International development agencies have come in for a hammering recently: repeated denunciations of alleged ‘wasteful funding’ from the Tory back benches - with an eye to plundering DfID’s £13.4 billion budget - ambassadors and High Commissioners given authority over DfID’s country programmes, a prominent Times leader calling for the resignation of the Save the Children CEO for his handling of staff sexual misdemeanours, and the cry of ‘Charity begins at Home’ ever more resonant. It helps in evaluating this onslaught to understand what development is and isn’t.
Does the public actually have a clear view of what development agencies actually do, where they came from, and the origin of their values? It’s a surprising story. The concept of development took shape in the first half of the nineteenth century within the context of the industrial revolution, and serious economic crises which threatened the social and political fabric of European states. A complex of allied themes, interrelated problems and fears: Progress, Corruption, continuity and change, evolution and revolution coloured thinking.
Engels was writing about the condition of the British working class in Manchester at the same time John Henry Newman was considering the development of Christian doctrine. It was Newman, grappling with the problem of continuity and change in the Christian Church, rather than Marx, grappling with capital accumulation as the dynamo of flawed Progress, who was to arrive at something close to the modern understanding of development and tease out its diverse meanings.
In his 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman used development of doctrine not merely as an explanation of his joining the Roman Catholic Church but as a positive feature of its commitment to the Truth. Then, surprisingly, ‘development’ broke out its religious frame and became the healer of the depredations of social disorder, unemployment, immorality, old and new corruption, all the destructive aspects of Progress. “Is it not a remarkable thing”, Rev. Mark Pattison, a clergyman and supporter of the Social Sciences Foundation, wrote to Newman in 1878, “that you should have first started the idea – and the word – development, as the key to the history of Church doctrine, and since then it has gradually become the dominant idea of all history, biology, physics, and in short has metamorphosed our view of every science, and of all knowledge”. This effusive attribution may have been excessive but Newman’s influence in the Victorian world was prodigious. It shows the close link between God-talk and the origins of development talk.
After the Second World War ‘development’ began to mean significant, sustained and organised action by governments and civil society to improve the lot of the poor. In 1945, Christian Aid began providing relief for European refugees. In 1942, OXFAM (Quaker influenced) took shape and began campaigning for food relief to pass through naval blockades to Nazi-occupied Greece. The wartime Sword of the Spirit produced the radical Catholic Institute for International Relations.
In the 1960s the newly independent countries were calling for a New International Economic Order based on humanistic values and opposed to the economic dominance of the West. This was accompanied by a further Christian contribution to development, the promotion of the idea of integral human development, a transcendent humanism. In 1967, Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio) took forward the Church’s reflection on the challenge posed by respect for human dignity in the context of contemporary, Western-directed, international development and an incipient new wave of globalisation. It set out unequivocally the responsibility of the Christian community to work for a just form of development. It was to be the charter for Catholic development agencies and the international network of these organisations called CARITAS.
Paul VI analysed causes of poverty before proposing solutions. And prominent amongst the causes were socio-economic structures. The Pope demanded radical structural changes, “bold transformations in which the present order of things will be entirely renewed or rebuilt”. His message was “the economy should be at the service of man”. “The universal social bonds of the human family [interdependence] require everyone to commit themselves to the promotion of development”. Ernst Schumacher, a Buddhist and best known for his 1973 book Small is Beautiful, reflected this theme of the book’s sub-title “Economics as if People Mattered”.
Development aid inevitably entailed political choices. Populorum Progressio was political. It repudiated contemporary approaches that defined development simply as growth in GDP. Colonial and neo-colonial solutions to problems of poverty and injustice were rejected. All peoples and nations should be “artisans of their own destiny”. Pope Paul described life itself a “vocation” to development and fulfilment – but always in particular cultures and societies. In other words, people develop themselves; others cannot do it for them, and for this they needed literacy and education.
Populorum Progressio’s emphasis on unequal power relations and fair trade, are still relevant today, as are an economics of “enough”. It coupled “the material poverty of those who lack the bare necessities of life, and the moral poverty of those who are deformed by selfishness”. It asked “are we ready to pay higher taxes, are we ready to pay more for imported goods which are fairly traded?” We know the answer. The seeds of conflict with the political Right were sown.
Paul VI’s successors continued to speak about poverty, its causes and remedies. In response to accelerating globalisation, Pope John Paul II spoke of solidarity, a favourite NGO word, as a virtue. “When interdependence becomes recognised in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue’, is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are really responsible for all”. Whilst echoes of “an economy of enough” re-emerge in Pope Francis’ reaction to climate change and the care of the ‘global commons’.
God talk and development talk have historically been engaged in a creative dialogue. Its outcome and rejection of unrestrained competition and greed has not been music to the ears of Wall Street. Perhaps those in the Tory Party who want to curb Britain’s longstanding substantial contribution to international development might reflect on the values which inspire it. Maybe they have and reject them. The radicalism of developmentalists, both secular and religious, makes it unlikely the current attack on development aid will cease.
See also The Article 18/03/2020