Donating for Development: How hard can it be?

May 2, 2014
Donating for Development: How hard can it be?

This. This right here? This, is the tale of the two Escobers. One is Arturo Escober; a Columbian Anthropologist who has either studied or taught at some of the premier institutions of the world from Cornell to UC Berkley. The other is another Columbian by the name of Pablo Escober. Born in December of 1949, he met his end with a bullet to the head almost 44 years to the day running from the cops on the rooftops of Medellín, his home town. In these 44 years, he built a drug empire estimated by Forbes to be around $25 Billion in 1990, which to this day makes him the richest criminal in history. At his peak he controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine trade and was responsible for more than 50,000 drug related deaths in Columbia during the early 1990s.

But what could bring two men of such difference in one blog post? Well, let’s start with the Escober that doesn’t have blood in his hands. Arturo Escober; he is famous in development circles for his critique of modern development practices by the West. He argues that after the end of the Second World War, the developed world started to view the developing world as a series of homogenous, poverty stricken, illiterate states that just needed some Neoliberal loving (Not Arturo’s words mind you). To this end, they created institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and various other spinoffs to implement their view of what development should be in these less fortunate countries. Hence we find presence of these institutions in every developing country in the world today, paving the way for a brighter future for these poor souls.

This approach to development by these Supernational institutions has also come under criticism from various quarters citing the fact that there is very little actual, sustained development that takes place in these countries through the efforts of these institutions. Now, this could be because of the large bureaucratic tangles in these organizations or the fact that they are so detached from the culture and mindset of the countries they operate in. As one of my lecturers of a Development Economics course put it, ‘how is a Harvard Graduate from America in a 2 ton air conditioned SUV going to know what a farmer in Rangpur considers to be development’?

The various issues regarding this sort of ‘institutional approach to development from an ethnocentric approach (insensitive to the uniqueness of societies) has caused citizens of developed countries to question the usefulness of their donations. This has led to calls for such things as impact investing, which focuses on real, quantifiable performance measures of social and environmental impacts in addition to financial ones relating to the projects undertaken by development organizations. This has been followed by calls for an entirely new approach to development. An approach that calls for giving the poor cash directly and doing things that affect the poor in direct ways.

Now, enough about Arturo the Anthropologist; let’s move on to Pablo the psychopathic drug sniffing maniac. As stated, he was shot dead on the roof of a building after successfully evading the cops for almost 16 months. Police officers celebrated this fact with flailing arms, waving their guns in the air. So you would imagine that the general public would share in the joy and that he would subsequently be buried in a quiet funeral somewhere unknown. No, not quite. Thousands turned out to his funeral wailing their eyes out; men, women of all ages, united in tears for a man who had the blood of thousands in his hands.

The Funeral Procession of Pablo Escober

Why? Well, you see, Pablo was a paradox. Even through his criminal tendencies, he engaged in the development of his people the way Arturo suggested; by knowing their views and feeling their pain. Pablo was born into extreme poverty and knew what it was like to go hungry. That is why he built Schools, Churches, Football Clubs and many other social institutions. He even built entire housing estates so that people at least had a place to sleep. To this day, the people of Medellín regard him to be a hero.

Now, here’s the $25 Billion dollar question; how could a murderer such as Pablo Escober gain the affection of thousands while well dressed, well meaning (read: suspicious), men from lands far away with wads of cash pouring out of their suits get nothing but scorn from the locals as well as their own people? In my opinion it is because a local who spends directly for his people, keeping in mind his culture and the things they value does more for development that Ivy Leaguers roaming around in Land Cruisers trying to spread what they think is development.

So we should put emphasis on donating, what little we can, to foster development in our own country instead of relying on a one size fits all strategy by the World Bank and its brethren institutions. After all, development means different things to different people and only we know what the people of Bangladesh would consider to be development the same way an Indian knows what a person from Rajasthan would consider to be development. Or as the Kuwait Fund’s tagline would put, we should help people, help themselves.

And hence goes the tale of the two Escobers.

Note: The link below is to a discovery channel documentary that enacts the last moments of Pablo Escober’s life. It contains some graphic, real life images and viewer discretion is advised [Read: click the link even if you didn’t plan to].



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