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On Aid

Debates about the worth and futility of foreign aid-sponsored development rage on, without much insight into the deep political structures that force aid dependence on countries positioned on the periphery of the world system, or how those external relations influence domestic political settlements (Hickey 2013; Yanguas 2016). Has aid been a boon or a burden for Bangladesh? The classic two-handed social science response would be to point out the ways in which aid supported progressive and solidaristic pathways to development, undercut by a reminder of the contract of domination into which the Bangladeshi elite and the Bangladeshi masses were drawn by the crises of the early 1970s, and the effective absence, at the time, of viable alternatives. But the argument can and should be turned on its head: aid has certainly been good for Bangladesh, but Bangladesh has been exceptionally valuable to the aid industry. Countless veteran aid officials, scholars, and activists have cut their teeth on Bangladesh. Many of these people are progressive-minded individuals, with egalitarian and solidaristic aims. Some have been part of organizations that sought to make the world fairer, a few that had more radical objectives, and the majority who simply saw desperate human need and wanted to help. That they are part of a larger world system in which progress and indeed survival for a marginal and fragile corner of the world implied incorporation on adverse terms may not detract from their individual motivations. The individuals, and most certainly the organizations and agencies, have benefited vastly from their Bangladesh development experience. And the project of economic and human development under globalizing capitalism has, above all, gained from its star example. If Bangladesh can do it, anywhere can. The successes of the erstwhile basket case continue to provide an important justification for the continuation of aid, even among those who think aid has generally failed.

In any case, the aid industry, and those of us who have made a career with its resources, owe explanations to those who have paid for these achievements, those who provided the foreign finance, but in particular those who were developed through its projects, to examine the motivations and interests that drove them, the means through which they were delivered, and their effects in the wider societal and national perspective. Many of the important motivations and interests were generous and benign, and the road to development has been paved with individually good intentions. But there have been uglier motivations, too, framed by frank abuses of power that it is in the interests of historical accountability to record properly. The crises of the mid- 1970s in particular appear to have been engineered or permitted because of an intellectual Malthusianism that justified the political abuse of humanitarian aid. There has been no real accountability for these crimes against humanity, if that is indeed what they were. It is among the unfinished business in the history of this country that still warrants attention and justice.[1] But nor are such anti-humanitarian ideologies an anachronism. The wave of anti-migrant feeling in the industrialized countries against seaborne refugees from climate, conflict, authoritarianism, and poverty in the second decade of the twenty- first century is an echo of the profoundly unethical ideologies of the past that shaped the response to the Bangladesh famine. The present moment has demonstrated once again how powerfully such ideas influence the international politics of aid.

  • [1] In particular, the roles of the US and other governments in withholding food aid during the1974 famine remain imperfectly understood, and merit further attention.
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