Emmely Benschop: Change we can believe in?

Development Policy02 Feb 2010Emmely Benschop

Ever since ‘change’ was the key word in Barack Obama’s successful election campaign, it has been omnipresent in politics, the news and public debate. Mr Obama, however, must have discovered by now that turning change into practice is a highly complicated matter. As his predecessor Woodrow Wilson once accurately pointed out: ‘If you want to make enemies, try to change something’.

The recent report of the Scientific Council for Government policy (WRR) on Dutch development cooperation also calls for change. By questioning some long-established development mantras, the WRR has managed to shake up the Dutch development community and ignited a lively debate. According to their thorough analysis of Dutch development policies, we should start directing our aid flows to fewer countries and integrate global issues into our development policies. They also recommend that we stimulate ‘self-reliance’ in development countries: aid should focus more on development and less on immediate poverty reduction. This would require a ‘substantial change in the way Dutch development cooperation is organised’. But will this report result in a professionalization of the Dutch development sector? Or will it lead to yet another set of hollow terms that every organization can use as they see fit?

A classic model in change management is Ajzen’s model of planned behaviour, which sets forth three important predictors of change: a positive attitude towards change, external pressure, and a (perceived) ability to carry out the new behaviour. If we consider the reactions to the report in light of Ajzen’s theory, what are the real chances that this report will bring about a new approach to development cooperation?

Are we willing to change?

Let’s start with analysing the attitude to the proposed change by looking at the reactions of the organizations that need to be reformed. The report in general seems to have been very well received by reputable Dutch NGOs, such as Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and ICCO. However, when it comes to the implementation, the NGOs only support a subset of the recommendations that are in line with their current practice and strategy. Oxfam Novib, for example, states: ‘We need to be better at finding global solutions to problems that particularly affect the poor countries. This is something that we find very appealing and is also the way Oxfam Novib has been operating for years in the international arena’. Cordaid says: ‘We are very familiar with the analysis made in this report. As a matter of fact, some of the important elements already serve as a basis of our strategy’. Similarly, ICCO concludes that the report supports the argument for their agenda of renewal, which they initiated five years ago.

It seems like the NGOs are experiencing a phenomenon which we refer to as cognitive dissonance: faced with the paradox that some of the goals they pursue may not necessarily benefit development, they selectively pick the recommendations that suit their current practice and leave out all other information.

Bert Koenders, the Dutch minster of development cooperation, does not seem to be doing much better. His initial reaction to the WRR report was critical of almost all of the recommendations, but recognizes that some of the elements may help advance his agenda of modernization. Unsurprisingly, the minister is very supportive of the recommendation to strengthen the position of the minister for development cooperation, as this would increase his political clout. He welcomes a stronger cooperation between his ministry and the other ministries on global issues such as environment, energy and peace. But cooperating is all about sharing power and making concessions. Indeed, ministries tend to become territorial when it comes to issues that they feel are within their line of responsibility. Some ministries are already complaining about undue interference by the minster of development cooperation. So Mr. Koenders might have a positive attitude towards this particular idea of the report, but will have a hard time convincing others.

Do we feel the need to change?

This brings us to the second predictor of change, the perceived pressure that is needed to get organizations moving. The NGOs all seem to agree that something needs to change; in the words of Cordaid, ‘the WRR searches for an answer to the urgent question why after 40 years of development cooperation so many people are still living below the poverty line’. Chapter one of the WRR report describes in detail why it is needed to critically assess our development cooperation policies. Among others, they highlight the sharpening public debate, the evolving world order and new concepts of development. At the same time, they illustrate the volatility of these issues: the pressure to change is in place, but there’s no stable view on what the direction should be. The WRR has tried to define this direction, but will this also lead to a more focused pressure on the development community to follow the new path?

The political parties would be able to push for change, but seem to be lacking a clear consensus. They too seem very selective in the recommendations they support. The christen-democrats and liberal party, for example, seem to agree that it is all about effectiveness and not so much about maintaining the 0.7% GDP norm to spend on development cooperation. But whereas the CDA remains fully committed to investing in education and healthcare, the VVD welcomes the recommendations particularly with respect to supporting the emerging middle class and stimulating a sound business environment. The socialist and labour party do not seem inclined to drop the 0.7% GDP norm, but do support some of the other recommendations.

In general, you could state that the perceived need to change does exist, but it does not necessarily lead in the direction proposed by the WRR report.

Are we able to change?

Now assuming the willingness to change exists and the outside pressures to do so would also be in place, does the report provide enough guidelines to the development community to implement the change? As Willemijn Verkoren points out in one of the previous posts in this online discussion, many of the report’s findings need further elaboration. Oxfam Novib also indicates they are in need of further explanation: they are highly positive about the recommendations to incorporate global issues in development, but miss clarity on how the broadening and globalization of the development agenda can be implemented in practice.

Another thing the WRR report is not able to provide is a clear definition of the term ‘self-reliance’. The term sounds discomforting, much like ‘ownership’ and ‘demand-driven’, buzzwords everybody loves to use in conferences, project proposals and articles, but which in practice can be applied in myriad ways. So in the case of self-reliance, who decides whether and when a country is fully self-supportive? Would this decision lie with the donor community? Or would the recipient countries have to make that decision? Moreover, the definition of self reliance is very likely to be culturally dependent. The WRR report does not provide sufficient guidance on these issues.

Chances for change?

Whether the WRR report will lead to change depends on the joint efforts of all the Dutch parties involved in development cooperation.

First of all, the Dutch development community needs to have the courage to face the criticism and change their mind about some of the goals they have been pursuing. John Kenneth Galbraith once said: ‘Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof’. Faced with the WRR’s analysis, it would be too easy to just pick and choose whatever suits our preconceptions and put the rest aside. Although some of the WRR conclusions might be disputable, it is nonetheless an important tool for reflection for any organization involved in development cooperation. We have to be able to admit mistakes and change our course of action to bring about a positive impact on development.

When we come to the point of external pressure, there is an important role for the political parties to play. Instead of just referring to some recommendations that support their previous statements, they should take the report seriously and work hard to reach a consensus and push for the appropriate actions to be taken.

Finally, in order to improve the ability to change, a joint effort is needed in making the recommendations concrete. The expertise of the persons in this online discussion, for example, can make an important contribution in ensuring our development cooperation will lead to a change for the better.