Being an Amateur

Ever since I was about twenty, I have fought battles being the youngest person on many committees. Battles to be heard in a room full of 40-somethings who always think they know better than a young person. I decided that I would always be a person who listened to the ideas of young people and wouldn’t judge them solely based on age.

I’ve had this problem less and less over the past few years. Even working on a Board for the first time, they are a remarkable bunch, never condescending and always encouraging and critical when the idea itself warrants criticism.

But inside I have been feeling more and more young and naive. It arrives as the years pass in medical school, and my limited exposure to the international development sector becomes more apparent to me. As I play catch up, reading about international aid cannot provide answers. And not that I can read enough on the subject, either. The best modes of information seem to be conversations with NGO workers, or actually being in a poor place. Why being in a poor place? Because it seems less appropriate to judge the work of an NGO when they are obviously helping in a dire situation.

From afar, the relief/development paradigm has everyone scrambling. In discussion with my mentor this week, he was telling me that his relief-only organization is now looking into how to deal with countries they’re been doing “relief” in for 29 years. When does relief become development?

Last night, I was trying to articulate the condescending underpinnings of international development. What has created this context where communities can suddenly not take care of themselves any more? (Is it true that they can’t?) Post-colonialism. Economic changes, sanctions, subsidies, structural adjustment. HIV and AIDS. War. Conflict over resources. Corruption. Climate change. Rich countries play such a central role in many of these issues, and yet they are not and will never be the mechanism through which true aid is finally given. We Canadians won’t get rid of our subsidies that make your produce worthless, but here’s a team of engineers to help you build a water main.

I’m not trying to gloss over the details and complexities. Mat was explaining the social and political and economic reprocussions to me, if we were actually to stop subsidizing Canadian farmers. Sounds dire, too.

Essentially, human-to-human aid viscerally makes sense to us. We see someone hungry, we want to give them something to eat. When it comes to the bigger, complex picture, it becomes so distant to our human feelings, that we cannot summon enough engagement to demand a better way. To face up to what has been done so wrong; to take responsibility. To pull out as NGOs when the work doesn’t make sense.

So as viscerally concerned individuals in resource-rich countries, how should we act? I am really tired of glaring inequalities. I’m tired of the statistics about maternal and child mortality. I’m tired of hearing stories about corruption in the South. I’m tired of feeling guilty that our economic and political strength in the North has done so much damage, and perhaps continues to do so. But where do you begin to work in all of this?


~ by kcanderson on February 16, 2008.

8 Responses to “Being an Amateur”

  1. Are you sure that anything “created” that context? I think it’s partially that the developed world became fabulously wealthy, not that the developing one became fabulously poor. In their meddling, the colonial powers did a great deal of harm, but that’s not to say that Malawi would be Japan if only it had been left alone.

    We subsidize, but we also run an export-oriented economy that competes at home with a massive influx of goods from a much more powerful neighbour. If we protected our products domestically instead, do you think they would harm developing economies?

  2. Do we not already domestically protect our products through subsidies?

  3. Domestic producers can be protected with subsidies, price control agencies (like the Wheat Board and the Egg Board), or with import restrictions and tariffs. With NAFTA, we lost he ability to do the lattermost on a large scale (we were doing quite a bit of it before, see Menzie & Prentice, Am. J. Agri. Econ. 1987).

    A subsidy makes our products more competitive, while a tariff makes other people’s products LESS competitive. Because of a longer growing season and its own generous system of subsidies, US agricultural producers enjoy significant advantages.

    Of course, developing countries could circumvent the entire problem by imposing their own tariffs. This gets them blackballed with the WTO and the IMF, however, which want them to develop export-oriented economies that are dependent on EU and US products for domestic consumption.

    The case of Sudan is instructive, and such trade policies, along unpredictable climate, are the backdrop upon which the current crisis in Darfur is playing out.

    None of that would happen, however, if the Sudanese government wasn’t an active participant in whole thing.

  4. I think it might be more fair to protect our products domestically with subsidies, but not internationally with subsidies, but only if the rest of the rich world gets on board (otherwise it is just very hard on Canada given our neighbour?). That would at least ensure that developing countries could sell their own goods in their own countries? What do you think about agricultural dumping?

  5. Should Canada take into account the interests of the developing world when formulating its trade policies?

    I think it is up to national governments in the developing world to protect their own economies from dumping and unfair trade practices. They should have figured out the game by now.

    “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice. . . “

    As a citizen of a rich country, do you see a role for yourself in that?

  6. I’m not sure it’s a matter of figuring out the game, but rather being allowed to play the game. The reason that dumping and subsidies became an issue in the first place in the third world was structural adjustment programs from the IMF/WB. From what I understand, because all trade barriers were prohibited to promote a “free market”, many countries were never allowed to create economic protection in the first place (in the Reagan era). And what is the system now? Can countries protect themselves now from things like dumping? (which sometimes is disguised as food aid). Can countries decide to subsidize their own products? (I’m not sure that’s allowed under current WB loan agreements, is it?). I’m not sure if they would have the cash flow to subsidize anyways, let alone the infrastructure to implement a subsidies system.

    I will never be an economist but I want to know enough about it to understand how it affects health.

  7. Why wouldn’t you be an economist? I’ll (probably) never be a rock star, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a musician.

    Right, but they consented to all of those structural adjustment programs, knowing full well that the WB is an arm of the US State Department. This isn’t the East India Company, this is national governments agreeing to abdicate power over their own economies. In the Sudan example, the unfair loan conditions were willfully entered accepted by the Sudanese government.

    The subsidy would be less important if they were allowed tariffs and import restrictions. For most of its history, India had massive restrictions on imports – the result was that they had a domestic market to grow with. The result is that India today has a large domestic automobile industry, and by 2010 will probably be a big player in the North American market.

    As Uncle Sam’s loyal friend, Pakistani governments went the opposite way, and have been open for business. While the upper crust did pretty well, the result has been a severe lack of development and considerable internal instability.

  8. I’m not sure very poor countries had a real choice whether or not to enter into the SAPs. I think that the prospect of building wealth, combined with how the SAPs were packaged, made them nearly impossible to turn down. They promised economic growth and prosperity, coming from Northern countries who are the model for it.

    I’m still on the fence about whether SAPs were actually a conspiracy to help rich countries get richer, or if economists at the IMF actually thought they could help build economies and nations. Thoughts?

    How did India avoid the loans?

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