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The International Trade in Ideas

Against the obvious shortcomings of a system that grew out of colonial policies and Cold War politics, the proximate—and paradoxical—reason for prickly aid relations is that in Bangladesh aid has been a 'pure gift' (Stirrat and Henkel 1997), given without expectation of comparable material. It is this absence of material reciprocity that gives it its power. Because it is not returned, has no element of transaction in it, it always carries some part of its donor with it. Aid donors are 'incumbents of status positions and do not act on their own behalf' (Parry 1986, 456); but that status is one of immense power, leaving the recipient indebted and marked by the motives of the donor (Stirrat and Henkel 1997).

What are these motives in relation to Bangladesh? Guhathakurta's study of British aid to Bangladesh through the 1970s and 1980s finds 'no strong economic or strategic motivations involved', but politics were never absent: the motives of long-term aid giving were not simply developmental but 'determined and negotiated at state-level politics' (Guhathakurta 1990, 302). The significance of aid in a context where its gift has no material benefit for the donor must be intangible. Certainly, as Guhathakurta points out, the significance of aid to Bangladesh must be judged against its influence on the policy process, rather than either its volume or its contributions to growth.

In relation to the history of development in this country, the significance of aid can only be found in the domain of ideas. The motivation (and perhaps the post hoc justification among progressive-minded donors) has been untinged by commercial or economic interest, yet powerfully shaped by the need to persuade. The elite of Bangladesh needed to be persuaded to pursue market- friendly policies deemed pro-poor in the Western liberal traditions of public policy.27 But partly because of the notoriety of Bangladesh as the 'basket case of the world', the world needed to be persuaded that there were no hopeless cases; that the judicious application of generous aid could ultimately guide even the most challenging countries towards progress; that the technologies and techniques for doing so were available and sound. However, over time, its having become the poster child for results, aid donors started to need Bangladesh more than the elite needed aid donors. That phase of the social contract in which the elite depended on donors for the capacity to protect against crises of the most basic subsistence is now over, in the main. Yet donors now continue to invest in Bangladesh because after forty years of investment and aid donors and projects and NGOs, development has become an art that they do exceptionally well.

27 As distinct from social democratic.

 
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