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Final Report Summary - COMECONAID (The Second World in the Third: Polish Aid to Sudan and Nigeria from Comecon to EU Accession)

This project is a historically oriented study of the ’Second World‘ in the ’Third World‘, focusing on Polish cooperation with African and Middle East countries during the Cold War. This study aims to counter the dominant discourses that define countries previously belonging to the Soviet camp as lacking in any historical connections with the decolonizing world or with the pursuit of international development.

The existing scholarship on the history of development often neglects or treats in a marginal way the presence of non-Western aid providers in Africa and other regions. At the same time, the majority of the existing literature on the African donor activities of countries representing the Soviet Bloc and belonging to the Comecon focuses on Russia and its military assistance. What is emphasized is the role of the USSR in local conflicts. Most of the studies discuss the involvement of the Comecon countries from the perspective of the ongoing rivalry between the West and the USSR, explaining the latter’s involvement in Africa as being solely motivated by the strategic imperative of gaining influence in the decolonising world.

The few studies concerned with other aspects of foreign aid, such as trade and industry, or the input of the countries representing the Second World in modernisation schemes, are limited to analysis of the economic side of these enterprises. Moreover, the previous scholarship is steeped in a pro-Western bias. It hampers any in-depth consideration of the discussed phenomenon, instead presenting it as a one-dimensional, predominantly political endeavour of the Eastern European states subordinated to the USSR’s foreign policy. In order to counter these assertions, I have been conducting a study that focuses on Polish collaboration with African states in the medical field. The examination of the Polish case provides a new dimension to the existing scholarship, working against the homogenisation of the Soviet camp.

The aim of this project is to learn about the ways that people in Poland perceived their partners in developing countries and their own role in international development. How did visions of development, welfare and social growth promoted by a socialist state differ from those advocated by the West in the past and at present? How can we understand the choice of a socialist state to carry out development collaboration through a model which was a combination of political and commercial endeavours, and which excluded the charity initiatives so typical for the Western apparatus?

Secondly, the project provides an excellent opportunity to understand the detailed mechanisms governing development cooperation undertaken by a socialist state. It allows us to test assertions about the overly politicised and centralised nature of international collaborations during that period. I have examined links between Party arrangements and their execution on the ground. I ask how socialist ideologies, and the visions of modernity promoted by the Polish state, were translated into the daily realities of collaboration and the people involved in them. Defined in such a way, my study provides an opportunity to highlight particular patterns and inconsistencies that are rooted in a specific historical and cultural background of aid offered by a country representing Eastern Europe at the time of the Cold War.

The examination of all these issues has been facilitated through archival research in the Central National Archives, as well as Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw. Another important component of the research is the interviews conducted with ambassadors, the representatives of ‘export companies’ which were fostering international collaborations, and with Polish engineers, skilled workers, medics, academics and their family members who in the 1970s and 1980s were involved in implementing projects in such places as Tunisia, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and others.

The results of the project suggest that political motivations for international collaboration were important at the highest, Party level. However, for most of those who were at the front line of international schemes (both companies and individuals) it was economic gain that mattered the most. Effectively, Polish collaboration with the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s turns out to have been a complex endeavour operating as a complex mix of capitalist practices governed through the central planning socialist system. Secondly, the research debunks the myth of Poland being excluded from international relations. It shows that in spite of the popular belief that international travel and work was out of reach for Polish citizens, in fact intellectual elites (architects, academics, doctors, engineers, etc.) had access to work abroad, regardless of their political affiliations. Finally, the research suggests that it was exactly these foreign experiences that turned out to be particularly important for the post-1989 transition, when many of the former expatriates were able to mobilise the social and economic capital gained during work abroad and use it for building their careers in post-socialist Poland.

Overall, this project, even though it is historically oriented, contributes to our understanding of the contemporary politics of foreign aid. While the history of development is rooted in the rivalry between the Western world and the Soviet Bloc, with both camps extensively using international aid as a political tool for global influence, this past has largely been neglected. The scattered and fragmentary work on the development projects of countries representing the Soviet Bloc further facilitates a dismissal of that past. It results in the creation of discourses suggesting a Western historical monopoly in that field, relegating to ‘rookie’ status the post-Soviet actors in this arena. This worldview has strong political implications through the creation of categories such as ‘emerging’ and ‘traditional’ donors, and emphasises the conflicting interests between different aid providers within the EU and beyond. Such a formulation of development discourses masks the political and economical agendas of the aid donors and crafts them as being driven solely by a moral imperative. This reorientation holds strong implications for the ways development is conceived and carried out today. That is why, with this research, I aim to counter the existing debates concerned with the ‘emergence of new donors’ which mostly ignore the 50-year Cold War history of development. Consequently, this study should be of great interest for those who are today involved in foreign aid: development NGOs, State donors, and multilateral aid agencies.

Dr. Elzbieta Drazkiewicz-Grodzicka
Lecturer
Department of Anthropology
Centre for European and Eurasian Studies
Maynooth University
Maynooth, Co Kildare
IRELAND
http://www.eladrazkiewicz.com

Related information

Result In Brief

Reported by

NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND MAYNOOTH
Ireland
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