In my articles last week and the week before, I have looked at some aspects of the calibre and work of Western diplomats in developing countries, mostly related to development aid. I have also said that their jobs, especially those who are heading an embassy or government aid agency, but also those in top posts in the United Nations agencies, hold jobs in ‘impossible professions’, like doctors, teachers and pastors. It is impossible to do everything right in the jobs, perhaps even do what one would say is a good and decent job. That I know from own efforts in such jobs; I always felt I should have done more and better.

I had almost ideal background for my work, coming from a university post in development studies in Oslo, and also having worked in the government development aid agency and in peace research, and some ‘ordinary’ years as a teacher and university publishing. But when I became a UN staff member and diplomat in East Africa, and later worked in two of the development banks, in Washington and in Abidjan, I realized that I knew very little about what to do, how to do it, and what would lead to results for poor men and women. I knew little, and the bosses in Oslo and UN headquarters didn’t either, yet, pretence was high!

We had some success in introducing Western democratic traditions, better policies for women and human rights, more transparency and openness in politics and administration, and broader civil society participation. But we were not quite democratic in our work since the thinking came from outside and above; we came with our values as good missionaries. We may have thought it was quite apolitical and neutral, but we brought our own Western values. We didn’t have proper understanding of peasants, rural or urban women, farming and fishing communities, life and conditions of labourers, and so on. If we had taken time to study and research local situations before giving our solutions, we could have done better. We would have emphasized labour unions, farmers’ and peasants’ organizations, and indeed education and health for all long before we did. True, there were projects in those fields, too, but they were not the main and big ones, and the projects were not designed by those who had the shoes on and knew better, in the West and in the South.

In the early 1980s, there were some Norwegian researchers who understood that we were not on the right track in farming and overall rural development thinking, where the majority of people were engaged. Economist Kjell Havnevik, who later became a professor in agricultural policies in Sweden, with focus on Africa, spoke about this early, together with sociologist Rune Skarstein. Later, they have criticized the failed agricultural policies of the ‘chief advisers on everything’, the staff of The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and related institutions. On paper they are international, actually UN agencies, but in practise they are American and deeply Western and capitalist organizations.

As Western diplomats and staff in UN agencies, we knew this, but we didn’t speak up. We let the powerful West go on with it all because that was more comfortable for us; no need to rock the boat and risk own carriers. Perhaps we also, coming mostly from urban middle-class backgrounds, quietly agreed with the policies, that is, if we really understood and thought deeply about it all.

Unfortunately, few had any formal background in development studies and social sciences; often, the senior staff at headquarters and in embassies had their ordinary professional training, but no topping-up in development; they were civil servants posted abroad. Third World experience was considered important but not paired with theoretical studies. There was little respect for academic analysis ‘in my time’ and even today, although we want to believe we are part of the ‘knowledge society’. We were and are arrogant towards the people and countries who receive development aid.

Some would excuse the staff in the ‘impossible professions’ at the embassies and in aid organizations, their lack of competence and analytical skills in politics, culture, and more, saying that it is rather the people in the recipient countries that need competence. True enough. Yet, it has always been the donors who decide, not the recipients. Or, as my good colleague Arne Hollerud used to say at the Norwegian Embassy in Tanzania in the early 1990s, when we boasted about ‘recipient orientation’: “We only let them make the decisions as long as they decide what we want them to decide.”

Last week, I discussed some of these issues and my criticism of aid diplomats in the past and at present with the head of a Western government aid organization in Pakistan. She said that she thought it was not the calibre of people that was the problem, but the policies. The policies were often better before, and maybe also the overall positive thinking of staff. But we should not be too hard on the diplomats and aid workers. We should focus on improving the aid policies, also now at the end of the Western development aid era.

However, policies are made by people, mostly at headquarters and implemented by staff abroad. But Western diplomats do have a great responsibility, too, rotating between field and headquarters, together with the leaders and researchers in the South and North. If we cannot be in the ‘impossible professions’, we should look for other employment.

It was right of Pakistan to let IMF have a hard time before it signed an agreement with the institution. Pakistan had little other choice, and now politicians say that most of IMF’s policies are not political but technical. But we must never forget to ask on whose side the staff and policies of IMF and other Western diplomats are. If we are brave and honest, we know where our hearts and minds should be, on the side of the people and right leaders of the developing countries. Aid diplomats can only to a certain extent be on the side of their home country and organization, the West and the ruling capitalist world order. The higher calling is to be on the side of the people in the South, which in the long run leads to a more sustainable and peaceful world for all.