Development Aid and the Agency of the Colonized: Beyond ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’

Author: Lorenzo Fiorito | LLM

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

In every age, among the people, truth is the property of the national cause. No absolute verity, no discourse on the purity of the soul, can shake this position. The native replies to the living lie of the colonial situation by an equal falsehood…. [D]ealings with…fellow-nationals are open; they are strained and incomprehensible with regard to the settlers. Truth is that which hurries on the breakup of the colonialist regime; it is that which promotes the emergence of the nation; it is all that protects the natives, and ruins the foreigners. In this colonialist context, there is no truthful behaviour: and the good is quite simply that which is evil for ‘them.’

-Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)


It appears that, in most regions where it once prevailed, violent guerrilla-style decolonisation has exhausted its limits. Self-determining peoples (I use this word in the sense of, for example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Article 1), who embark on the path of development, seem to have a more restricted set of choices today. These options appear to be variations on one theme: taking on debt. Out of necessity, therefore, decolonization efforts have taken on—or, more accurately, must take on—new forms. In so doing, the formerly colonized exercise their agency.

In The Karamazov Brothers, Dostoevsky’s chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ highlights the false dichotomy which posits ‘aid’ as the opposite of freedom.  The Inquisitor barks at the captive Christ: ‘Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!”’

On the other hand, French philosopher Sartre stated the consequence of choosing freedom: ‘We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that [humanity] is condemned to be free. Condemned, because [we] did not create [ourselves], yet…nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that [we are] thrown into this world [we are] responsible for everything [we do].’

The agency of colonized and formerly colonized peoples consists of exactly this sort of ‘freedom’—to accept responsibility for every choice. Every actionable path forward results in both benefits and drawbacks: with each, millions of lives are at stake. And in making these decisions, ex-colonial peoples have no greater authority to blame for the consequences, nor do they have any support to rely on, but themselves.

To discern and to utilise the best among unpalatable options—to adopt a shrewd pragmatism—this exercise of agency provides the way out of the Grand Inquisitor’s dystopian vision.

Bretton-Woods Institutions and the Discourse of Poverty Alleviation

Development aid has been critiqued adequately by better pens than mine. Dambisa Moyo argued in the introduction to her seminal Dead Aid that ‘The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty, and has done so, is a myth. Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but have increased’. She goes on to demonstrate that aid was conceived, in its Bretton-Woods format, as a weapon of influence in Africa during the Cold War. Moyo was not the first to critique such opportunistic aid practices, and as this symposium demonstrates, she will not be the last.

Nevertheless, it seems that—once the initial shock has worn off—institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, etc. can capably absorb these critiques. (For instance, Michael A. Clemens seriously reviewed and evaluated Moyo’s Dead Aid in the September 2009 issue of Finance and Development; the review is reproduced on the IMF website.) These venerable institutions have not fundamentally changed their ways; but rather, they continually master and re-master the discourse of poverty alleviation in response to criticism from humanitarian quarters.

Consider the fate of the IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programme, or SAP—formerly administered by the IMF Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) toward heavily-indebted poor countries. The IMF responded to a list of criticisms of SAPs in 1999:

  • ‘ESAF programs fail to meet their own objectives—they do not generate growth or external viability.’
  • ‘The IMF emphasizes short-run stabilization over poverty reduction.’
  • ‘ESAF “austerity conditions” reduce the availability of social services.’
  • ‘Poverty worsens under ESAF programs.’
  • ‘Conditionality’ (i.e. making loans available only when the country has adopted or removed specific legislation) ‘undermines program ownership’ by the countries that sign up for SAPs.

In its published response, the IMF tried to justify SAPs by refuting each criticism. However, it finally chose a more effective counter-argument:

‘The IMF and the Bank have renamed their lending facilities for poorer countries. The IMF has replaced its Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) with the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF). Countries that previously were receiving ESAF loans are now receiving PRGF loans. The interest rate and repayment conditions are the same.

