Development Aid – A New Imperialist Strategy?

Author: Olubanke Awosope | University of Nottingham

(This post is part of the First Edition of the ‘Symposium on Development Aid: Charity, or An Oppressive Tool of Inequality?’ by asiablogs.)

This essay claims that the present architectural framework of development aid is fostered through international cooperation between the United Nations subsects and the global community. This framework predominantly endorses a neoliberal economic growth approach, which repeats and perpetuates post-colonial and racist hegemony, due to its intrinsic shortcomings. The modern concept of “development” has undergone several ‘conceptual inflations’ (Esteva, 1992), originating from President Truman’s post-World War II speech, which spoke of embarking on “bold new programs for the growth of underdeveloped areas.” Development aid set out to better the conditions of the “underdeveloped areas.” Yet, the parameters of what is meant by “growth.” In the present development discourse has been dominated by a neoliberal understanding, heavily associated with ideas of progress, economic growth and good governance, using foreign aid as a primary means of mobilising resources to satisfy these characteristics (Hayter 1971). This development approach, as a result, is primarily channeled through international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other United Nations mechanisms that promote neoliberalism (Alston,2018).

As aforementioned, the development aid framework is built on international cooperation. At first glance, this alludes to greater partnership especially in this present age of globalisation. However, in critically assessing the historical and practical working of this ‘international cooperation’, the power dynamics, inequalities and socio-economic imbalances are soon unveiled.

At the outset, international cooperation exists due to the establishment of the global economy. The global economy has allowed for competition and specialisation, which has allowed for increased globalisation and the growth of national economies. However, the historical context of establishing the global economy, which is often ignored, has mainly served its initial outcomes of establising power over the Global South by the North. Through the imposition of economic policies on the colonised by the coloniser, Afterall, it was through colonialism that, despite various restrictions, something like a global economy emerged. It is pertinent to look at the Berlin Conference of 1884/1885, for instance, not simply in terms of the role it played in the partition of Africa, but as an early example of a Free Trade Agreement. It would highlight that the establishment of the global economy was at the very heart of colonization (Anghie, 2016) .

Post-world war I, the Mandate System was established and decolonisation was spreading. The international community established supra-national organisations in The League of Nations and The United Nations to oversee globalisation activities. However, scholars such as B. S. Chimni have seen these institutions as a nascent global state, whose current task is to realise the interests of an emerging transnational capitalist class in the international system to the disadvantage of subaltern classes in the third and first worlds (Chimni,2004). It is pertinent here to look at the objectives of the League of Nations’ “Mandate System” or the United Nations Security Council’s present structure of the “P5”. A closer look reveals that the “global government” and its predecessor have implemented and championed socio-economic policies that perpetuate capitalist hegemony through a bias to the economic ruling class. This hegemony is rooted in the same colonial objectives of the Berlin conference. For example, the ‘Mandate System’ demonstrated how colonial territories could be made politically independent, sovereign states. At the same time, they continued to perform their traditional role of supplying markets and raw materials to the metropolis (Anghie, 2016). Today this is still prevalent, with Less Developed Countries exporting most raw materials to More Developed Countries for processing. This framework for development is therefore built on the foundation of protecting the colonial socio-economic structure, with many African countries relying on heavily on foreign Transnational Companies for processing of their resources.

Truman’s 1949 speech set Western hegemony as the architectural framework for development. It was the genesis of ‘development’ used in a context to set a standard, “emblem, a euphemism, used ever since to allude either discreetly or inadvertently to the era of American hegemony” (Esteva, 1992). Thus, the first promoters of development suggested living conditions equivalent to Truman America, defining economic growth and neoliberal policies as development. This is exemplified through the practice of the World Bank and IMF, which identified poor governance (a lack of political modernity) as the reason why countries in the South were not developing (Pearce 2008). Thus, they provided aid on the condition that states in the Global South adopted good governance (informed by a neoliberal notion of political modernity). What can be understood is that European modernity is woven into the fabric of neoliberal development policy and practice (Rist 1990). Thus, neoliberal development repeats and perpetuates capitalist hegemony rooted in colonial objectives, which are inherently racist and allow socio-economic oppression based on the misconstrued idea of the inferiority of the colonised. Furthermore, Truman “succeeded in freeing the economic sphere from the negative connotations it had accumulated for two centuries, delinking development from colonialism” (Esteva, 1992). Thus, tackling development from a purely economic standpoint is inherently oppressive, since it perpetuates an unequal global economy. 

The institutions that perpetrate the neoliberal development model have origins in the The League of Nations Mandate System, which established formal sovereignty based on effective government. Hence, “governments” as conceptualised for the Mandate Territories were created principally to further a particular system of political economy that integrated the mandate territory to the metropolitan power to the disadvantage of the former. This technique administered the whole of ‘mandate society’ in economic terms by a process called the `economisation’ of government (Anghie, 2016). As a result, the ‘Mandate Society,’ today the developing society, has been subjected to neocolonial development aid involving physical and institutional control over one region’s economic and political values by another region to serve political and economic ends (Harvey 2003). There is a repetition and perpetuation of colonial objectives and growth on the claim that the developing world needs further guidance for civilisation.

