An important question is increasingly being asked, and still too often being avoided, in International Development circles. It’s the same question you ask yourself in a regrettable haze of pseudo-philosophical melancholy at the age of 16 while smoking cigarettes and drinking awful, chemically cider in a freezing cold park: What am I doing here?
Unlike your distant, drunken teenage ponderings, though, this question has very real and very important answers that turn the spotlight, just for a second, away from the problems that we’re all trying to address throughout the world and onto us, the actors. Normally I’m loathe to shift that spotlight away from immediate needs in order to indulge in what can often become a kind of sector-wide navel gazing exercise that ends in defensive self justification and little positive action. It is surely worth exploring our own motivations and existence, though, in as much as it pertains to the question “How could we all be doing development better?”
For years the vast majority of development funding, whether from governmental sources or elsewhere, has flowed through organisations in the Global North. For all the decades of capacity building associated with these projects it has remained a relatively stable paradigm that frames development as something that organisations and professionals from the Global North “do”. The great shifts in narrative over the twentieth century have simply been to redefine it as something we “do to” the Global South, to something we “do for” the Global South and, finally, to something we “do with” the Global South. But it’s always the developed world that does the doing.
But there are signs that this may be coming to an end. Bond’s Fast Forward report asserted that “UK-based INGOs must redouble their focus on development outcomes, and adapt” and that this would mean “giving away power, changing to supporting roles”. DfID, too are joining the growing chorus of rhetoric that speaks of the need to prioritise funding directly to the Global South and it will be interesting to see the outcome of the eagerly anticipated Civil Society Partnership Review in order to ascertain how much of this theory might be turned into practice. NGO’s are already showing signs of shifting to this new reality, by moving headquarters so that the absurdity of decisions about the South never being taken in the South becomes less of a valid criticism.
And it may be too early to call this a trend considering as recently as 2011 it was estimated that less than 1% of all funding went direct to the Global South CSOs (A figure which includes all ODA, including bilateral aid and raises valid questions about the percentage of funding that NGOs, Northern or Southern, can even access, though that is probably a different blog post!). However, shouldn’t this trend, if it is one, be celebrated? Doesn’t it mean we’ll achieve better results with less waste by simply cutting out the middle man? Shouldn’t it reflect well on the effective nature of capacity building and system strengthening work that has been carried out in the Global South, or perhaps poorly on donor’s willingness to recognise capacity that existed before now?
And let’s talk about capacity because it’s one of the most common justifications for the current model of funding through the North. The argument goes that local NGO’s, whether independent organisations or in-country offices of bigger brothers and sisters elsewhere, lack both the technical expertise and the in depth knowledge of donor systems and requirements to work independently, or to attract funding without support from their Northern partners. It’s effective because it’s valid. I work with a number of small NGOs in developing countries around the world of whom this is true. But the question shouldn’t be whether it’s true or not but why it’s true. In some instances it might be caused by an unavoidable cycle of circumstances within that country’s own political and economic system. The instability of conflict or the “brain drain” of human resources where migration tempts away the skilled workers are very real concerns for Southern organisations. And not everywhere in the world has an education system churning out the kind of development professionals who are able to take on these roles. But equally, a lot of countries aren’t facing these problems, or aren’t facing enough of them to prevent strong, sustainable management of their own development work. There’s a genuine question over whether, through a mixture of complacency and self interest, we in the North have simply perpetuated a system that discourages independence from our leadership.
I spent some time earlier this month in a Sub Saharan country working on a livelihoods project based around Internal Savings and Lendings (ISAL) Group models, I was there primarily to work on Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning with the local partners of a UK based NGO. I found myself wondering how much value I was truly adding to the process. Now, the problem here is that asking yourself to evaluate how meaningful your job is – well, it’s the professional equivalent of some kind of torturous, existential self abuse. Of course we react defensively. With the best will in the world very few of us want to countenance any possibility that we’re doing something wrong – especially something we’ve put years of hard work into creating. I get it; I’ve spent years in classrooms studying, in refugee camps volunteering and in offices working. We put a lot of work into getting into this sector, and generally for the best of reasons – so it’s a hard mirror to look in that reflects a question which asks “are you sure this is how this should be happening?”, but it’s a necessary one.
That instinctive, defensive reaction meant that my initial assessment of the Northerrn NGO’s role in that project probably sound similar to the instinctive justification that is familiar to many of us. I concluded that I offered an important bridge between the project and the donor. We had contributed meaningfully to the design of the project and I continued to offer valuable insights into the way we were operating and improvements that could be made. All of these things were true to some extent but what I was reluctant to admit was that, really, none of them justified the percentage of the project budget that stayed in the UK. My local partners were technically skilled, operationally strong and if it weren’t for the donor requirement to fund UK NGOs they could have easily been carrying out the work without our involvement. Two of the project staff had written Master’s theses on ISAL methodology. What value I added could probably be accounted for by purely having one more development professional cast a fresh eye over the day to day processes they were so involved in. I was happy to be able to add that but, if I’m being honest, is that justification for that my role in the process?
All of which isn’t to demand the dismantling of every NGO with an office in Washington or London, or an in-country local to international staff ratio that dips below ten to one. It’s just to say that if we’re to strive for the kind of improvement and excellence that we should be striving for, and that the private sector teaches us we should have to in order to survive, then we have to constantly engage with this process of critical analysis. Is there local demand for the work we, as Northern NGOs are doing? Are we adding sufficient value to the process to justify our involvement? And, crucially, we sometimes have to remove the idea of us “doing” from the equation. The important final question shouldn’t be whether there is a way we could better achieve our outcomes. It should be whether there is a way the outcomes could be better achieved. By looking at these questions objectively we’ll be able to better define our most effective role.