Development is Not a Political Tool (w/ Ref. to Haiti)


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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49 Responses

  1. Avatar Kyle says:

    You know, I really do enjoy your posts on foreign affairs.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Kyle says:


      • Avatar Will in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        Oh dear – featuring cameo appearances from both Frantz Fanon and Naomi Klein.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Will says:

          what you want a standard: just because i referenced ff and nk does not mean I support all of their views/actions on all subjects?Report

          • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            iow, I’m not romanticizing these situations or saying all Western intervention is inherently evil and/or based in racism and/or based in desire to steal all their wealth and enslave their people. On the other hand, I don’t think people are passive beings whose lives are simply the result of what we do them (i.e. our US gov’t) and/or what their leaders to do them (depending on our point of view of how they should act of course).

            I see that as a self-fulfilling point of view where development decisions are decided based on our preferences and/or our preferences relative to their (sometimes elected, sometimes not) leadership. Either way, I think it just ends up hurting people who actually need help and probably aren’t all that politicized (in the way we normally think of that term) to begin with.Report

        • Avatar Louis B. in reply to Will says:

          Good company.Report

    • Avatar Bob in reply to Kyle says:

      You know, I find these fatuous complements sickening.Report

  2. Avatar nadezhda says:

    I don’t think the problem has been a colonial mindset (or for that matter the Washington Consensus) — rather it’s the hubristic mindset of an over-confident mechanical engineer. “Absorptive capacity” is indeed the intangible but critical ingredient in development assistance. It **should** drive the determination of goals, resources and methods. But since it’s a matter of a country’s politico-economic-social-cultural history and institutions, any attempts to increase absorptive capacity have to work on a longer time frame and in a far more indirect and organic fashion than is possible given the politics of donors and the delivery mechanisms (“projects” and contracts that can’t fully escape a “quantifiable”and mechanistic input-output approach).

    Our normal approach **may** work with building roads and bridges (though even there, projects had better take “absorptive capacity” into account re usage patterns and maintenance capacity). But it’s almost guaranteed to fall short or produce negative unintended consequences when complex systems are involved, like health care delivery or business development.

    Yet, in the development world, politicial pressures have actually encouraged more short-term mechanistic thinking and less long-term organic assisstance. Not surprisingly, Congresscritters want to see “what we got for our money” — the Cold War is no longer available as a rationale, and technology has given us more data collection, analysis and reporting tools. And as we’ve seen over this past decade, in a war/occupation zone, the military’s timetable in countering the enemy doesn’t match the longer time frame needed for local capacity to be built, so DoD is constantly faced with chicken-and-egg problems. We’re only beginning to come to grips with that dilemma in Afghanistan after eight years where, as Rothkopf put it, we’ve let “conflicts and catastrophes set our priorities for us”.

    For all sorts of laudatory reasons (“first do no harm”, “more bang for the buck”), development professionals (and the donors who support them) want to be able to take “lessons learned” from one experience and “replicate” the apparent positive performances in other, superficially similar, but very different environments. Or figure out how to make a small positive experience in one neighborhood or agency “scalable” in size and in many other environments. There are development professionals who are, in fact, quite good at that sort of thing — but it’s more an art than a science that can be taught and copied. So I’m pleased to learn from Rothkopf that “The State Department and the White House are in the midst of seriously rethinking how we approach aid and development matters”. But I hope that includes a serious attempt to manage our expectations — not as an excuse to reduce the resources we provide as assistance, but to better deploy them to reduce not just waste but negative unintended consequences.

    As for your theologial note, I think you’re a tad too sensitive to garden-variety vocabulary. Rothkopf was using “act of God” in the legal sense of “force majeur” — not making any statement about whether the deity was or was not involved. And Clinton was saying the **scope** of the catastrophe was of Biblical **proportions** (I don’t know whether she left out “proportions” but that’s how the phrase is commonly deployed to the extent that it’s a cliche, so the non-theologically-tuned mind completes the phrase, whether the speaker says “proportions” or not). She wasn’t suggesting that the **nature** of the catastrophe was “Biblical”.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to nadezhda says:


      some good points. i would agree with your analysis and see it as more complementary (or supplementary) to my analysis than contradictory, but either way I agree with the managerial notion. I think that managerial frame (often not always, at least in Western history) flows from the same mindset that gave birth to colonialism.

