Monday, 5 December 2011

Development Projects Shot Down

Amongst the huge backlog of periodicals I am currently skimming my way through is an issue of Target, the quarterly magazine of aid agency TEAR Australia, which celebrates 40 years of TEAR's operation.  We've been supporting TEAR for almost 30 of those 40 years, signing up as soon as we had an income in 1983.  I love the way TEAR has always focused on working with people and local agencies, and held to its dual role of supporting and empowering people in the third world where the problems are experienced, and working for change in the first world where most of them are caused.

Deborah Storie's editorial provides food for thought.

We have a lot to celebrate!  Yet over recent decades, if conversations linger and range broadly enough, a darker shadow story is also told.  Despite all their achievements, people testify that their lives are harder and more precarious, or that they are worried about the future.  Why?  Common themes across countries and regions emerge.  People speak of losing access to natural resources: land, forests and water.  They say the weather is changing, rainfall is less reliable, harvests are disappointing and severe weather events are more frequent....  People speak of fear and of violence, of conscription and coercion, of looting, rape and death, of soldiers, police and militia, of guns.  Conflict and militarisation are increasing.

I wondered: are they?  Or is this just people's impression, current problems looming larger than past ones?  I remember quite vividly a project from my early days as a TEAR supporter.  They had a system where you could follow a particular project closely, getting regular updates on progress and analysis of results.  We followed a project called Vision Terudo in Uganda.  It was a classic and very effective community development project, run by a church-based regional organisation in Uganda employing local people, doing a variety of community development projects focused on things like health, food security, reforestation, and capacity building.  Results were good, people's lives were clearly improved. 

However, it didn't provide the warm assurance of progress we had been hoping and praying for, because after we had followed for a while the whole thing was wiped out in one night of violence with the onset of civil war.  Participants were killed, crops destroyed, livestock stolen, staff had to flee for their lives.  It certainly gave us an education in the precariousness of life in Uganda, but it was hard not to give up in despair.

Is it any worse now?  Has militarisation and violence really increased?  I asked Google, and it led me to the website of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the revealing graph below showing military spending, in 2009 US dollar values, from 1988 to 2010. 

So the short answer is "yes", but the long answer is both more interesting and more depressing.  From the end of the 1980s, with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War, global military spending declined substantially, from over $1.4 trillion US in 1988 to just over $962b in 1998.  Remember the "Peace Dividend"?  Yet since then, the trend has been all upwards as the potent combination of militant Islam and concern over control of the world's diminishing oil reserves has raised the global temperature.   By 2008 spending was back at its 1988 level and it has kept growing.

Of course the USA is the main culprit here by a huge margin, accounting for almost half of global arms spending and more than half the increase since 1998.  However, the rest of us are also in on the act.  Only Central and Western Europe have shown no significant increase since 1998.  Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania (in which Australia is the dominant power) and the Middle East have all shown increases of between one third and half in real terms since 1998.

No wonder we are fearful for the future.  Our looming ecological crisis means the need to work together is more urgent than ever.  We need global trust and cooperation to manage the transition to low carbon economies and renewable energy, and to halt the destruction of ecosystems and natural resources.  Yet we are busy tooling up for more war, eyeing each other across increasingly tense borders.  Can we pull back from this rearmament, or will we solve our ecological arguments through war and conquest?

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