Aid organisations complicit in system that treats countries as 'second-class citizens', MPs told

Aid recipients do not need more aid, they need a chance to compete in an international system whose post-colonial trading relationships are “unfair by design”, MPs have heard.

These relationships make the aid sector complicit in the extension of a colonial system that treats countries and local organisations as “second-class citizens”, according to one expert giving evidence to the House of Commons International Development Committee yesterday.

The committee, which was taking evidence on racism in the foreign aid sector as part of a wider inquiry into the philosophy and culture of aid, heard how the legacy of colonialism embedded in institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank helped keep countries in receipt of aid impoverished and prevented them from industrialising.

“We don’t need aid, we need a 'level trading field' in terms of policies that allow us [African and Asian countries] to compete with Europe and the United States,” said Degan Ali, executive director of the NGO Adeso.

Ali questioned how a country the size of Burkina Faso was supposed to complete a fair trade deal with a country the size of China, or a trading bloc such as the European Union.

In another example, she asked why west African producers of cocoa were unable to manufacture chocolate.

“This is unfair by design. We are still a source of extraction and raw materials, and the West does not want African and some Asian countries to become a source of industrialisation,” she said.

Ali described how the aid sector was complicit in this unfair system by using the example of droughts and food shortages in Malawi.

She said an aid charity might be able to set up a food security project in the country with the use of aid, but it was not helping to challenge the unequal nature of deals struck with institutions such as the IMF, which might force the country to remove subsidies on products and sell off the country’s food reserves.

“Local organisations are treated as second-class citizens in this system,” said Ali.

Lata Narayanaswamy, associate professor of politics of global development at the University of Leeds, agreed that countries entered into the international trade system on unequal terms.

She said: “Aid as we know it is an extension of the colonial system.”

In explaining the legacies of empire and the ways in which they shaped how aid was deployed, Narayanaswamy described how colonial-era officials who were deployed as technical development officers then went on to shape the system at institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and other UN specialist agencies.

“This provided the same continuity for the way colonialism was administered and the way aid is administered,” she said.

The Sustainable Development Goals had a commitment to expanding free and fair trade, said Narayanaswamy, but this was difficult to achieve because policies put forward by the likes of the IMF started by disavowing the history of imperialism.

“This has created enduring perceptions that brown and black bodies are incapable of self-governance and in need of external guidance, so our aid becomes a form of charity and benevolence,” she said.

The session was the second part of a wider inquiry into the philosophy and culture of aid and racism in the sector.

An earlier session heard that senior managers and decision-makers in the aid sector do not often reflect the demographic of those they work with, which is problematic.

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