While I was revising IR theory, I found myself wondering how we establish whether an approach to development assistance is patronizing or not. For example, we can send a team of economic advisers to help create macroeconomic stability in a developing country. As Jeffrey Sachs’ role in ending hyperinflation in Bolivia seems to show, this is a strategy that can yield results. Of course, this kind of ‘we know better’ approach might hamper the development of governance structures and new ideas in the long run.
That said, leaving countries to sort things out for themselves could still be considered patronizing. Not only do we know better, but we know even better than that: we know to allow countries to make their own mistakes in the interests of developing legitimacy and their own capacity. Maybe, by that point, the patronizing aspect has become neutralized or non-corrosive.
These questions are relevant to my research when we start thinking about environmental governance and development. No problems crop up where new technology is both more economically efficient and cleaner. The trouble comes when situations like China’s growing need for energy and its huge reserves of coal are considered in combination.
There are situations where choices that would not be made in the rich world might make sense in the developing world, even at the cost of a somewhat damaged environment in those countries. Look how many forests were cleared in Europe during the period of industrialization. The trickiest issue is in places where the ecological harm is borne, in some measure, by everyone. How do we reconcile the teleological objective of a healthy planet with the deontological imperative to respect the freedom of states to make their own choices?