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Despite Good Intentions

Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed

Thomas W. Dichter

Publication Year: 2003

For more than thirty-five years, Thomas W. Dichter has worked in the field of international development, managing and evaluating projects for nongovernmental organizations, directing a Peace Corps country program, and serving as a consultant for such agencies as USAID, UNDP, and the World Bank. On the basis of this extensive and varied experience, he has become an outspoken critic of what he terms the "international poverty alleviation industry." He believes that efforts to reduce world poverty have been well-intentioned but largely ineffective. On the whole, the development industry has failed to serve the needs of the people it has sought to help. To make his case, Dichter reviews the major trends in development assistance from the 1960s through the 1990s, illustrating his analysis with eighteen short stories based on his own experiences in the field. The analytic chapters are thus grounded in the daily life of development workers as described in the stories. Dichter shows how development organizations have often become caught up in their own self-perpetuation and in public relations efforts designed to create an illusion of effectiveness. Tracing the evolution of the role of money (as opposed to ideas) in development assistance, he suggests how financial imperatives have reinforced the tendency to sponsor time-bound projects, creating a dependency among aid recipients. He also examines the rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the industry, arguing that assistance efforts have become disconnected from important lessons learned on the ground, and often lessons of world history. In the end, Dichter calls for a more light-handed and artful approach to development assistance, with fewer agencies and experts involved. His stance is pragmatic, rather than ideological or political. What matters, he says, is what works, and the current practices of the development industry are simply not effective.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

I can’t recall exactly when I began to have doubts about the value of development assistance. But I know that those doubts crystallized through con-tact with colleagues. Development workers, naturally enough, get to know and work with other development workers. Because we spend much of our working lives traveling, we end up still together after work is over, on planes,...


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pp. xiv

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INTRODUCTION: The Great Paradox of Development Assistance

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pp. 1-10

Thirty judiciously spent minutes in a small-town public library will provide enough random facts to dramatize the plight of the world’s poor: • In 1998 more people were living on less than one dollar a day than in 1996. • In 1999 the assets of the world’s two hundred richest people were greater than the combined incomes of the lowest 40 percent of the world’s peoples....

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Story One: Romance

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pp. 11-18

Ben Rymaker was so excited he hadn’t minded the eighteen hours on rickety buses. The mountain town he’d arrived in was quiet at eleven in the morning. The air was cold, and the bright sun made the poplar trees silvery. This would be his chance to see his friends from training, to be an American again...

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Story Two: Illusion

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pp. 19-22

By the middle of December, Ben’s days had become so routine that he began to feel he had lived in Marrakech as long as any old-time resident. Not only did he know his way around the medina, but he also began to believe that he knew what was going on. He had a regular vegetable seller, knew the...

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CHAPTER ONE: The Developing World and Its Condition

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pp. 23-30

An inveterate observer of poverty whom I knew in the late 1960s used to calculate how much time it would take for a cigarette butt dropped on a city street to be picked up by someone else. When he dropped a butt on a busy street in F

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Story Three: A Straw in the Wind

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pp. 31-36

Ben did not begin to understand poverty until Karim died. Or at least he had not yet realized that its essence lay far deeper than surface effects such as the cardboard paper slums he’d seen. Every week Karim’s father, Abdulhaq, whom Ben had hired to supplement his regular Arabic lessons, came into town from...

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Story Four: Being Useful or Being Used

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pp. 37-47

A shower of khat leaves lands with a smack on the windshield of Ben’s Mitsubishi. It is early afternoon and the national ritual—khat chewing—is under way. The leaves come from the truck in front of him. Ben can’t see the driver, probably...

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CHAPTER TWO: The Evolution of the Idea of Development

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pp. 48-74

There has always been some kind of development. American history—or, for that matter, ancient Roman history—attests to that. It has usually been slow, often sporadic, and sometimes it “just happened,” a shorthand way of saying it resulted from such a complex interaction of forces that it is impossible to determine that any single one made it occur. Most important, almost no one in the past really...

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Story Five: Warm Bodies

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pp. 75-89

“Yes?” Ben said as he answered the phone. “Hi, Ben, I’m John Becker from ProjectSuccess International in Washington. We’re about to respond to an RFP for a two-and-a-half-year integrated health project in the Philippines. Your name came up in our database, and we’d like to put you...

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Story Six: Sliding toward Dependency

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pp. 90-97

Ben had an hour to kill before John Dogbe would take him to meet the management staff of the Rabbit Project at the Chinese restaurant in Ada Foa. Because the coastal town had no hotel deemed good enough for a foreigner, Ben was to spend the night at the old guest quarters of a defunct road construction project...

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CHAPTER THREE: Development Assistance as an Industry (the “Dev Biz”)

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pp. 98-110

At a September 1984 conference on NGOs held at the United Nations in New York, one of the speakers used the term “dev biz.” He meant to distinguish between a relatively innocent past when development work was more of a calling, and an image-conscious present, when the same work has become more of an...

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Story Seven: Dedication

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pp. 111-123

Mr. Mwonge climbs the makeshift steps to the office of the Aberdare Water Society and timidly knocks on the door. He is stocky and strong, about forty years old, and has the hands of a laborer, which he is.Today, though, he is wearing his Sunday best, a threadbare pinstriped suit coat, second- or, more probably, third hand. It is an early afternoon...

