Development cynicism – is there a middle ground?

One year into graduate school is a good time to reflect abit. Recently I have been thinking, talking and reading about the ways development organizations can go wrong and even do harm. Frequently the conclusion is that development organizations must actually give up a large degree of ownership and actually allow people to hold them to account for what they do in those people’s communities. But is this possible? Why are we even going into this field?

This has been on many minds at my school, since the Kony2012 debate. The Fletcher Forum has a great article by Summer Marion, a friend and fellow student, who writes about the extremes of international engagement, from complete isolationism to unchecked free-for-all. The right balance, she suggests, is somewhere in the middle, and development organizations need both introspection and local guidance to find it. Conversations with continuing and graduating students have been less optimistic about finding that balance. Over coffee with another friend, we bashed our chosen industry for being presumptive and patronizing. We questioned whether, as outsiders, wecould ever bring about positive change that people in developing countries actually value.

This topic has been on minds outside academia as well. Charles Kenney makes the same point in simple terms on the Center for Global Development’s blog, in a post aptly titled: “Why don’t they want what weknow they need?”

… two things are clear: first, the presumption should remain that people are smarter about what works for them than you are – at least until you can prove pretty convincingly otherwise. And second, just subsidizing stuff or giving it out for free because you think it must be good for people really doesn’t cut it any more.

Sure, these points all seem obvious. But how can they be put into practice? The system increasingly requires specific, measurable objectives to be met and all this year’s money to be spent in order to get funding. So when your organization has unspent budget, you need to find something to subsidize. When you’re trying to design objectives with limited time and resources, the line of “pretty convincing” can be pretty flexible.

Here’s where we start development-bashing again.

Can donors and NGO’s work together to build both flexibility and accountability into their programs? Can we work towards a system in which people work openly and honestly with the development industry towards changes that they value? Is that even really the system we want – or is it better to have people demand that their government, not NGO’s, be the most trusted and accountable provider of public services?

These questions eat at me. The development field rests on the rather heavy assumption that the answer to all of them is, “yes, there’s a way to do this right.” If any of these fundamental assumptions doesn’t hold, then the whole field is itself part of the problem. Am I training myself to be part of an industry that’s at best irrelevant, at worst downright harmful? I struggle to convince myself that I’m doing the right thing as I barrel forward into a career in development, past the ruins of failed projects and irrelevant consultants’ recommendations about which everyone has a story.

I tell myself that this is why I’m interested in education, youth development, financial inclusion, and the like. These are arms of development industry that can give people the power to change their lives their own way. So the story goes. But even here, the cynicism penetrates.

Ultimately, my reason comes back to human dignity. I amworking my way into this imperfect industry because I want to expand access to the types of opportunities that existed for me and my friends. Because I believe that in this world of so much possibility, it’s a damn shame on our heads that only a few of us have access to that possibility. Because in the end, it’s all about being human with one another. Dag Hammarskjold put it best:

The “great” commitment all to easily obscures the “little” one. Butwithout the humility and warmth which you have to develop in your relations to the few with whom you are personally involved, you will never be able to do anything for the many.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

2 Responses to Development cynicism – is there a middle ground?

  1. alicemforsythe says:

    i have had this exact conversation with myself a million times. you nailed it. i still have to find my “come back to human dignity” thing that keeps my grounded. hoping i find that soon! enjoying senegal??

  2. Thanks. I still have the conversation with myself, and I never quite feel grounded… but it helps to talk / write about it. Senegal is good, despite a slightly rocky road the first couple days. I hope I find some development folks here willing to wax philosophic with me 🙂 and India?

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