Cautious Hope

January 22, 2009

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time reading and writing about development theory lately but while I enjoyed and appreciated Obama’s speech today I couldn’t help but be reminded of another inauguration speech 60 years ago, that of Harry S. Truman.

This from Truman:
Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens.

And this from Obama:
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

These are ostensibly noble promises, acknowledging the needs of others and offering to help.  I certainly applaud the sentiment, particularly as am I often one of the first to complain that those who have the resources are not doing enough.
However things are never as simple as they seem.  Truman’s speech has been identified as the beginning of the ‘development era’, the decades following that speech giving rise to an unprecedented level of intervention by the West, particularly the United States, into the affairs of the so-called third world.  This intervention, while purportedly to help the third world to develop, to ‘catch up’ with the West, was never given out of a pure motivation to help, rather was given strategically as part of the cold war, and more recently the war on terror.  
Not only was the motivation for giving aid questionable, but the results have not been all that was promised.  That Obama should be promising more help to people in poor nations is testament to the fact that 50 years of ‘development’ around the globe has not lead to any significant lessening of poverty and suffering.  Aid has been appropriated by the powerful in many places, it has propped up dictators, stirred up civil wars and forced open domestic markets to the wolves of international trade.  It has come with all manner of strings attached, strings manipulated by the powerful to their own advantage.  
My fervent hope is that whatever ‘help’ Obama is promising is different.  I hope that when he says the US will “work alongside you” that he truly means that.  I am encouraged that he acknowledges that the rich can no longer “consume the world’s resources without regard to effect”. But I am cautious.  As with Truman’s speech, Obama’s offer comes wrapped in American rhetoric, that certainty that the United States has the answer and that it is thier job to lead the rest of us.  Although I am grateful that there was somewhat less of this than there was with Bush, there is still the faint air of US imperialism hanging about. While it would certainly be wonderful to have the resources of the United States to address the problems of poverty in this world, it will not be true help if it comes with strings attached to US interests.
Despite this caution, I stand with my friends, both in the USA and globally, in hope.  Obama may not be the saviour of the world but his election is historic and of immense importance within the US, and is a beacon of possibility for the rest of the world after years of watching US imperialism at work.  I hope there will be change, I hope there will be good change.
(cross-posted on developing? – my new research blog)

3 Responses to “Cautious Hope”

  1. jayy. Says:

    I hope right along with you,
    hopefully the economy changes

  2. lvmg (Lizzy) Says:

    Very interesting, thoughtful post. My hopes are tempered by the fear of disappointment, but I console myself ahead of time by remembering that anything Obama does that I may disagree with could never be half as rotten as any of the thigs that Bush has done!

  3. Sharon Says:

    Thanks jayy and Lizzy for your comments. Lizzy- I am very aware that there is little that Obama can do that would come close to what has been done the past eight years. I came close to not posting this as my main reaction to the inauguration was relief and it feels a bit odd to critique at this point. But obviously I do have my reservations, I’ll be watching the Obama administration with interest.

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