Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Monday, 1 April 2013

A War on Migration – International Development as Containment Policy

People on the move.  Looking for a better life.  Willing to leave the kisses of their children for months, years, maybe forever.  Migrants.  Immigrants.  The real movers and shakers of the world.
Whoa down!  Not so easy.  Can’t just have all these people running around without some kind of order.  What about security, economic order, even maintaining ethnic purity?  One answer, early twentieth century:  passports.
Along that same vein of thinking and as the century progressed, states instituted increasing degrees of control over the movement of people, ideas, and goods.  These ideas included, for the US, containment policy, which, with the best of intentions, would protect us all from communism.  Another idea was international development.
The growth of international development as an institution paralleled containment policy.  Both born in the 1950’s or so, the idea of containment was initiated by a fellow named George Kennan, quickly followed by the Truman Doctrine.  On their tailcoats came the creation of the Peace Corps, approved by John F. Kennedy.  Both focussed on containing people.  On one hand, communists.  On the other hand, all those rebellious poor and potential migrants from poor countries.
The problem of all those unruly ‘movers and shakers’ was exacerbated by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and continued expansion of a globalized economy.  Globalization, while great for corporate interests, especially the international mobility of finance and capital resources, also stirs up people.  You know, people, too, like to be mobile.
International development and containment policy suffer an apparent contradiction.  It is largely accepted that, in principle, development promotes the concept of the democratic state in which it seeks justice and qualitative improvements in the human condition.  These improvements are especially focussed on those with the least access to finance, capital resources, and means of mobility.
However, the development industry also accepts, or only mildly refutes, the basic tenets of globalization like market liberalism, assumptions of economic scarcity and competition, and materialism.  In theory market liberalism is innately egalitarian, that is, it harbours no human prejudices.  There is an assumption of a kind of equality.  We hear  expressions such as an equal playing field and comparative advantage.
It is well documented that the reality is quite different.  In practice, the development industry is party to a structural disparity between the world’s poor and wealthy.  Disparity means some have stuff and a lot of other folks do not.  You have it, I do not, I do everything possible to follow the rules to get there, I can’t, I get pissed off.  Structural disparity is responsible for degradation in general, of the economy, of the environment, of living conditions, and the many kinds of political and physical violence which many people suffer.
Not far from almost any development professional’s thought is a quantitative problem: tensions arise between economic classes where capital resources are proportionally diminishing and where the numbers of humans are increasing.  Competitive tensions lead to many of the world’s contemporary woes.  In general, this is understood to be a problem of economic scarcity to be treated with market liberalization, that is, intervention and barriers should be minimalized so that scarcity can be treated by comparative advantage and other laissez faire mechanisms of the market.  Translated into lay terms this means to withdraw politically as far as possible from economic activity, allow people to be free to buy and sell as they please, social problems will generally work themselves out.  The quantitative problem remains: how to create more wealth to satisfy more people out of fixed resources in finite material and biological world.
Oddly, mobility and migration are assumed fundamentals to any liberal economy.  Actually, it could be said that mobility is the primary device of free trade.  Money can be invested anywhere.  Technology can be relocated.  People can migrate.
So, too, does the idea of growth underpin liberal economy.  Herein lies a complication.  Having accepted liberalized trade and globalization, one also must accept consumption, unlimited wants, profit, and, in the end, the inevitable competitive growth.  Hmmm.  Increasing numbers of people.  Resources, both renewable and non-renewable, diminishing proportionately and absolutely.  This is what we call a no-brainer.  A present, palpable, and profound problem.  Growth in a no growth world.  The planet is not getting any bigger.  Non-economic competitive tensions are unavoidable.  Mobility necessarily becomes a political issue.
Can’t just have anybody migrating, now, can we?
The development industry presents a rarefied, monolithic perspective on the world.  We are always doing such good.  Health improvements.  Emergency relief.  Mining companies cooperating with community workers.  We have such lovely words like micro-credit, gender, sustainability, partnerships, entrepreneurialism, eco-tourism, capacity building, strategic planning, management by results.  We also offer that funny thing called hope.  Promises of improved soil fertility, renewed forests, democratic reform, peace, equal rights between women and men.  Nice ideas, but why always somewhere in the future?
By and large, international development institutions operate in any country they choose.  They rarely, if ever, pay local taxes.  They are not elected bodies.  They are free to move as they wish.  Obligations are short term, confined to projects, nothing to do with governments, votes, or local taxes.  Financial resources are spent on themselves and the administration of their activities.  Meetings, conferences, annual leave, trainings, contract travel expenses.
Actually, essential to the business of development is the mobility of development itself.  Development is free of the constraints of any specific constituency and, therefore, free of democratic constraints.  Development simply operates as it wishes.
Development institutions contain people.  They promote the organisation of people into tiny collectives, like village groups or interest groups.  These lack size, political status, or the resources to develop independent polities or economies.
Development institutions contain ideas.  Ideas are discussed and legitimized within the walls of their own profession.
Development institutions contain the autonomous evolution of economies.  The institutions flood local economies with cheap credit and technologies.  They steer access to capital resources and production toward a world economy.
Development institutions contain societies.  They co-opt as a universal cause the ideas of indigenous rights and traditional ways of life.  They treat the traditional as a thing to be conserved.  They imprison peoples with development’s own ideas and theories of gender equality, civil society, and democracy.  Pluralism is neutered.
International development, as containment policy, serves to diffuse unrest and immobilize poorer populations while an ever evolving global elite consolidates power.


  1. Hi, I was simply checking out this blog and I really admire the premise of the article and this is really informative. I will for sure refer my friends the same. Thanks
    International Shipping

    1. Hi Jim. Thanks for the feedback. There is a kind of mythology about mobility. My normal experience, shared by many others, is that you can just hop on a plane and pretty much go anywhere you like. The impression of mobility is enhanced by the streaming of images and stories from other places through all our various media. Actually, it seems that only some 3% of the total human population every migrates permanently. Others move around a lot, but not far and not for long periods of time. It is odd how even 3% requires so many controls in this world.

      Thanks again. JP