      As to the theological point, yes Rothkopf was referring to an act of God in the legal sense, but then the legal sense is embedding a theological view whether it realizes it or not. Why are earthquakes and hurricanes and such acts of God? Don’t we all mock and/or despise Pat Robertson for saying such a thing?Report

      • Avatar nadezhda in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        “Act of God” is a subset of “force majeur”, which includes most especially wars. It’s used to indicate a greater force that is beyond the responsibility of individuals. Of course, the concept was developed in the less-secularized West, hence the terminology. But it simply means “natural disaster”.Report

      • Avatar nadezhda in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        As for the “colonial” mindset sharing a mentality with today’s “technocratic” or “mechanical engineer” mindset, I think that’s over-simplifying the centuries of colonial experience/process (for both colonizer and colonized) and risks imposing our current philosophical debates about post-Enlightenment modernity onto very diverse pre-modern and early-modern historical realities.

        I try to avoid “colonialism” or “neo-colonialism” in all discussions of development assistance because they carry such a huge amount of baggage, but different baggage for each person. So not much real communication happens.

        That’s not to say that Fanon isn’t well worth the read (not so much for Klein). Nor is that to suggest we shouldn’t be aware that one of the pitfalls in providing assistance is that we tend to impose our own priorites on those we’re “helping”, often without acknowledging to ourselves just how much we’re insisting on our own culturally-bound worldview and ideological preferences. [See my further comment on why “local ownership” has become a mantra in the development world precisely to guard against our own hubris and treating the “object” of assistance as something less than an autonomous human with his/her own values and preferences.]Report

      • Avatar Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        No, Chris, all do not mock or despise Robertson’s statement. There are a fair number that defend him outright, while others just say his timing was bad, but that his message is essentially correct.

        If one buys into the oozing canker of reviled, god given, truth you are pretty much stuck with the whole stinking mess. Oh, sure, one can jettison this or that particular odious appendage but once the questioning begins, once an inconvenient belief is thrown out, god is diminished.

        Here are two quotes from the article linked:

        “The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and /or moral causality. Eastern religions call it Karma, but Christians call it God’s Providence. I wonder if the reason that so many hate Pat is because he expressed what many Americans don’t want to face- the moral and spiritual dimension of our lives.”

        “Agree or disagree with what Pat said, it was well within the bounds of historic Christian theology. Maybe that’s the real problem after all.”

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Bob says:

          It fits more or less within the bounds of any theology with omnipotent god(s) who also happen to be omnibenevolent.

          We’re stuck with the inconsistent triad when we assert “but evil exists!”

          A lot of people prefer to say “no, evil doesn’t, we just don’t understand the plan” or “no, evil doesn’t, people get what they deserve”.

          The alternative is giving up on one (or both) of God’s other traits (if not God entirely).Report

          • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Jaybird says:

            Yes the notion of God as causing earthquakes does fit within the bounds of historic mythic-based Christianity. I was being generous since after a certain Portuguese earthquake and Voltaire (if not before) “all of us” (in the know, wink wink) realize that such a thing is outdated. If nevertheless people continue (a la James Fowler) through such stages of world construction. And always will for that matter.

            But saying people believe in karma or God’s causality is again begging the question of how they understand that teaching. It need not be understood in the way of some unchanging God (or Law) who directly does everything. Taking to its extreme such a view abolishes human will anyway. God does the earthquake, God does the cleanup, God does the poverty in the country for the last 2 centuries, God’s the cause of the people trying to clean up the poverty. In other words, it explains everything and nothing at the same time. Otherwise you are left with this notion (that I’ve criticized above) of “acts of God” only ever being large scale horrific things.Report

            • Avatar Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

              What part of Christianity is not “mythic-based?”Report

              • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

                I should have said concretely literally-interpreted (or rather literalistically) understood mythic. There are non-concretely literally interpreted forms of Christianity that could be said to be mythic provided that you understand mythic to not illusory or unreal as is so commonly (mis)understood to be the case.Report

              • Avatar Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                Chris, may I interpret that as, “the parts I’m willing to defend?”Report

              • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

                not really. my argument is there are levels, worldviews to this (see Fowler). In those worlds, the phenomena are different. Often quite different. So talking about the parts (minus that whole) is I find rather meaningless. Also assuming there are some parts to defend, others to not (minus this contextualization) assumes that all of us understand the entire construct of faith similarly….which we don’t.Report

              • Avatar Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                I’m staying with, “the parts I’m willing to defend.”

