Journeys for a Witness



Florita Botts

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This is the story of two journeys.

One is my journey from my comfortable office in Rome to aid projects in Africa, Asia and South America. This is the world of poor of farmers, fishermen and forest dwellers.

The second is my personal journey from young idealistic woman to a disillusioned critic of the international aid Mafia.

I began this journey in 1965 as a photographer and media producer for FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) one of the UN agencies. I have been witness to every aspect of rural life in developing countries. I have travelled to China, Indonesia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Burma and Thailand in Asia and to most African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Tunisia. I have trudged over farms in Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, Syria, and more.

I spent 25 years - from 1965 to 1990 - as a photographer of aid projects. I saw the destruction and (rarely) conservation of the environment; the poverty and exploitation of the third world’s peasants; the shiny façade of development projects; and, only too often, the waste and corruption behind them.

The project teams came with full moneybags, tons of machinery and equipment, a fleet of white Toyota off-road vehicles and a complement of consultants, known colloquially as "development tourists".

The "beneficiaries" - usually poor farmers - gained little from this abundance.

Each chapter in my book describes my personal and professional experience in countries in which I worked. The chapters are documentaries of my experiences in the field.

My focus is on the people, those who work and suffer and those who administer. Not every project failed to deliver. Sidi bou Zid in Tunisia has delivered great improvements to the lives of small Tunisian farmers and I worked with many hardworking, effective people.

My testament is as timely now as it was when I was in the thick of it all. It is all still happening, hunger, primitive farming, civil war, drought, deforestation, erosion, refugees, people seeking ways to survive, and international agencies distributing and controlling aid.

Did I believe in the work I was doing? Did I believe that the well intentioned projects were having an effect on the lives of the rural poor?

Yes, I did. I began as a believer.

But I ended as a radical unbeliever.

I no longer believe in the efficacy of 99% of the foreign technical assistance sent to the developing world to lessen rural poverty. My reasons are many but I’ll mention two right now.

The first is: The aid money does not go to the people for whom it is intended. It goes to their rulers and the institutions that administer the aid.

I have seen too clearly that foreign aid is an instrument of collusion between the recipient country’s ruling class and the donors.
The needs and problems of the rural poor are a valuable commodity to these two institutions. Government X asks for a project to improve the condition of their rural poor. It is invariably the justification for every aid budget in every project document I ever had to study before departing on my assignments. The jargon is “the low-asset position of peasants,” “distorted income portfolios,” “insufficient natural capital endowments.” Government X receives aid. When the project is underway, its benefits go to the national and local elites. The poor receive practically nothing.

The second is that the central thrust of most projects is the promotion of sophisticated Western mechanised farm technology and the concentration on trade for aid. Most of this technology is inappropriate for small farmers who do not have the resources or the support to benefit from it. There are simple, effective means of assisting small farmers to increase their production and give them a better life. These are not provided by international aid agencies.
The objective of selling machinery and other goods takes precedence over the suitability of the product to the farmer.

I still believe that aid can be given to the rural poor in a way that will improve their lives, but things will have to change. In documenting in words and by means of the photographic record I have made of the ways in which aid has failed until now, I hope to contribute to that change.