Op-Ed: Problems of Development Cooperation

Text: Lotta Nieminen

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Development cooperation. Just the word in itself is controversial. According to Wikipedia, it is “aid given by governments and other agencies to support the economic, environmental, social, and political development of developing countries.” But then again, the word “developing country” is controversial in itself and many prefer to use concepts such as the “Global South”. However, not all countries in the Global South receive development aid due to being too developed for aid by Western standards. Some would prefer to replace the term development cooperation with international cooperation but according to others, the term is too broad and does not take into consideration the unique power relations and issues related to cooperation between so-called developed and developing countries.

Indeed, development cooperation has its problems and they are numerous. I have volunteered within the field of development cooperation pretty much all my life, only here in Finland though. The first time I realised it might be somewhat problematic was when I came across a post on social media at the age of 17, that talked about why the person making the post regretted being a humanitarian. One of my life goals until then had been going to this mysterious entity called Africa to volunteer once I was done with upper secondary school. However, seeing the post made me research the negative sides of volunteering in Africa and development cooperation altogether.

If you study at the Faculty of Social Sciences, you probably know why development cooperation is problematic in many ways. But if you do not, let me give you some examples. Let’s take a closer look at humanitarian work, especially the kind that I was dreaming about. What I was going to do and what many people have done is go to an African country for up to a year to “help the locals”. This can involve any number of things, the most common ones are perhaps working with children in schools or as a sports coach, teaching English or helping build infrastructure such as school buildings. 

Firstly, when you send in teenagers to do these kinds of things, they don’t really have the expertise needed. The local communities most likely have experts who could take care of all of these things if they just had the funding. Sending in inexperienced teens strips the locals of their expertise and financial opportunities, while preventing the local economy from growing. It can also feel humiliating to have uneducated kids do your work for you. If the area does not have experts on whatever needs to be done, having someone else do the job is a very unsustainable solution. It may create dependencies between the locals and the NGOs that work in the area.

Also, the expertise is often there but it is not acknowledged by the actors from the Global North. The same actors also often fail to communicate properly with the locals which can lead to them not knowing what the problems really are and what kinds of solutions are needed. The people from the NGOs, who sometimes have a white saviour -mentality, refuse to believe that the locals are the best experts in their own situation which may result in the helpers focusing on wrong things altogether. Also, flying people around the world is bad for the environment and causes unnecessary costs, but hey at least they get to take nice photos for their Instagram.

”The people from the NGOs, who sometimes have a white saviour -mentality, refuse to believe that the locals are the best experts in their own situation which may result in the helpers focusing on wrong things altogether.”

The list of problems does not end here. The problems listed above are also not just specific to humanitarian work but can also be applied to the wider context of development cooperation. For example, even if you work from Finland and send money or supplies to another country to aid them in developing themselves, you still have to build good contacts with the locals to find out what it is they actually need. 

Working from a country that is not the one you are trying to aid also creates new problems, such as making sure that the money or supplies actually go to where you want them to go. Money can easily stay in the hands of corrupt officials, whereas supplies such as vaccines might not find their way to the destination, if there is no suitable transport. Now, I am not saying that all development cooperation is bad. If you are an actual surgeon in the middle of an immediate crisis in an African country, being there and helping the locals is great even if you come from the Global North. Some NGOs also do their research better and utilize more ethical methods than others so not all of them are the same.

So, having said all this, I have a confession to make. I am the chair of the Development Cooperation Committee at the Student Union of the University of Helsinki. In the committee, we work to create conversation around development cooperation and increase students’ knowledge on the subject. We also do concrete development cooperation. At the moment, we have a project going on in Mozambique, where the aim is to provide support for students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, especially girls. We get funding from the university and the state. Before, we’ve had projects in places like Bangladesh and Indonesia.

So, why on earth am I still involved in development cooperation after finding out about all of its shortcomings? Am I not part of the problem? Well, the way I see it, keeping away from development cooperation does not solve anything. Former colonizers own former colonized countries all the help they can give because it is largely due to colonization that the formerly colonized countries have not been able to develop as much as they otherwise could have. Yes, development cooperation can be inefficient and at its worst, make things worse in the countries it is trying to help. However, stopping cooperation altogether is not the solution because in the age of globalization, international cooperation also has the potential to bring about so many good things.

In the development cooperation committee, we acknowledge the problems of development cooperation and are trying to do better. Of course we also make mistakes because changing structural inequalities is pretty damn hard and time consuming. We also try to inform people on the issues that development cooperation has for example on social media and in fact have a whole team for that. Is any of that going to have a real impact? Probably not since we’re a group of like 15 students. However, I do think it is important to try because if no one does, things are never going to change.


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