During the fall of 1971 my wife and I were living in West Africa, working with Ghanaians on construction projects in the bush. Shortly before we were to head back to a more familiar life, news came that the U. S. Senate had voted to cut off foreign aid programs, apparently as a slap at the President’s war policies.

For several months, we had lived with two irreconcilable visions of the world: with one half of our minds, we remembered the abundance and waste of American life; with the other, we propelled ourselves through the days, waking in huts without water or lights, walking through towns in the sun, eating the same meal of rice and yams a hundred times. One scene captured for me the human cost of that kind of life. In a rocky region above the town of Winneba, a woman and her several children worked from morning until night, digging stones from the ground with sticks. Later they sold the stones by the hundredweight for building projects. They were there, stooping and digging, each day we were in the region, and they are probably there now.

To Africans who asked, we said that someday there might be a different relation between our two countries. American companies would pay higher prices for the raw materials they exported, and England and the United States would stop collecting interest payments from Ghana for debts run up in the gay old Nkrumah days. In the meantime, the Senate vote came. After hearing of it I walked, literally amazed, through the desert town of Bolgatanga, wondering what delusion could have made Americans feel they no longer had anything to share with the world’s poor.

Few of my friends at home seemed to understand this feeling. They said that the Vietnam experience had soured them on foreign aid, and they disliked anything smacking of cultural imperialism. Yet enough of them—when confronted by dramatic images of suffering from Biafra and Bangladesh—experienced, at least momentarily, enough of what I felt in Ghana to lead me to write this article.

Wallace and the Literati

Conservatives have been complaining about foreign aid for years. When George Wallace used to make speeches denouncing money-wasting boondoggles in the no-good little countries, the theme was in perfect harmony with his attacks on welfare loafers. And anyone who has followed Rep. Otto Passman’s record as an appropriations subcommittee chairman for foreign aid would have been shocked if his 1972 report were much different from this:

The International Development Association wanted $640 million. We denied them that and gave them $320 million. . . . The Asian Development Bank wanted $100 million; we did not give them a dime. The Inter-American Development Bank wanted $836 million; we only gave them half of that. What better record could a committee make?

The anti-aid alliance between Wallace and J. William Fulbright, or Passman and the New York literati, has been explained by Senator Frank Church, in a forceful speech expressing the soured-liberal viewpoint.1 Church said that aid’s failure is “not technical and administrative, but conceptual and political, and can be understood only as an aspect of the larger failure of American foreign policy over the last decade. . . I can no longer cast my vote to prolong the bilateral aid program as it is now administered.”

Church has a point. Since its beginnings, the foreign aid program has illustrated the dangers of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. During the fifties and sixties, aid supporters thought that the program might be easier to sell if it were advertised as part of a holy war against the Russians. The trouble with this compromise was that no one bothered to bring up the real reasons for giving aid, and liberals were trapped into supporting military aid for its own sake. After a while, if you looked where the money was going, more was being spent for machine guns and tanks than for constructive, humanitarian projects.

While one may find petty flaws in Church’s argument (for example, he laments at one point that our aid dollars could not buy us UN votes when we needed them against Red China), there is a more fundamental problem here. “It is astonishing, in retrospect, how little we questioned the seeming verities of the cold war during the 1950s and 1960s,” Church says. It is equally astonishing how little Church and his allies question the seeming link between foreign aid and the cold war. Is our only choice really between giving aid to anti-Communist dictators, and not giving it at all? Church implies that it is. Despite a few throwaway lines about reforming aid programs by channeling them through the UN, the thrust of his speech is to stop aid now, and worry later about finding something to replace it.

Church is too smart not to see the implications of his words, so what he leaves out of his speech is as important as what he puts in. When other government entities (such as the Subversive Activities Control Board) have outlived their original raison d’etre, their supporters have come up with ingenious new reasons for continuing them. Presumably, Church could have done the same if he thought the cold war was the problem and not aid itself. He might, for example, have praised the parts of the aid program that have done unequivocal good, such as the famine relief shipments that kept India fed during the sixties, or the similar project now under way in Bangladesh.

