Some months ago, a friend and I met up with someone visiting DC who is also working in international development. We had dinner and went to my favorite dive bar to discuss what has been keeping us busy these past years. Our conversation later focused on the altruistic part of international development work or its waning presence. Maybe for some professionals, this is a major component for taking up this career.
I was reminded of this encounter as I followed an online debate in the New York Times about whether to maintain or cut down US foreign aid. Three days later, The Washington Post published a front page story about the progress of reconstruction work after the earthquake disaster in Haiti. Both pieces’ seem to tackle the altruistic nature of aid or ‘official development assistance’ as it is know in bureaucratic jargon. This is more apparent in one side of the argument of the Times debate: money ‘given’ to developing countries should be spent in the US instead. While the Times debate set a short-sighted tone of the debate on foreign aid versus federal budget at the outset, the comments drove down to the purpose of foreign aid as a foreign policy tool or soft power, and by following the money, on whose hands majority of the money ends up.
Does altruism still have a place in international development? I guess the answer is yes and no. The Times discussion put into perspective its other political if not non-altruistic uses. The Post article brought to light the ‘good’ part of aid (if it’s a PR piece is another story)- putting a roof on people’s heads, food on their table, and a new lease on life.