This essay has already acknowledged that development aid work can perpetuate colonial objectives and capitalist hegemony initiated by the North and on the South. However, as Cecil Sagoe has argued, these power imbalances also exist in South-South development relations. This power imbalance is predominantly seen by the South (China) on the South (countries in Africa) (Sagoe,2012). Thus, it is crucial to recognise that development practices between China and African countries suggest that development may not be ‘always and in all places neo-colonial (Kothari 2006: 136). Therefore, the architectural framework of development aid does not solely repeat and perpetuate post-colonial and racist Americanised hegemony. Instead, neo-colonialism extends to nations such as China, who through rapid economic growth. Now use foreign aid in the same way as the North. Gaining institutional control over one region’s economic and political values by another region to serve political and economic ends (Harvey 2003) is the primary objective. This South-South neo-colonialism is also seen in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka. China signed an agreement on the Hambantota Port to lease the for 99 years, expanding their political sphere of influence in exchange for development aid (Abi-Habib, 2018). This is feasible because of the present state of development aid work centred on economic hegemony as a basis for growth, rooted in the Berlin Conference’s initial objectives of economic growth of the ‘developed world’ through the establishment of the global economy. 

Haven argued that the present international architecture of cooperation is based on the rationale of socio-political hegemony and continued economic growth of developed nations. If development aid works in this system, it would depend on whether development is viewed from a utopian or post-colonial theory.

As already implied, development aid today is provided with conditions that usually directly serve the interests of states providing it (Hayter 1971), maintaining neocolonial sentiments whether from the more developed countries of Europe or Asia as a result. Actual development explored by scholars such as Sen’s “Capability approach” of an “attempt to see development as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (Sen, (1999)  can prompt the discussions of endogenous development, which considers autonomy, equity, culture, and sustainability. However, such kinds of development can never be achieved because the present international framework is built on capitalist hegemony, which intrinsically promotes inequality, power dynamics, and socio-economic imbalances. The economic growth approach to development has “succeeded in freeing the economic sphere from the negative connotations it had accumulated for two centuries, delinking development from colonialism” (Esteva, 1992). Thus, the equity needed for true development is altogether ignored. In addition, international Institutions such as the World Bank can enforce and legitimise unjust rules (Chimni,2004), such as the Structural Adjustment Programmes that impose a one size fit all approach ignoring unique approaches needed for the unique effects of colonialism and forced hegemony.

Keeping in mind the lessons of the Great War, international lawyers of the League period set about creating a new international order based on respect for the international rule of law to replace the nineteenth century’s positivist law whose inadequacies resulted in the War. They hoped to further globalisation by forming a new jurisprudence involving a fundamental rethinking of the functions, methods and goals of international law and the concept of sovereignty central to the discipline itself (Anghie, 2016). Thus, international law had to adapt to principles and rules and standards more directly to the service of the lives, current needs of our present-day society (Alvarez,1929). They were tackling the question of formulating a theory of sovereignty that departed from the positivist idea of an absolute sovereign that possessed the ultimate right to go to war (Anghie, 2016), while including the developing world’s attainment of sovereignty.

International law has thus been the vessel through which the workings of the international community are framed. For instance, international economic and political policies help create the structures that the Third World seeks in various ways to contest as they further the goal of colonial powers. Therefore, the Mandate system is the innovative legal technique of international institutions, in as much as its technologies have been refined by the Bretton Woods Institutions i.e, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. International law and institutions have played a particular and unique role in shaping the economic and political structures of the developing world (Anghie, 2016).

Today, international law ought to stand for global equity and liberty. International law should have the role of furthering development through the restructuring of International Institutions and revaluating the nature of classifying legal personality for equality before the law. The latter point touches on the global dissent movement issues, which should establish networks at sub-national authorities and cities. To create counter-hegemonic values and spaces (Chimni,2004) allowing the developing world true sovereignty to bring forth endogenous change rather than the present dependency on the West is a must. 

International law ought to tackle the specific needs of our present-day society and further its goals of world peace and the rights of individuals, as the United Nations has claimed. However, today’s development agencies, like the Mandate System before them, seek to ensure the well-being and development of third-world countries entirely by integrating third-world economies into the international economic system. This forced integration (hegemony) is arguably disadvantageous to its peoples (Chossudovsky,1997).  Thus, international law must take on the role to dismantle the inherent colonial objectives that are presently being perpetuated and justified by the current international law practice.

Olubanke Awosope is a second year LLB Law student at the University of Nottingham, hoping to pursue further studies in International Development Law. Her interests include social justice, international trade, the environment and politics within and outside the legal context. She is on the committee of the University of Nottingham’s Law School Magazine: Advocate and is also a contributor for the same publication.  

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