Church, however, was certainly not hunting for a motive to replace cold-warism. He ended his speech not with an agonizing meditation about how we should improve the aid system, but by saying, “Essentially, the question is whether we’re prepared to recognize the limits of our own capacity. . . and allow nature to take what may well be an uncongenial course in many countries in the third world.”

While this sounds like a disinterred Malthus stalking through Congress, it points toward the second apparent reason for the liberal defection from foreign aid: completely apart from its cold-war orientation, there is the disheartening fact that our aid has done little discernible good. The latest evidence is in a forthcoming book by William and Elizabeth Paddock, We Don’t Know How.2

The Paddock clan—brothers Paul and William, and William’s wife Elizabeth—is an eccentric group, producing incisive books that are always queered by a touch of the berserk. Their crackpot wisdom prevails again in We Don’t Know How. Before the book loses its way in tirades against the Rockefeller Foundation and a missionary doctor who has let himself become a media hero, it makes one point brilliantly: our aid programs are as badly run as any other part of the bureaucracy, and they have done very little good. In country after country, the Paddocks show how aid administrators have made the same mistakes for years, conducting studies and setting up projects, without having much impact. As administrative critics, the Paddocks have few peers. They are especially sharp in showing how aid programs suffer from those classic bureaucratic hazards, institutional amnesia—”AID has no memory”—and information block (see excerpt in the February issue of The Washington Monthly). I hope the book’s first few chapters become mandatory reading at AID.

From the mess of wrecked programs they observed, the Paddocks conclude that “we don’t know how” to speed development in poor countries, even if we spend more money. In what may be their single biggest blow against orthodoxy, they also announce that international aid programs—from the World Bank to the UN—don’t know how, either, since they’re largely run by the same people as AID and make the same mistakes. So what do we do? The book says:

I can no longer advocate foreign aid until we first learn how to make it achieve its goals. Hence I urge that we first use our own country as a laboratory. . . . To provide housing in restless Bombay, let us first learn how to rebuild our own ghettos. . . . To advise how to prevent Uruguay’s socialism from destroying the nation’s stability, let us first learn how to make Medicare pay as it goes. . . . To eliminate hunger in the world, let us first learn how to improve the diets of the five million malnourished Americans who cannot afford the food they need.

The book contains some insights—notably the idea that the U. S. should curb its own military spending before lecturing Pakistan about the same thing—but in general the sense of disproportion is stunning. Taking care of the five million hungry in America means changing income distribution patterns; feeding the one or two billion malnourished in the world means finding some way to coax more food out of the crowded land.

Like Church, the Paddocks do have a point—but one in which the circumstances of the argument tell more than the point itself. Now, nearly 20 years after the Brown v Board of Education decision, one could have said that school integration had failed. But the usual response is to find ways to make it work rather than abandoning the whole idea. The foreign aid problems the Paddocks illustrate are not ordained by God. The aid bureaucracy could find some way to keep in touch with what’s going on in the field; it could protect its programs against political manipulation. The Paddocks presumably sense this, as do the other former supporters of foreign aid. Why, then, their policy of benign neglect?

The reason, I believe, is not unhappiness with the failures of foreign aid, but rather an increasing distaste for what its success would mean.

Here, Kid, Have a Coke

During most of the life span of our aid programs, from World War II to the mid-sixties, the goal seemed unquestionable: what more could the U. S. want for the rest of the world than the Western-style industrialization which had brought the plenty to America. But recently, as pollution, anomie, and the other costs of technological advancement have become clear, the liberal gusto for exporting development has faded.

Western economic patterns usually assume perverse, distorted forms when transported to the poor world. (Those interested in fuller details on this pattern should consult two fine books, Rene Dumont’s False Start in Africa and David Hapgood’s Africa, From Independence to Tomorrow, both of which have implications far beyond their African subjects.) In direct proportion to their exposure to Western development experts, poor countries exhibit malignant syndromes: tin dictators, or at least an elite that pretends never to have heard of agriculture or manual work; dams and other gaudy industrial projects more useful for show than production; an educational system in which children learn, as African expert Stanley Meisler put it, “that life has no more meaning than a starched white collar and a red Mercedes.”

