Has development lost sight of hope?

Inclusive Economy22 Feb 2017Jonathan van Dijke, Henk Jochemsen

In September 2015, international development cooperation entered a new era with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Similar to many other ‘launches’ in this sector, these goals have inspired hope. The 2030 agenda is expected to really transform our world with truly global goals. But what place does hope have in development? In this article we analyse the development sector using three frames that represent interlinked processes that have shaped development practice, namely: sources of hope, the practices of politics and administration, and critical reflection1.  We argue that these three frames should linked in order to make development cooperation more effective.

With the shift from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the SDGs in international development, it is critical to reflect on why, as well as how, to implement the SDGs. This article suggests a three-framed analysis to help us see that processes of hope, action and reflection have been, and still are, key to the effectiveness of development practice.

The first frame is characterised by hope, as embodied in the SDG agenda, which promises global change, poverty alleviation, justice and sustainability. In the years following World War II, a similar vision was present, although grounded in different motivations. At that time, important issues included decolonization, securing world peace, and preventing the atrocities of World Wars I and II from ever happening again. Content-wise, development was still very much based on a western modernization concept. Numerous large global institutions were established and development as hope was soon overtaken by politics and administration, with a focus on executing programmes and projects according to procedures established by donor bureaucracies. In combination with the ideal of modernization, this led to development projects and policies that were donor-driven and goal-technical, lacking sensitivity to local contexts. As a result, the development ‘industry’ often failed to reach the poorest. In 2000 this led to the MDGs. However, while the programmes implemented in this context have had significant results, they have not slowed the rise of neoliberal economics, with its increasing inequality in power and resources, nor has they been able to end severe poverty. The hope that motivated the MDGs was not fulfilled, leading to a new movement of reflection, which has become increasingly vocal and critical of development cooperation. 

An aid system at the edge of chaos 

The rise of the academic post-development school (with authors such as Escobar, Ferguson and Rist2) marks a switch to an era of distrust of big institutions and ‘big money’ in a neoliberal system, as well as disbelief in the ‘makeability’ of society. Also, the public have turned away from big institutions and are looking to ‘private initiatives’ to present solutions. Institutionalized development cooperation is facing a crisis of legitimacy. Modern development cooperation can be characterized as an aid system ‘at the edge of chaos’3. As the ‘development project’ is rooted in Western ideas of modernization, criticisms of modernization have led to criticisms of development. These criticisms are reflected in the messages of various populist leaders in Europe and the new US president. That part of the population who support development cooperation (apart from humanitarian aid) is diminishing. Isolationist and self-interested policies are becoming more popular than ideas of solidarity and justice. This is also reflected in the severe cuts made by the Dutch government to Official Development Aid, which is directed to structural development programmes.

In the decades after World War II, most NGOs found their legitimacy in their constituencies, which they engaged with on the basis of their own specific values, political motivations or religious backgrounds. Today, in order to get institutional funding, NGOs working in development must adopt an institutional-managerial focus to comply with donor requirements for professionalization and accountability: they must work to the donor’s goals, sometimes at the expense of their own identity. This has led to a loss of support from the public, which engages with such NGOs on the basis of their values or world view. This, in turn, has made NGOs more dependent on institutional funding. However, professionalization and accountability and being religiously-based and value-driven are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, the first can easily push the latter into second place, with ramifications for public support.  

Towards a constructive dialogue rooted in moral conviction 

The legitimacy crisis for NGOs is in part due to lack of a genuine critical and constructive debate on how we can make this world of aid and development an instrument for global justice. Thus, we call for new constructive thinking in which the institutional-managerial focus of NGOs is brought into dialogue with the post-development school, which has taken a critical stance on the modern development paradigm. Meanwhile, in the field of international development cooperation, drastic changes are taking place. Established positions are becoming contested and activities are increasingly being realized through networks and partnerships involving multiple actors with a variety of actors in the lead. The role of the private sector has become more explicit and the private sector is increasingly becoming involved in all kinds of partnerships, including public-private partnerships, sometimes involving NGOs as well. While this has created new opportunities, it has also created new risks and raised new questions, including about ethics in the financial and economic world.

The SDGs have brought a surge of hope that is being translated into policies and procedures for ‘doing’ right now. While we are not advocating that these goals be transformed into a new unrealistic, manmade utopia, with a sole focus on hope and moral motivations, it is important that they do not disappear from the politics of doing by institutions or from the critiques of post-development thinkers. Thus, the task is to hold these processes together by consciously organizing  opportunities for rooting development work in moral convictions related to different world views, as well as to critically reflect, not just on the work itself, but on its presuppositions and vested interests. 

This article is based on a study by Prisma in the context of a new trajectory of reflection on cooperation in development from a Christian perspective.


  1. These three frames are adapted from: Giri, A. K., & Van Ufford, P. Q. (2004). A Moral Critique of Development: Ethics, Aesthetics and Responsibility. Aalborg, Denmark: Institut for Historie, Internationale Studier og Samfundsforhold, Aalborg Universitet. (21)
  2. See: Escobar, A. (2012). Encountering development: The making and the unmaking of the third world (2nd edition). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Ferguson, J. (1994). The anti-politics machine: Development, depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho; Rist, G. (2007). Development as a buzzword. Development in Practice, 17(4–5), 485–491.
  3. Ramalingam, B. (2013). Aid on the edge of chaos: Rethinking international cooperation in a complex world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.