                But, hey Chris, don’t we all do a tap-dance when we gotta?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

              Job’s still the best-kept secret in the Bible.

              Job 38 through 41 remains one hell of a refutation to Voltaire’s horselaugh of a counter-argument to Leibniz.

              And yet…Report

    • Avatar nadezhda in reply to nadezhda says:

      A quick clarification on the “colonial mindset” which you seem to believe an emphasis on “absorptive capacity” suggests. If there’s one “lesson learned” over the past few decades about successful development assistance (in addition to the need to take “absorptive capacity” into account in designing and delivering assistance), it’s that the locals must “own” the projects. That means they initiate (or buy-in to) setting goals and priorities and are partners in designing methods. “Absorptive capacity” is an absolutely necessary (but not sufficient) condition for “local ownership”.

      But insisting on “local ownership” also requires being realistic about local politics and how it’s likely to effect both the delivery of assistance and its long-term effectiveness. Development (and especially outside aid) can never be politically neutral — to hope otherwise is a technocratic pipedream. But that doesn’t mean outsiders can’t help — they just have to be realistic about choosing what areas to work in and which locals to accept as allies/partners. And they’d also better plan for contingencies in the local political scene — good projects will leave behind something positive even if there’s a big shift in political power.Report

      • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to nadezhda says:

        agreed. well put.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Chris Dierkes says:


          i should add that when I say that there are links between colonialism and technocratism, it is precisely on that point of (illusory) neutrality. I certainly think you are right to pushback against taking that link too far (or painting it too broadly), but there’s still something there.

          Myth of the given basically. Myth of the given and myth of (unilinear) progress I suppose.

          The technocratic element is (as you say) not being willing to take into account or grant dignity/intelligence/humanity (in the worst cases) to those being “helped” (and/or colonized depending on the history).

          That’s characteristic of the observer neutral stance versus a more historically-culturally aware position. If you think beings are not really all that human (or at least civilized humans), are passive, unenlightened children or whatever, then you can technocratically impose a solution from the enlightened rational point of view.

          You’re right that’s far more complex than that in specific cases, but not less I would say.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Brilliant post.

    I have been stuck wondering what we ought to do (existentially, I mean) in response to what has happened. (I know that, in the short run, we ought purchase water and first aid kits).

    The thoughts in my head are not of Malthus, but Hobbes.

    And I don’t know how to help Haiti in the long run.

    In the short run, of course, we need to buy water and first aid.Report

  4. Avatar Art Deco says:

    The first major mistake is that international development is a weapon in our political arsenal.

    That is not a mistake. Assuring a congruency between overseas development and political goals is part of their job?

    Well yes, Haiti did lack absorptive capacity if we assume only one mechanism by which a country develops–what was then referred to as The Washington Consensus. It lacked absorptive capacity to adopt a neoliberal program overnight, just as it clearly lacked absorptive capacity to democratize quickly.

    So, you think it had ‘absortive capacity’ for some sort of neo-mercantilist program?

    However, I would venture that Haiti had absorptive capacity for a more indigenous form of development–even if that form of development would have taken much much longer than 4 or 8 years.

    ‘More indigenous form of development’. We’ll all get right to inventing a new economic paradigm so’s you do not look foolish. If you are referring to such things as ‘appropriate technology’ (better farm-to-market roads, &c.) , you are rather late out of the starting gate. That has been enought of an orthodoxy that it appeared in World Bank reports published twenty-five years ago. (I have one in my possession). Complaints about development schemes ill suited to terrain have been bruited about for decades (see The Ugly American, published in…1958).Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Art Deco says:

      “Assuming a congruency between overseas development and political goals” and the kind of thing I’m talking about are obviously rather different. That’s a pretty bad faith reading of this specific post.

      The former are very broad and global in nature. They take place over longer stretches of time. They ebb and flow and the interest in such connections is obviously more in the hopes of certain trajectories or large scale forces, realizing there will always be counter-exceptions.