Some of the other symptoms of “development” are even more alarming: cities doubling in size every decade, choked with emigrants from the countryside; unemployment rates ranging from 25 to 60 per cent of the available working force; government budgets big on machine guns and luxury imports but short on the agricultural basics needed to feed the populace; vast strata of “overeducated unemployables ” who have learned enough English or French to know they don’t want to stay in the jungle towns any more.

Even the brightest hope of development advisers, the “green revolution” of miracle grains, has brought its share of industrial-revolution-type social disruption. The seeds require such fancy inputs—fertilizer and pesticides—that only the large farmers can use them; in many parts of India, the green revolution has mainly meant that small farmers have been driven from their land.

Perhaps the easiest way to sum up the development malaise is to consider two of the countries which have, by AID’s standards, succeeded: Taiwan and South Korea. If the most that the colorful, if hungry, people of South America and Asia can hope for is to be turned into replica Babbits, competing for a share of the U. S. import market, then what is the point?

The economists reply that it’s all a matter of adjustment. Economics is still in the shakedown phase, and a lot of mistakes that were made in the early days of foreign aid have been corrected by now. As two of the most perceptive members of the development establishment—Paul Streeten of Oxford, and Sweden’s ubiquitous Gunnar Myrdal—have pointed out, many of the sins we associated with economic development came from half-baked economics. One of the finest examples is a theory called “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor,” or the “Lewis model,” after its creator, Sir Arthur Lewis. Its central idea was that, in Pakistan as in Britain, labor was the most valuable economic commodity. Therefore, the theory reasoned, the poor countries were actually lucky, since they had so many people who had nothing to do. The answer was to get them off the land and into the cities, where they could be put to work at factory benches. The problem, as later became obvious, was that there were many more available workers than potential factory jobs; whenever the theory went into action, the net result was the creation of an unfed, idle urban horde where previously there had been peasants earning their share of the harvest.

1 in Development Today. Robert Hunter, ed. Praeger.

2 We Don’t Know How. William and Elizabeth Paddock. Iowa State University Press.

Helping the Gnomes of Zurich

The list of similar theories is long—some economists have made a career out of adding items—but there is one other major theoretical “error” worth noting. Drawing on patterns shown in Europe and the U. S., where the wealthy provide the capital for economic growth, some economists expected the same patterns to emerge in the underdeveloped countries. The thing to do, then, was to keep money out of the hands of the lower classes, who spent it all for food and housing, and funnel it to the thrifty rich. Unfortunately, the theories did not reckon with the special kind of elite that often prevails in poor countries, especially in Latin America, and which tends to stash its money in Swiss banks rather than local factories.

Development economics has caught up with many of these errors; now, the fashionable talk is about agricultural projects, “practical” education, and other down-to-earth concepts. But the goal of all the manipulation is still the same: economic development the same industrialized end as before. Prior to going on to fame in other areas, Walt Rostow made this point well in The Stages of Economic Growth, outlining the steps that countries must pass through while growing to maturity. The aim of the development adviser was to remove the barriers that stand between the poor country and what Rostow called its “take-off” point. Even among the most progressive of the modern economists, this process has hardly been challenged. When the advisers speak of “balanced growth,” they are talking not about ways to contain some of the social strains of turning a tribal land into a modern economy, but only of the fastest route to industrialization.

It is this sense of grim inevitability which, I believe, is making liberals draw back from foreign aid. One need not entertain romantic views of happy tribal life to feel a sense of tragedy and loss: if the world’s future is that it be remade in the image of Pittsburgh or Miami Beach, why should we hurry?

A possible answer to that question, and a hint of a new liberal rationale for foreign aid, comes from an unlikely source. In Benevolent Aggression,3 Richard N. Farmer, like the Paddocks, tries to explain why foreign aid has failed; but where the Paddocks are inclined to give up in the face of problems, Farmer is ready with a whole pack of solutions.

