28 August 2012

羽翼已成 (Wings fully grown)

Sir Nick Young, OBE, at the China Development Brief has a very broad-ranging, constructive and thoughtful critique of non-governmental organisations and foreign aid in China. For one thing (though such a characterisation hardly does it justice), it studiously avoids both the tired old Hudge and Gudge (or, should I say, ‘He and Ge 何與葛’?) critiques of aid which are sadly still all too common in development parlance, and places a deliberate focus on the ‘homegrown’ aspect of civil society which a right-thinking distributist ought to admire as well as on the correct relationship between civil society and government which ought to be the concern not just of distributists but also of, for example, Tocquevillean liberals. (And the fact that he favourably cites the work of Cambridge University institutional economist Dr Chang Ha-Joon in his section on the Washington Consensus and modernisation theory very much further endears him to me.)

The policy brief is very much worth reading in full, but to sum up, Sir Young is much concerned with setting out a proper history of development aid in China, and from there using the history to set out his major criticisms. These have to do (roughly) with a.) the degree to which adoption of foreign-imported institutions (and, to a lesser extent, technologies) is possible and desirable; b.) the historical differences in policy approach between countries which have toed the Washington Consensus line and those (like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) which were more flexible, and the degree of success in each model; c.) the role of NGOs in challenging, carrying out and being shaped by official, neoliberal aid policy on the donor front; and d.) the nature of the relationship between ‘governance’, ‘government’ and ‘civil society’ on the recipient front (including whether or not the role of ‘civil society’ is always to oppose ‘government’ power and interference). The gist of his argument carries several shades of nuance, but Sir Young does take note that (firstly) as a result of several economic sea-changes, the amount of foreign aid which goes to China from OECD nations is likely to decline, and with it the foreign-funded sections of the ‘civil society’ are likely to dwindle. In their place, though, NGOs which have managed to find and cultivate a sustainable local funding base may find their wings fully grown (羽翼已成, to quote the Chinese aphorism), and are likely to take up the slack. There is reason to hope, furthermore, that these NGOs will, once freed from a Western paradigm in which ‘civil society’ serves a ‘regime change’ function of agitation against government, be able to scout their own way forward - neither dependent on government nor actively seeking to undermine it. And government will respond by lightening up their suspicions of civil society as an instrument of foreign-imposed political instability (a topic on which the Chinese have good historical reasons to be concerned).

This last thought seems to be the punchline of the brief, and there is much in it that strikes me as both intuitive and true. But I would like to see it further fleshed-out, perhaps in further briefs. China Development Brief is certainly something to check back on!

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