Do British development NGOs not want to discuss development?

The UN High Level Panel looking at development goals after 2015 is coming to London and will meet representatives of British development NGOs who, it seems, don’t want to discuss development with them.

OK, that’s my, I will acknowledge, possibly slanted reading of a single email but help me out here. An invitation arrived last week from Bond – “the UK membership body for non-governmental organisations NGOs working in international development” – to join in meeting the UN panel. There is a list of themes and then a list of issues that will be discussed at this meeting.

The themes are:

  • How to approach jobs and livelihoods for the poor?
  • What are the engines of inclusive growth?
  • How can poor people be brought into formalised economies and integrated into national development?
  • What is the role of ecologically fragile areas in poverty eradication?
  • How should inequality be addressed for inclusive development?
  • Can service delivery be made universal at reasonable cost?

And “Issues that will be covered include: eradication of global poverty within a generation; social safety nets; food security; health; education; social inclusion; livelihoods and income security; investing in children; social mobility, anti-discrimination and participation; a global social floor; legal empowerment of the poor; and enabling bottom of the pyramid markets.”

There are many important things in these two lists, even if it is mysterious why themes and issues are separated. Indeed there are many. United into one, they would make a very long list. But glance through it/them one more time and then tell me where you see any of the following (non-comprehensive list of) issues that some people might think have an impact upon development:

  • Governance, corruption, political participation, the role of elites
  • Conflict, violence, security, the security apparatus, the relationship of citizens to authority, peace
  • Laws and law-making, statutory and traditional systems of justice and access to them
  • The private sector, foreign investment, the role of remittances, international trade
  • Resource scarcity, water stress, climate change,  infrastructure, the quality of life
  • Demography, including population growth (by approximately 100 million people per year), the consequent youth bulge, and urbanisation (at an annual rate exceeding 100 million)

For sure, if reminded about these issues, Bond will acknowledge that, yes, these do have some influence on development prospects. What is dispiriting is that either they thought about them and decided not to discuss them with the High Level Panel or, much more likely, didn’t think about them. If they did think about them, it is wholly puzzling as to why they were sidelined. And if they didn’t think about them, that simply reveals the persistent default mode of far too much of the NGO development community (and I write that advisedly – I do not think it is nearly so widespread in DFID), which is not to take seriously issues of politics, conflict, climate change, demography or how the economy really works.

That default mode as I remarked in an earlier post, breaks development down into a series of separate actions, selects among them some key points for action, and then does not build the components back up into the whole. It reflects a limited, reductivist, technocratic way of thinking about development, which is increasingly unhelpful.

Let’s be clear: the list of themes and issues Bond has invited UK NGOs to discuss with the High level Panel includes important items but they do not cumulate into development. How countries develop is not encompassed by those issues. Successfully deliver projects on time in those fields and development will not necessarily ensue, not unless other conditions  are met- the emergence of a peaceful state being key among them.

Discuss the items in those lists and you will not be discussing development but something else – development aid projects. It would be good to stop confusing the two.

3 thoughts on “Do British development NGOs not want to discuss development?

  1. Your tart juxtaposition of development and development projects is apt and timely. I think I spotted the International Development Committee (IDC) tempted to a version of the same heresy in their Report this week about the British development effort in Afghanistan. They appeared to say that DfID might not attain its objective of achieving a viable state by 2014, so it would be better to concentrate on specific programmes to deliver services and promote projects, eg for women.
    Afghanistan is, of course, a special case in all sorts of way but more aid is pumped into the country than anywhere else, and most of it through NGOs. The country’s continued shortcomings in development terms illuminate the difficulty of overmuch dependence on NGOs to implement national programmes, in the teeth of inherent problems of insecurity and poor governance.
    To despair of improving the viabilikty of the state itself is tempting. But the idea that you can achieve objectives of such overriding importance as promoting the role of women without mainstreaming it in and through the state’s institutions seems to me folly. Governance cannot be done by NGOs alone, nor even by DfID alone: it requires a strategy led by official agencies.
    And progress in social sectors needs a ‘viable state’. Afghanistan is party to all kinds of international conventions and treaties about women’s rights, for example. It is the state’s function to implement these domestically and to deal with unwonted consequences of improvements in one area impinging negatively in another. The IDC itself points out that one of the first fruits of an important specific improvement has been perverse:
    “On a more positive note the then Secretary of State informed us that there were now more than 400 female defence lawyers in Afghanistan—up from three nine years ago.[200] Although this figure pales against the fact that over half of woman in Afghan prisons and virtually all teenage girls in juvenile detention facilities are there for ‘moral crimes’ such as ‘running away’ known as ‘zina’ which is nowhere to be found under the Afghan Penal Code and contrary to Afghanistan’s international legal obligations.”
    Part of the trouble is that we think of development in terms which apppeal to us here, in the UK. But there could be nothing more cynical than to pretend that NGOs can achieve development in Afghanistan commensurate with the funds going into the country without an improved and sustainable security environment and effectively-functioning state institutions. Supposing DfID set up all kinds of women’s projects in the absence of a state able and willing to enforce its own laws and then effective authority fell into the hands of people to whom our views are inimical?
    The IDC’s pessimism is a gratuitous blow at our effort to help achieve the indispenable condition of Afghanistan’s development. It’s a very tall order, but there is no point in pretending we can shirk that task and still have development through the small steps of discrete projects, however good..

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