Farmer is a business professor at Indiana University, and much of his book reads like a tract extolling the work ethic. But the book presents a complex theory of development, with important implications. Farmer’s main premise is that all foreign aid projects have overlooked the most influential factor of all: the managerial, profit-motivated, go-get-’em spirit that the carefree poor must learn if they want to master Western technology. Without this, he says, the countries are consigned to permanent retardation. Liberal administrators of aid programs, always soft of heart, refuse to face this fact. But when they do, Farmer concludes, they will say something like this to their clients: Want to join in the wealth? Then you must imitate our discipline scheming and saving, working hard, and foregoing the lavish wakes and parties that gobble so much money:

Examination of the affluent of the world does suggest that they behave quite differently from the poor, even when they are in the same country. Because we are too polite nowadays to suggest directly to someone that he should change his behavior, we normally talk about power plants and engineering technologies rather than behavior. It all comes down to the same thing. If you’re going to get rich the way we did, you’re going to have to behave the way we did…. We want people who get the job done, who will drive forward across obstacles to win, at whatever cost to themselves. In short, we want an uptight super-achiever.

3 Benevolent Aggression. Richard N. Farmer McKay.

Natives in Overalls

Stripped of its haranguing overtones, this view would fit right in with what Dumont, Myrdal, Hapgood, and others say. Myrdal describes the “soft state” syndrome—when a government refuses to correct corruption and laziness—as one of the greatest impediments to progress in the poor countries. But the solution seems just as bad. If, as Farmer says, the only way to indoctrinate the indolent peoples in correct behavior is through “culture-busting”—a phrase that calls up images of people trading in their bright native robes for factory drab, or regulating their lives by the 40-hour week rather than by rice-planting cycles—it would be hard to drum up much enthusiasm for the venture among Americans who now lament that their own culture has been so thoroughly busted.

Farmer answers, in the most significant passage of his book, by describing what happens after Western medicine introduces “death control” into poor countries:

It comes down to this: all cultures are going to get busted, and the most painful busting is going to happen in the poorer countries and subcultures. Once a culture or a country accepts death control, all else follows. Population expands; unless the economic base gets changed very fast to cover the increase, someone starves sooner or later…. Now, how do you increase production? The Western way is the only one we know that works. So you get your power plants, your irrigation systems, your fertilizers, your factories, and all the rest—and in the process change men and women to be able to handle these new tools. That’s the rub—the kind of person who can figure out what to do in a power plant or fertilizer warehouse is not going to be anything but a Western man.

The meaning here is so unpleasant that it is preferable not to think about it. Farmer is saying that 100, or even 25, years ago the West might have avoided the process that turns tribesmen into starched-collar unemployables; we might have shied from the now-distasteful role as cultural dictators to the world. But now we’ve been to the jungles with our doctors and our malaria sprays, and the choice is out of anyone’s hands. Unless we accept restored “death control” through famine, the only chance is to speed world economic development to keep up with the two to three percent annual growth in population.

This is not the kind of challenge designed to rouse liberal enthusiasm, for two reasons. First, the future seems only to mean that the other countries of the world will follow our route to a life of big cities, clogged highways, and standardized shopping centers. Our feelings about our own achievements are sufficiently mixed that we hesitate to promote the same goals overseas.

Second, and more important, there is the danger of “cultural imperialism.” There was a time, not long past, when the missionary streak transcended all others in our foreign policy. Farmer’s book shows that the impulse is still there, waiting to convert the natives. But among its old liberal-internationalist promoters, this zeal has nearly died in the last decade, mainly because of the war. If we have absorbed nothing else from Vietnam, we have learned that our values aren’t always right and can’t be grafted whole onto another culture. The lesson came at too high a price to be easily ignored. With a hundred years’ hindsight, we now condemn the British and French for imposing their ethnocentric values on Africa and Asia. Knowing that, do we dare do the same today?