      The kind of thing I’m talking about is like we build a school in Afghanistan and think now the people are going to hate the Taliban and fight them. Or in the Haiti case, that if we sanction the country because of a government we don’t like (which was a military coup btw not exactly like most people had much to do with that one) that’s somehow a good thing….that developmental aid (to the populace) is some gold star for the government doing what we think it should.

      And as to the other point, it doesn’t matter whether other people thought a similar thought in the 1950s, the point is whether it is an intelligent thought or not. Shocking fact: Some people in the 1950s were smart!!!!

      I would simply refer you to the text Bad Samaritans. It argues that the West misreads its own economic developmental history and takes the wrong lessons from it and applied the wrong lessons to the rest of the world. Including Haiti.

      A similar political trajectory argument (relative to a misreading of US history with disastrous results for its “political goals” abroad) is found in Thomas Barnett’s most recent book Great Powers.Report

      • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        That’s a pretty bad faith reading of this specific post.

        No it ain’t.

        The kind of thing I’m talking about is like we build a school in Afghanistan and think now the people are going to hate the Taliban and fight them.

        Mr. Dierkes, I am going to wager that officials with some degree of study and experience (either in the foreign service or AID or what have you) would likely find your counsel redundant.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Art Deco says:

          Is that right?

          Then whence cometh this, I ask:

          Not exactly some far lefty outlet btw.Report

          • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            Mr. Dierkes,

            Implicit in your argument, and that of every other journalist who writes on this subject, is the notion that the officials who administer this aid are (as a class of people) unaware of the uncertainties and pitfalls that accompany its administration. Therefore, they need instruction from….journalists. Reporting can be helpful, most particularly as a supplement to what information is being passed up the line. The rest is conceit. Recall, the authors of The Ugly American were a pair of foreign service officers, not a pair of reporters.Report

            • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Art Deco says:

              that isn’t implicit or explicit in my argument. my argument (really my beef) is with the people who are setting the policy, not the foreign officers. It’s not the foreign officers who’ve set the policy in Afghanistan. They’re just doing their jobs. I expect they are doing them as best as they can and are not unawares of the difficulties and challenges involved.Report

  5. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


    (The reply function on that previous thread has reached it’s limit).

    “Don’t we all gotta tap dance”.

    If that’s how you want to interpret what I said, have at it I suppose.

    But no, I don’t think it’s any kind of tap-dance. I just don’t hold to a myth of the given, religious or otherwise.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Don’t even get me started on David Rothkopf. He wrote a pretty good book on the NSC. There. I said something nice.Report

  7. Avatar Hilary says:

    If you think the disaster capitalists will wait one second before they start trying to push through predatory loans and pro-corporate trade policies that benefit our banks and our big businesses, you’re crazy. The people in Haiti are in danger of being privatized and following a disaster, when everyone is distracted, is the time when the Robber Barrens attack. The capitalists will try to eliminate corporate taxes, they will try to get labor laws abolished, and they try to impose more free-trade. Free-trade is the reason Haiti’s economy is in such bad shape to begin with. Haitian farmers can’t compete against foreign imports and they end up leaving their land to find work in the Port-Au-Prince sweatshops that are operated by US businesses. This is the reason the population of PAP has exploded over the last 30 years. We have to be ready to fight to build democracy in Haiti including Haitian control over the island’s trade policy.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Hilary says:

      You don’t know what you’re talking about.

      Places like Haiti suffer from severe deficits of human capital, insecure property rights, poor infrastructure, and commercial relations that are unenforceable due to the defects of public administration. Protective tariffs don’t do squat to provide a remedy for any of these troubles. That aside, no commercial enterprise, domestic or foreign, can ‘compete’ with a family farming for subsistence.Report

      • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Art Deco says:

        Both of you are (half) right, half wrong.

        Yes, trade barriers minus rule of law doesn’t help anybody develop economically. In fact they retard the situation. Neo-libearlism without rule of law also destroys a country’s capacities for ever reaching anything but a kind of servile class status (except for their own fractionally tiny, domestic elites).

        If, however, a country has some rule of law, markets, and the like, then at the beginning of their development phase, trade barriers and neo-mercantilism are actually very helpful. See the history of the US, Germany, France, England, and the current practice of China for examples.

