Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Autonomy-Respecting Assistance: Toward an Alternative Theory of Development Assistance

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Autonomy-Respecting Assistance: Toward an Alternative Theory of Development Assistance

Article excerpt

Abstract The purpose of this paper is outline an alternative theory of development assistance by analyzing the old strategies for technical cooperation, capacity-building and, in broader terms, development assistance in a way that will point to new strategies. The perspective is the very old idea that the best form of assistance is to help people help themselves. The problem is how can the helpers supply help that actually furthers rather than overrides or undercuts the goal of the doers helping themselves? This problem of supplying help to self-help, "assisted self-reliance" or assisted autonomy, is the fundamental conundrum of development assistance. The forms of help that override or undercut people's capacity to help themselves will be called "unhelpful help." These two overriding and undercutting forms of unhelpful help are analyzed and strategies for autonomy-respecting help are presented. Moreover the volitional and cognitive sides of development assistance are given separate but parallel treatment.

Keywords: development assistance, unhelpful help, social engineering, benevolent help, autonomy-respecting assistance, volitional and cognitive aspects

INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW

Development Assistance As Helping People Help Themselves

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the old strategies for technical cooperation, capacity-building and, in broader terms, development assistance in a way that will point to new strategies. There is an emerging consensus that the old strategies have failed in general and nowhere is the failure more acute than in Africa. It is time to rethink development assistance from the ground up.

The perspective developed is the very old idea that the best form of assistance is to help people help themselves (see Ellerman forthcoming). We are all familiar with the ancient Chinese saying that if you give people fish, you feed them for a day, but if you teach them how to fish--or rather, if you help them learn how to fish--they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

The Helper-Doer Relationship

Development assistance is analyzed as a relationship between those offering assistance in some form, the helper or helpers, and those receiving the assistance, the doer or doers. (1) The helpers could be individuals, NGOs, or official bilateral or multilateral development agencies, and the doers could be individuals, organizations or various levels of government in the developing countries. The relationship is the helper-doer relationship.

The Fundamental Conundrum of Development Assistance

The assumed goal is transformation towards autonomous development on the part of the doers, with the doers helping themselves. The problem is how can the helpers supply help that actually furthers rather than overrides or undercuts the goal of the doers helping themselves? This is actually a conundrum. This paradox of supplying help to self-help, "assisted self-reliance" (2) or assisted autonomy, is the fundamental conundrum of development assistance. Over the years, the debates about aid, assistance and capacity-building keep circling around and around this basic conundrum.

Unhelpful Help: Social Engineering and Benevolent Aid

There are many strategies for development assistance that may supply help in some form but actually do not help people help themselves. The forms of help that override or undercut people's capacity to help themselves will be called "unhelpful help."

There are essentially two ways that the helper's will can supplant the doer's will to thwart autonomy and self-help:

(1) The helper, by social engineering, deliberately tries to impose his will on the doer; or

(2) The helper, by benevolent aid, replaces the doer's will with her will through a dependency relationship, perhaps inadvertently.

"Override" or "undercut" are shorthand terms for these two conceptually distinct yin-and-yang forms of unhelpful help (which may be combined, as when benevolence hides the desire to control). …

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