2005 was a big year for international development. But there are strict limits on what outsiders can do to help poor countries. People develop themselves with the help of functioning legal systems and statesby Robert Cooper / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
If governments live up to their promises, global aid volumes should rise to $125bn a year by 2010. The EU is committed to delivering half this increase to Africa. This can only be welcomed. But since we are now going to put so much more into development assistance, it is a good moment to ask what exactly development is and how this money can best be used.
The first thing to understand is that money does not make you developed; perhaps it does not even make you rich. If money brought development then Saudi Arabia and Angola would be developed countries. If money made a society—as opposed to a few individuals—rich then Nigeria would be rich. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain dug money out of the ground in Mexico and Peru, a process which seems to have marked the start of its decline rather than its modernisation. In this period of apparent riches it found itself instead defeated by the Netherlands, a poor country whose main asset was a determined and commercially minded people. The Dutch then went on to become one of the first modern countries and one of the great powers of the age.
It follows that development aid on its own will not make you developed. Is it possible to think of a single country where development aid has played a significant part in development? The explosive growth of China has little to do with the 0.1 per cent of its GNP that comes as foreign aid. Nor have receipts amounting to more than 50 per cent of GNP brought development to Mozambique or Sierra Leone.
Development is a political process. “Economic development” is not exactly an oxymoron but it is a misleading phrase. It focuses on the results of development, not on what it is or how it comes about.
Development involves vast changes in society and in the distribution of power. These are political changes. Tribal leaders, heads of families, religious figures and landowners lose power; entrepreneurs, political parties, elected officials and, above all, individuals gain it. Organising this process needs political skill: too fast and there will be a backlash from those whose position is threatened; too slow and you lose the momentum that encourages people to believe in the future and take risks for it.