On thicker or sicker problems

Development Policy06 Dec 2011Martine Billanou

Thanks to Michael Edwards for this thought provoking piece.

While I never trusted a direct link between economic growth and human development, questioning the automatism of the link a few years ago was often brushed aside as quite ridiculous. We have now clear evidence showing how average national data hide shocking disparities between rich and poor sections of society and more recent data showing these disparities rapidly worsening in developed countries. The last twenty years have witnessed an amazing growth of inequalities in both the developed and developing world with its accompanying effects on overall corruption, insecurity and overall social failure.

What is most worrying though is the fact that these processes do not seem to be the consequences of articulated visions of society and plans: they look more like the end results of a web of diverse, short term market led initiatives that, together, have long term damming consequences on both environment and societies.

Michael Edwards is right in saying that all these are thick problems getting thicker (I was writing sicker, and finds this written lapsus quite revealing!) and he is also very right in mentioning that current solutions are very thin when compared to the scale and long term implications of the issues.

I naturally sympathise with the views that NGOs are well placed to explore the ʻnew ways of producing and livingʼ necessary in the changing world but would not necessarily applaud the quite drastic shift that the paper suggests.

Of course, options to consider are closely related to the analysis we make. Where I agree that some organisations may wish to focus on addressing the root causes of the problems (and I understand Michael Edwards’ advocating to focus on this) I also fear that the economic and societal changes coming will have such drastic implications for larger proportions of poor and vulnerable people that it will be essential to maintain the significant ‘protection’ and ‘support’ role that many NGOs provide and this, increasingly, in developed countries as well as in developing ones. This entails NGOS to indeed further strengthen their leverage to address issues that aggravate the problems (impact of bio-fuels or price speculation on access to food, land grabbing issues etc..) as well as broadening the analysis and publicising the issues that can fuel/strengthen and generally support global action.

I also do not really follow Michael Edwards when he suggests that emergency and humanitarian response and management of projects should be left to the sole business actors. Share of the pie should not be the motivating factor, but the fact that businesses have to work alongside and with NGOs certainly brings some limitations to the natural ʻfor profitʼ orientation of such businesses and is certainly one of the reasons why these services are still aiming to access harder to reach sections of population and geographical areas. The results of a market oriented world does not lead me to trust a free business trend in humanitarian aid.

Edwardsʼ criticisms of the Christmas tree syndrome (page 13) are sadly valid and I would suggest that even ʼthinʼ problems would require the discipline to stick with a small number of issues over time and address them well. However, despite all the discourses on ʻAid effectiveness’, what we see are sources of funding that seek fast and mostly rapidly visible solutions to problems. But since most problems are the result of a complex set of causes, we end up with a set of outputs, not even thin solutions…

However, but perhaps not throwing all ʻthinʼ solutions like the baby with the bath water, I would agree with the need for NGOs to keep an eye on protecting the likely victims of the changes ahead while carving the space and capacity to look ahead and explore/test innovative solutions that new societal norms, based on increased equity, solidarity and sustainability would require.