Development: Beyond Governments to Communities

Recently, a friend who is a former diplomat and academic asked me a question about U.S. foreign assistance and its role in driving economic development and leading to better lives and greater stability. He asked, if two countries are candidates for aid but one has a better government and policies, do you work with the former, even if the inadequate country is more in need of stability and its people in need of better lives? To offer a concrete example, why should we aid Afghanistan where women – half the potential work force – are excluded from any active role in the economy outside the family? Wouldn't it be better to invest our development assistance in countries where women can contribute more to the countries' development?

The question invited me to step back from the day-to-day grind of my work and think. I did not like the way the question was framed as a dichotomy between types governments, because governments are not the sole drivers of stability and better lives. And, being trained as a lawyer, I wanted to avoid a direct or simple answer to his question.

I suggested to my friend that, as a former diplomat, he should appreciate that each situation is unique. The United States might prefer to work with the better-governed country that can be given incentives to achieve reach great heights (e.g., countries with Millennium Challenge Corporation compacts). We are also likely to continue to provide aid to a variety of countries for reasons of our national self interest (even though many of these states are under military rule and promote policies that are inconsistent with our stated values – see our aid Egypt).

What I do see and am heartened by is the network of private civil society actors who support others around the world out of a commitment to human well-being and justice without regard to what nation states do. Mercy Corps, World Vision, Care and many others continue to work with and develop local Afghan NGOs that support women. Groups of doctors and nurses, sponsored by churches, nonprofits and hospitals continue to travel to Latin America to deliver medical services in local communities. And support goes two ways. Last winter, pizzas ordered by supporters from all over the world were delivered to protestors sitting in at the Wisconsin state capital who were challenging an anti-worker “right-to-work” law. All of this is human-to-human, community-to-community assistance without regard to how well anyone is governed. Governments may someday catch up.