Big development, Small development. Red fish, Blue fish

Development is too big.

This is a thought I jotted down in my journal one day in Niger. Today it gets more depth, but after all this time it gets more depth.

What do I mean by this? When people think of development work, they think of big projects funded by big donors implemented by Big International NGOs (one of my favorite acronyms). This view is historically how the aid industry has seen its work, and it persists among many professionals. However, Big Development also seeps into the thinking of people in poor countries and communities, making concepts like “development” and “progress” seem too removed and inaccessible. Your average Nigerien can’t do development in his or her community – that’s the job of les projets! Even local development committees, often created by NGOs in the towns they work in, often seek external funding for their activities.

What happened to the small things that people do in their own towns, with their own resources, to improve them? Upgrading a school, working with children, growing an innovative small business? In the town where I served in Peace Corps, there was a small community center that had a library, outdoor space and potential as an activity or training center for youth. But who used it? Only NGOs when they needed a neutral meeting space. I got in debates with several people about its potential for community initiatives, but everyone just wanted outside support.

My point was not that outside support wouldn’t help – it definitely would – but that small, locally-funded initiatives should count as ci gabba, or “forward progress”. Most disagreed, including the guys who volunteered at the center.

I’m not implying that people are lazy or unmotivated, which is not the case. Rather, I am arguing that since the conception of “development” and “progress” has become so associated with large-scale initiatives and external funding, community groups’ efforts are directed towards bringing these things to their communities. This makes sense, given the incentives faced by many community leaders, local NGOs and individuals. But all those efforts at “bringing development” distract from “doing development” that people have the power and assets to do themselves.

And so, the blue fish. Small development is the idea that any positive change in a town counts as “development”. It’s not just the big projects that get to call themselves development, it’s also those community-based efforts – building small change on top of small change – that constitute ci gabba

I don’t discount big development. Schools and hospitals, rule of law and good governance programs, trafficking and labor practices… all these issues have real international stakeholders and need global support. Big research and technical support organizations can provide invaluable support to developing country policymaking. The MDGs are worthwhile goals, and the conversation about post-2015 is looking promising on inclusiveness and equality. But I think in the entire international development community, there should be far more recognition – and value – given to small development efforts that aren’t necessarily contributing to any particular goal or objective.

Small development can avoid the development community, with people doing things in their own communities. An example, also from my town in Peace Corps, was a friend of mine who fenced off a portion of his yard (with the usual millet stalk fence) and planted, tended and sold a local variety of cucumber. The ground was basically sand, but he was diligent about watering, protecting and harvesting these fruits nobody else took the effort to grow. He took a patch of sand and made it productive, and made a little money to boot. I cite a few other examples here.

However, small development can also be promoted by international organizations. Slight paradox, perhaps. But many non-profits and social enterprises are providing support to organizations working on community or national issues, and reducing their need for international help. A few examples:

  • First a great one I just learned about: Eleven leaders of national civil society across West Africa were trained in the mundane-but-necessary skills for running an organization, by the West Africa Research Association based at BU. These include the leader of a youth-produced journal on youth culture in Burkina Faso, and a young Nigerien man working to spread “positive and progressive hip hop culture in West Africa.” They learned management skills and, just as importantly, formed a network and continue to share ideas and connections. Yes, small – but think if NGOs and research associations across the world poured their support towards this?
  • Savings groups, often known as “Village Savings and Loan Associations,” are another good example. Though usually jump-started by NGOs, these are groups of people (often women) who pool and accumulate assets, loan these savings out, and manage these assets entirely themselves. It’s a money management tool, AND participants see their initial investment grow. And asset accumulation doesn’t even have to be started by an outsider – the susus of Ghana or tandas in the US and Latin America are self-organized.
  • “Community-Led Total Sanitation” (CLTS) is another good example, in a more traditional development domain: latrine building. The basic approach is to convince people to build latrines for their household, but provide no external assistance, neither in latrine design nor financial support. Instead, it uses visceral demonstrations of how open defecation leads to illness, and immediately after secures commitment by people in the town to build their own latrines. In one meeting I attended to explain this to Nigerien field staff, most resistance came from the “no external assistance whatsoever” part. Surely, we can give them some plastic, or help them design cheap structures, something! But this approach is firm, and a positive side effect of better sanitation is working against the perception that any progress requires external resources.
  • The One Acre Fund in East Africa is doing pretty good small development, selling agricultural inputs to farmers and ensuring they know how to use them. They’re not (I don’t believe) importing seeds nor giving things away, but rather connecting local breeders, small farmers and markets. It’s about helping people add value to what they already do.

I’d call these small development because of that last sentence: helping people add value to what they do, or what’s already there. Supporting national organizations with management training and networking, making them more independent of external help (and not crowding them out!). Turning local raw materials and creative minds into good latrine designs. This is adding value at the community or national level, and promoting the idea of this as development.

There are far more examples than this, especially of national organizations doing excellent work in their own countries. I’d love to hear more!


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.

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