It has been seven yrs since I started my journey into the world of international development, which is a very short amount of time. Throughout that time, I’ve engaged in many debates about the subject, and I’m sure they will continue into the future. It is also a matter that will, I believe, become increasingly debated in the UK as the Government is put under huge pressure over current budget cuts. The UK aid budget is currently being protected.
I guess this post is a brief record of my thoughts on development and the personal questions I have around some of the issues within the development sector today. I obviously believe in the premise of development and aid, and will challenge the often heard positions and opinions I hear against development in the mainstream media. The common viewpoints range from the overly simplistic statements like ‘charity starts at home’ to more nuanced opinions around creating dependency and developing a new form of colonialism to keep Western hegemony alive and well! I agree with elements of the later and little of the former. The list could go on around development and the different approaches taken, and the rights and wrongs of each of them.
It is important to consider that development is an extremely broad field and many different approaches are taken by individuals, charities, and Governments. The Japanese approach to aid is very different to the UK approach, Oxfam’s to World Vision etc. It is also important to consider that of course some aid is bad and some is good, like businesses, some are good and some are bad. Here is the first challenge, ultimately, businesses are judged on growth,and rising share value. What can you measure development against? As you can imagine social development is a lot more complex than efficiency and the bottom line. Social development is multifaceted and non-linear, so can easily be labelled as inefficient and resource intensive. I whole heartedly believe that development interventions need to be measured but the complexity of what is measured and the results are less easy to translate to a mass audience in snappy media statements, like the end of year reports from HSBC. This results in NGOs and Governments over simplifying the impacts they have and in turn over-simplifying the process of development.
I don’t think that just because something in the commercial sense is inefficient, it shouldn’t be done. Inefficiency creates learning and creates results. However, it is important that lessons are learnt from ‘failures’ or inefficiency. Governments, NGOs and individuals need to be able to admit failure, without fear of a media backlash that will reduce potential resources available for development work. I fully believe that the media should scrutinise the development sector, it needs it, but in an objective and mature way, which is not the media’s strong point. Viewing figures, papers sold and political agendas drives the UK media more than objectivity, not to mention the lack of context in reporting when covering complex issues (as do blog posts!).
The increasing drive to demonstrate impact has rapidly pushed the development sector to professionalise and as a result, development has entered into the free-market, it is now big business. I fully agree with professionalism and I believe that non-nationals working in development need development skills to do that work or to work closely with people who do. In the same light I would not expect town planners to do their work without the relevant training or social workers to support families without the appropriate skills.
The challenge with professionalism mixed with the free-market is money. There are an increasing number of consultancies popping up over the globe to lift people out of poverty. This in itself is not a problem, as it creates competition, innovation and (hopefully) better results. The problem comes when the market value of development consultants climbs. If poverty reduction is in part about reducing inequality, it is hard to justify the high daily rates that some development consultants/staff are paid. The knock on effect is that this pushes traditional ‘aid agencies’ to offer relatively high salaries for skilled ‘non-national’ staff, again contributing to a form of inequality. I understand the need for agencies to attract skilled non-national staff due to the frequent skill gaps in country and money is a great way to do that. Just to highlight one of these gaps, in the UK we have 1 doctor per 370 people and in Papua New Guinea there is 1 doctor per 18,868 people.
My dilemma is that, should we in the profession of development make a stand against this increasing gap between the ‘ex-pat’ workers and national workers? This is a reality for me as a ‘volunteer’, as my living allowance is considerably higher than all of my colleagues’ wages. Obviously, it would be hard for non-national development workers/health professionals to live alongside Papua New Guinean colleagues due to the huge cultural gap and what we are both used to but I truly believe we can get closer. Surely development is not about supporting ‘ex-pats’ to live lives they could not dream of in their own country’s!