The Anatomy of Giving

Most of the time development folks just speak with and to other development folks. Outsiders can bring a healthy voice to the conversation. Augusta Dwyer, in her 2015 work "The Anatomy of Giving" offers such a perspective on the aid industry, focusing upon Haiti. With a background as a journalist, she sets out to answer what has changed since she first visited Haiti 26 years ago. She asks: "Where can I see the evidence that the billions of dollars and loads of helpful advice given to the people of Haiti have, even incrementally, improved their lives? Would they, as some suggest, be even worse off without it? Or, like the key around Woodley Angelito Vrissaint's neck, does is not seem to be doing much good?" (p. 16) Worthwhile questions. Answers that will inevitably result in too broad of generalizations to appropriately do justice to the broad spectrum of experiences.

The book opens with the work of a doctor, who "is different from many who come to Haiti convinced they have something – some new idea, or program, or better way of doing things – that will finally bring the nation to its feet. Rather, he recognizes how little he and people like him can do, working around the edges of the kind of structural poverty that seems immune to any kind of lasting solution" (p. 3). Herein lies one of the challenges of the outsider – this idea is not as rare as assumed. Take the term used in this description, structural poverty, about which there have been rich discussions since the late 1960s. It is also a space where much has been written, including about Haiti. Most well-known of which is probably Paul Farmer earlier books, such as AIDS and Accusation (1992), The Uses of Haiti (1994), Infections and Inequalities (1999), and Pathologies of Power (2003). These works, somewhat surprisingly considering their relevance to the topic and the questions raised, do not feature in this book. Consider one quote, written almost three decades before Dwyer's work, in a book primarily about Haiti:

  • "Talk of "appropriate technology" and "sustainability" had sounded good to me, at least initially. The problem was that these sounded silly, even sinister, to the landless peasants with whom I worked and to many of their staunchest advocates…during a year of transformative experiences [in the early 1980s], I ran head-on into the fundamental disjuncture between "expert views" on these matters (as promulgated, for example, in scholars journals and in schools of public health) and the views of those whose commitments was more to radical changes in the circumstances endured by the poor" (Infections and Inequalities, Farmer, 1999: 21).

The author is supportive of civil society organizations and social movements as an alternative to the traditional, top-down aid. While I agree with this support, there are also instances wherein civil society may not be the best mechanism or have the authority, such as developing a national highway system or setting minimum standards for pollution levels in water. In taking a view that 'good' development equates to individual empowerment, the narrowing of what is praiseworthy is a natural outcome. However, within that narrow framing of good development, the book mentions Time to Listen, but insufficiently addresses the problems that arise within community-driven and civil society organizations, often times reflecting the challenges of NGOs. More so than any other comment, however, I wish that the author had taken the NGO-criticism and reflected that in her own work, wherein the voices of people experiencing chronic poverty are greatly outnumbered by those of NGO workers and academics.

These comments are somewhat critical, but the book offers plenty of insight, particularly for those not familiar with the aid industry. One example – of many – is the role of aid in relation to human rights:

  • "Today it is countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia that continue to serve as examples of governments receiving lots of aid money despite their lack of democracy and accountability. When human rights organizations complained of the mistreatment and forced removal of peasant farmers in Ethiopia, for instance, the [World] Bank – co-chair of the Development Assistance Group there – rebuffed those accusations by talking instead about the countries "impressive performance with economic growth accelerating on a sustained basis since 2003, despite the global economic crisis." This growth implied, it said, that Ethiopians were, as a whole, better off. While they had no effective way of voting in a different government, this did not matter." (p. 150)

Notes on moving forward:

  • "What we, the givers, can do, perhaps, is think about poverty, and how to eradicate poverty, in a different way. We can learn to better understand the systems that cause it, and we can support organizations that acknowledge and resist them… We can also recognize that our governments are using us as a pretext for their own self-interested giving, and maybe even start campaigning for them to stop doing so. And instead of doling out things, as if the problems of the poor are such that we can't find the time or patience to help them deal with them, we might enable ourselves to stand alongside them as they decide what needs to happen." (p. 166)
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