This week ministers from rich and poor countries have gathered in Monterrey, Mexico, for the United Nations conference on development finance. Although we hear so much talk about "winning the peace" and the "new internationalism", the conference isn't yet packing in the media. War is a lot sexier than peace, and commandos make for much better photo opportunities than aid workers.
If you're being optimistic, you could say that something is beginning to change – that there is a growing desire, voiced by politicians and ordinary people all over the world, that the war on terrorism should be accompanied by a new assault on global inequality. Indeed, those recent pledges of increased aid, $5bn from the US and $7bn from the European Union over the next few years, have received plaudits from all sides
If you're being pessimistic, however, you'd say that these great new pledges are rather dwarfed by, say, the $400bn that the US will spend on defence in 2003. And you'd wonder if the fact that EU countries donate only 0.3 per cent of their gross domestic product to aid means that Europeans can blamelessly castigate Americans for being isolationist. You'd also say that this debate isn't just about the amounts of money that are being pledged. Because sceptics have long argued that, although development projects always sound as though they will lead only to happy-ever-after endings, aid money too often gets diverted into the pockets of politicians and corporations, while the poorest lose out.
Indeed, even as she left for Monterrey, Clare Short was caught up in a struggle to stop British aid money being pulled away from the poorest people in Tanzania. She has bravely defied her own government's line by suspending aid to Dar es Salaam while an international review takes place of whether the Tanzanian government should be spending money on a British-made, British-financed military air-traffic control system.
Good for Clare. But love her as we might, that doesn't mean we can't hold her department's actions up to scrutiny. For all its many praiseworthy goals and delivered objectives, there are times when it's still hard to see through the dreams to the realities. For instance, one development project to which her own department has chosen to pledge money is running into increasingly vocal protests over its potential effects on the very poorest of the poor in India. A planned development project in Andhra Pradesh, called Vision 2020, has been promised £65m in British aid.
At first sight, this project looks as if it's got the happy-ever-after thing completely sussed. It's a vision that aims to bring millions of poor farmers straight into the 21st century with massive consolidation of farms, mechanisation of agriculture, irrigation projects, new roads and the introduction of genetically modified crops such as vitamin A-enriched rice. The state government says the programme will "eradicate poverty".
But earlier this week some farmers from the region turned up in Westminster to bring their scepticism to the British Government. In an airless conference room, a woman called Anjamma was asked, through an interpreter: "If this project goes ahead, what does she think she will do?" "There will be nothing for us to do," Anjamma replied, "other than to drink pesticide and die."
This woman is exactly the kind of person that we in the West dream of seeing lifted out of poverty by our government's aid cheques. She is a farmer who works four acres of land with her seven children and her two bullocks and her eight buffalos, and no machines. She had never travelled from her village before she came to Britain for this protest.
The planned development project for her region would – in the eyes of the state government and the corporations and management consultancies that have planned it – liberate millions of people from the endless toil that Anjamma has experienced all her life. No wonder the World Bank and the British Government feel that by pouring tens of millions of pounds of scarce aid money into the pot, they will be helping some of the poorest people in India. Why, then, is Anjamma so vociferous in her opposition?
If the project goes ahead according to plan, the number of people who make their living on the land will fall from 70 per cent of the population to 40 per cent. This drop of agricultural workers means that an estimated 20 million people will have to find alternative sources of income – as if a third of Great Britain were to lose their jobs in one massive restructuring and redundancy package.
In the West, leaving the land might sound like liberation, but to Anjamma it spells only destitution. As an illiterate woman whose knowledge and whose power is vested in her ability to grow her own crops on her own soil, she believes that if she loses her farm, she loses everything.
And Anjamma isn't speaking out of ignorance. She was one of 12 farmers who were chosen to be part of a citizens' jury set up by a couple of non-governmental organisations to scrutinise the development plans. That meant that she has sat through days of evidence from GM-seed company executives, from politicians, from academics, from aid donors. That was why her certainty was all the more impressive. She doesn't want aid money to be spent the way that foreign governments and the World Bank and her own state government want it to be spent. She wants something quite different – true empowerment.
"If money comes to us," she said, "to our own associations and unions, we can spend it in the way that we know will work for our land. We know how to increase the fertility of our land. We could be completely self-sufficient. But this is going to be denied to us in the name of modernisation."
What I heard from Anjamma was not a plea to be left alone – she was clearly eager for the West to share its knowledge and its resources with farmers like herself – but a plea to allow her and her peers real control over how these resources should be spent. She had come to London to protest against the Government's plan to help to refashion her society according to the projects of corporations and politicians rather than women like herself. She had a vision of progress, but it differed fundamentally from the vision that she had heard about from the development professionals.
Anjamma may be right, or she may be wrong, about what constitutes progress. But surely she has a right to decide which kind of progress the money spent in her name should be used for. This may still be a tough idea for us to swallow – that the rich could choose not just to share resources with the poor, but also power. But unless that happens, development may remain a fairytale for too many people.Reuse content