Such tactics are no reason to give up hope, nor to postpone effective action to the distant future. Ex-colonized peoples, instead, may use their available options intelligently: understanding the agendas of the financial and geopolitical players who give aid, evading the traps posed as best as they can, and marshalling these options for their own purposes. The case of Vietnam shows one way that this has been done.

Case Study: Vietnam

Vietnam’s development saga is an excellent example of the ‘agency of the colonized.’ Having fought off colonizers and would-be colonizers for most of the 20th century, Vietnam emerged from deep poverty and the enduring trauma of war to become a success story for the Southeast Asian region.

The figures speak for themselves.  The US State Department reports that ‘US-Vietnam bilateral trade has grown from $451 million in 1995 to over $90 billion in 2020. US goods exports to Vietnam were worth over $10 billion in 2020, and U.S. goods imports in 2020 were worth $79.6 billion. US investment in Vietnam was $2.6 billion in 2019.’

The USA’s primary contribution to Vietnamese history is amply documented; and that contribution is decidedly not trade. What, then, possessed Vietnam’s leaders to adopt these bilateral relations?

In ‘U.S. Aid and Uneven Development in East Asia,’ Gray argues that a key failing of the American-backed post-colonial state of South Vietnam, which succeeded France’s withdrawal from colonial Indochina, was to legislatively stall land-reform efforts. This reduced the credibility of state institutions. Thus, South Vietnam lacked ‘sufficient absorptive capacity to effectively use American aid.’ South Vietnam later collapsed in the insurgency that founded contemporary Vietnam.

The first visit by a Vietnamese leader to the USA, since the end of the Vietnam War, took place in 2005. Manyin attributed the motivation for this visit, in part, to Vietnam’s wish to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).  He pointed out: ‘As the normalization process has proceeded, the US has eliminated most of the Cold War-era restrictions on US aid to Vietnam, and US assistance has increased markedly from around $1 million when assistance was resumed in 1991 to over 55 million anticipated in FY2005 [i.e. fiscal year 2005].’

Thus, it is clear that Vietnam leveraged the ties secured through humanitarian and development aid into more lasting bilateral relations with the USA; in turn, these bilateral relations gave Vietnam its crucial access to the world market in the WTO; and WTO access allowed Vietnam to drastically increase its volume of international trade. The effects, according to a World Bank overview, include: ‘Between 2002 and 2018, GDP per capita increased by 2.7 times, reaching over US$2,700 in 2019, and more than 45 million people were lifted out of poverty. Poverty rates declined sharply from over 70 percent to below 6 percent (US$3.2/day PPP).’

Development aid did not directly reduce Vietnam’s poverty. Rather, the administration’s intelligent leveraging of that aid, with an eye to its own objectives as well as those of other actors, did. Ironic but true: the same Vietnamese government that once ousted a government dependent on American aid would later use American development assistance to gain access to the world market, and thereby reduce poverty. 


This contribution does not, therefore, present an argument in favour of development aid. It does, nevertheless, maintain that when colonized and ex-colonized peoples exercise their right of self-determination, it thrusts them into the world as it actually is: not the world as it might be, nor as it ought to be. In navigating that world, it does no good to bemoan the lack of options that one has access to. This is what the responsibility that accompanies freedom looks like—exercising agency from within a restricted set of options, to achieve a larger set of goals.

The Manichean world that Fanon so famously described still exists. But the exercise of agency requires that we move beyond the moral Manicheanism of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on issues of development aid. The option remains available: to master the fluid discourse of power, just as the powerful master the shifting discourse of poverty reduction. 

It is necessary to play the international game astutely, to choose allegiances wisely, in order to achieve one’s ultimate aims. For if we refuse to play, we can never win.

Lorenzo Fiorito holds an LLM in Comparative and International Dispute Resolution, and researches issues of trade and development, investment law, and sovereign debt. He has lobbied for Eelam Tamil rights at the UN Human Rights Council, as well as in parliamentary forums in Canada, the European Union, and the UK.

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