An Outsider’s Insider Perspective

1 November 2017

Aside from their own personal and professional life, expats also write down their observations of the foreign countries they are residing in. This way, they provide an interesting outsider’s perspective on the local politico-economic situation and culture. But perhaps this is not the best way to describe their accounts. After all, most of them have spent multiple years in the same location. This has allowed them, if they were willing to learn of course, to acquire some understanding of the local circumstances. Studying their descriptions can therefore help to enhance our knowledge of the world outside our own neighbourhood. This might even prove useful for grandstanding schemes like developing policies.

One of the EAC’s documents illustrates how an in-depth knowledge of the local situation is necessary to coordinate, for example, the delivery of aid to another nation. This is a report written by a Dutch cultural anthropologist, about the situation in Bangladesh in the 1970s. This woman’s work had brought her to a small Bangladeshi village, where she lived among the local population in order to make observations. Her frequent contacts with them led her to amass an impressive amount of knowledge on their customs, society and culture. When the Bangladesh War of Independence eventually forced her to leave the country in the early 1970s, she continued to observe the developments concerning the newly created nation.

Four years after Bangladesh became independent, she wrote this report, to reflect on the country’s condition. Unfortunately, she painted a very grim picture of the situation. Both the natural disasters and the subsequent war of independence had ravaged the country. Furthermore, reconstruction was slow to follow, with not a single new factory opened or industry created in the last four years. In the same period, the prices increased six-fold. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in widespread poverty, with much of the population losing access to even the most basic needs. When news of Bangladesh’s predicament reached the rest of the world, it caused a massive increase in foreign aid allocated to the region.

In this same report, however, our expat was highly critical of the attempts by the western world to improve the country’s situation. She characterised the aid as dysfunctional and ill-adjusted to the local situation. According to her, most of the aid was so-called ‘emergency aid,’ which is aimed at solving an immediate crisis, mostly by handing out goods like food and medicine. Her critique was not only that the distribution of goods was almost exclusively focused on a small area around the capital (thus ignoring a large part of the population), but also that help of this kind did little to improve Bangladesh’s situation on the long term.

The reason for the second point of critique had everything to do with the local situation. In their eagerness to help, as the author claimed, the donors had flooded some of the poorest sections of the population with food and medicine which were unavailable even to the Bangladeshi upper classes. While seemingly a generous gesture, in fact it caused damage to the recovery of the country on the long-term. This is because it gave those affected by the aid little incentive to change their situation. After all, they were now receiving goods for free, of a higher quality than they could ever aspire to obtain on their own. Moreover, the seemingly random preference for certain sections of the capital’s poorest had alienated much of the country’s establishment, which now showed little interest in other developmental projects. The author therefore concluded that the emergency aid was actually slowing down developments on the long term, without really solving the problems on the short term.

With some insight in the local structures and economic situation, a dysfunctional situation like this could probably have been prevented. If this report is correct, the western donor nations’ actions contributed little to a sustainable solution, despite their best intentions. Studying others’ accounts of foreign locations may thus even have its benefits outside of an academic environment. Continuing to enhance our knowledge of the rest of the world is therefore of critical importance. Doing this might even help us to prevent debacles like this.

Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)