        The latter point explains why The Chinese model (aka the early US model and before them British industrializing model) has become more popular among many developing nations as compared to the Washington Consensus of the 90s/00s.Report

        • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

          The reason to be imposing tariffs is that that is the mode of collecting revenue that is the least taxing to the capacities of the public administration.

          The notion that public bureaucracies which cannot keep the land titles straight will somehow have the capacity to concoct beneficial schemes of indicative planning and mercantilist tax policy is incredible.Report

  8. Avatar PresbyterArius says:

    As a theologian, one might argue that “Biblical” was meant to reflect the state of Egypt after YHWH decided that some top-down intervention was needed. Or perhaps the state of Israel after the Assyrians mounted their hostile takeover. It seems a bit questionable to rest so much on one, admittedly ill-chosen, word. Your “colonialist” accusation seems rather a red herring. I know it’s fashionable to trot out the colonialist trope every time someone intervenes, but complaining about building roads and schools simply looks silly. What did you expect them to do? Drop some cash on the mat and leave?Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to PresbyterArius says:

      It may or may not be fashionable to “trot out” a colonialist bugaboo every time there is an intervention, except that is not what I was doing here so it’s a rather irrelevant point, imo. It may also be fashionable to trot out the anti-colonialism card to squelch any concrete specific criticism of an intervention. I can broad brush stroke as well. Feels good to be on the other end of that doesn’t it?

      My point in this was a specific critique of a single post. To repeat (as in the title), the criticism is of the mindset that assumes (as I think this post clearly did) that US foreign aid/development is some sort of political weapon and aid should be decided by decided upon foreign policy priorities/initiatives. To be fair, Rothkopf (seems to me) is beginning to catch on to this, but doesn’t go all the way with it.

      And certainly “colonialist”, if it is going to have any meaning, would have some applicability given the history of US involvement in the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s not the whole story (this is but one post after all), but it’s definitely a large and necessary chunk of it, I would think.Report

      • Avatar PresbyterArius in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        I feel excellent. That excellence would be enhanced if you made an argument that was valid, rather than simply patting yourself on the back and declaring “Mission Accomplished”. Other side of what? Of a non-response? Ain’t gonna spoil the coffee on this side of the fence.Report

      • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        No, Hilary is entirely wrong.

        The term ‘colonialist’ (just like the term ‘neo-liberal’) has little meaning except as a cuss term among the bien-pensants.

        Latin American territories annexed by the United States include

        1. A swath of nominally Mexican territory whose inhabitants were almost entirely aboriginal and whose mestizo, criollo, and mission indian populations numbered in the low five figures;

        2. Puerto Rico, which has been regrettably bereft of separatist sentiment.

        3. The Canal Zone, which was in area about the size of Tioga County, New York and had a civilian population in the low thousands.

        Over the years, three of nineteen Latin American republics (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Panama) and have been occupied for a periods ranging from some months to eight years; one Anglo-Caribbean state was occupied for a period of less than two years; and Haiti was occupied for 18 years. There was also a roving force of U.S. Marines of variable size (100 to 3,000) in Nicaragua over a period of two decades. There have been no Anglophone settlement colonies of any demographic weight anywhere in Latin America (bar Puerto Rico).

        All of which is to say that Latin America has felt the boot heel of the o’erbearing Norte-Americano only on its margins. The set of territories in whose affairs the U.S. Government has intervened most vigorously have not (bar Haiti and Cuba) been notably more pathological in their political life than other territories in the hemisphere; nor, bar Haiti and Cuba, have they been notably less affluent. Haiti has been a basket case for more than 200 years and it is de trop to hold the U.S. Government responsible for the damage done to Cuba by the Castro regime.

        There is nothing inevitable about rapid economic development and serious sociologists were notably frustrated in their attempts to confirm empirically conceptions of Andre Gunder Frank and others who sought to attribute underdevelopment to the nefarious Uncle Sam. Latin America has been the author of both its successes and failures.Report

  9. Avatar RD says:

    The “Biblical” conditions arguably are ones where the slaves are free, the poor are fed, and justice rolls down like the waters.

    Or said “Biblical” conditions arguably are the ones where shitloads of people are slaughtered at God’s whim or behest for all sorts of silly reasons. Ya know, the Old Testament. heh. But it would be nice if “Biblical” meant the lessons about compassion, empathy and love I remember from my Catholic upbringing and not “hell on Earth” for which is it is commonly known.Report