Maastricht Debates: Insights from India and Kenya on development aid in times of crises
May 12, 2009 1 Comment
Maastricht Debates has set out to live up to its name again, with a new format and a new venue.
In order to stimulate real debate, organizers have decided to move away from the traditional “lecture + Q&A” format and are inviting the audience to get involved in the discussions from the start.
For the first time, the event on April 21 exchanged one of the lecture halls of Maastricht University for the creative setting of AINSI (a cultural initiative for Art, Industry, Nature, Society, and Innovation) in the southern outskirts of Maastricht, at a 10 minute bike ride from the city centre.
About 35 people attended the debate – not merely students, but people of all ages and backgrounds. The topic of the evening, “Development aid in times of financial and economic crises”, once more lay at the heart of the overarching theme of Maastricht Debates: “Development and Globalization”.
A venue fit for debate
The new venue certainly contributed to quality of the debate. AINSI, located in a former cement plant, possesses a distinct artistic character which university buildings often lack. The entrance area is welcoming: in the spirit of creativity, visitors are greeted by comfortable sofas and various art sculptures placed across the room.
The actual debating took place in an even cozier atmosphere. Dark curtains shielded the gathering from the main hall and the light was pleasantly dimmed. There was no stage, no artificial separation between the speakers and the audience, just a symbolic round table placed on a large Persian carpet at the centre of the room. The speakers sat among the public who had been grouped into four clusters around the table. This creative setting appeared to encourage the audience to participate in the talks.
After the debate, many visitors lingered on at the bar in the entrance area and continued informal discussions until late in the evening.
Insights from India and Kenya
“What do people need from the EU in times of crises?” The two guest speakers who had been invited to answer this question both had much experience in dealing with aid to developing countries. Mr MP Vasimalai, or Mr Vasi as he calls himself, is Executive Director of the DHAN Foundation (Development of Humane Action) in India which is geared towards implementing “new innovations in rural development” in order “to eradicate poverty in vast areas of the country” (DHAN Foundation, 2006).
Mr MP Vasimalai
The second guest, Mr Reginald Nalugala, is currently writing a PhD thesis on the “Challenges and solutions to poverty situation in Kenya” at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in the UK. His research “pursues not only the roots of poverty, but what actually works to alleviate it” (Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 2009).
The debate was moderated by the young and dynamic Inge Römgens, a programme and marketing manager at Parkstad Limburg Theatres.
After pointing out the current relevance of the topic in light of the recent G20 commitment to a USD 1.1 trillion support package to strengthen the world economy, Römgens involved the audience in the debate from the outset by inviting the audience to react to a provocative statement: “Development aid is useless and does not help developing countries; other measures such as increased trade would be far more fruitful.” In fact, no one agreed with this assertion, as the moderator soon found out by giving the floor to random members of the audience. The general consensus seemed to be that development aid can be beneficial when used in the right way.
The two speakers introduced themselves and their activities in the field of development. The Indian development expert Vasi underscored the importance of development aid in India and explained that he “work[s] in a poor country in a creative and innovative way.”
In contrast, the Kenyan scholar Nalugala stated right from start that his studies had made him adopt a critical stance towards development aid. Accordingly, “the question arises whether development aid really helps,” he said.
Mr Reginald Nalugala
Nalugala perceives development assistance as it is carried out at the moment as considerably flawed. In his eyes, “we have to rethink development aid.” More precisely, before “throwing in money”, donor countries must first get acquainted with the specific situation in each country they’re planning to send aid to. Nalugala warned that the approach of simply applying the blueprint of a Western society to an African country is bound to fail.
Nalugala lengthily spoke of the spirit of “harambee”, a spirit of collective and cooperative self-help, which functions like a welfare system for his fellow Kenyans.
He argued that instead of money, it is above all social capital and skills that are needed in developing countries. In order to achieve sustainable development, it is essential that these skills remain in the developing countries. Even more importantly, Nalugala urged for a change of mentality in the relationship between donors and developing countries: “Western paternalism must be replaced by a cooperation of mutual respect.”
Vasi agreed that a change of attitude is needed in matters of development but emphasized the need for long-term perspectives and solutions because “there’s no quick fix.” According to Vasi, the most effective way to apply development aid is through active cooperation with the local communities. But he was more sceptical how this could be done on a large scale.
Tata-Dhan Academy, photo: Dhan Foundation
With regards to financial development aid, Vasi disagreed with Nalugala’s claim that “we don’t need your money”. He explained that his foundation is able to support 700,000 families in 10,000 Indian villages largely thanks to the inflow of Western money, including from EU countries.
Moderator Römgens consistently encouraged members of the audience to react to the speakers’ statements throughout the talks. A show of hands actually revealed that many among them, in one way or another, had been involved in development aid. Some had worked professionally in developing countries, others had contributed as volunteers, and others yet had been, or still are, committed in development organizations in Europe.
The audience agreed with the two speakers that money alone is not sufficient and saw education and training of local people as the most important goal of development assistance. Development aid in the form of monetary flows, some people in the audience pointed out, tends to preserve the unfavorable status quo as it often merely drains down into the morass of corruption that affects many development countries. They repeatedly suggested that a real transfer of skills and know-how would be a far more promising solution, because it would enable people in developing countries to learn to provide for themselves and to avoid persistent dependence from rich donors such as the EU.
Many among the audience also questioned the Western financial and economic model in light of the current global crisis. The comments of the audience generally displayed an attitude of global responsibility towards the situation in developing countries.
The creative and pleasant setting of AINSI fostered the atmosphere of active debate. The two guest speakers’ interesting personal experiences and professional expertise, combined with the input from the audience, greatly contributed to the quality of the debate.
Moderator Inge Römgens kept the atmosphere lively by skillfully inviting the participants to join in the discussions on the sense and non-sense of development aid and virtually everyone in the audience held the microphone during the course of the evening.
It looks like Maastricht Debates has won back what makes up its strength and specificity: real debates.
By Daniel Fabio Mannfeld
Daniel Fabio Mannfeld, 21 years old, is a German first-year European Studies student at Maastricht University. Daniel currently represents the European Studies student association Concordantia in the Maastricht Debates board.
Photographs of the debate: AinsiMaastricht on Flickr