The cultural turn in international aid? Setting the scene

Sophia Labadi

International aid is often associated with humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance is arguably the most visible aspect of international aid because it is often reported in the press. Images of planes full of basic necessities fill news reports as noticeable responses to natural or man-made disasters, such as the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the 2017 landslides and flooding in Nepal or the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Yet, humanitarian assistance is only one aspect of international aid. For researchers in the United Kingdom, international aid might increasingly be associated with the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a portion of the UK official international development aid dedicated to practical research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. Some academics have readily and enthusiastically engaged with this fund, applied to its numerous schemes and implemented projects tackling global challenges, including poverty and inequality, gender equality or climate change. However, some academics have shown some resistance, especially in the Humanities (AHRC, 2018) to implement such a scheme and the GCRF has faced similar criticisms as the wider international aid machine. For some, these schemes further neocolonialist approaches where they operate asymmetrical power relations between the Global North and South and top-down approaches (Noxolo, 2017: 342-344).

Despite its importance and also its controversial nature, surprisingly little has been written on international aid and culture. A greater consideration of culture has often been presented as a way of addressing some of the criticisms just expressed of the international aid machine (The World Bank, 2001; Sen, 2004: 37-58). Previous publications on this topic have assessed whether taking greater account of local communities and their culture (defined as the knowledge, beliefs and customs of a society) has helped to address the shortfalls of externally imposed development projects (Escobar, 1995; Rao and Walton, 2004; Mosse, 2005), the impacts of cultural identities and cultural diversity on aid-funded development projects (Nederveen Pieterse, 2010) or the approaches and impacts of specific international organizations on heritage and development (Labadi, 2017a: 45-69; Lafrenz Samuels, 2018).

The present volume of commissioned papers moves beyond existing publications. Whilst a number of books take for granted the cultural turn in international aid (Willis, 2005; Nederveen Pieterse, 2010), this volume takes a different stand. Its main aim is to discuss whether and how cultural projects funded through international aid fulfil the characteristics of the cultural turn. It is through such questioning that a real critical assessment of aid-funded cultural projects can happen. This volume is also unique in its broadened understanding of international aid, not considered solely as economic development, but also as human development as well as cultural and heritage diplomacy. Such understanding aims to complicate the discussions on international aid and culture. This volume defines culture primarily as intangible and tangible heritage, cultural and creative industries as well as the creative economy. Heritage (sometimes associated with creative products) is the only cultural form directly mentioned in the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the framework that guides international aid spending until 2030. For this reason, it is fundamental to describe the connections between international aid and such understanding of culture. This is another aim of this volume.

To explain further these points and aims, the introduction starts by clarifying the notion of international aid and charting its origins. It then discusses the multifarious dimensions of the cultural turn in international aid covered in this volume. This introduction then details the selection of authors in this volume. The final section details a running concern of this volume: the need for critical self-reflexive questioning.

International aid: the White Man’s Burden?

International aid can be defined, rather restrictively, as the voluntary transfer of public resources from donor governments, usually rich countries from the Global North to developing ones, multilateral institutions (such as the UN and its specialized agencies) and nongovernmental organizations. This transfer of resources is accompanied by the transfer of ideas, values and practices from the Global North to the South. Such aid aims to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries, including democracy building and reconstruction, humanitarian relief, or the prevention and mitigation of conflicts. With the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 by the United Nations (see chapter by Labadi, this volume), international aid increasingly aims to tackle global challenges, including poverty, climate change and gender equality. This type of international aid is also referred to as ‘official development assistance’ (ODA), a term coined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and its Development Assistance Committee in an effort to measure international aid flow. This committee is made of the 29 major donor countries, including the US, France, the UK and Australia. This committee compiles a list of countries that can receive ODA every three years, identifying ‘least developed countries’, ‘other low-income countries’, ‘lower middle-income countries or territories’ and ‘upper middle-income countries and territories’, according to their per capita gross national income (GNI). For the proponents of international aid, this system is important as it monitors the percentage of the GNI provided by donors as ODA. Through this system, the OECD can check which countries reach the goal of allocating 0.7% of their GNI on ODA. This figure of 0.7% is rather arbitrary, but most countries do not reach the threshold. For instance, it was not until 2013 that the UK became the first G7 country to spend 0.7% of its GNI on international aid, in the wake of the ‘IF campaign’ and ‘Make Poverty History’ movements. Conversely, Australian international aid is at its least generous level ever, at just 0.23% of GNI, as explained by Logan in this volume (DPC, ANU 2018).

For critics, this model maintains the two invented categories of ‘developed’ and ‘developing world’, as well as their associated asymmetrical power relations with the domination and control of developing countries by developed ones (Escobar, 1995). Knowledge and power to define and describe “‘The Other”/recipients of international aid’ is bestowed upon donors in this system. In addition, whilst official international aid might be understood as a benevolent system where rich countries’ disinterested goal is to make the world a better place, in reality a number of major donor countries use aid to fulfil their own national priorities and to strengthen their trade and investment opportunities. The UK and Australia have made clear that they will use international aid to further their own national interests (DfID, 2015). That international aid is tied to the national agenda of donors and not the needs of receiving countries has fuelled debates about the nature and effectiveness of international aid (Mosse and Lewis, 2005).

