Masters and Servants
There is no love lost between the elite and the aid donors in Bangladesh, but the mutual animosity between the elite and their donors can be surprisingly intense. Sobhan's view that 'the psychology of dependence on donors has become ingrained in the psyche [of elites] such that... the goodwill of the donors is an important political resource in the domestic politics of Bangladesh' (1993,5) has been influential. But you will be hard-pressed to meet a Bangladeshi national, however invested in or dependent on the aid industry, who does not hold nationalistic views on self-reliance. This development nationalism is more than surface-deep. On one occasion, the director of an NGO had described equitable partnerships with his donors during an interview, only to change tack once the tape recorder had been put away and start a lengthy discourse on how aid sustained imperial domination. A retired senior government official whose job was to advance the donor position with the government described an encounter when his employers felt the government had broken all the rules. He agreed that the government's behaviour had been outrageous and regressive, but he nonetheless described with satisfaction how donors had been put 'back in their proper place... the idea that they can dictate terms has to some extent been nullified' (see Hossain 2004, 18).
It is a commonplace that the aid relationship is an ill-concealed extension of colonial rule; aid flows are seen as either rightful restitution for historical imperialism or as evidence that the extractive relationship never ended, aiming to make Bangladesh safe for global capitalism. The global social compact of Rawlsian liberal justice theory is nowhere in sight. A telling analogy was that of the 'master-servant' relationship, a phrase that speaks of the acute personal discomforts of the aid relationship in which members of an elite are forced into the role of international beggar. Struggles against colonialism are grand and noble but the master-servant dynamic is only ever about petty humiliation.
The language speaks of reversals in the status hierarchies to which elites are accustomed, a sense of powerlessness within the larger web of international relations.
The elite might find it annoying or even humiliating to need aid, but the animosity seems to run deeper than that, reflecting gross inequalities of power enacted in the aid relation that have been worn into psyches over time. Social relations run along those grooves, like it or not, and on both sides. Aid officials who behave acceptably in London or New York are different in Dhaka. A Northern aid official whom I believe is a progressive-minded individual elsewhere told me that malnutrition meant Bangladeshis were unfit for democracy and 'verging on the cretinous'. (In my shock, I failed to produce a retort and so no doubt confirmed this view of the intelligence of Bangladeshis.) It is hard to imagine such an extraordinary statement being made in another setting. It is no coincidence that the sociologist Sarah White, who broke an aid industry taboo when she wrote about race and white privilege (White
2002), is a long-term observer of development in Bangladesh.