Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Cusp of International Development


Sitting on the cusp between our American world and the struggling, smaller nations of Asia and Latin America, the questions stare back daily as I drive from my lovely garden home through the worn-out streets of these capital cities to our comfortable offices.  Protected or isolated in those splendid situations (whether INGO, UN or WB), the issues of poverty, corruption, dislocation, fragility and limited resources can seem too far away.

The contrasts between the international development world and the daily reality for more than half of the people in the countries in which we chose to work, marry and raise our children can seem a heavy weight at times.

Whereas Cambodia may look better than it did twenty years ago (for good reasons, including Scott's work), Honduras (where Jeff has worked for 28 years) and Nepal (my adopted home) have struggled and, in certain ways, decayed over that time.

There are, of course, positive MDG indices that show how the international development exercise has been effective (e.g., lower maternal or infant mortality rates), but there are many less diagnostic indicators of daily life (e.g. massive migration, dependence on remittances, weakened government services, debt, et al) that provide a window into the darker realities.

Of course, it's not just our beloved home-countries of which we speak. If you have read some of Amartya Sen's recent writings on India, or the occasional reporting on economic issues, corruption and internal migration in China, it's clear that the vast nations of Asia are facing some difficult choices, as well.  There are deep issues in Europe, North Africa and Africa, too, of course. It's just we see these challenges and divisions in our countries more clearly.

Thus our skepticism as to our the structures that we have created to resolve and assist the socio-economic issues facing countries like Nepal and Honduras.  Inside many of these international agencies, so full of hopes and promises, can be equally self-protective, risk-adverse, self-perpetuaring bureaucracies.

How to do borrow the best of these instititutions and the individuals who inhabit them while jettisoning the layers of lard?  Is the bottom line of these systems more the transfer of resources, skills and talent to the developing countries or sweeping both the people to settle and the billions of dollars to return to the US?

You'd be surprised to learn how many of my former Save the Children staff have their adult children and families now living in the US. Not to mention how many offspring of Nepal's National Planning Commission's commissioners are now US residents or citizens.

Few have made the reverse commute...

Of course, much of the responsibility sits on the political leadership of these countries.  They, too, need to manage the destiny of their people better -- but the global forces that squeeze their economies and ensure their dependence on foreign assistance are not easily countered.  In their situation, it's hard to turn down the hundreds of millions of dollars (plus, plus...), jobs for their kin, international travel and encouragement that the donors offer in various forms (INGO, UN and WB soft loans).

While millions of their citizens who are not near those funds migrate for low-paid construction jobs in Qatar or Malaysia to send a couple hundred dollars back to their families a month (if they can...).

Anyway, dear friends, just more thoughts floating across the mind of these aging 'development' workers who wandered out the American front door decades ago to see the world, then finally settled down 'to do good and have done very well, thank-you' (as the ironic expression goes).

The continuation of late night conversations we once indulged on James 4th Floor w/ Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell singing of such moral dilemmas in the background...

love ya, Keith

1 comment:

Cecile said...

This is awesome!