While this hesitancy about exporting our culture might have done marvels for our foreign policy 10 years ago, it has a quaint, anachronistic touch when applied to our current foreign-aid dilemma. It requires an extraordinary amount of either romanticism or hubris to think that, if only America would curb its foreign-aid meddling in the third world, all Western influences would go away. The cultural mixing of the world has already gone on to such an extent that it is pointless to worry about “interference” with other ways of life. Not all of the mixing has been bad: just as Zen Buddhism and French bread have enriched American culture, so American medicine and rock music have been bright additions in Ghana and Guinea. When “interference” is accompanied by military power, it is of course a different matter. But the nasty fact liberals must face is that the world’s cultures have already been mixed, none retains its original purity. The challenge now is to identify the best elements of different cultures, and try to encourage them where they can do some good.

Time Marches On

If we draw back from our foreign aid program, culture-busting will still go on—but by whom? By Coca-Cola, the United Fruit Company, Texaco, and the hundred other multinationals that do business in every part of the world. By Time, the Voice of America, and the broadcast commercials which so clearly impart the materialist flavor of Western life. By the universities, especially British and French, which persist in imposing their absurd, useless notions of “education” on people who should be more concerned with tractors and village life. Realizing that these facets of the West are going to interfere, no matter what nice reservations we have about cultural imperialism, we must try to present another, better, set of ideas.

To find guidelines for these “better” ideas, we have two questions to answer: first, whether there is an alternative to the grubby path of industrial development whose consequences we mourn in much of the third world; and second, what our foreign policy can do to encourage these ideas.

Benevolent Aggression provides a starting point. In Farmer’s view, it is frivolous to think of other modes of culture-busting, since the Western path to development is the only available choice. “In modern times, only Red China tried to modernize in a non-Western way,” he says. “It didn’t work.”

Farmer is wrong, and the mistake is crucial. While we should not idealize China as a model for the rest of the world, it is undeniable that the country has “worked” in a way that few other poor countries have. From a starting point fully as impoverished as that of any other Asian country, the Chinese have made impressive economic advances (certified beyond questioning when Joe Alsop visited China this year and pronounced it a success). Moreover, the Chinese have done so without the social strains that predominate in the rest of the developing world. In most of Africa and Asia, the “economic growth rates” the governments announce rarely show up in improved living conditions for the peasants. In China, there has been a serious attempt to share the economic benefits. It is still better to be a scientist or party boss than a rice farmer or laborer, but the gap between the masses and the leaders is less extreme in China than elsewhere. Observers have noted the difference between Peking’s streets and the slums of Djakarta or Sao Paulo.

It is easy to dismiss China as the lone example of what a country can do if it successfully seals itself off from the West. But much of China’s progress has been based on Western techniques and ideas. The factories and tractors in China are not much different from those used elsewhere; and Maoism, the animating philosophy of China’s growth, is a combination of Chinese traditions and Marxism, an imported Western theory. From this mixture, the Chinese have done what Farmer, and indeed most experts, would consider impossible: carrying out economic development without strictly imitating Western society.

China’s innovation seems to be the emphasis on individual sacrifice and self-discipline, for the general community welfare. Before this could make any headway at all, the Chinese had to do something about the pervasive fear of being gypped which exists throughout the developing world. There can be no more powerful barrier to progress than the knowledge that, whatever gains are made, half will be siphoned off in corruption and the rest will go to the junta or strong men in control. In the standard Western view, Mao’s appeals for self-sacrifice seem absurd; as Farmer points out on many an Adam Smith-ish page, the only way to get people to do anything is to make it economically worth their while. In development planning, this can lead to some healthy measures—such as land reform. But more often, it tempts governments to import a whole Western system of monetary incentives; this, in turn, leads to the impractical education, white-collar elites, and the general social chaos of the third world. China suggests that there may be other ways to develop, based on different forms of reward—psychic rather than monetary.

