They come from all over the world to take part in a periodic make-believe ritual of bargaining. The result is never in doubt. The guys holding the purse, a share of whose contents most of those present want, will give what they want and how they want to.
They will do this no matter the loud howls of the many supplicants, the self-righteous indignation of moral crusaders, the earnest pleas of genuine humanitarians, or the level-headed appeals to reason.
Perhaps that’s the problem. There are too many voices, too many causes and no one is really listening.
This is the other side of negotiations for aid the public never gets to know, or are not interested in. What they get to know is how much money has been secured and for what purpose.
The people involved in the ritual are a diverse lot, mostly of ardent believers in a cause and will passionately and eloquently argue for it to be at the head of the queue.
First, there are government ministers from rich and poor countries, pretending to be equal. They even dress the pretence in the expression – development partners – when the reality is that some are donors and others recipients of aid. Political correctness or euphemism cannot hide the fact or alter the relationship. All it does is probably make everyone involved feel good. The beggars feel respectable and the alms givers, less guilty for giving crumbs.
There are academics who have earned their degrees and built reputations either as advocates or detractors of aid as an effective development tool. Not the sort to miss an opportunity to publicise themselves and their work, they come equipped with their latest publications and a list of the conferences they have attended in the past. They might, in the process, earn a lucrative consultancy. Aid is big business. You see.
Then there is the ever growing number of civil society organisations that seem to have been formed purely as alternatives to governments in the poorer countries. They come with their own supplications and begging bowls. Apparently they are a creation of donors to add another voice to the existing confusion.
No international conference on development in poor countries would be complete without the attendance of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The NGOs have been growing in number, power and influence, and also position themselves as substitutes to government. They, too, come with demands to fund their specific agenda. And like Civil Society Organisations, NGOs are the making of the powerful to create a sort of Tower of Babel in governance and the aid business.
The last few decades have seen the growth of a “tribe without borders” – a tribe of jet-set professional conferees whose seems to be hopping from one conference to the next. They are a strange tribe, though, with no common language or ideals, or a shared vision.
The tribal conversation is almost exclusively like this.
“We met in Cancun, didn’t we?”
“Yes. Nice resort city. Plenty of sun and sand and other things besides.”
“Who can forget that! Next week I’ll be in Geneva. Will you be there?”
“Of course. It will be freezing cold, but I couldn’t miss that for anything.”
In this already thick mix, you will inevitably find another addition – lobbyists, believers in strange causes and spoilers whose sole purpose is to make sure nothing ever works for the poor countries. They raise obstacles in the way of agreement and ensure that the haggling never ends. Again, it is all a matter of business.
All these groups were in Busan, Korea last week at the conference on aid effectiveness. As expected there were mixed results. Some concessions were made, but in general it was agreed to return to the ritual next time. Too many voices, the Tower of Babel effect, you see. And representatives from the countries with the most money to give might well have been stone-deaf.
The Tower of Babel built to reach heaven was never completed. Heaven was the seat of God and therefore wisdom and power. Now, these were divine preserves. And so in capitalist fashion, to retain exclusive rights, the Almighty created discord among pretenders to his power. They never got to heaven.
The big donors don’t seem to want the poor countries to have a share of the wealth and power. How else can they maintain their power and influence if they allow all the little beggar nations to have the same? Simple: create many voices because then they cannot build the tower and continue to give them what you want.
And is there anyone courageous enough to say: damn the donors, let them keep their money and let’s get on with our own efforts to develop ourselves? You bet. In the meantime the ritual and pretence will continue.