How Do We Help? (book review)

There is a fair amount of competition for attention on introductory texts on the history and concepts of ‘development’.
Since a new academic year has started recently and students (and teachers...) are probably already overwhelmed with literature I decided to add two more titles to potential reading lists. Patrick Develtere’s ‘How Do We Help - The Free Market in Development Aid’ is the first one and a second new textbook review will follow soon.
I liked the idea of reading a textbook from a continental European academic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon writing that dominates the market. But in all fairness, ‘How Do We Help’ is only a partial success and recommendation.

Right from the introduction I had difficulties understanding the ‘free market’ notion that is hinted at in the subtitle. As far as I could tell from statements like
we seek to demonstrate that at present the market dimension has gained the upper hand at the expense of the arena, and especially at the expense of the community (p.23)
Develtere employs the metaphor of the ‘free market’ to make a broader point about how the ‘aid industry’ has become just that, an industry with many competing actors. But as he introduces many dimensions from EU development cooperation to UN organisations, NGOs and new ‘do it yourself’ initiatives, the idea of one ‘free market’ fits all becomes a bit tricky. And after introducing some basic ODA figures and the discussion around the 0.7 development spending target he makes an even bigger claim about the ‘calculative rationale’ that leads to
various players treat one another as vendors and customers, as competitors, as hard-headed opportunists who are out to increase their turnover [...] and as business managers who want to win out and make a profit (p.37).
Yes, there is an aid industry, but putting a UN programme officer, a local NGO, EU humanitarian aid and Belgium trade union cooperation under the same logic is very generalising and loses sight of elements of the ‘free market’ that may be useful and extreme competition that may be less desirable. And illustrating the argument with an example of a Western NGO that puts a water pump into a village that may be difficult to maintain is one approach to development, but not an indicator that most of the ‘industry’ is still stuck in 1980s mindsets.
The next chapter, From colonialism to the Millennium Development Goals, is a concise historical overview over six decades of development. It is a good introduction to the ‘what is what’ in macro development thinking from trade agreements to MDGs, PRSPs and the Paris declaration.

Cooperation means partners
, the title of the next chapter, is short, almost ironic comparison between the changing rationale of development cooperation where aid workers are ‘now seen [...] as “intermediaries”, “facilitators” or “colleagues’ (p.90) and some of the hypocrisy of Western donors when it comes to choosing ‘donor darlings’ such as oil-producing African states or supporters of the ‘war on terror’.

The shorter Official bilateral cooperation: fractions and fragmentations, and the more substantial Europe’s development cooperation patchwork are important ‘technocratic’ overviews over European bilateral aid and should be useful for (undergraduate) teaching in development studies. It would have been great to elaborate more on the observation that the ‘Commission’s aid policy is influenced to a significant degree by its frontier policy and security policy’ (p.124) which opens up debates about all sorts of ‘free markets’, including the billion dollar markets on security technology and defence.
After the EU highlight follows, unfortunately, a weak chapter on the UN, Multilateral cooperation: the UN galaxy. Develtere does not provide any historical overview over the UN system. Even if you are not a UN enthusiast, a look at the UN intellectual history project would do no harm. I found the chapter very confusing and the vignettes quickly focussed on WFP food aid:
And why then did East Africa face one of its most severe food crises in 2011? Not because WFP did not know that it was about to arrive. It did know. Not because it did not warn decision-makers. It did warn them. But because CNN and BBC were not around (p.134).
Well, maybe there is a decision-maker who still watches CNN in 2012, but the main argument here is that it is a rather generalised notion of how crises happen and for teaching purposes more context about the complexities of international politics must be added. But somewhere between UNDP, WFP, GAVI and the Security Council the notion of a ‘UN market’ needed to be put in. And talking about the Security Council: Literally mentioned in the last paragraph of the chapter, it may seem to an untrained eye that the SC is also a UN organisation, like UNDP or WFP. The role of the UN Secretariat and its place in the UNiverse are not mentioned once which is a big caveat.
The chapter on NGOs, NGDOs; bringing value onto the market, highlights some key critical debates about the growth of the sector, the increasing competition and the ‘NGOisation’ of civil society. But the chapter ends on a fairly vague notion of ‘network movement’ (pp.156-158) and some interesting debates should probably enliven the classroom on what global civil society will look like in the future.
I had the feeling that the chapter on ‘decentralised cooperation’, A fourth pillar on the market, was Develtere’s real passion project. It is about
a succession of new individuals and groups [that] are taking short-term or more institutionalised initiatives which they themselves regard as development aid (p.159).
His focus on
the big eight: the missions, the trade unions, the farmers’ organisations, the health funds, the businesses, the cooperatives, the migrants’ communities and the foundations and philanthropists (p.160)
is an interesting, eclectic mix of actors that are to some extent based on Belgium and European traditions of cooperation. The chapter offers plenty of food for thought and debates:
It is no longer the world that people want to change, but the lives of the friends that they have got to know and value on the other side of the planet (p.183).
But he also points out that ‘very little reliable information [are] available about their impact’ (p.188). This chapter could have been a good way to start a more comprehensive debate about the future of ‘decentralised cooperation’ and other forms of aid, but unfortunately the following chapter on Humanitarian aid: in good shape or going downhill?’ is a bit of a distraction.
I think it would have fitted better in the first part of the book rather than being presented as a bit of a climax which it really is not. It is a fairly balanced account about the state of the humanitarian sector that just would have fitted better elsewhere in the book.
The unbearable lightness of the support for development cooperation mostly stands out for the eye-catching pun in its title. Otherwise, I tend to disagree with two major assumptions of the chapter.
Development policy evolves without reference to public opinion and with little input from the majority of the organised support base (p.202).
It may be true that very few people really care about the details of development cooperation, but this does not qualify for a ‘democratic deficit’ (ibid). I do not understand why development policy is supposedly so different from, say, healthcare, defence or other social policies where citizens and lobby groups get exactly what they want? I also disagree with his second argument that
the minister for development cooperation has a (fairly large) budget at his or her disposal which is free from any corresponding long-term spending commitments and is not examined with a fine-tooth cob by all kinds of interest groups (ibid).
My experiences in the UK, Canada and Germany are quite the opposite. But as recent studies have shown, a large part of the public does indeed spend very little time and effort to get informed about development outside of mainstream media reporting.
The Drawing up the balance sheet chapter focuses on MDG and achievement of their goals, but Develtere also introduces new ideas in evaluation such as outcome mapping. ‘Aid helps, but it isn’t the solution’ (p.225) is probably a slogan most readers would subscribe to.
It is probably good writing etiquette to end on a more positive note which would explain his positive statement on the very last page:
The development cooperation community is becoming more and more colorful, the debate in the arena more and more intriguing and the innovations on the market more and more surprising (p.235)
which seems a bit contradictory to the underlining discourse of the book that the aid industry pretty much serves itself on the ‘free market’.
All in all, I can recommend some parts as additional reading for students and especially in a non-European setting the insights into the EUropean culture of aid and certain bi- and multilateral developments are good factual information. But the book certainly falls short of being a good ‘course reader’ for development studies, mainly because of quite a few generalisations, the lack of a good list of resources such as additional readings and websites and a discourse around the ‘free market’ that needs additional clarification and discussions.

Develtere, Patrick: How Do We Help? The Free Market in Development Aid, ISBN: 978-9058679024, 264 pages, 29.95 Euros, Leuven University Press
Full disclosure: I asked Leuven University Press for a review copy and they arranged to send me one in March 2012

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