The social impact of development aid in developing countries

impact of development aid
© Inge Hogenbijl

Sato Kan Hiroshi from the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan, charts research activities concerning the social impact of development aid in developing countries

Delivering Development aid is described as “international development (ID)” in many Western countries. The World Bank’s International Development Association includes ID in its name. Some bilateral aid agencies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden all use ID for USAID, DFID and SIDA. On the other hand, aid agencies in Japan and South Korea prefer the term international cooperation (IC), and both JICA and KOICA have an IC, not an ID. Chinese aid agency (the China International Development Cooperation Agency – CIDCA) established in 2018 bears both ID and IC.

Development aid & promoting modernisation

As a development sociologist, I have been studying the social impact of development aid projects in developing countries for 40 years. I am interested in the difference between ID and IC, and I think this difference seems to reflect the sensitivity of non-Western societies’ resistance to imposed development: in another word to industrialisation, modernisation and Westernisation. Most of the development aid projects promoted by UN agencies and bilateral donor agencies are aimed at “modernisation” in a broad sense. Regardless of whether it is called human development or economic development, project goals are set as “becoming like a developed country.” The developed countries or industrialised countries are mostly Western origin countries. They are also traditional donors (as original OECD Members) and used to be colonial states. In colonial days, they develop colonies based on national interests. After the independence of the colonies, it turned to be “international development”, but the aim remained the same; to imitate the mother country.

On the other hand, East Asian donors have different histories. Japan, for example, started modernisation later than Western countries and encountered socio-cultural challenges: the challenge of Westernisation. In the process of rapid industrialisation and catching up with western powers, the most effective way was imitating the West. However, traditional society showed a lot of resistance and rejection in the process of modernisation. Korea, China and other Asian countries have come through similar experiences. Therefore, while Western donors tried to promote single-track international development aiming to “become like themselves”, but East Asian donors would seek a way of modernisation, “not the same as Western countries”.

Because each society in developing countries has a different social system and structure from Western societies, “modernisation” can be diverse depending on the original society. Therefore, development aid cannot be achieved without the “cooperation” of donors and recipients. Development aid projects inherently aim to introduce foreign systems, and people in the local community often instinctively try to resist them. Not everyone is willing to accept “Westernisation”. Reaction will be more hostile when it connotes “Christianisation”.

Even with development aid aimed at purely materialistic goals such as “economic development,” “industrialisation,” and “export promotion,” the impact does not stay only in the economic domain but inevitably expands to social impact. Therefore, understanding local society and its knowledge about developing are crucial. How can we know this?

Rise in development aid & decline in local research activities

In traditional development projects, experts from the suzerain should have come to guide the local people just like missionary activities. Once the colony becomes independent, the local government is expected to “sit (in) the driver’s seat” of development activities. However, the project will not proceed unless there are people in the field who have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Therefore, the local elite who went to study abroad in the former suzerain played important roles.

As a result, when a development aid project is introduced, employment opportunities will come to local university professors, consulting companies and NGOs. Many of the people who grab these opportunities have experience studying abroad in Europe and the United States. Therefore, they can act as a competent agent of donor experts, not as a representative of the local people.

About 20 years ago, it was fashionable to set PIUs (Project Implementation Units) locally for development projects by the World Bank and the United Nations, and local talented people were hired as consultants to manage the projects. Since PIU is funded by the donor, salaries are much higher in comparison with local standards. As a result, promising local government officials were often pulled out. But the project ends in a few years. After the project is over, many of them will not return to low-paying civil servants and will look for jobs as staff on another aid project. The same thing happens to local university staff. University faculty members cannot live on a low salary, so they will contract as consultants and advisors for development aid projects, that is the only way to stabilise their lives. The faculty members in the Faculty of Engineering and Economics are constantly in good demand. As the number of social development projects increased in the 1990s, faculty members in the Faculty of Sociology also had opportunities for side jobs.

Nowadays, economists and sociologists conduct various surveys at the request of the donors, but in many cases, uniform and internationally comparable quantitative surveys tend to be preferred. A Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) is a typical example. Since RCT surveys are expensive, researchers in developing countries are very grateful to be able to conduct surveys with donor funds. However, while such quantitative surveys are becoming more popular, donors do not pay much attention to qualitative surveys that are closely related to people’s lives. As a result, research carefully investigates the actual state of society in a rural area or urban slums to be overwhelmed. This is less favourable for long-term national policy-making.

Comparison of development sociology in Asian countries

The author is currently collaborating with Asian sociologists to conduct a comparative study of the curriculum of development sociology in each Asian country. The final result hasn’t come out yet, but a very interesting point has already emerged. There are very few Asian universities, including in Japan, that explicitly have a course called development sociology. Development economics is the mainstream of development-related disciplines in every country, and it seems that economists have many opportunities to be involved in national development strategies Although many universities have a developmental sociology curriculum in the sociology department, it seems that most of the textbooks are basically from the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the case of Japan, rural sociology based on the Country’s modernisation process has been developed, but this researcher is rarely involved in the international development and aid project outside Japan. In other countries, there are not many curriculums that teach their own development history. However, in anthropology, there are many researchers who are particularly working on the development issues of ethnic minorities and marginalised populations.

As a side job of a University Professor, it can be seen in every country to be involved in the development aid project sponsored by foreign donors. On the other hand, there are also

sociologists in Thailand and the Philippines who are engaged in anti-development activities with civil society groups (NGOs).

Many Asian countries are now on the road to middle-income states, but there are still many poor people in each country. Aid projects are still needed for the domestic poor, it is becoming more and more important to promote research by local researchers rather than a uniform menu of huge statistics. That is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which declares the importance of “leaving no one left behind.”


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