'Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits'. Interview with Rasna Warah

The disilllusionment about development in Africa, the failure of the aid industry, the need to reconsider the 'value of development' together with a broader reform of the donors system, are some of key issues discussed in the interview with Rasna Warah, editor of the anthology 'Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits'.* As Rasna points out, a broader rethinking of the development paradigm is needed, with the African continent being the main arena for it. Most importantly Africa needs to wean itself from aid, and formulate its own policies and strategies based on its own realities and contexts.


Q. In your book, you and the other authors speak about the 'failure of the development industry'. Can you briefly explain the main arguments?

A. When they speak of the failures of the development industry, many of the authors in the anthology are referring to the fact that despite billions of dollars in donor aid, poverty in Africa remains a constant problem, and in some cases, has actually worsened. The fact that the development industry -- comprising donors, NGOs, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions, governments and the whole gamut of humanitarian agencies -- has failed to eradicate poverty on the continent suggests that there must be something wrong in the way aid is used or in the way 'development' is practised. In the book I argue in my introduction that the development industry has failed for the following reasons: 1) Those who work for it are motivated by the need to impose new systems of domination on people in poor countries -- in other words, development is just another way that colonialism is perpetuated without being labelled oppressive. 2) That development models, such as those advocated by the World Bank and the IMF, favour the rich at the expense of the poor and are, therefore, instrumental in perpetuating poverty in the so-called developing world. 3) That the worldview, intentions and mindset of development practitioners are paternalistic, arrogant and totally ignorant of poor people's lives. This has a negative impact on poverty alleviation efforts.

Q. Given the mounting criticism questioning the effectiveness of development assistance, how likely is that the entire system (UN and non) undergo a broader reassessment of itself?

A. The history of reforms within the UN and other donor agencies has not been very encouraging. While the World Bank has in the past, for instance, recognized that the structural adjustment policies it imposed on countries in the 80s and 90s unleashed a lot of hardship on countries, it has not significantly altered the recipe of its proposed economic reforms for these countries -- in other words, what is known as the 'Washington Consensus' of deregulation, privatization and cutbacks on social spending, continues unabated. The reforms have been cosmetic at best. What is needed is a radical rethinking of the development paradigm, which most UN agencies and the Bank are unwilling to do, as it would severely impact the way they do business in poor countries.

Q. In your view how likely is Africa to shape its own paradigm for development? Most importantly, does it make sense to talk about an African paradigm for development?

A. I think we are now seeing the beginnings of a new paradigm for development in Africa, particularly since the introduction of the 'China factor' in African economies. The Chinese way of doing business and providing development assistance to Africa has forced many governments to question whether earlier development models were harmful in the long run, and has shifted power from West to East. The realization that infrastructure development is a prerequisite to any meaningful development and that economic growth cannot be sustained in an environment of high aid dependency, has led many African governments to draft new strategies for their economic development. However, I still think that most African governments have not yet understood that aid - whether from East or West - has negative impacts in the long term, and that the only way to lift the continent out of poverty is to focus on developing the countries own industries, human resources and institutions. I don't think that there will be an 'African paradigm' of development, in the sense that it will be unique to Africa, but I do think Africa will the arena where this new paradigm will be tested.

Q. What alternative could be envisaged to the current situation/system? What needs to be changed? Where should the impulse for change come from (government, civil society, local communities, young generation, other..)? 

A. This is a very complex question, with complex answers, but as a start, I would suggest weaning ourselves from aid, and formulating our own policies and strategies based on our own realities and contexts. The impetus for this change has necessarily to come from African governments, but must be carried forward by all sectors, including civil society. Rwanda, I believe, is one of the countries that is actively seeking alternatives, and could show the way forward to others.

Q. How the cultural legacy of the colonial past is still influencing young generation in Africa and† affecting their choices? How to break culture of dependency? How to change mindset?

A. I would suggest a radical transformation of our education system that would foster innovation, creativity, and a sense of pride among Kenyans. Many countries have forged their own identities despite their colonial pasts. We can do the same.

Interview by Angela Zarro

*Rasna Warah (ed.), Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits - An Anthology,  AuthorHouse, Milton Keynes, 2008 ISBN: 978-1-4343-8603-8

Rasna Warah is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, where for many years she was the Editor-in-chief of Habitat Debate, the magazine of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Rasna is member of the SID Governing Council.



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