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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why "Development" does not work

Most of the development programming in my part of the world have a classical beginning. They often start with someone, often in some distant capital city in the west or a local urban-based NGO imaging a “problem” and an associated imagined “solution”. These problems, once imagined assume a critical crisis proportion. They immediately become an existential imperative. Similarly, the solutions are billed as universal panacea, the one intervention(s) that has to be implemented to save a child, a mother or a village or Africa.

More often, the statistics and the narrative form used in proposals or project implementation plans are obtained from “baselines”, “situation analysis”, or some “inception report”. These are often short, “expert-led” appraisal, expensive but woefully narrow and superficial. In clinical terms, this process is akin to bad clinical history and a misreading of symptoms of dis-ease.

What can you really expect from a doctor who takes bad clinical history and goofs on the symptoms? Obviously, the both the diagnosis and the prognosis will be wrong. At best, the patient realizes they are not getting better and seeks a second opinion. Or the patient suffers debilitating and permanent damage from misdiagnosis and mis-treatment, making an otherwise curable condition worse. Or the patient dies.

Most development work in Africa is analogous to a physician trying to diagnose and cure a disease whose symptoms they barely understand and whose root causes they would care less about.

My sense is that most development workers in Africa especially, are like bad physicians. A bad physician who does not know enough to even ask a question as simply and as necessary as why or what if. A majority of development types strut around with a messianic halo over their heads and feeling that only they can and must save Africa. They have no time to listen or even ask questions because they think they know the answers.

I am not sure what an Iowa farm boy for instance can say to a subsistence rice farmer in a remote village in southern Tanzania or central Kenya. But you can bet they will be moved with compassion by the poverty, malnutrition, disease burden and low levels of literacy and educational achievement among rice farming households.

I am sure you know the development programming drill around this kind of “problem”. It is Rural Development 101. For this one village of say 500 farm households, you would development “interventions” to raise household incomes, enhance dietary diversity by introducing “kitchen gardens”, distribute bed nets, initiate water and sanitation and introduce school meals to keep kids in school.

This is what most of the so-called development work is about. It is reactive and grossly wrong headed. Any grade school graduate understands that the issues that hold back the progress and prosperity of smallholder rice farmers are not malnutrition or low education or disease or poverty. These are symptoms of more complex and coupled socio-economic and ecological problem. Moreover, these symptoms as most of you very well understand, are correlated and interact in nonlinear ways, often generating complex feedback.

The interesting thing about the practice of development is that it is populated by a small group of people who hang out together pretty much of the time. The leadership and rank and file for the most part have worked in several similar institutions doing more or less the same kind of work. In terms of new ideas and innovation, there is not much, these communities are highly incestuous. So the flawed ideas, if you do not mind my saying so, are passed on from one misguided generation to another.

As an African and international public intellectual, I think donor funded development work in Africa is for the most part a shameful waste of resources. As a scholar, I might add that there is no evidence that development work as method or model of socio-economic development works.

Donor driven development was not the vehicle for economic growth and social transformation in the west. Evidently, donor aid is not what is lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians out of poverty. And the upsurge of the middle class in Lagos, Nairobi, South Africa and Dar-es-salaam is happening in spite of development aid.

To be fair to the good and noble men and women in development, they know not what they are doing. And we must forgive them.

With economies in the west floundering, we might just see the beginning of the end of development aid.

I can hardly wait.

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