The black box of international development

By | October 8, 2013

This post continues the conversation begun in the previous post by attempting to address the spirit of the first question posed by Regarding Humanity:

1. Is the ball already rolling to change the “Development Industrial Complex”? What sorts of shifts needed for process to happen?

When I was first encouraged to speak up on the topic on international development, I hesitated as it was not an area I am familiar with beyond what any of us can read in mainstream media. My exposure to humanitarian organizations had been limited to what I have seen whenever I have immersed myself in some rural location or the other – signboards proclaiming vast irrigation projects or big white vehicles parked outside a highway eatery at lunchtime. Long time readers will know I’ve been knocking the rose coloured spectacles off any number of well intentioned award winning products without viable business models or qualities desirable to their intended beneficiaries. But since I’d accepted the challenge, I realized that I needed to do some homework in order to do these questions justice and not make a complete fool of myself on my own blog. After a quick immersion into assorted links covering the vast subject of the Development Industrial Complex (DIC), here’s my circumlocutory dive into the deep end of pondering.

The first thing that struck me after coming away from the rather well written and comprehensive Wikipedia entry on DIC and its various theories was just that. The field of International Development seems to be very much a theoretical one, given to ideologies and policy making, based rather heavily in academia and other non profit organisations.The closest related field of study is Development Economics or Public Policy – lofty subjects indeed, which to someone like me, sound very remote adn hands off from the actual problems in the field. From what I have read, aid workers in the field may not always be the ones with the advanced degrees and those implementing the programs tend not have much say in them.

That is, there doesn’t seem to be a process or methodology for designing intervention programmes, though there are myriads of methods for measuring the impact. In fact, here’s where I find the contents of the Wiki entry most enlightening to a n00b like me – I’ve made sure you can’t miss the subsection on practice:

    1 History
        1.1 Post World War II
    2 Theories
        2.1 Millennium Development Goals
        2.2 Other goals
    3 Concepts
        3.1 International Economic Inequality
        3.2 Dignity
        3.3 Participation
        3.4 Appropriateness
        3.5 Sustainability
        3.6 Capacity building
        3.7 Rights-based approach
    4 Practice
        4.1 Measurement
        4.2 Migration and remittance
        4.3 Sectors
            4.3.1 Water and sanitation
            4.3.2 Health
            4.3.3 Education
            4.3.4 Shelter
            4.3.5 Human rights
            4.3.6 Livelihoods
            4.3.7 Finance
    5 Concerns
    6 See also
    7 Notes
    8 References

For an engineer, industrial designer or MBA in strategic planning this “practice” is no more than than a laundry list of focus areas and their measurements. HOW do I practice international development? Or rather, how and where do I begin designing a specific program? Is there a process to follow or a checklist of things to do? Is there a system or a method? Just competing ideologies.

Ideologies mentioned in the wiki entry are acknowledged to be faith based in nature, while theories seem to be developed in ivory towers based on gross assumptions and lots and lots of numbers. The whole industry sounds like its emphasis is only on measurements and metrics of what can be measured (problematic in its own right wrt program design) and vast sums of money are thrown at the next snake oil salesman who claims to have the silver bullet for solving the world’s most wicked problem. This sounds harsh but is simply the takeaway of this humble layperson attempting to understand how the DIC works.

This is what seems to be the current process for design of development programmes.

There is a gaping void in this approach which relies completely on experts and their opinions on what farmers need or NGOs to speak on the behalf of women or girl children or youth living half a continent away in a wholly different world altogether. And that world, that operating environment where the majority of the DIC’s beneficiaries live, is one that I am familiar with, through my own work of the past half decade or more.

The picture painted is one that anyone living in the Western world is familiar with – hapless foreign looking folk with desperation in their eyes or their laughing children with flies in their eyes. An image that is increasingly become obsolete everywhere else but for those who rely on the kindness of strangers to pay their bills. The patronizing arrogance is itself obsolete in today’s interconnected world where social media and mobile phones are changing the way the world perceives itself and others.

Obsolete worldview or unvalidated assumptions? (all image credits: JAM visueeldenken)

Who wouldn’t immediately pull out a check on hearing these carefully crafted stories of heart rending misery and blunted opportunity?

The problem arises when its time to judge the results. Why do they not continue the changes we trained them to make? Why don’t they adopt these innovations in technology or processes? Why are the programs not sustainable once donor funding ends? Why don’t they buy my smokeless stove/solar lamp/water pump and improve their worthless miserable lives, the ungrateful scavengers?

And so it continues. A vicious cycle of unfounded assumptions based on an obsolete worldview driving the design of programs theoretically meant to uplift the passive recipients of top down generosity whose impact is only assessed at the end of the entire process, often years after implementation.

Aligning impact with intent and actions needs a rigorous validated process for solution design

To summarize my first impressions:

  1. Assumptions drive decision making and design of programs
  2. Ideology is more important than process, planning or strategy.
  3. There is no standardardized system or methodology but theoretical models abound.
  4. Anyone can walk into any location and “do good” – no license to practice.
  5. Everybody else knows better what the end user needs to do or use to change their lives.
  6. Taken together, the existing system seems to be designed to disempower the very target audience its meant to uplift. You cannot be my equal if I need you to be my supplicant. 

I haven’t answered the question as it has been asked. I don’t think we are there yet. Of course, things need to change but I don’t have the answers glibly tripping off my tongue. On the other hand, I do believe we have the tools to help us ask the right questions, of the right people, for the right reasons. And I also believe that we might need to frame the problem [situation, scenario, opportunity, challenge, insert your favourite word here] with greater accuracy and respect for people’s context, conditions and needs. Nobody ever asked the target if they wanted to be lifted up the way we thought they should be nor did they stop to discover what aspirations or ambitions their beneficiaries held closely. Is it any wonder everything stops the minute the money does?

 This conversation will naturally continue as this is only the part 1, section 1, chapter 1. I’ll also add links to similar questions raised on social enterprises and their market entry behaviour, assumptions and attitudes at the end of this multi part thought exercise.

Question 2
Question 3

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