Chudi Ukpabi: Humility, building trust and respect and professionalism

Development Policy05 Mar 2010Chudi Ukpabi

I write firstly to thank Peter van Lieshout and Robert Went for the care and professionalism with which they produced this extraordinarily excellent study. And secondly, I am pleased to contribute to the interesting and wide discussion the report is evoking in the Netherlands and, I hope, soon in African countries. There, equally wide-ranging debates are already taking place about the relevance of the contributions of internal and international development aid initiatives and processes in Africa. How the conclusions of the WRR report can contribute to debates in Africa will be highly important and should be given careful attention.

I was working in south Sudan last week and read the English summary of the report with my two Sudanese colleagues. I am pleased to share with you some aspects of my discussion with them, regarding some of the key issues raised in the WRR report.

Humility, building trust and respect

Humility is not a quality usually associated with the big goals of international development aid, and is thus a very welcome message in the report. Importantly, the report did not fall into development aid’s traditional pattern of justifying its ‘moral correctness’ nor defending its ‘failures and successes’ – mostly irrelevant issues. Rather, the report politely, correctly and firmly offers a new international ‘common discussion space’ to help people formulate new approaches and directions, for international development aid to function with better results, and to explain why it was started in first place. This broad space had not been created until now.

It is often forgotten that building trust and mutual respect, and less pretension, are fundamental to achievements in any initiative. It is the same for development aid relations, going far beyond money, technology, and ‘guru’ methodologies. This is thus a very welcome point, as it also links directly to the suggestion in the report for a shift from a broad, vague, measurable focus on poverty to a more concrete operational focus on building livelihoods. People want to deal with poverty anywhere, and primarily building livelihoods gives them stronger participation, confidence and access to the resources to eventually remove poverty from their life. Here, the report can be said to open a new, realistic and achievable vision to building new development approaches, especially within Africa, which struggles as a continent with persistent poverty.

Professionalism, building results

Building professionalism, knowledge development and the role of civil society organizations, both in the North and South, are delicate but fundamentally vital issues that often create divides and deep mistrust between the West and Africa, in particular with regard to development aid relations. People too easily assume that all civil society organizations and NGOs – in the West and Africa – are always acting effectively and in the best interests of the poor. And ‘knowledge development and its decentralization’, as directly linked to national capacity building, information sharing and the wider research domain, is very welcome in the report. It is the core basis on which to build genuine development aid relations between national and international development partners, and is yet to happen.

In particular, professionalism that builds on expertise and effective service delivery – as raised in the report – is a very interesting point, suggesting NLAID as a professional entity that would deliver aid funds and programme contracts directly to institutions in Africa and other developing countries, in relation to whatever roles Dutch NGOs would play. Not that aid funds and programme contracts given directly to an African government or African institution would automatically work effectively; rather, the added value here is that resources, knowledge development, ownership, capacity building, responsibility, accountability and learning results production are directly entrusted to beneficiaries who need the support and want to use the support to benefit them.

Something that is often overlooked is the realization that a diplomatic bureaucracy is often motivated by self-interest and mistrust, and development aid relations are primarily built on trust and mutual respect. Thus, the development environment can hardly work effectively when structurally embedded in a diplomatic culture bureaucracy. This is a vital reason that NLAID is a very creative idea that should be explored with great effort.

Limiting the Netherlands’ development aid scope to ten countries globally, as suggested in the report (and as USAID, SIDA, DFID etc. have done), and only to areas such as agriculture, water technologies – areas where the Netherlands is globally recognized as having leading national and international expertise – is very sensible and the correct thing to do. It has less pretention and comes with genuinely high, achievable ambitions. These would be highly welcomed in many African countries as a clear framework of collaboration, as people can only convey to others the knowledge they have themselves (compared to now, where development aid wrongly tries to solve every problem).

And a suggestion would be to consider limiting Dutch bilateral development aid and programme support, outside of multilateral agreements, to a maximum of three African countries at a time. This would come with a strong commitment of fifteen to twenty years in each country respectively, to agriculture and water for example, to build visible country ‘best practice’ cases in Africa, as a basis from which to learn and expand on development aid relations in other countries. The key argument here is stronger policy and political legitimacy, more cost effectiveness, and better managed and better operational planning processes, which would be achieved with concrete, effective, required development aid results. At end of our palaver, I asked my Sudanese friends what key message they took from the WRR report. They looked at each other and laughed:

‘Forgive us, we already have too many problems of our own here in Sudan, and we do not want to be in polite to your Dutch friends. But we tell Peter van Lieshout and Robert Went “thank you”, as the report offers a new beginning for better fruitful development aid relations, and not coming with new development concepts, theories, methods we already in Africa stopped taking seriously … are you satisfied?’

This post also appeared on the Dutch version of this blog ‘Minder pretentie, meer ambitie’