The “developing country” double standard

by David Week on 14 April 2012


This is a guest post by three authors: Tom Murphy, Carol Gallo and myself. It came from a conversation. Carol put the words together reporting that conversation, below:

Once upon a time, David Week read an article in The Washington Post which revealed that Washington lawmakers not only accepted donations from contributors with a stake in the passing of certain laws, but did so while in the process of actually drafting such legislation. Frustrated, he tweeted: “Why is this not called ‘corruption’?” Carol Gallo enlightened him: because it’s not Africa.

David and Carol, then and there, resolved to enlist the help of Tom Murphy and make a list of how the same behaviour is described differently depending on whether it occurs in Washington or in Africa. You know, like those lists of gender double standards in which the same behaviour might be described as “confident” in men and “pushy” in women.

In fact, all kinds of things are framed differently by Westerners depending on whether they occur in the “developed” world or that weird, dark, backward abyss. As Binyavanga Wainaina has famously demonstrated, the Dark Continent is still alive and well in the Western imagination.

So David, Carol, and Tom are pleased to poke fun at this whole farcical epistemology and present a short list of Washington-Africa double standards. Can you think of any others…?

What people might normally call itWhen it happens in WashingtonWhen it happens in Africa
Money received from political sponsorsCampaign contributionsBribes
Uneven spending on public services in different ethnic communitiesSocial injusticeTribalism
Seeking money in exchange for political influenceCampaign fundraisingRent seeking
Subservience to oil companiesEnergy policyControl by foreign interests
Political appointeesThe new administrationÕs teamCronyism
Political familiesTradition of public serviceNepotism
People driven from their homesHomelessnessDisplacement
No bid contractsNecessary expedienceCorrupt procurement
Government secrecyNational securityLack of transparency
Assistance to the poorWelfareAid
Internal security apparatusHomeland securitySecret police
Not funding public schools, health system, infrastructureSmall governmentUnderdevelopment
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  • Love the table. Working a few myself now, but this was the first one that came to mind:
    What people might normally call “organizational inefficiencies or ineffectiveness” is “bureaucracy” when it happens in Washington and is “lack of capacity” when it happens in Africa. I always find it ironic that donors and international NGOs rarely look to themselves or their systems as contributing to “fraud and embezzlement.” With heavy funding conditionalities and disproportionate/unequal overhead budgetary contributions, it’s no wonder that local groups must become financially “creative.” What’s more, where’s the self-reflection among international agencies about each layer of bureaucracy taking their share of aid funding before it ever reaches the ground?  

  • Normal: “organizational inefficiencies”
    Washington: “bureaucracy”
    Africa: “lack of capacity”

    That’s great. I look forward to more. 

    I’d be interested if anyone has studied local rates of pay for NGO local hires. NGO culture is such that pay rates may tend to be suppressed, and coupled with the traditional “international”/”local” division, they could be quite low.

    I’m interested is because one of the prime enablers of corruption is inadequate salaries. In many developing countries, government salaries are one-third to one-tenth of private sector equivalents. In such an inequitable situation, corruption can be easy to self-justify. But once one starts: why stop?

    I occasionally ask my government agency colleagues whether what they do if they were being paid 1/10th of what I was being paid ;-). I’ve yet to get an answer!

    • dsh

      for NGO local salary data, check out, if you haven’t already.  they’ve completed surveys with NGOs in about 30 countries and are working on another 20 or so.  quite costly to purchase the data though.

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