Investments not Aid

When is international aid most urgently required? When a country has been devastated by war or when it’s in the later stages of rebuilding itself?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been in contact with colleagues in Kosovo about the situation in their country — since it’s actually become a country. I did consulting work in Kosovo on and off from 2001 to 2006, so I witnessed it at the height of donor driven relief work – when Land Cruisers, Thai restaurants and rents seemed to multiply every day – and more recently as the focus has shifted from survival to sustainability. In charity jargon, we call this the transition from “relief to development”. The concept of “development” is complex in a country so close to Europe and yet trapped in the past—leave the capital Prishtina and you’re in mule-driven cart territory. Despite Kosovo’s potential, deeply seated barriers exist to its long term economic success and political stability.

I wasn’t surprised to hear the nation of Kosovo was experiencing considerable teething problems. (I have a 17 month old son so I don’t use the teething metaphor lightly!) Disappointment with newly appointed officials, continued reliance on international embassies, and unrealistic public expectations were all to be expected during this transition from UN protectorate to a nation in name only. And, of course, the donor money is drying up, with most cutting budgets and some pulling out all together. I guess the donors think it’s job done: Kosovo has gone from being a repressed Serbian backwater, to a victim of ethnic cleansing, to an independent state in about a 20 year period. In many ways it’s a stunning transformation. And yet the real work of helping to build Kosovo — assisting to secure peace, stability and prosperity — has only just begun.

If you scanned countries around a globe, few would put Kosovo among the neediest. But maybe pure “need” isn’t what it’s about…well, maybe not just what it’s about.

Of course we need to be there when disaster – human or natural – strikes: when bombs drop or the earth opens up or the sky refuses to open up with rain. The moral imperative to assist in the face of sheer disaster is clear and usually compelling. But what about long after the disaster, when the pockmarked buildings have been torn down but the country is far from being rebuilt. Then what? Of course, the onus for development must shift to the country itself: to local leaders to draw up the plans, provide resources, and mobilize the public. But the need for international partners is still there, and perhaps more pressing than ever.

There’s been a lot of talk over recent years about “failed states” and their role in global instability. Yet we have to ask ourselves if we’re prepared to make an investment in nation building: a complex, protracted business of supporting local economic initiative, helping to build the fabric of an active citizenry, enforcing the rule of law and ensuring the delivery of decent social services, to name just a few components. There aren’t a lot of quick wins and planned milestones often pass unmet, leaving the entire process feeling frustrating and futile

But if we rushed to Kosovo to hand out food, then surely we shouldn’t drift away now, when Kosovo is trying to figure out how to grow its own food. And that’s exactly what the dialogue is about now in Kosovo: developing the commercial farming sector, privatizing state enterprises, improving education. Big, complex problems that require complex solutions.

For the people of Kosovo, their future is on the line. OK, bombs aren’t dropping; this threat is more subtle. The threat of their new nation remaining broken and partially fixed with young people migrating abroad every day and old people surviving on the part of their wages they send home. Surely that’s not what anyone would hope for Kosovo; surely that’s not why we went there in the first place. Just to make sure they had food in their mouths but no country to actually grow.

Sometimes the developing world needs partners, not saviours. It’s a much more complicated, less romantic role to play. But in the end perhaps more satisfying for everyone involved.

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