Development Aid: Minorities and Human Rights

Many of the disputes taking place in the "Third World" at present follow lines of ethnic or religious conflict - between neighboring states as well as within national boundaries. Reference to social and class conflicts alone can often fail to explain the underlying power relationships. They sometimes become understandable when we include those consequences of the colonial rule which - like the arbitrary creation of borders by the colonial powers - led to the preferential treatment of some ethnic or religious groups and to discrimination against others.

In the case of postcolonial states, governments are often unrepresentative of the many ethnic groups who live there, and are therefore engaged in internal colonialism. This internal colonialism and the internationally organized dependence of the states are intertwined. Corresponding to the interest of multinational concerns in the development of "peripheral" regions (e.g., tropical forest areas) and in the exploitation of their natural resources, governments attempt to achieve complete control of their territories - allegedly in the name of progress. Instruments serving this purpose are the control of local politics by the central government, the restraining of subsistence production by the creation of an integrated national market and - on the ideological plane - the destruction, integration or reshaping of native traditions and religious rites. Often, the pacification of minority groups is achieved not only by preventing collective means of survival, i.e. ethnocide (cultural genocide), but also by banishing millions of people and by physically eradicating whole peoples (genocide). Oppression and the pacification of groups can also take place where an ethnic-territorial conflict is not involved but rather - as in some Asiatic societies - caste systems uphold social barriers and dependence.

Development aid policy, which unquestionably accepts the premises of the state in the "Third World," supports internal colonialism, indeed, becomes its accomplice. Development aid tolerates the destruction of cultures and the oppression or assimilation of minorities, appeasing them with the semblance of humanitarian disaster relief or "help for self-help." Food help within the framework of resettlement programs is made use of - "for want of an alternative" - in the fight against hunger, although these resettlements serve not least of all power politics against oppressed ethnic groups, as in the case of Ethiopia. Roadbuilding, which should raise the standard of living for sectors of the population that are not integrated in the national economy, attracts a stream of new settlers and often leads to the expulsion of the original inhabitants. Educational systems - even when they incorporate the language of an ethnic minority - are aimed at assimilation rather than at strengthening the culture of the minority and making it equal. Even programs of integrated rural development or decentralized health services can support domestic colonialism when they originate in and are controlled by authorities of the central government.

The "economic cooperation" foreign aid policy of the Federal Republic of Germany, for example - despite all statements that the policy is aimed toward basic needs, self-help and human rights - is more than ever guided by its own economic interests and foreign policy - as well as NATO alliance considerations. The rights of minorities are raised, if at all, only if they can be used for political purposes.

The development policies of Christian Democrats and the Christian Socialists (CDU/CSU) attempt to create structures in developing countries that are useful for exports from West German industry ("employment feedback") and for the geostrategic interests of the Western alliance ("International Social Market Economy"). The tendency toward export strategies and large projects (a tendency strengthened by so-called "mixed financing") reinforces - even for minorities in the developing countries concerned - the fatal logic of increasing integration into the world market, expansion of the national market, repression of local and subsistence production and the actual suppression of "unproductive" development projects. The rights of ethnic minorities or other negatively affected groups are included in these calculations only in recognition of severe negative consequences of the past: ecological and health disasters in the case of gigantic dams, an alarming decrease in domestic food production or a too forceful awakening of international public opinion. In other cases, minority rights are being made the subject of political offensives only when they can be used against a targeted government, as in the case of the attention focused on ethnic conflicts on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.

Collective minority rights must be explicitly asserted against the alliance of interests between the governments of industrial nations and the domestic colonialism in developing countries. For ethnic or religious minorities, this sort of collective human rights means decentralized control over natural resources, political self-determination at the regional, local, international and nongovernmental level, and recognition of the right to maintain distinct identities while enjoying equal rights.

Development policy that encourages (not inflexibly preserves) a multitude of cultures, and protects the self-sufficiency and ecological systems of populations - not only those peripherally integrated into the national economy - must support a decentralized and ethnically specific self-determined development (etnodesarrollo in Spanish). Development aid with this claim cannot formulate a universally valid concept of "development." It can only work to stimulate the strength of distinct groups against changes outside their control, and support the development of their own characteristic economy, culture and social organization, whether these characteristic forms are wholly indigenous or have already been modified by colonialism or capitalism.

Decentralized and self-determined development cannot be initiated from outside, and the strengthening of independent social organizations must be limited to just that. Development projects that try to promote the poorest groups of the population while circumventing local power structures, or in the absence of a functioning organization of the communities involved, are doomed to failure. Even grassroots organizing leads to self-determined development only when it has already achieved so strong a position that support from outside neither impedes nor manipulates its independence.

In light of this fact, self-determined development that tries to minimize external influences takes place within narrow limits, and should not be idealized. As social movements of minorities, they are molded and in part determined by discrimination experienced in the past and the present, as well as by national and international politics. As different from one another as are the cultures from which they come, they are of no use as models. The same is true for the advocacy of collective minority rights as for other areas of solidarity with the "Third World": the ambivalence of every intervention - even the nongovernmental or "alternative" one - forces us to consider the positive and negative consequences of each intervention exactly.

A critical evaluation of grassroots organizations and a conscious selection among organizations that are often competing with one another cannot be avoided. Development aid projects for the benefit of or including minorities should in general first be assumed harmful, reversing the burden of proof as to why, in this case, a project will fulfill an indispensable protective function, or why a development determined by the minority itself will not be prevented by this intervention from outside.

Sociologists or anthropologists who are given an opportunity in development aid decisions to indicate the detrimental consequences of a large project for native populations bear the burden of proof in their relationship with planners, who may tend to presuppose the economic success of a project.

In light of the fact that the outcome of a long history of development aid has been by and large detrimental or without substantive effect, the burden of proof of the "nondetrimental nature" of a project should rest with its proponents.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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