By Roger O’Halloran.
In Devpolicy on April 18, 2019, under the heading: Beyond ‘aid in the national interest’ Nilima Gulrajani asks us to:
“Consider this thought experiment. If the provision of bilateral foreign aid overseas threatened the national interest, would it ever be provided? Surely, it must be at least a benign force, or else someone would have long ago axed it?”
In my December 2018 musings, I mentioned grants being made that appear to be somewhat more concerned with doing “… whatever it takes to compete with China for our neighbours’ affection”. There is always some tension between aid given for pure humanitarian purpose and that which is given in the national interest. Both things can coincide, but it is unprincipled and is likely to distort development outcomes in favour of the power and control of the donor when the first priority of aid is donor country national interest.
Will it be forever thus or has the age of mutual development arrived? As most returning from an assignment abroad will reflect, there are lessons for us to learn from those to whom we offer our assistance. While not providing great material wealth and health, their lifestyles often are more environmentally sustainable. If maintaining power and control comes at the expense of exploring ways to learn from one another, the wealth and health of all countries will continue to deteriorate.
For nearly 20 years, Palms Vision, Mission and Values statements have explicitly encouraged mutuality in a solidarity framework. However, it is difficult to reprogram thinking when the concept of “volunteer” in popular discourse is still about going to “help” those less fortunate than oneself. Changing the thinking and intent of development is not achieved simply by changes in language.
Palms also prepares those who volunteer to appreciate and act to achieve mutual development, but even with comprehensive preparation some still find the “helper” role more comfortable. Having power and control may not be the intention, however, in an unfamiliar environment, it can serve to avoid vulnerability. The host community may well value the helper, especially if s/he does all the work, or attracts funds from home, but like much ill-considered aid, this will reinforce dependencies.
Perhaps Palms has the problem of being seen as doing the same as the organisation that started life in a completely different era 60 years ago. Does this image turn off the very people turned on to mutual outcomes? Maybe our first communications need to challenge that assumption. Palms Board Chair, Marea Nicholson’s suggestion to rebadge “Information Sessions” advertising Global Volunteering promoted such discussion at the board and staff level.
Starting in the second half of 2019 Palms will offer workshops and discourse around Palms vision of “People reaching beyond every barrier of culture, religion, nationality, gender, class and individualism, to cooperate in achieving a just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world free of poverty.” Specific topics will include:
- International Assignments: Mutual Development.
- Effective ways to Volunteer Abroad: Five steps that make it work for all.
- Assignments Abroad: Beyond private profit and Australia’s National Interest.
We welcome other suggestions to help us reframe the thinking from aid to mutual development.