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David, Ban, Bill, and Alice

The always wonderful David Rieff takes on the MDG summit:

With the fatuousness that has marked his administration from the outset, the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, has now issued a document called “Keeping the Promise,” timed to coincide with the 2010 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and the summit on the organization’s so-called Millennium Development Goals that is taking place simultaneously.

And yet, in true Alice in Wonderland style, the great and the good of the world (those eminent persons so beloved of U.N. commissions)…. are acting as if the MDGs are a realistic program.

…only if one fetishizes the idea of civil society as a kind of universal ideological solvent, and believes that, in tandem with scientific innovation, the road to our collective salvation is now open to us, can such optimism be justified.

But this was always the line at the Gates Foundation, and it is now clear that this view has won the president’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s backing. USAID’s contribution to these Pollyanna-ish fantasies is a document adorned with the title, “Celebrate, Innovate, and Sustain: Toward 2015 and Beyond.” …. The policy initiatives it is committed to are summarized on its website as being “focused on addressing critical development challenges by using science, technology and innovation in creative, yet practical new ways. If we are to secure a prosperous and peaceful future for our children, we must harness innovation to help people around the world unlock their potential to improve their communities and societies.”

Reading this, it is hard not to feel that … for the Obama administration all development aspires to replicate the experience of Microsoft. For what is being proposed here are “solutions” in the purely technical sense. But development is not a software problem that can be resolved—as Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed new products for their corporation—by bringing the best minds together to brainstorm innovative [sic] solutions. Development is a matter of culture, of politics, and of justice, far more than it is a matter of technology or, for that matter, the technologized vision of human beings that can, without embarrassment, speak of ‘unlocking’ people’s potential as if they were seams of some precious mineral buried in the dirt.

In this Gates/Obama vision of the world, all the fundamental ideological questions have been solved …. There are no great ideological contradictions, just issues of “empowerment,” “good governance,” “transparency,” and “accountability.” The world as a global Seattle, a global Cambridge, Massachusetts: What an idea! That this is nonsense should be obvious, at least if one lets go of the idea that because what the administration would like to accomplish, and, more broadly, what the Millennium Development Goals represent, are good and moral, these ambitions as they are currently being articulated have any chance of being realized.

…. as long as those who claim the mantle of the moral arbiter can say, with a straight face, that we still have a chance of eradicating global poverty by 2015, or, if not then, at least not very long after that, we are living in a world of lies, no matter how well intended.

…Before you know it, the only licit tale about our world becomes the fairy tale.

And because of that, let Lewis Carroll have the last word. “If I had a world of my own,” he wrote in Alice, “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

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  1. Jacob wrote:

    “as long as those who claim the mantle of the moral arbiter can say, with a straight face, that we still have a chance of eradicating global poverty by 2015… we are living in a world of lies…”

    Rieff needs to get his facts straight. The goal is not to eradicate global poverty but to, ahem, HALF extreme poverty by 2015. And that is literally the only goal that will almost certainly be reached ahead of schedule.

    His rhetoric is delicious, but uninformed.

    Posted September 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Carfax wrote:

    Cant agree more! Planning a project for a third world country is one thing, implementation is a different challenge

    Posted September 25, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Stephen McGaughey wrote:

    You describe quite clearly the utter bankruptcy of the US foreign aid system and its intellectual leadership. The dominance of public foreign assistance by powerful private foundations is, in my view, a simple extension of the system of private corporate and private wealth dominance of our political system. Not to worry since the Obama/Gates system will take many years to organize and their will be little left over after the Middle East. At least it is lucky for Latin America that the US is mostly distracted by its own problems and has few aid funds to distracted the South.

    Posted September 25, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Stephen McGaughey wrote:

    With apologies, in a recent meeting I was impressed that the World Bank has also bought into the Gates Foundation (innovation solves all) approach.

    Posted September 26, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  5. Curious wrote:

    It’s all very true and love the Alice references. The thing is, I don’t think anyone really believes-believes (except maybe Sachs?) – it’s just – how can Obama or Hilary or Ban Ki or any of them actually stand up there and tell the truth? Who wants to be Negative Nancy?

    The “harness” and “unlocking potential” rhetoric is just cheap inspirational communication and I admit to having used it myself (but only when in my early 20s). It’s just an easy way to seal what you know is an empty deal. It’s like Development meeting New Age. Ugh.

    Posted September 27, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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