Get the Human Person Right, Get Development Right

If you had a plumber who, after decades of being called to fix your pipes, could not stop them from leaking, would you keep paying him?

I can hear your answer: “Decades? I would have replaced him immediately.” Sure. But what if he was the only one available? “I would find a way to do the work myself. I would find out who has working plumbing and do what they do.”

That sounds pretty reasonable. What does not sound reasonable is continuing to pay for services whose only consistent features are failure and great expense. And it would be of little consolation to the owner of the flooded basement that the only plumbers available had good intentions.

Which is why anyone who studies the multibillion dollar “aid” and “development” industry — which is funded by our tax dollars and by billionaire philanthropists — eventually arrives at the same questions: What, exactly, are we taxpayers paying for? That is, why do we finance an inept and corrupt industry that has for decades enriched thousands of consultants, bureaucrats, politicians and well-placed businessmen, but has done almost nothing to secure prosperity for so many nations of the southern hemisphere?

I have a further question: What if the industry isn’t actually about creating development and prosperity in the nations where the work actually happens? What if, despite the sincere good intentions of many engaged in the work of international development, the whole approach is wrong? And if it is, how did it get that way?

Of all the answers now widely available to these common sense questions, I would like to focus on one that gets precious little consideration. The fact is that the modern development industry is about controlling poor countries, not liberating them from poverty. This is true despite the fact that most involved in this work are likely genuinely committed to the idea of uplifting those who are poor for reasons beyond their own control. That’s how broken the development and aid industry is.

How could this disconnect between intentions and outcomes in international development become so widespread and so institutionalized?

To borrow a popular political cliché: It’s the anthropology, stupid.

If your understanding of the human person is wrong, your prescriptions for his flourishing, or even mere development, will be wrong. Perhaps even disastrously so.

This is not a revolutionary idea. Experts from across the political spectrum acknowledge the failure of the 100s of billions spent in international “aid” to secure real development in poorer nations. Yet despite all the talk about “change” in this industry, the ideology of the primary players — billionaire philanthropists and wealthier nations’ governments — remains the same, so change remains a distant possibility rather than a reality.

The most disastrous element of this ideology, and the clearest example of the flawed anthropology at the root of the problem, is the idea that people — read: children — are the problem. And because this destructive assumption has for a long time been settled wisdom in this industry, the “new” solutions — always technological in nature — continue to miss the mark of development, even if there are at times improvements in certain areas such as disease prevention and microfinance.

nssmcoverI was able to talk about this briefly with Teresa Tomeo at the March for Life, but our conversation was too short: The idea that “people are the problem” became official policy in the United States in 1974 with a confidential security memorandum written by then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Declassified in 1989, the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) presented a case for the United States to suppress the population of poor nations in the name of national security. After all, the US was growing, too, and we are going to need the undeveloped natural resources in these countries. The document is still available on the USAID web site to this day.

It’s interesting to read the document today and see how it really has guided so much of US foreign policy — particularly the fact that almost all of the “aid” we give to poor nations comes with “sexual rights and reproductive health” strings attached. Also interesting is its recommendation that the US work through other non-governmental organizations and give credit to in-country leaders to avoid creating the impressions of coercion and imperialism.

HLI’s missionaries see this imperialism up close on a regular basis, where a country’s health ministers publish policy documents with “reproductive health” and “safe motherhood” language that is nearly identical to similar documents throughout the developing world — language developed in London, Geneva, New York, and Washington D.C. rather Manila, Kampala, and San Salvador.

NSSM 200 really is a remarkable document in many ways, especially in that it is still made available by the agency that would today deny that its “encouragement” of “reproductive health progress” in poor nations has anything to do with securing access to these nations’ resources. Yet it’s right there in black and white. And when these agencies and their NGO partners point to the “success” of their work, they cannot point to genuine sustained advancements in overall well-being. They only have falling fertility rates, an enormous number of well-paid “partners,” and ballooning budgets of which to boast.