The Kentucky Colonel in Cuba

Enough other countries have toyed with this altered value system to show that it can work. In Cuba, Fidel Castro wisely avoided the Russian mistake of assuming that slothful, overgrown bureaucracies would somehow be more creative than slothful, overgrown economic elites. To wage their war against bureaucracy, the Cubans tried to build a new ethic based on manual labor and communal work—all of which is the furthest possible extreme from the starched-collar values of most other poor countries. “The moment we develop an elite in Cuba, voluntary labor is dead, and the country runs on voluntary labor,” a Cuban official told writer Barry Reckord. “Clearly no man is going to cut cane if the Major is at the beach with his wife and a basketful of fried chicken.” Which doesn’t mean that the cane cutters aren’t still dreaming of the beach scenes.

Several other countries have tried to involve their people in the country’s growth, with varying degrees of success. Israel is perhaps the prime example of what determined people can do on sub-standard real estate (although the economists always dismiss it as having the head start of “pre-conditioned” citizens). In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere has tried to bring the educational system down to earth, with more emphasis on practical, agrarian skills and less on ways to get a job at the UN or the finance ministry. Senegal and other African countries have put on big campaigns for a return to the bush (called “animation rurale” in Senegal), but in most cases the leaders’ evident distaste for rustic living dooms the plans from the start. Perhaps if more leaders would emulate Castro or Nyerere and work in the fields, there would be more Chinas and Tanzanias, and fewer Brazils or South Koreas.

The most obvious similarity between the countries with a communal spirit—China, Cuba, Tanzania, Israelis that they are all revolutionary societies, where a new order has been deliberately created. That may mean—as Frank Church concluded in his Senate speech that we should sit and wait for the revolution to come to Brazil and the Ivory Coast, but this is an unpredictable, slow route. A more responsible course would be to do what we can now to encourage those qualities that seem to set the successful countries off from the ones we think of as sores. That some of the qualities of discipline and commitment may be exported was shown in East Africa by the Tanzam Railroad. There Chinese advisers stupefied old Africa hands by inspiring Tanzanians and Zambians into group effort. The AID experts who fly in for a week or two, or serve a two-year spell at the consulate, have rarely managed such a feat.

Three Ways to Help

From the examples of good and bad development, we can find several common ideas to apply to our aid efforts. The first is working to reduce the tribal and racial divisions in many poor countries. Recently there has been a nostalgia for “tribal” ties in America and especially in Europe—as our roots give way, we think fondly of the tribesmen who know who they are and where they belong. It is easy, from this perspective, to overlook how clumsy and cruel tribal divisions can be in countries suffering enough from other impediments. A handy mnemonic device, for use whenever tribal nostalgia comes on, is to remember what Amin has done in Uganda, the Hausas did to the Ibos in Nigeria, or the Hindus and Moslems do to each other in India. Along with hunger and elitism, tribalism is one of the three great debilitating forces of the poor world. Reducing this irrational hatred is one of the few jobs outsiders can do especially well, operating as go-betweens for groups that would otherwise be slaughtering each other.

In Cyprus, for example, Greek schools teach hatred of the Turks, and Turkish schools teach hatred of the Greeks. What is needed is the introduction of teachers from other countries into these schools, third parties who would reduce hatred by not preaching it.

It is important to remember that “tribalism” is only a shorthand for all the limitations—racial, religious, cultural, or national—on man ‘s concern for his fellows. In the old China, for example, trust and sympathy dried up at the borders of one’s own family. One of Mao’s first efforts, then, was to dispell that atmosphere of suspicion.

A second task, which raises all our hackles about “cultural imperialism” but which must be faced, is to encourage ambition and individual motivation. This idea may be phrased several ways: the need to achieve, the entrepreneurial spirit, taking pleasure in work. What it means, in concrete terms, is breaking down the overwhelming feeling of impotence that predominates among the peasants of most poor countries. The combined forces of nature and institutions—from diseases and floods to the church and local government—naturally make people feel they are victims of fate and the environment. Until that feeling is removed, it is often impossible to free the talents and energies the country needs.