However, it is rather restrictive to define international aid as the official public resources spent by donor countries from the Global North for the development and welfare of developing nations. International aid is increasingly fragmented and complex. South-South cooperation between countries has been a reality since the Bandung conference of 1955 that aimed to promote nonaligned, postcolonial economic, cultural and political cooperation in the Asian-African region (Gray and Gills, 2016: 557). South-South cooperation has been reinvigorated with the economic achievements of the so-called BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Whether these new dynamics are reproducing existing power relations and geographies of inequalities, imposing neocolonialist agendas and promoting outdated notions of progress are issues for debate that go beyond the realm of this volume.

Nongovernmental and not-for-profit organizations are also major actors of the international aid landscape. They often fund their activities through voluntary contributions and government grants. An increasing number of these organizations originate from and work in the Global South on contemporary challenges, although the market is still dominated by institutions from the

Global North that might be better known, such as Oxfam or Save the Children. The scandals that have hit a number of these organizations, for example the revelation in early 2018 of Oxfam staff sexually exploiting victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and reports of funds mismanagement, have resulted in distrust from public and private donors. This, coupled with new social media platforms and the easiness of fundraising through crowdfunding or social networks has led to fragmentation and individualized approaches to international aid making. For example, the French social media star Jerôme Jarre was able to raise nearly $4,000,000 to aid people in Somalia in September 2017, from his 15 million followers across social media. These new models are flexible and can raise significant funds quickly. Yet, these approaches might also lack in-depth understanding of the complex geopolitical situations on the ground, and a long-term vision (see also the chapter by Kurlanska in this volume).

The present volume adopts a definition of international aid as a fragmented landscape, to reflect fully on its multifarious and complex forms. The first section discusses the intellectual framework and approaches to international aid and culture by multilateral agencies, including UNESCO, the European Union and the World Bank. The other two sections focus on bilateral aid provided by governments, NGOs and humanitarian agencies. These sections also discuss the impacts of aid for receiving countries and on tackling global challenges

The roots of international aid can be traced back to colonialization (Ey-ben, 2014: 22-40). Colonization was an enterprise of exploitation, repression, subjugation and alienation (Loomba, 2005). It was also conceived, for some, as ‘well-intentioned’, with the aim to bring civilization, education, progress and the latest scientific and medical discoveries to the colonial world. In the words of Kipling’s poem, colonization is The White Man’s Burden: ‘To fill full the mouth of Famine / and bid the sickness cease’ (Kipling, 1899). Some heritage sites from colonial times depict the White Man’s Burden. The Musée National de 1’Histoire de 1’Immigration in Paris, for instance, is housed in what used to be the Palace of the Colonies, built in 1931 for the International Colonial Exhibition. Frescoes decorating the walls of the function room, executed by Pierre Ducos de la Haille, celebrate the ‘civilizing’ and ‘positive roles’ that France played in its then colonies, as well as the ‘positive contributions’ brought, including medicine, justice or science (Labadi, 2013, 2017b). There is a continuity between the work of colonization and international aid, with the aim of aid being to bring progress, development and welfare to receiving countries.

This continuity can also be seen as characterizing the 1950s and 1960s with the fast expansion of specialized intergovernmental agencies from the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as the creation of departments on international aid within national governments. These institutions recruited staff and consultants with colonial service backgrounds (Kapur et al., 1997; Kothari, 2006: 118-136; Murphy, 2008; Eyben, 2014: 38). Eyben even mentions that her then husband changed the subject of his MA degree on his CV from colonial studies to development (Eyben, 2014: 38). At that time, what mattered was not the local understanding of a place, but the technical and general knowledge on the economy, infrastructure development and health that these administrators had acquired during the colonial period (ibid., 92; Coles, 2007: 125-141).

There is a long-running debate, both in academia and in the general press, about the nature and effectiveness of international aid (Sachs, 2005; Easterly, 2007; Moyo, 2010). For some, the colonial mindset and the belief in ‘The White Man’s Burden’ still characterize international aid. Aid workers have been found to be behaving, voluntarily or involuntarily, as zealous neocolonial ‘missionaries’, to use the categorization developed by Stirrat (2008: 414). These workers’ goal is to convert targeted communities of international aid to a new promised life of modernity and development, as well as to liberate these populations from ignorance, poverty and injustices. Meanwhile, in aid-receiving countries, like in colonial times, structures of privileges characterize the lives of aid workers, who are physically separated from local communities and local counterparts (Chowdhry and Nair, 2002; Kothari, 2002, 2006: 124; Biccum, 2005: 1005-1020). In their autobiographic and self-critical exploration of their world as international aid workers from the North, Martini and Jauhola describe their lives in developing countries as characterized by good salaries and benefit packages, expensive shopping trips, cosmopolitan consumerism, parties with other expatriates and houses with swimming pools in exclusive neighborhoods (Martini and Jauhola, 2014: 76-96). In other words, for some, the international aid machine is maintaining the very system of domination, inequality and inequitable power relations that it is intended to address.

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