Lords of Poverty
In one recent and unfortunately typical USAID mission, a senior official based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta went 'up country'—supposedly to learn about a project for mothers of malnourished children in a remote rural area. On arrival the visitor was greeted by a large group of mums and kids. They had dressed in their best clothes and had prepared, in the words of one observer, 'a big table groaning with food...they were poor, but they wanted to honour this guy.' The USAID man, however, refused to leave the protection of his vehicle and insisted that 'under no circumstances' would he eat with 'such people.' Asked by a junior colleague if he would at least take a cup of tea he again refused and suggested: 'You could tell them that the important American was just too busy.' All in all, although three full days were spent driving out to the project and then driving back to Jakarta, less than half an hour was spent at the project site itself and none of the beneficiaries were talked to.
Such a scale of priorities would raise few eyebrows at Britain's Overseas Development Administration which allows many of its projects in the Third World to be ruined because it is 'too busy' to talk to local people. Examples include the Victoria Dam on Sri Lanka's Mahaweli River where auditors found that 30,000 people were resettled with undue haste and in an unsatisfactory manner as a result of lack of advance planning and inadequate consultation. In Nepal a rural access road supposedly designed to alleviate poverty in fact made the poor worse off because it stimulated urban development and allowed government bureaucracy to expand in the area. In Belize the upgrading of the Northern Highway entirely overlooked the danger that increased traffic and increased speeds would pose for villagers living near the road. In consequence, several young children were killed and maimed within a few months of completion of works; local people then rightly insisted on the installation of speed bumps to slow down traffic. 'These,' as the auditors note, 'have reduced the economic benefits of the road.' Indifference to 'social factors' has been identified in so many other ODA projects that it seems to be almost standard operating procedure to ignore the wishes, the opinions and the possible contributions of the poor.
The same is true at the World Bank which, after more than forty years' experience in the field, is only prepared to admit that in certain circumstances 'active involvement of the intended beneficiaries may improve the prospects of a project.'
The Bank, which puts more money into more schemes in more developing countries than any other institution, claims that 'it seeks to meet the needs of the poorest people;' at no stage in what it refers to as 'the project cycle,' however, does it actually take the time to ask the poor themselves how they perceive their needs; neither does it canvass their views on how they feel these needs might best be met. Indeed, from the identification of a possible Bank project right through to its ex post evaluation, the poor are entirely left out of the decision-making process—almost as though they did not exist. As a Senegalese peasant commented after one mission of high-powered development experts had made a cursory tour of his village: 'They do not know that there are living people here.'
To explain arrogant behaviour like this, it is not necessary to produce psychological profiles of the high-flying economics graduates who make up almost 70 per cent of the Bank's professional staff. The simple truth is that borrowing is done by governments and it is therefore to government officials that the Bank talks in the main. The only other people whose views seem to matter are foreigners: United Nations experts, for example, or the representatives of large private corporations.