My contribution to “The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism” conversation

I read Shawn Ahmed’s post ‘The Nexus of Aid Work and Islamic extremism’ as well as Dave Algoso’s reply and Tom Murphy’s shorter reply with great interest.
They have covered many interesting points, but mainly because of my own selfish reasons (i.e. my academic research), I would like to comment on three particular points that I find have been missing from the debate so far. 

1. Looking beyond NGOs: The state, international aid organisations and discourses of development

First, in Shawn’s post there is no mentioning of ‘the state’ or any other form of ‘aid’ other than the one provided through NGOs. As understandable as this may be for the contents of the post, it fosters a view that many commentators in the blogosphere seem to have, namely that of incredibly wealthy, powerful and influential NGOs. True, they are often the organisations that are visible ‘on the ground’, many interesting stories about aid are shared by those who work in NGOs (maybe adding an interesting layer of ‘groupthink’ to the debates) and we have seen an incredible diversification of approaches, people and ideas which led to interesting diversifications in knowledge, ideas and insights into countries, communities and research and to an expansion of views and voices from all parts of the globe. And then there are OECD-DAC meetings, MDG summits, Gates foundation funding strategies, EU-ECHO money and multi-year research grants – plus the bilateral aid of many donors. ‘We will spend an average of £250 million per year in Bangladesh until 2015’ DfID states on its website and even if some of this money will go to NGOs to implement projects, a lot of it will be used for government spending. In short, there is a difficult and overarching structure of international aid that needs critical commentary as much as NGOs do, because their money makes a lot of things happening (or not happening). Shawn writes ‘When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked’ and I agree to some extent. But NATO is not an NGO and many Northern NGOs struggle with the ‘securitisation’ discourse where aid and military-strategic goals are forced into a very unhappy marriage. Judging from Shawn's observations, especially in Muslim countries this has had huge repercussions for NGOs and aid work. As much as I agree that the expatriate lifestyle can contribute to local resentments towards ‘NGOs’, I would not want to ignore international civil servants, diplomats, businessmen or ‘consultants’ who often work with a very different mindset. At the end of the day they may have a drink in the same capital city club, but they often have different attitudes despite my own musings on the ‘development industry’. Just because NGOs are closest to your actual work and challenges they are still a small part of a powerful ‘industry’.
‘Groupthink’ probably comes in many shapes, but I think that these processes may be more powerful when, say, the OECD invites Dambisa Moyo for a lecture and less so when three bloggers exchange views on participatory evaluation strategies. 

2. How influential are 'development bloggers'?

Second, I think Shawn greatly exaggerates the power and influence of development blogging and bloggers. Whether or not bloggers agree, disagree, share interesting ideas or are even a bit rough in dealing with each other’s contributions their contributions are by and large meaningless. I just completed a research project where a colleague and I analysed blog posts and tweets during the MDG summit in New York last year and the results were interesting, and, to sum it up in non-academic language, it came down to a few people sharing Melinda Gates’ TedX video (this is more complicated and based on ‘proper’ qualitative and quantitative research and it’s currently under review for an academic journal). The ‘blogosphere’ is not influential (yet?), much smaller than we may think and powerful decisions are taken elsewhere (see above, but also see, say, Nick Kristof’s writing). Being critical about orphanages will not stop a Rotary club somewhere in the South of England to run a fundraiser for one in Nepal (based on my own experience) and being critical about ‘professionalism’ will not stop many students who are about to go abroad to work in that one project that really does make a difference in the community as opposed to all the other voluntourism projects. And whether or not a few bloggers ‘like’ RCTs does not play a role when the World Bank, DfID or UNDP roll out their next evaluation projects. 

3. Resistance to 'development' to protect local power structures?

Third, although implicitly part of Shawn’s post I would have liked to read more about power relations, perceived or real threats of ‘aid’ to local power dynamics, or the challenges of engaging with the ‘let the community decide’ approach when it may help to perpetuate historical injustices or discrimination. What I know from my engagement with development is that many would agree that despite a direct relief effort there is an empowerment function that comes with the idea of development (and that may be Western-centric, Christian-centric and debatable in many other ways). One response that I have seen a few times that (local) elites who feel threatened by ‘development’ tend to evoke conservative and historical ideas of basically why ‘they’ know best and no outsider will ever be able to understand. I think the truth, as often is, lies somewhere in the middle. Shawn writes in his concluding thoughts that ‘Ignoring context doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist’. I could not agree more – but it also means being open and (self-)critical about power relations. ‘Underdevelopment’, violence, discrimination etc. do benefit someone or a group in the community and dismissing change as an ‘evil Western idea’ is not a sufficient reply. I am not suggesting that Shawn is not aware of this, but his criticism of NGOs may not take into consideration the full complexity that everybody is faced with who works in development.

All in all, Shawn and Dave’s ‘conversation’ has been very interesting to read – and compared to the tone of internet conversations it has been a textbook example of a respectful exchange of view and arguments.

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