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Gerrit Holtland is a rural development consultant with over 20 years field experience in Africa,...

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Gerrit Holtland: Enhancing professionalism – the key to better aid

Gerrit Holtland | 18 January 2010

As a development practitioner with over 20 years of experience in implementing programmes and coaching others in doing so, I am very happy with the WRR report. It squarely states what most development consultants know: development theories are hypes based on the selective use of research results. Without exception, such hypes are damaging to our aid efforts. This conclusion was supported by Dutch minister Bert Koenders when he stressed that we should stop creating new beleidsmantras (policy narratives or policy paradigms).

'No more new policy narratives, but back to common sense' is the shortest summary of the report. This common sense is best organized by an independent professional organization. Unfortunately, the minister already indicated that he is not greatly in favour of that. Why? If the many discussions on the impact of aid have shown anything, it is that political interference reduces the impact. His suggestion is that it would be too expensive. I cannot see the point. In the Netherlands, we have several such professional organizations and nobody claims they are too expensive (e.g. Rijkswaterstaat, Staatsbosbeheer).

The idea of an independent, professional organization in a limited number of countries is very appealing to me. It seems the only way to streamline the contribution of the growing number of aid channels (multi- and bilateral, NGOs, scientific cooperation, private sector cooperation etc.). I have worked in all these channels (DGIS, Nuffic, EVD/PSI, NGOs) and the lack of coordination is astonishing and extremely damaging. This fragmentation needs to stop, as well as the amateurism displayed by many of the ‘new’ actors.

The key question is, however: what is 'professional'? In my view, the basic attribute of any professional is craftsmanship, or being technically competent. A development professional is, then, someone who is able to use her competencies effectively in a development setting. In practice: a professional who understands that her (technical) skills have to be adopted to the local circumstances. This requires insights into the socio-political and economical characteristics of developing countries, and into the specific character of change processes in these societies.

In my experience, the ability to make one’s expertise useful in a developing setting can only be acquired in the development context itself. The vast majority of people have to learn it the hard way: by making mistakes in the real world. However, the prevailing view seems to be that development professionalism has to be increased by improving – and stimulating – development studies and development research. The call for a professional implementing agency is then linked to creating 'knowledge centres' (or to the Dutch, 'IS-academies'), institutions like the UK's Overseas Development Institute. In my opinion, that is dangerous: it is exactly this kind of organization that generates the ‘policy narratives’ that lead to the ‘hypes', which cause so many problems in the first place!

The WRR report shows that the results of four decades of development research are inconclusive. There is no 'one size fits all' development theory. Actually, most research only proves that the findings of previous research were incorrect. In my 20 years as a development professional, the number of papers I have read that call for a 'paradigm shift' are innumerable. That refers not only to the much-criticized Washington consensus, but also to issues like microcredit, participation, good governance, etc. Development research has become an industry in itself, like the aid industry. And many development professionals have reached the point where they no longer read the many nice stories. In our work, we need more analysis and reflection on the specific local circumstances, and less general research looking for the holy grail of development. In Easterly’s terminology: as with in the sciences, we need more ‘searchers’ and fewer ‘planners’.

So, more development research and studies as we know it will not make our aid more professional; more practical experience will. Young professionals need to start their careers with at least three years in the real developing world: in villages and towns, rather than capital cities, UN organizations or branches of international companies. Let us consider this a rite of passage. In this period, they need to be coached in how to reflect on their experiences. Enhancing development is as much an art as a skill. It requires careful listening to gain a meaningful insight in (often implicit) local discourses. One has to learn to feel the (potential) winds of change and hook on to them.

To create development professionals requires an active carrier support system, something like the ‘Assistance Expert’ programme DGIS has run in the past; only this time with a greater focus on NGOs than UN organizations. Also, the staff of the proposed implementing agency should be continuously upgraded. Some might opt for a research sabbatical, but the majority could learn more from a well-organized peer-review system. Life-long learning is needed, and organizing this should be the core business of the headquarters of the NL Aid. If this is done well, 95% of the decision making can be left to the development professionals in the selected aid-recipient countries.

Of course, politics and policies matter. With a limited number of recipient countries, it will be possible to organize regular exchange visits for parliamentarians from both countries to discuss policy issues. What are the governments of the recipient countries and the Dutch doing to make Dutch aid effective? Independent researchers and NGOs should be invited to present their views as well. These visits will lead to new, commonly agreed objectives, and based on this the professionals can work things out. It goes without saying that experts from the recipient countries should be fully involved in this.

The authors of the WRR report understood the importance of development professionalism, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of their respondents were scientists. This shows not only that they are keen listeners, but also that the scientists involved realize the need to go back to a common sense approach. I hope that the same scientists will support the WRR when it comes to implementation: focus on action research and the analysis of concrete issues, not on generating general theories that lead to new policy hypes.