Brian Pratt: we need a new debate

Knowledge brokering25 Mar 2010Brian Pratt

Despite the torrent of words, we are still mainly working within a set of parameters set out over 40 years ago – parameters which assume the transfer of resources (money and expertise) from rich to poor. The notion of 0.7% of GDP spent on aid has become something to distract from real debates about the nature of development. The idea that a few more dollars will lift people out of poverty has little basis in reality. Many development agencies’ discussion is massively constrained by untested assumptions.

One of our problems is that we have a tendency to narrow down what ‘development’ means – the MDGs are one example of this. Such constraints will inhibit our successes, especially in hard-to-reach areas and those with more intractable problems.

Unwillingness to talk politics

In development, it is easier and safer to pretend that we can solve things through technical inputs and to avoid talking about the abuses of political power, the control of the state by self-interested elites, to the detriment of others. The authors recognize this to some extent, but still find it safer to talk about knowledge development. Although a passing mention is made of the interests of ruling elites, a better understanding of the politics of power and what maintains existing unjust structures requires more emphasis.

It is also difficult for state-based aid agencies to appreciate that not all civil services are as honest and professional as they might be. Official aid agencies find it difficult to recognize where self-interest lies for many of their government counterparts in failing or fragile states.

An orthodoxy which suits the aid industry?

We have tended to accept an underlying orthodoxy behind most aid – that economic growth, driven by private capital, enabled by the state and complemented by social policy, will end poverty. Instead, other approaches to development must be looked at, such as strengthening civil society organizations as a way to increase the legitimate demand upon the state to meet the needs of its citizens, or strengthening marginalized groups excluded from the mainstream.

The report is interesting in that it proposes a focus on broader constraints to development, such as the global political economy and knowledge transfer, i.e. the structural factors that perpetuate underdevelopment. However, there is little said about how these would be implemented, especially important given the powerful vested interests in the North who will wish to retain control over trade conditions, regulation of MNCs and so on.

The report is unhappy with the ‘confetti’ approach to development, and an untargeted throwing of resources into aid is unlikely to achieve much. However, a strategic focus of resources on key organizations, key issues, supporting popular movements, and self-generated initiatives is likely to be more successful in serving the poorest people and communities, than the proposed ‘concentration’ approach of fewer large blanket programmes. It is not clear that the focus on just 10 countries would necessarily achieve this, unless it permits a significantly higher level of contextual understanding and sophistication in its programming. There is perhaps a conflict of interest between the report’s emphasis on both breadth and concentration, in terms of ensuring a diverse, strong civil society that will ensure the democratic nature of the state and reduce its repressive and parasitical nature.

Professionalism – have we lost the vision of why NGOs were important?

While there is much to agree with on the concept of professionalism, what this could mean is more problematic. If it merely means a narrowing of focus on ’results’ and a slippage in the quality of our understanding and programming in favour of standardized procedures, then it is less clear that more professionalism is needed. There is a danger that aid agencies become well-managed and results-focused, but visionless and with minimal effectiveness – where common sense, experience and knowledge are replaced by jargon, fashion and short-term activity based results and outcomes.

Here, the role of NGOs is important in meeting the needs of the ‘bottom 10%’, those excluded or unable to engage with the mainstream. Rather than trying to ape the state by providing blanket programmes, or becoming professional in a narrow sense, NGOs and CSOs should be supported to focus on empowerment, participation, building the confidence of people to demand their own rights, the capacity building of citizens-based organizations, and supporting the agency and access of poor and marginalized people.

But if professionalism means that the organization is freed from short-term political and other pressures, and linked to improved organizational learning, evaluation and research, this should produce improved discussion and action around the core business of development assistance. I would also agree with the paper that we suffer from short-term thinking, so any reforms in this must be welcomed.