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The Dangers of Viewing Global Development as One-Size-Fits-All

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

In 2019, the United States gave $34.6 billion towards humanitarian aid and global development projects. This aid helped to contain international epidemics, improve educational services, and generate an increase in food supply in numerous countries throughout the world.

However, many international development projects end up as utter failures.

What does a failed development project look like, and why is this undesired outcome so common?

In the early 1980s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) set out to eradicate creole pigs in Haiti to stop a swine fever outbreak. The plan was to replace them with pigs raised in Iowa, but the North American pigs quickly died under the harsh terrain and lifestyle of Haiti.

Debora MacKenzie, a reporter for “New Scientist,” documented the perspective of a Haitian man. “The American pigs are too fat,” he said. “They eat too much. They are no good for us.”

Requiring a diet that costs approximately 100 dollars a year, the Iowan pigs proved to be significantly higher maintenance than the creole pigs. With the former pigs being able to run on trash and scraps, it was clear that among people who made barely 150 dollars per year, the needs of the Iowan pigs were simply unsustainable. 

The failed technology transfer conducted by the U.S. had immense consequences. 2015 Haitian Presidential Candidate Jean-Baptiste Chavannes explained the economic significance of the loss: “In the Haitian peasantry, we consider the creole pig as the peasant’s bank,” he said. “If I know that next year I’m going to send my son to high school, I will increase what I feed the pig so that I can sell it. It was a permanent source of security for the family.”

The eradication of the creole pig led to a nearly 50% reduction in school enrollment in Haiti because many families lost their most significant sources of capital.

Additionally, needing to find alternative sources of income, many Haitians resorted to harvesting wood to make charcoal. Ninety-eight percent of Haitian land was already deforested, and the creole pig crisis contributed even more to the country’s susceptibility to erosion and droughts.

Critics accused the U.S. of carrying selfish motivations and prioritizing the safety of their own pig population from swine fever while shortchanging the Haitians. USAID neglected to fully consider the context of the creole pig, its environmental resiliency and economic significance, and thus the attempted technology transfer completely failed.

Nina Munk, author of “The Idealist,” highlights another example of a global development project failing to properly understand the context of where they operate.

In her book, Munk chronicles the story of Jeffrey Sachs and his development effort, the Millenium Villages Project (MVP). The intention of the MVP was to lift various African villages with unique agro-ecological features out of poverty through technological advancements. Sachs was hoping to prove a universal model to show that with enough foreign aid, advancement out of poverty was possible anywhere.

Although there were undeniably some positive outcomes of this project, it did not work universally. 

The village of Ruhiira, located in Southwest Uganda, faced disastrous effects from the MVP. Sachs introduced fertilizer and high-yield seeds to farmers in Ruhiira, which led to a threefold increase in yields.

photo of corn field
Aaron Burden/Unsplash

After a brief period of celebration, Munk and the community questioned, “what the hell do you do with a whole lot of excess corn and beans when you have no roads, no markets, nowhere to sell the stuff, no connection to the global economy of the 21st century?”

Without a connection to a larger market to sell the surplus of crops, a large portion was left to rot and be eaten by rats.

The people of Ruhiira rose in angry protest, destroying vehicles and breaking windows, when they realized that Sachs’ promise of newfound prosperity had been empty.

Munk explained that “Jeffrey Sachs can afford at the end of the day to go home and say, well, it might not have worked out as well as expected, but we’re making progress and we’ll do it differently next time.”

The people in the villages did not, however, have this privilege. She continued, “There are these individuals in the villages who have just been completely forgotten and, in many cases, whose lives are actually worse off than they were before these interlopers came and re-arranged their lives and advised them on what their ideas of progress are.”

How can crises like those of the creole pig and the Ruhiira crop surplus be avoided in future development efforts?

Too often, governments and organizations from powerful, wealthy countries operate with the ethnocentric belief that they have the expertise and solutions to solve the problems of those in poverty. Instead, international development must be rooted in an understanding that those living in the context of the situation have a more accurate perception of their needs and what is necessary to create lasting results.

The best way to do this is to support local leaders in their own efforts to build local systems, rather than intervening with an externally developed agenda. 

For example, USAID recently ran the Resiliency in Northern Ghana (RING) project, which provided direct funding to local government entities. Therefore, rather than telling the recipient of the aid how to use it, the U.S. merely supported the plans that local Ghanaian leaders made to combat their diverse challenges. 

US development aid rarely uses this structure of direct funding, but Adams Elhassan Mohammad, the coordinating director in Ghana’s northern region of Tolon, confirmed that it works. “Because RING has adopted the strategy of working through the district assembly, it is working directly… with the people in the community,” he said. “[They] see the project as their own.”

Ellie Blanchard

American '24

Ellie is a junior at American University majoring in Foreign Language and Communication Media (FLCM) and minoring in International Studies. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting, reading, and sampling local chai lattes.
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