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  • Writer's pictureLotus for Laos

Decolonising Aid - Why Colonialism is still at the heart of Development Aid

While most people know that there are multiple sides to every story, the majority of people are not aware

of the ideological distortion embedded within the version of human history embraced in Europe and North America. The inaccuracy is rooted in the exaggeration of Europe’s role in the past, the failure to account for centuries of globalized relationships, and the continued portrayal of the West as the originator of all things good and progressive. This underlying world view is known as Eurocentrism, which refers to the world view based on the European experience. Eurocentrism falls under ethnocentrism, which describes the perceived superiority of a group concerning their ethnicity or nationality. Consequently, the Non-West has been defined by and in relation to the West, marginalizing indigenous experiences in the process. While ethnocentrism is observed in various cultures and groups, none other has had such a drastic impact on the world system as Eurocentrism.

The self-proclaimed superiority substantiated by this world view has created the material grounds for the colonial and imperialistic appropriation, exploitation, and discrimination that dominates world history. While the times of colonialism and imperialism are seemingly in the past, the world has internalized its legacy. The global system is still, for the most part, dominated by the same nations. The United Nations still classifies sixteen territories as “non-self-governing territories” as they remain in the custody of their previous colonizers. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon openly stated that “decolonization remains an unfinished business”. The same countries still rule the world. Nevertheless, they do not need to rely on brute strength and military power anymore. Today’s violence occurs in the name of freedom, democracy, and progress/ development.

Eurocentrism in its broadest scope refers to the narrative that the West is the inventor of all that has liberated the world from the shackles of savagery. It postulates that without freedom, democracy, and human rights, the world would still find itself in dark times equivalent to those of the medieval era. Many still deem Europe to be the cradle of modern civilization and the author of the most appreciated values worldwide. Europe presents the origin of modern thought and is responsible for the heritage of social norms, ethical values, and normative beliefs that showcase humanity in its most advanced stage. To this day, the Western world marks the “pinnacle of human progress”. At its core, the historical narrative is a false universalism of European/ Western superiority enacted at the expense of the rest of the world. It is a world view that interprets and prioritizes the non-West in Western terms, values, and experiences.

At the core of this article lies the hypothesis that social, institutional, and structural mechanisms have replaced traditional means of colonialism, continuously preserving and reproducing the structures that enable the Western nations to maintain control without resorting to overt instruments of domination. Development aid is no exception.

The term “development aid” relies on a Eurocentric understanding of a distinct advancement that is deemed both desirable and necessary. The very words “development aid” are already Eurocentric in their very essence; in other words, Europe decided that all societies were on the same inevitable linear path to modernity and those who were not as far along required help to get where Europe already found itself. This assumes the superiority of the Western culture and fails to recognize the value of other ways of living, seeing only the need for an adoption of the Eurocentric model. The polarity of “developed” and “underdeveloped” reinforces the definition of the non-West in relation to the West, measured by what it is not instead of what it is.

The civilizing mission was the ideological rationale for the military intervention and colonization, claiming to facilitate the modernization or Westernization of indigenous people between the 15th and the 20th century. Even though the civilizing mission did not survive postcolonialism, the ideas of progress and development have proved far more resilient. The concepts of progress and development drive many discussions around the necessary advancement of the developing world. Progress as an idea was a central motif and common viewpoint in the Age of the Enlightenment, contrary to the definition of reason and civilization. It remains the underlying incentive for many of the economic and political processes today. Especially after the Second World War, the West used the idea of progress as the motor driving all positive development, and to justify its political involvement in what came to be the reorganization of the Third World. It had used the same rationale during colonial times, but replaced the term civilized with the concepts of progress and development.

As previously stated, the very ideas of modernization, progress, and development are Eurocentric. However, the mechanism by which the assumption of a universal linear evolution towards modernity is reproduced comes into play through the efforts of development aid or official development assistance (ODA). According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD, 2021): “Official development assistance (ODA) is defined as government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries.” The OECD is predominantly Western and determines rankings that are influential for the rest of the world. It bases these rankings of countries on Eurocentric categories such as development (HDI: human development index), scarcity, poverty, and literacy. These concepts have become nearly sacrosanct, both in development and humanitarian aid.

For example, the idea of poverty has a very negative connotation in Western terms; it is something to be avoided and even pitied in a world ruled by capital and materialism. However, there have always been people who have chosen to embrace it, taking language as a qualitative proxy. Both in Persian and Latin, approximately 30 to 40 words describe different ideas surrounding poverty. However, there is a difference between leading a minimalist lifestyle and being unable to meet one’s most basic needs in terms of food, water, and shelter. The very process of economic development creates the conditions of deprivation, capitalism, and appropriation of resources across national borders. Similarly, literacy is one of the most critical criteria nowadays in determining a nation’s status or level of advancement. Yet, the value of being able to read depends on a specific context. Not all ways of life require the same skillset to survive and thrive. Literacy is one of the terms used to rank countries against one another, explicitly suggesting that those who manage to increase literacy levels are deemed more advanced on the scale of civilizations.

Whether under the name of a civilizing mission, development aid, or even “helping people help themselves”, a vast number of projects and efforts intended to improve a situation exhibit an unequal dynamic between donor and receiver, enabling the former to impose his or her ideas, values, and concerns. The disproportionate allocation of voting rights of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund underpin this argument, as Western countries predominantly determine the decisions made “in favor” of the lesser developed members. Similarly, just like its published rankings, the OECD’s aims of stimulating economic progress and world trade are defined by the West and in Western terms. The entire world of aid relies on a power disparity that is often exploited, either consciously or unconsciously, allowing for a continuous imposition of Western and Eurocentric agendas on a local and global scale.

Those who do learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. How do you think we can decolonize aid and find better ways to reduce the inequality that characterizes today’s world?

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