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President Obama addressed The United Nations earlier today (Wednesday) to announce a continued, if more vigilant, U.S. commitment to provide foreign aid to developing countries ( http://www.denverpost.com/ci_16141218). Way back in the last millennium, I was a student of Development (political, economic, cultural), and the various competing theories (Modernization, Dependency, World Systems). Modernization theorists tended to see nations as autonomous units, undergoing their own history, developing or not developing according to their own endogenous variables. Dependency and World Systems theories saw the world as more tightly intertwined, the relations among them affecting the fate of each.

The descriptive value of Dependency and World Systems theories is hard to deny: Due to client state and economic dependency relations to powerful nations, the small ruling classes in less developed nations are, more often than not, in either explicit or implicit league with the larger wealthy classes in some more developed nations, benefiting together as islands of wealth and comfort in a sea of suffering. To be sure, that’s not the whole story: Nationalism and other allegiances exist as well, with the ruling classes in those less developed nations generally identifying more with their own people of their own class at home than with those of their own class abroad, and sometimes even with the poor of their own country more than the rich of others. There are cross-cutting solidarities involved.

And it is overly simplistic to argue that the poverty of much of the world is a direct artifact of the wealth of some enclaves. Much of that poverty is, in reality, due to a lack of indigenous development, and would have existed with or without the rise of other wealthy and powerful nations. It’s also important to recognize that, in some ways, “a rising tide” really does “raise all ships”, and the wealth and institutional and technological innovations of the developed world have contributed positively as well as negatively to the development of less developed countries.

It’s hard to measure exactly to what extent that’s the case, and to what extent the rise of the European world empire did indeed suppress development elsewhere. Certainly, the history of colonization, of imposing inequitable trade relations, of dismantling sometimes diverse and vibrant indigenous economies in order to turn whole countries into plantations growing low value-added tropical crops and primary natural resources for the benefit of the lords across the seas or to the north, has to at least some extent exerted a suppressive developmental force on the late-comers. There is some mixture of both truths in play.

But let’s look at the world through the Dependency lens for a moment. We can as easily see the world as one divided by separate international classes as one divided by national boundaries. And a comparison of modern history to Medieval and ancient history bears out such a view. Ruling classes within nations or continental cultures developed historically from the descendants of warriors becoming landed nobility on the estates that their ancestors stole in conquest, with the former inhabitants reduced to serfdom. And global ruling classes began developing in the early modern era when European conquistadors found new lands to conquer, new native inhabitants to reduce to serfdom or other forms of marginalization, and new expropriated wealth to enjoy as a result. Our smug (and historically conveniently amnesiatic) belief that our relative wealth has no connection to the relative poverty of others in our own and other lands is simply not borne out by an honest survey of world history.

And that’s why foreign aid, and much else about the modern world, reminds me a bit of a scene from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Madame Defarge, eager to spill the blood of any members of the hated aristocracy, was testifying at the trial of innocent aristocrat Charles Darnay during The French Revolution, recounting how Charles’ father had once carelessly run over and killed a peasant child with his carriage, and stopped to toss the distraught parent a coin. Needless to say, Charles was sentenced to be guillotined, a fate only averted by his look-alike barrister, the down-and-out Sydney Carton, who redeemed his own squandered life by taking Charles’ place, and thus doing “a far, far better thing than (he) had ever done before.”

As Charles Dickens said of that era in his opening lines of the novel:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Some things never change.

The only thing uglier than tossing the peasant parent a coin after running over her child is having your hand held back by a member of your household in the moment of doing so, admonished not to waste “our” hard earned cash on such lazy riff-raff.

I don’t know the answers to the vexing problems of our age. Development happens when and where it happens for reasons other than foreign aid, and independently of most of our theories. Some have successfully instituted export-driven growth, finding niche markets, and developing on the capital thus generated. Others have successfully leveraged the wealth derived from natural resource endowments. Occasionally, targeted protectionism for nascent industries has helped those industries acquire the breathing room necessary to become competitive in the long run. Infusions of capital from the developed world can certainly help (as it did in The Marshall Plan), and can also hurt (as it did in the Latin American debt crises of the 198o’s). But one thing’s for sure: In the long run, there is no “Us” v. “Them”; there is only an “Us”.

We may find the Madame Defarges both past and present to be hateful individuals. But those who are their enemy have always helped to create them. You run over enough peasant children in your carriage, and people start to want to send your adult children to the guillotine, or fly airplanes into your skyscrapers. You draw enough lines in the sand with opportunistic military conquests, lines above which to prosper and below which to languish, and the desperate mass of humanity you locked out will eventually come flooding through.

We live in a world increasingly acutely locked into an anachronistic global political landscape. Sovereign nations, which were on the slow path to gradually compromising their sovereignty to some form of weak global federalism throughout much of the twentieth century (during the breaks from their extraordinarily destructive demonstrations of why it was absolutely imperative that they do so), have now, under the decreasingly enlightened leadership of The United States, begun backpedaling once again into global balkanization and mutual antagonism (except in the cradle of modern civilization, Europe, which has coalesced into the most vibrant of all supranational entities, and has tried to march proactively into the future despite, once again, the absence of an American willingness to see past its own nose and do the same).

But as the United States discovered early in its history, a degree of shared fate, of shared challenges, of shared opportunities, requires a commensurate degree of effective shared governance. And as I’ve said elsewhere, it is inevitable, and pragmatically necessary, that whatever form that takes, it does not simply wish away or disregard the real distribution of political and material power in the moment preceding its creation. That distribution of power has to be leveraged, to create something better from the soil of what preceded it. America has to be a major player in the creation of a functioning world order, whether Americans or non-Americans find that an attractive prospect or not.

As President Obama rightly noted in his speech, foreign aid is an act of self-interest. But that interest is best served when those aided are perceived to be less foreign, and instead are recognized as fellow human beings in a world too small for some to hide from others behind walls and across oceans. We can’t close our eyes and plug our ears and expect to live unmolested in our enclave of relative wealth and comfort, while horrors are the norm in so much of the world. That won’t protect us from the tsunamis that will continue to hit, with increasing force, all of our shores and borders. We are a part of this world, whether we like it or not. And it’s time to take our noblesse oblige seriously.

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