by the Rockefellers for informal, off-the-record UN negotiations. It was midnight, and the conversation was not going well. A friendly Arab diplomat poured himself another glass of Jim Beam from the well-stocked bar and turned smilingly to me where I sat by a blazing log fire, nursing my own glass and staring miserably into the flames. 

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Rosalind,” he said. “You are honest and truly believe that your proposal will make a better world.  But” - putting down his glass to emphasize the point - “I, my country, and the G77 don’t trust who you work for. And it is with them we would have to make the deal. I am sorry for you, you mean well.”

I trudged off to my room. The deal was dead. That night, I learned why good personal relationships are necessary but not sufficient to change the history that defines who I am in the eyes of others. I saw myself as a radical challenger to the status quo, but to them I was nothing of the kind, just one more enthusiastic do-gooder naively promoting a neo-colonial agenda.

Through the failure of international negotiations about global social policy principles, I learned the importance of discovering, and responding to, others’ perceptions of my own professional identity. The following year I moved to head the DFID office in Bolivia, and learned the same lesson in a very different context.

I was excited about the opportunities that Bolivia offered to reduce poverty and social exclusion. Like many other donors, DFID was cutting back on projects that delivered health, education, water and roads to local communities, in favour of putting money into the government’s central budget instead. I was convinced this would encourage Bolivians to hold their own institutions accountable for the delivery of services that the state should provide, not donor agencies. But I was wrong.

Local people expressed reservations and suspicion of DFID’s motives. I was shocked when a Bolivian development professional said to me: “You may think that we see DFID as working for social justice and poverty reduction. I appreciate that’s what you think, but we know DFID as a donor that for years and years has financed rich farmers to exploit the poor.”

Meanwhile, when visiting the countryside, I sought to convince villagers of the political advantages of budget support over local projects. In the Gran Chaco region, I even found a blackboard to sketch out for a puzzled Guarani community how this kind of support would empower them to claim their rights as Indigenous people. But like many before me, I was telling them what I thought was good for them.

On another occasion, Hilarion, the DFID office driver who had watched my efforts among the Guarani, took me to a village in the foothills of the Andes. A local contact had arranged for us to meet community leaders. On either side of the road, I spotted the bright red berries of the coffee bushes. The harvest was due, and one of the things I wanted to discuss was the price that farmers hoped to get for their crop. 

There was a distant sound of hymn singing from the local Protestant church, a tin shack on the village outskirts. We went into the school, our large bodies squashed into child-sized desks and chairs. Men and women drifted in. They had taken time from their weekly rest to tell us what international aid should do for them. Hilarion was translating from Aymara into Spanish.

“The long and the short of it,” said the chairman of the village development committee, “is that we used to see some benefits from aid money - a water scheme or a road. Now that you foolish donors are giving all your money to the politicians (Hilarion sniggered) it disappears into their pockets and we see none of it. Are you from cloud cuckoo land?”

Was I foolish or hypocritical, or both? My enthusiasm for making a better world blinded me to realities that interfered with my transformative vision. It also stopped me reflecting on how others might see me as a representative of a sanctimonious British government that ignored rather than acknowledged its imperial past. I learned that trust-based personal relationships can’t wipe geo-political memories away.  

Nevertheless, my relations with Bolivians who were willing to teach me gradually helped me to appreciate the importance of “reflexive practice” - a deliberate process of becoming unsettled about what is ‘normal’ - and of acknowledging that there are many concurrent ‘realities.’ Reflexivity helped me to appreciate that the ways in which I understand and act in the world are always shaped by the interplay of history, power and human relationships.

This recognition matters as much for organisations as it does for individuals. And, as I discovered when re-visiting the United Nations in 2012 to research the rise of new donors like China and Brazil, it’s a practice that the British government finds very hard to learn when its influence is challenged. Giving up the historical baggage of empire in order to develop equal relationships with other countries is still a distant prospect.

What to do? A good start would be for Britain to give up its seat on the UN Security Council. That’s not because the UK won’t at some point be able to pay for the swanky Park Avenue apartments and high profile entertaining that accompanies the desire to throw your weight around in the international arena.  Rather, it’s because the UK government will eventually recognize that behaving as an agenda-setting ‘world power’ actually undermines its efforts to help make a better world. That task is a team game or it is nothing, so it’s time we all became team players. 

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