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Friday, December 14, 2018

International Development–When Mission And Moral Exceptionalism Get In The Way Of Geopolitical Interests

Progress International was an international development agency contracted by the US Government to carry out projects in health, social welfare, and education.  While its ostensible purpose was to improve the lot of the poor living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the real reason behind such investment was geopolitical positioning.   It was always hoped that such socially valuable projects would add moral luster to the United States and would be appreciated both for laudable human goals and generous political incentives to assure support of American political interests. 

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Although these projects were gifts to host countries, American planners counted on  a certain degree of  government support and interest.  Unless public officials were committed to reform, more efficient delivery of services, and public welfare, they would never succeed. Of course the governments with which the United States contracted bi-lateral agreements were more often than not autocracies whose only interest was political longevity and large offshore bank accounts.   There was no way to select countries for development assistance on the basis of geopolitical interests and assume that they would be willing and energetic partners in social reform. 

The World Bank in its early days when it functioned as a lender of last resort, countries borrowed for the investments that were critical to their development, and were willing to take on the risk of default knowing that if they did, their credit would be further denied.   During those days, major infrastructure projects were designed and implemented; and countries in the developing world had the roads, ports, water, and sewage systems they were denied under colonial rule.  After the days of Robert McNamara, the last President to fund such infrastructure projects, the Bank felt that it had to turn more directly to the needs of the poor.  ‘Poverty alleviation’ became the operational philosophy at the Bank.  No more would the Bank finance bridges, roads, and ports – all of which would benefit the poor only years if not decades in the future – but would turn its attention to ‘soft’ projects, those which were intended to raise socio-economic indicators quickly.

The Bank did no better on soft loan (gift) performance than the US government, for as part of the new policy, so-called ‘conditionalities’ were written into each agreement.  For these no-money-down, low interest rate, easily forgivable loans, countries would have to promise to reform their governance and become more accountable, transparent, and democratic.  

Of course, the autocrats with whom the Bank dealt, had no interest in making good on their promises, took the money, invested some for appearances sake, and diverted the rest.  The Bank, unchastened and still hopeful, forgave the loans, rewrote them to correct the ‘inconsistencies and inefficiencies’ experienced in the first round, and poured in good money after bad.

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To make matters worse, the United States development assistance program was built on a system of subcontractors which would execute Government-designed projects according to a strategy submitted during a competitive bidding process.  These contractors had no interest in innovation or creative solutions; only in responding to what government planners had envisaged.  There was no questioning the logic of government plans, the advisability or feasibility of the projects bid, or their design; so projects which never should have seen the light of day, were funded, implemented, and eventually discarded.

To make matters even worse, many of these successful contractors followed the precept, ‘The Means Are Just As Important As The Ends’, if not more so.  It was not enough for Progress International to  lower infant morality rates but had to do so appropriately, with cultural sensitivity, local participation, and collaborative methodologies.   Massive, widespread programs of vaccination, spraying, distribution of malaria prophylactics, or well-drilling were considered inappropriate even though they might be the quickest and most efficient ways of reducing such mortality.  At the beginning of the project, communities had to be ‘invested in’ the project.  They had to ‘buy into it’, and be active collaborative partners.  At the end of the project, they would have ‘ownership’ which would result in efficient management and follow-on capital investments. 

Of course, these projects, complicated by so many ‘conditionalities’, conditions, and impossible promises, failed.  The means impeded the efficient and expeditious achievement of ends.  The philosophy of the implementing agencies – their mission and moral purpose – was more important than simple results.

After decades of failure, agencies like the US Agency for International Development still exist, still do business in the same, inefficient, morally-bound way; and billions of dollars of taxpayer money is wasted on projects that countries don’t want . If anything, such unwanted, inaccessible projects turn autocrats away from the very American allegiance the United States seeks.  Along with social conditionalities, the books are kept so tightly that even occasional ‘diversion’ of project resources is difficult.  In short, no one gains.  The US Congress feels good about their investment in human welfare, and voters are assured that their government does the right thing; but that’s all.

In the past few decades, a new player has entered the development game – China, whose leaders have wanted nothing to do with moral exceptionalism, mission, or conditionalities.  Theirs would be on a strictly quid-pro-quo basis.  Chinese companies would build African roads, bridges, railways, and ports; and in return China would get long-term, guaranteed access to energy and mineral resources at favorable, unchanging, low rates.  Or, as in the case of the Horn of Africa, the Chinese would farm arable but unused and undeveloped agricultural land, export its products back to China, and return a small portion of the profits to the host country.  There was never a question about governance or civil rights.  Those were internal issues, of interest only to the partner country, not China,

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As a result, Chinese public and private investment now far surpasses American.  By offering these practical agreements, China has both benefited host countries, enriched itself, and perhaps most importantly, gained an unshakable political foothold in Africa. 

The United States is just now waking up to the problem.  It suddenly, although surprisingly given China’s resurgence to international power, finally realizes China’s global geopolitical influence; and realizes that it cannot possibly compete through soft loans, soft projects, workshops, and mission-driven contractors.  Conditionalities must be things of the past, the ends must justify the means, and moral exceptionalism forgotten.  The Trump administration has just gone very public about its clear and unmistakable intentions in Africa to counter the Chinese.  Yet it still backs off from the Kissinger-esque, Machiavellian principles of realpolitik.  Even for a very conservative government, rooted in private sector initiative, reduced government involvement, and a hard-line, practical approach to international relations, it is still hard to back away completely from American goodness and righteousness. As the New York Times recently reported:
National Security Adviser Bolton announced a new program, “Prosper Africa,” to support American investment across Africa. Without attaching a dollar figure, he said the United States would facilitate alternatives to the large, state-directed public works projects pushed by the Chinese.
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Bolton and the Administration have clearly not learned from the past.  No government in Africa is interested in ‘alternative’ investment – a thinly disguised code word for smaller-scale projects, private investment, and contractor-implemented programs.  In other words, the same ‘hands-on’, means-and-ends approach that has failed in the past.

To counteract the Chinese the US will have to offer the same kind of major infrastructure projects but more competitively than the Chinese.  It should apply the same competitive principles used in the private sector to the public.  No considerations other than cost, and clearly enunciated economic and geopolitical benefit.

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