Why I'm still doing development aid

Over the last ten years, I took part in many programs labeled “development aid”. I talked at conferences, I did trainings and wrote reports, I advised on policy. All in all, I swallowed close to 15,000€ in “development aid” in direct gross salary. Factor in what was spent on flights and hotels by the donors and you reach an amount that is several times the lifetime earnings of someone living in Burkina Faso or Malawi, two countries I’m supposed to have helped develop. This piece is a reflection on what I did in media development, and might or might not be relevant to aid in other fields.

Protectionism works better

More important than the moral gap (why is development aid given to a rich white male like me?) is the finality. Development aid does nothing to develop an economy. Measuring the effectiveness of development aid misses the point. The point is to understand how countries move from being poor to being rich, and this process is well documented. The United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China, to name just a few, did not attain prosperity through development aid. They followed long-termist policies of protectionism combined with incentives for their industry to export. (To give you some context, South Korea received about $12 billion in development aid in total since the Korean War ended in 1953.1 Afghanistan received about seven times this amount since the war of 2001.2)

The process of economic development was described by German economist Friedrich List in the 19th century. He showed how protective tariffs let the British and American industries grow. I encourage you to read him, were it only for the way he pokes fun at Adam Smith and others who believe that free trade is the key to prosperity.3 Interestingly, List’s theory was confirmed by the histories of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China in the 20th century.4 Despite this impressive track record, List is not taught in economy courses at university, which might excuse development aid professionals from not knowing his theory.

Aid as diplomacy

If development aid does nothing to develop countries, what is it good for? A large chunk goes to diplomacy. Governments need to create contacts across the political spectrum of the countries they want to have influence in, as an insurance policy in case power switches sides there (also known as the “not putting all your eggs in the same basket” strategy). To create these contacts, the diplomatic corps relies partly on development aid, arguably one component of “soft power”.

As importantly, development aid serves as a moral token. Did a government bomb out a country? Instead of sending apologies, it usually sends millions in development aid to help rebuild it. Such aid, however small or ill-conceived, seems to be the default policy to balance moral wrongs. Commercial dumping, support to tyrants or active participation in wars can all be made good for, it seems, by creating development aid programs.

Patrons and racism

Once in place, these programs can do great harm. Because it is a source of income, development aid attracts the energy of ambitious entrepreneurs wherever it lands. Why try to launch a business that will bring in a few hundreds when you can apply for development aid grants that will yield thousands? No one likes to think of it this way, but development aid creates client/patron relationships. These relationships hamper actual, locally-grown development, were it only because of its opportunity costs (brilliant men and women spending time getting development aid grants do not have the time for other, potentially more useful projects).

One doesn’t need to read Friedrich List to understand that development aid does little to foster actual economic change. Many, if not most, projects are short-lived because donors care little about follow-up. They are also ill-conceived because they originate in the offices of professional donors and grant applicants, whose aims rarely align with the needs of the men and women being aided. As a result, local recipients of development aid often try to maximize their income, be it in cash or in prestige (being invited at conferences abroad, for instance) rather than to carry out the projects financed by development aid.

Instead of trying to understand the power dynamics at play in aided countries, donors often resort to racist stereotypes to explain the behavior of the aided population. I don’t remember any development aid program I took part in where a white person did not let slip, in a sigh, “you know, it’s hard to work with them”.

It’s all about the contacts

Development aid does nothing to develop an economy, it creates a class of patronized grantees in the aided countries and reinforces racism among donors. Why, then, should one keep doing it? Because all the components of development aid are actually good. No one involved in development aid intentionally acts against the interests of the aided population and most of the aid professionals strive to make a positive difference.

As for me, meeting new people in or from foreign lands was always a rich experience. There’s plenty to learn from them and such contacts would not exist without development aid. I believe that some of the students I taught under development aid programs did get something out of it - some of them even went on to become datajournalism professionals!5

The overall toxicity of development aid comes not from what it does, but from what it prevents. However, we have no way of knowing if removing development aid will make a positive difference. Just because development aid prevents aided countries from following the kind of Listian policies that lead to economic development does not mean that an absence of development aid will push governments down that road. Until someone finds an answer to this conundrum, I’ll keep flying to far-away lands to meet local journalists and share experiences.


1. Marx, Axel and Soares, Jadir. ‘South Korea’s Transition from Recipient to DAC Donor: Assessing Korea’s Development Cooperation Policy’, International Development Policy 4,2 (2013), p. 107-142. The amount is in 2010 USD.

2. AP, ‘Afghanistan Promised $16bn in development aid’, 8 July 2012, The Guardian.

3. List, Friedrich, and Stephen Colwell. National system of political economy. JB Lippincott & Company, 1856.

4. Studwell, Joe. How Asia works: Success and failure in the world’s most dynamic region. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2013.

5. Professionals in the sense that they are now able to generate income from development aid grants in the field of datajournalism.