A very remarkable feature of independent Asia is the growth and rapid proliferation of a new phenomenon – national mendicancy. The begging bowl and the outstretched palm have been symbols of the Orient for over 2,000 years. But they have always been symbolic of individual penury. In the first decade of Asian independence, mendicancy has been raised to a national scale – The Brown Sahib-Tarzie Vittachi (1962)
Understandably, every social/political activist will oppose an aid-package that carries an implication adverse to the sovereignty of the country. No one likes an intruder, even if he bears gifts, and it is in the nature of the world that men as well as nations, resent a benefactor.
Although only a handful can claim first-hand knowledge of the proposed compact (if the complete agreement is finalised), many already have decided that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is in its essence, harmful to the country’s interests, hides under its cloak imperialists and military ambitions of the United States.
What we lack in depth of expertise in other areas of human endeavour, we more than make up in ‘strategic political/military’ thinking. Many local thinkers have discovered in the scheme, deeply embedded stratagems for the mighty American business/military machine to operate unopposed in designated areas of Sri Lanka.
Accordingly, they discern in the proposed MCC agreement, many long-term strategic objectives; to stalemate China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a southern rampart on a potentially powerful India, exploiting of Sri Lanka’s natural wealth and a greater presence in the Indian Ocean being some of the findings offered by our thinkers.
Among the other countries qualified for MCC aid are Benin, Honduras, Armenia, Burkina Faso, Jordan, Malawi, Namibia and Vanuatu. Going by the logic of our ‘thinkers’, America, has military and economic designs on these countries. We need not be among them. For a country that showed so much promise at independence in 1948, it is no honour to now stand with them, waiting for the money.
Going by what is available on websites, the MCC is the result of a push by President George Bush Jr. (2001-09) to reorient American aid programmes. Many critics had pointed out the weaknesses of the existing aid structure, led by USAID, underlining its ineffectiveness and perceived political bias. Despite large sums of dollars being thrown in, the recipient countries were yet caught in the poverty trap, the aid money misspent or abused.
Under the MCC concept, the recipient country had to bid for the aid, qualifying on the basis of their record of (or even attempt at) good governance and sound economic policy. There are a number of threshold criteria which the recipient country must meet, and these selection qualifications are assessed by independent agencies such as the World Bank Institute, UNESCO, WHO and the Freedom House. The project proposal is to be developed by the recipient, which then will be co-advanced with the MCC team.
The experiences gained from our home-grown aid programs like the ‘rice- ration book’, food subsidies, ‘Janasaviya’ ‘Samurdhi’ ‘the Rs. 5,000 during the COVID-19 lockdown’, would show that ‘giving’ is not all that simple. Charity has its critics who will point out the bias, corruption and the abuse inevitable in the system. Invariably, the government in power will attempt to gain political mileage through their act of charity. With time, the programs are found wanting, and replaced with new schemes and concepts.
Clearly, no aid-program is run with the intention of keeping the recipient in a permanent state of want. Fundamentally, aid is a temporary measure to enable the recipient to stand on his own feet at a determinable time.
Foreign aid is no different. Unlike your own, a foreign country is under no obligation to provide aid to another. Often, when giving such aid, the donor country, apart from their foreign policy/security imperatives, if necessary, insists on awarding the procurement of material and work contracts to their own companies. This is not difficult to understand. For example, India surely will not give us development aid, if we award the resulting contracts to Pakistan! When it comes to foreign aid, it is difficult to imagine an infinitely benign donor or a faultless recipient.
In this part of the world, Singapore stands as an exceptional example of a near hopeless situation turned into a dazzling economic success. I learnt recently that Singapore always followed a policy of eschewing foreign aid; they will develop their country by their own efforts. To take such a standpoint, as much as pride, discipline is called for.
Today, the tiny island republic maintains relations with about 180 countries. But Singapore has very few embassies overseas. Led by an intelligent and pragmatic leadership, the country will not spend its money on diplomatic spectacles, for the sake of show. Given its small size, Singapore has decided its priorities lie elsewhere.
We are in a different reality, groaning under a heavy debt burden, made worse every day, by uncontrolled spending.
Talking about the MCC program, a political wag advanced an interesting point of view. He says all this talk of losing sovereignty in a swath of the country is mere hyperbole. If America promises dual citizenship to all those resident in this stretch of land, there will be near unanimous approval for the project. This is what we are, the undifferentiated crowd has one common factor; economic welfare.
It used to be that for intellectual sustenance, if not bread and butter, one must go West. Now, after 70 years of independence; our dignity, safety and even sanity seems so interwoven with the Westward ho.