Support with Strings Attached

Do people across the developing world need to conform to our values and sensibilities in order for us to “invest” our aid funds in them?

I’ve struggled with this issue for some time working in the development sector. Development used to be all about building roads and schools, teaching math and English. But more and more it’s about getting people to make different choices about their lifestyle and values, choices that we believe will improve their health, education and wellbeing. Behaviour change, we call it, and the idea is to change the locals’ knowledge, attitudes and practices. But it all leaves me with the sense that ultimately we’re trying to get them to behave more like us. And I’m not sure they want to – or even need to – in order to lead better lives.

A related debate emerged recently with regard to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s approval of a law that further entrenched women’s second- class status in the country, limiting their rights to property and, some suggest, legalising rape within marriage. The question asked by UK pundits (and perhaps members of the public) was, “Is this what we’ve been fighting for?”

The word “uncivilised” peppered the debate. Here we thought we’d been transforming Afghanistan into a civilised society and they show their barbarian colours, dragging their women around by their proverbial hair. Used to be that civilisation was marked by the existence of brick houses and paved roads, but now more than ever the bell-weather of a so-called “civilisation” is how it treats its women and children. So here we are spending money and losing life in Afghanistan to support seemingly inveterate misogynists. Do such people deserve the benefit of our resources?

It’s a tough one. On the one hand you don’t want to support abusive regimes or prop up repressive societies. On the other hand to assume that the southern and eastern societies will operate the same way we do is chauvinistic, isn’t it?

It raises deep questions about our sense of mission across the developing world. Are we there to help them to improve their healthcare, education, physical infrastructure and social services? Or to see that they change the attitudes, customs, and behaviours that we deem damagingly backward? Of course the two are linked: development professionals will tell you that maternal and infant mortality rates are directly linked to societal attitudes towards women. Still, over the past ten years we’ve shifted away from services and towards attitudes.

The colonials and missionaries were quite clear and unapologetic about their mandate in the farther flung corners of the world: to make the locals more religious, more obedient and ultimately more productive workers. We’re not quite so fundamentalist, but our transformational intent isn’t all that different. They wanted to churn out born again Christians; we’re trying to produce born again progressives.

And nowhere is our desire to make “them” more like “us” apparent than in HIV/AIDS sector. For years I watched programs that pushed the “ABCs”: abstain, be faithful, and wear condoms. Three behaviours largely unheard of in essentially polygamous, patriarchal societies. We produced endless posters preaching the value of life to people whose daily lives were miserable. We emphasised individual choice to people whose decisions are almost wholly framed by the needs of their extended family. We tried to transform the masses into ruthless individuals who wore condoms, had risky conversations about risky sexual behaviour, chucked out feckless partners, and stood up to discuss their HIV status in societies where standing up for anything is dangerous. The fact that the majority of locals believed that AIDS was a result of witchcraft was never discussed in official campaigns. That most chose the security of marriage and money over the ignomy of individualism was never mentioned. Sexual practices like dry sex were kept hush, hush. And the advice of traditional healers to deflower virgins was largely ignored. Year after year of stable or rising infection rates didn’t stop us from trying to create legions of condom-wearing, conversation-having, sex-shunning Africans. Trillions of dollars of aid money just couldn’t turn them into the Huxtables, no matter how much we wanted it.

And it all left me feeling like a miserable missionary: miserable in my failure to change behaviours and miserable to be carrying on the age old tradition of trying to westernize the locals. The reality is that most societies that need our aid money – from Afghanistan to Kosovo to Mozambique and back across to the Philippines — don’t operate the way we do. In most, old men rule families and villages, often with impunity. Money doesn’t just talk, it silences people. Clans and families shape norms more than the state does. Spiritual and religious belief holds sway over rational choices. Widespread poverty means there is little scope for the type of social advancement that breeds bold individualism, and people’s options are circumscribed by the search for survival. Simple. Thinking that we’re going to change century old behaviours and “liberate” women in this climate is not only arrogant, it’s deeply futile.

Of course Afghanistan’s treatment of its women is anathema to me, and of course I would love to see more countries adopt more liberal gender stances. But that’s not the point. I never believed that the ultimate aim of intervening in Afghanistan was to get them to behave like us. Sooner, rather than later, we have to start accepting “them” for who “they” are—working with their realities rather than doggedly attempting to change them. All over the world experience has shown that cultural change comes on the back of socio-economic improvements. Not the other way around.

People across the developing world need financial and technical support, not sermons delivered under the guise of western inspired behaviour change campaigns. Let’s leave that to the missionaries and accept the discomfort of our more agnostic role. Because if adoption of liberal values is a barometer of our international success, then we should start channelling more aid to Iceland.

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