Foreign Aid and Cultural Damage

I have a somewhat controversial view that much of foreign aid is either fruitless or in fact damaging to the recipient. I mean this even beyond the well-known dangers of a recipient becoming dependant on the aid. My belief is that unwarranted aid to a country development is equivalent to the coloniser’s efforts to “civilise” savages who were not living the way Europeans lived. Although often full of good intentions, much charity to communities is given with the arrogant assumption that our way of life is simply better. There are certain circumstances where aid is helpful, of course, in particular after a disaster or breakout of war. The general rule is that the aid has to be asked for and any desire to develop must originate from within the country itself. Otherwise there is a real danger of causing cultural damage to the local community.

Allow me to explain where my views may have developed. In 2009 I spent 6 months in South America, the majority of which was spent volunteering in the neighbouring towns of Calca and Lumay, near Cusco, Peru. Through my experiences, I quickly realised that the third world is not full of sad malnutritioned children. If anything, it is full of happy children who eat mostly rice.

I went there when I was only 18 and my intentions were to widen my little bubble of privileged experience and to help people less fortunate than myself. I succeeded in the former but became confused about the latter. I found that there were kids everywhere (the actual proportion of youth to aged is different than developed countries). I also found, to my surprise, that there were very very poor people who were also marvellously happy. In that small town in the Andes I discovered a similar spectrum of grungy souls and content souls as one would in Australia. However there was a generally greater reliance and appreciation of relationships, particularly with psychical neighbours. There was also there was less emphasis on work and more on the frequent town fiestas. Life was different but no one could say that it was bad.

Then I walk down the street here in Sydney; I am assailed by the various volunteer or commission paid individuals who collect donations. They show you pictures of frowning children. They tell you that the price of your grocery bill will permanently “improve” the life of a stranger.

It is unnatural, let alone impossible, for a population to exist beyond its means. Such cases must be attributed to changes of circumstances, both gradual (climate change, corruption), or sudden (natural disasters, war.) Charities can do little to prevent the actual cause of the problem. Indeed “Supporting a community” is an extremely simplistic and erroneous treatment of the third world. At best, particularly with natural disasters, the charities may offer a framework to deliver aid when appropriate.

That’s not to say disaster relief itself, in isolation, isn’t an extremely worthy cause. It is natural for neighbours to help out others suddenly in need. It is particularly natural for a community to assist when a disaster has affected its members. Today’s community is global. Disaster relief is the most effective and humanitarian of all international aid or charity. Although it can be polluted with stipulations or vested interest, at its core it often seeks to simply restore a community to how it was. Since the goal is to restore (as opposed to change) the local society, there can be little danger of forcing an unnatural cultural change.

It is other forms of aid that are problematic. They rely upon the observation that people are living worse than us, that their life could be improved. But who are we to say that our form of life is greater than theirs? There is an implication that the development of a country is simultaneous with its Westernisation.

Even the simple, often well-intended, English language education that comes with the development of a country is an example of Westernisation. It is true that one proficient in English may study abroad, if given a scholarship, but more often public education only provides enough English to give directions to tourists. Yet even this humble level of English class succeeds in sublimely installing an idealised insight into the Western life. Moreso, the models of education themselves are often directly translated from 1st world exemplars rather than appropriated to local culture. This leads to a situation where (anywhere in the world) if you ask a child to draw a house, they will draw the same square image with a gabled roof, 1-2 windows and a door.

Globalisation is inevitable, but Westernisation of the world can be managed. Communities must be allowed to develop at their own pace and in their own manner.  Otherwise there will be a potentially dangerous disjoint as people are learning one thing at school and through the TV, yet living another way in their daily life with the community. Cultural damage is not just the loss of art and local customs; it is when a community becomes dysfunctional as its people are caught between their traditional culture and another heavily-pushed (modern) way of living.

A study of the Aborigines in Australia reveals the cultural damage caused by forcing one community to adopt a more “developed” lifestyle. Statistically Aborigines have higher rates of crime and alcoholism, are less likely to succeed in education and rarely represented in high income positions. But what else could be expected when these communities were suddenly forced into a completely different way of life?

If an Aborigine uses a crowbar to remove a gumtree’s bark or a gun to hunt kangaroos, essentially he is living a modern adaptation of his traditional culture. Such adaptations cause minimal conflicts with the relationships and traditional customs of his country’s culture. Likewise, if that community found a way to preserve or appropriate their social structure and customs in an urban environment, such would be a natural progression of the community into a globalised society. Damage is caused when people suddenly find themselves unable to live as they did before and are not permitted the necessary time to adjust or appropriate their culture to a new context. Essentially, cultural damage is caused when people are forced to live in a way that is alien to their own culture.

For a country to modernise and yet keep its culture, the desire to develop must come from within the country itself.  It is right for other countries to support the development only if this is the case. Soft loans, for example, can be a great benefit in giving opportunities to small groups of people wanting to start small businesses. In these cases outside help assists a country to propel its culture into a new stage of itself.

Otherwise, forced attempts at development are fruitless and akin to the efforts made by early colonisers to “civilise” who they considered savages. Afterall how is us educating and building infrastructure in Africa any different to the education and placement of Indigenous in reservations? Both come from the good willed but arrogant assumption that our life is better and the Indigenous are simply ignorant. I say let them be ignorant. Who are we to say we are happier or that we are right.

Even introducing the idea that “the modern life is better” can be dangerous to a community. It installs the melancholic mindset that they live a second-rate life. They may believe that the material possessions (the most obvious and concrete difference between 3rd world countries and developed countries) are some sort of producer of paradise. I will not go into the studies indicating happiness plateaus after one is over the bare poverty line, but I will state that I personally saw many a happy illiterate Peruvian farmer where I now see a stressed and overworked Australian office worker.

Indeed the benefits of modern Western life are often marketed without its negatives (For example: higher rates of stress, suicide, the decay of certain relationships…) This can lead to a fervent desire for material goods installed within a society unaccustomed to consumerism. Such affects can be dangerous, creating greed and corruption within a society of individuals hungry for this material paradise.

I found South America particularly vulnerable. There is just enough Western influence for many urban people to see westernised lives on television and wonder. The visiting gringos themselves became a symbol of a higher class which apparently goes around the world doing nothing more than pleasuring itself. It would be only natural for locals to be envious. Perhaps this is the source of the “gringo tax”: A condition where everything costs more if you’re foreign and people will become dishonest if it helps them scrounge an extra few soles off you. The greater danger is that this image of materialistic success drives corruption and dishonesty between the locals themselves.

If you are to take anything away from reading this article, I suppose it would be a greater appreciation for different ways of life. It is hard to picture that unemployed people in adobe huts are happy if you’re using western eyes. However, the community itself may be entirely content surviving off what they can manage and enjoying what little they do have. The whole world plays soccer. If disaster strikes it is vital that the world lends a hand. But there is should be no urgency to go turn the whole world into the modern western country. Globalisation means we are all connected and influence of modern technology is particularly unavoidable. Rather than teach the third world to restructure everything just like our societies, communities should be allowed to take technology and let their own cultures adapt. Every culture, after all, is constantly changing and shifting. All I suggest is that we allow poorer nations to change their lifestyle of their own accord, and only provide assistance if it is asked for.