Anyone following current debates about our aid programme should remember the following rule of thumb for interpreting political discourse: once politicians and their ideological fellow travellers start attacking people who can’t fight back, it is a sure sign that they’ve run out of actual intellectual ammunition.
The classic example is beneficiary bashing. Government X implements poor macro-economic policy, unemployment rises as a result, and politicians from government X start blaming ‘dole-bludgers’ for being too lazy to get a job despite having had one until the very moment the economy started to tank. Beneficiaries tend to be poor and socially marginalised, and rarely afforded a chance to tell their side of the story in the media, so they’re a safe target.
Bureaucrat bashing is another example. Bureaucrats are neither poor nor socially marginalised, but are prevented by the Civil Service Code of Conduct from speaking out. Like beneficiaries, they’re also often the subject of negative public perceptions: inefficient and, well, bureaucratic. So they’re also safe targets.
From the start of his ‘reforms’ of our government aid programme, bureaucrat bashing has been a modus operandi for foreign minister Murray McCully and those who have sided with him. And so he has derided aid agency staffers (and possibly the New Zealand development community as a whole) with terms such as: “so-called development experts”, “desk jockeys” and “faceless, unelected, unaccountable, aid bureaucrats.”
In a recent article in the New Zealand Herald, which revealed that he was touring the New Zealand countryside discussing contracts for agricultural aid work in Afghanistan without input from aid agency staff, the Minister appeared to suggest that this was because his bureaucrats weren’t up to the task. In a similar vein last week, Maureen Duffy a former New Zealand army member, who has done aid logistics work, interviewed on National Radio suggested that New Zealand government aid agency staff could gain high level jobs with no more experience than that gained from a university degree.
This is all good political rhetoric. But it’s also wrong. Employees of the New Zealand government aid programme (in the spirit of full disclosure I was one of them for 18 months) are many things, but they’re not inexperienced. When I worked there the average aid programme staffer had ample experience. Some had been with the government aid programme for years, others had worked for many years in NGOs or for other government aid programmes, and quite a few had private sector experience. Many programme staff had spent considerable time living in developing countries involved in aid work. No one had gained high level jobs on the basis of nothing more than academic qualifications. When I worked there I was constantly aware of how little experience I had relative to most of my colleagues.
Far from being desk jockeys, they are conscientious, pragmatic and hard working. As for “so-called development experts”, forget about “so-called”. They are experts.
This doesn’t mean they’re always right. Or that our aid programme should never be subject to politically guided change. Yet it does mean that their opinions and knowledge are worthy of respect rather than derision.
Attacks on aid agency staff by Minister McCully and his allies may afford him some cover as he forces through his changes to the aid programme, but to anyone who pays attention to the culture of New Zealand politics, they suggest something else altogether: real justifications for recent changes to our aid programme are so thin on the ground that those seeking change are left resorting to insults. This isn’t how our country should be governed.