This is a hard idea to accept, for it calls up all our worst memories of American do-gooders abroad—Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, or the bright, young Peace Corps trainees ready to bring George Washington and Horatio Alger to the peoples of the third world. But ambition is not a purely American trait. Through the years, dozens of other groups have been noted for it (the Lebanese and Chinese, the Ibo and Kikuyu tribes, are a few examples). And it need not carry with it the competitive, cutthroat spirit that is the worst of the American ethic. This, after all, is the lesson of China and Cuba: individual energies which have not been used before can be stimulated by something other than the profit system. Hong Kong provides another example of how an external idea, this one non-Marxist, can break through old barriers. Like China, Hong Kong had to cope with the pervasive air of suspicion: members of one family would hardly deal with another family, for fear they’d be cheated. Mao tried to counter this suspicion with his attacks on the family structure. In Hong Kong, the agent of change was British Law, which lowered the risks of dealing with strangers. These examples do not mean that we should incorporate Marxism, or the Common Law, into our foreign aid programs, but only that outsiders can work significant, healthy changes.

The third element is by far the most difficult, and the most dependent on the peoples’ own efforts rather than help from outside. This is developing that sense of community, or group effort, which distinguishes China from the Philippines, North Vietnam from the South. While we cannot provide internal motivation, we can help break one of the main restraining forces: the debilitating, imitation-Western elites that seem to pop up everywhere, convincing the people that independence is the same as colonial rule, only with bosses of a different color. By their mere presence, Westerners have been responsible for much of the elites’ genteel lifestyle: what Pakistani, having seen a group of white shirted UN experts drive through town, can doubt what the Good Life means? A major contribution that the U. S. can make is to offer alternate models. In this regard the Peace Corps was onto the right idea: when “rich” Westerners spend several years living in the countryside doing agricultural work, they can be far more persuasive than government broadcasts exhorting young students to return to their villages. In Ethiopia, for example, the Peace Corps’ presence has contributed to formation of a domestic service corps. For the first time, university students in Ethiopia have gone out to the bush to see what the real problems are there.

Consciences in Gear

None of these approaches, it might seem, requires any formal foreign aid program. We could simply revive the Peace Corps, make it forget its old anti-communist junior-ambassador role and concentrate on the things it did at its best. These included performing simple jobs like teaching and nursing in places where they needed to be done; suggesting similar ideas to people in the host country; trying to get people to work together across family boundaries; and trying to replace rote learning with educational systems that opened people’s minds.

In doing so, we give ourselves another opportunity: to turn our aid flows which so often seem wasted into effective tools of development. Moreover, in the short run, we can pick out those forms of aid we know to be effective, and enlarge them.

The first of these, which is crucial though obvious, is simply providing enough food to keep people from starving. It may be hard to find noble elements in our recent foreign policy, but one which the country can be proud of is its commitment in the sixties to make up the food deficits in India and later Biafra and Bangladesh. It is hard to know whether the famine predicted this year for North Africa and India will be as serious as that of the mid-sixties, but here is certainly an opportunity for humanitarian, successful aid.

A second step, which we can take with little fear of cultural imperialism, is to reverse some of the handicaps we now impose on export industries in poor countries. If all the third world were in the position of the Arabs—having near-monopoly control over a commodity whose price is certain to rise—then we could all relax and let normal economic forces do their work. But as reams of “neo-imperialism” tracts have shown, in most poor countries the price of raw material exports keeps falling as imports from the West cost more and more.

Finally, we can keep looking for those aid projects which, unlike the usual heavy industries or dams, will open doors to a whole chain of economic development. One of the best examples is irrigation projects, which can not only boost the food output of a country, but also make work for a great many peasants who have gone into the cities. In some Asian countries, the hand-tool industry has triggered a chain reaction: farmers are able to plow the land; artisans are kept working; there is more food to eat and fewer tools to import. All development agencies naturally claim that they are on the lookout for key projects, but too often the advisers fall back on their gut feeling that England, the U. S., and Germany all had big steel mills at this stage of life, so the Congo should, too.

The answers are easier to outline than to execute, but with at least a glimpse of where to start, we should be able to put our liberal consciences back into gear.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.