It’s the anthropology, stupid. Every human person regardless of his race or nation of origin is made in the image of God, and is made to flourish precisely to the extent that he conforms himself, his family, and his society to the law of nature and nature’s God. Where this law is rejected or unknown we find war, famine, social breakdown, and debilitating poverty. When prosperous nations who were built on principles in accordance with natural law have turned away from God, as we see in so much of the “developed world,” you see the same breakdowns, though with wealth some of the effects are mitigated for a while. On the contrary, as Pope Benedict put it:

Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. (Caritas in veritate, n. 28)

I bring all this up today because I think in the current political climate we may have an opportunity to do something remarkable, though it would come with a price. Truth is like that. The further you are from it, the more painful the return.

First, we must support the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. If enacted, this would cut off virtually all funding for Planned Parenthood, and would make permanent the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits federal funding for international NGOs who perform or promote abortion. Already having passed the House, it does not have enough support in the Senate. Let’s see what we can do about that.

Second, it is time to fully open up the records and history of USAID. Make it available for researchers, and let’s see what billions of our tax dollars have been doing around the world for the last several decades. Let the American people decide if the billions given to this agency over the years have proven a good investment.

And let us say it over and over again until it is universally recognized as true: People are the solution, not the problem. To be even more precise, a Person is the solution, Jesus Christ, and those who follow Him are given the gifts needed for true flourishing here and eternal happiness hereafter. The problem is sin, especially in ideologies that institutionalize sin and make it a fact of life for too many people, trapping them in dehumanizing conditions. Human liberty, exercised with virtue and upheld in the family and other social institutions, has led to the only true sustainable development the world has ever seen.

We are made in the image of our loving Creator, made to give of ourselves to one another. We are made to flourish, made to be generous with our gifts, especially the gift of life. Let’s make these basic truths the basis of our efforts to help those who are stuck in truly debilitating poverty, and reject once and for all the idea that the destruction of babies in the womb will somehow make us prosper.

5 thoughts on “Get the Human Person Right, Get Development Right

  1. Thank you Father for that information! People are a solution! May God protect you and bless the work you are doing! Am praying that Neil Gorsuch be the judge.

  2. Unfortunately you could make the same comment about several truly Catholic programs in our own country that have been in progress for years and yet have failed to make a noticeable dent in the problems they are trying to address. I am thinking of the missionary work to the native Americans as one example. It is not just the people, but also the culture. It is clearly not primarily a race issue as one has to look only as far as Appalachia to debunk that silly idea.

    1. I think this has to do with the fact that many Catholic programs have entwined themselves with government programs in order to receive government funding. While the intent of working together toward a common goal is good, the fact remains that if you take government money, you’re going to have to accept government guidelines and you’ll probably absorb government methods and attitudes.

  3. Thank you for this right perspective on the goodness of persons. I am a protestant with strong Catholic leanings (and 8 wonderful children!). I have been working in my community through using Neighborhood Transformation, a version of Community Health Evangelism overseas, for several years. I think that the Community Health Evangelism training also elucidated some of the problems of aid overseas- and they do come back to respecting persons. Whether in the US or overseas, programs which impose outside solutions without community buy-in never do to well. The book When Helping Hurts brings to light a good number of aid blunders done by protestant missions. Turning these missions around has been a huge effort ( Community Health Evangelism is an outgrowth of people applying principles in this book). The book would have some thoughtful ideas for Catholic missions as well. Peace of the Lord Jesus, Rebecca

  4. Father, I am reading through the document you linked by Kissinger. Around page 36 (of 123) – it is not paginated, but marked confidential- he makes the argument that due to climatic cooling trends, cereal grains may fail:
    “There is great uncertainty whether the conditions for achieving food balance in the LDCs
    can in fact be realized. Climatic changes are poorly understood, but a persistent atmospheric
    cooling trend since 1940 has been established. One respectable body of scientific opinion
    believes that this portends a period of much wider annual frosts, and possibly a long-term
    lowering of rainfall in the monsoon areas of Asia and Africa”

    People just want to push people around, and if we can use ‘predictive science’ to do it, all the more effective.

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