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Story Eight: Trying Simply to Help

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pp. 124-127

In the late 1980s, a couple who had made so much money that it was a slight moral embarrassment to them decided to start a private foundation. They had lived part of their childhood in Africa and loved the continent. They believed...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Avoiding History

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pp. 128-134

Although the past is never an accurate guide to the future, there are broad patterns from the past that provide valid lessons which ought to inform our expectations of what development assistance can accomplish. In this chapter I look at several lessons about which the development assistance industry appears consistently to...

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Story Nine: The Helper and the Helped

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pp. 135-142

One day in the late 1960s, Nate Stoppard, scion of an old Yankee family, summarily stepped off a career path that would have guaranteed him a position as the chief executive officer (CEO) of a major company, left the big city and started an NGO over a store in New Hampshire. He was thirty-three years old. The summer before he had accepted a challenge...

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Story Ten: Confusing Stakes

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pp. 143-151

“Damn these flies. Time after time I’ve told these guys the fruit has to be clean before it’s put on the drying trays. They still don’t get it!” “But that’s the way they’ve always dried them. They like the way they taste, flies and all; why should they change?” “Because if they want to...

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CHAPTER FIVE: The Consequences of Avoiding Certain Universals of Human Nature

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pp. 152-163

In 1899, when he was twenty-five, Winston Churchill ruminated about colonialism in his account of the reconquest of the Sudan by the British in the1896–98 “River War,” during which he served as a cavalry officer under Lord...

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Story Eleven: Spare No Expense—the Very Best

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pp. 164-174

Ben’s heavy-duty ear protectors muffled the sound of the helicopter blades. He was uncomfortable enough sitting in the big machine with the six prominent members of the Program Development Committee with whom he’d have to behave so diplomatically over the next week. Not being able to talk for...

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Story Twelve: For the People, By the People

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pp. 175-179

Ben was dozing; by noon the heat was getting to him. He was in the front seat of the lead jeep. There were three jeeps altogether, carrying ten visitors, not including the drivers. This was yet another of the over-organized development tours...

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CHAPTER SIX: The Mismatch of Organizational Imperatives and Money

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pp. 180-196

Any large-scale effort that is in the slightest way complicated needs to be undertaken in an organized form. Indeed, organizations have become the quintessential framework for much of modern life (factory, corporation, government body, military, voluntary association, and so forth). In the development assistance field, organizations...

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Story Thirteen: Position, Not Condition

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pp. 197-214

Kendra was insistent. “We’ve got to have an AC car, Ben. We must make sure they order one, otherwise we can’t go. Ben, I know Uttar Pradesh at this time of year. It simply has to be AC.” Ben and Kendra were scheduled to fly the next day to Uttar Pradesh. Ravi, the executive director...

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Story Fourteen: Headless Chickens

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pp. 215-225

Ben had got used to it. Every time Charles Taber forgot to do something he said he would, didn’t respond to a query or a memo, lost a report in one of the piles around his desk, or in any of his myriad ways screwed up, he’d slap his palm on his forehead and say, “Oh, what a flake I am!” Ben couldn’t get mad, even...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: The Professionalization of Development

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pp. 226-238

As with getting organized to do something complex, so with becoming professional— it seems folly even to question such trends, much less suggest they have negative consequences. Yet in the case of development assistance, they do. In this chapter I focus...

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Story Fifteen: Too Many Cooks

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pp. 239-245

Professor K and Ben wait outside the office of Minister Grace Lumba. The professor, a former high official in an earlier government, now works as a private consultant, as does Ben. Ben is the “outside” consultant on this assignment, brought...

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Story Sixteen: Rhetorical Support

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pp. 246-256

The woman Ben spoke with on the phone had a Dutch accent, but because the organization she represented had an English name, he didn’t realize it too was Dutch. The name—World Initiative for Poverty Eradication, or WIPE—though...

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CHAPTER EIGHT: Marketing Development

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pp. 257-270

A cousin of mine in California refuses to go to funerals because they are “too depressing.” She does not deny death; she knows that the people whose funerals she avoids are dead. She simply prefers not to walk up to reality in all its full-frontal three-dimensionality when...

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Story Seventeen: Unintended Consequences

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pp. 271-280

Ben has been on roads like this so many times that he worries he’ll forget which country he is in unless he takes careful notes. He removes his steno book and pen from his shoulder bag and forces himself to start, though he’d rather doze off...

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Story Eighteen: The People’s Program

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pp. 281-285

The community meeting starts off slowly. No one seems to want to say anything. It is getting harder and harder for Ben to sit on the ground. He kneels on one knee for a few minutes and then shifts to the other. But he is as comfortable under the circumstances as he could be. The shade under the trees is refreshing. Katerisa District...

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CONCLUSION: The Case for a Radical Reduction in Development Assistance

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pp. 286-294

In his 1949 inaugural speech, Harry Truman proposed four major courses of action directed at undeveloped areas. He began his fourth point by saying:...

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pp. 295-296

This book was written before the attacks of September 11, 2001. After that date, I wondered if those events had altered my conclusion that we need less development assistance money, less direct foreign aid, not more. As the book goes to press, what is happening in the world and in the development industry remains completely consistent...


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pp. 297-299


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pp. 301-303

Back Cover

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pp. 305

E-ISBN-13: 9781613760826
E-ISBN-10: 1613760825
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558493926
Print-ISBN-10: 1558493921

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Poverty -- Developing countries.
  • Economic assistance -- Developing countries -- Evaluation.
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