Re-Imagining Development

July 16, 2018

The international development world is changing quickly and completely. The first shift that is top of mind for me is that funding sources are shifting. Traditionally, bilateral assistance provided funds for poverty alleviation projects overseas. Now, as many governments face domestic pressures at home to increase education, health, infrastructure, and security budgets, international investments are shrinking. High net worth individuals play increasingly important and influential roles in filling this gap. Take for example Warren Buffet’s $31 billion donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Second, roles are shifting. Many international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have delivered support through a transfer of resources from “developed” countries to “developing” countries. These organizations have often offered technical assistance to support change but then as soon as the organizations leave the country or their internationally-funded projects close, progress screeches to a halt. Not only are these approaches not sustainable, they are often also not appropriate for the local context due to their reliance on outside experts, material, or funding. We’re seeing a trend now toward a more appropriate focus on local leadership, organizations, and networks, which are inherently more sustainable.

Third, as bilateral funding sources decline and international organizations are increasingly replaced by local organizations, there is a consolidation in the development industry that is altering what was once a fairly stable landscape. Mergers, acquisitions, and strategic alliances combine institutional capabilities with resources on a scale that was previously unknown. The international NGOs that continue to operate in a “business as usual” mode are the ones that will likely fold. The NGOs that will thrive are the ones that can re-imagine development and bring this vision to fruition.

What should this new vision look like? For starters, it shouldn’t be imagined here in the U.S. or any other center of historic power and resources.  Drivers of change from what has been called the “Global South” are taking center stage and their voices are increasingly powerful in international development discourse. This means that organizations based in what has been called the “Global North” need to adapt their roles, moving from being leaders and implementers of development projects to serving as knowledge brokers, influencers of policy change, and fundraisers instead.

Mark Green, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, took up his role late last year and shared his vision for development: to end the need for foreign assistance.  He has called for more measurements around a country’s capacity, and a greater focus on a country’s policies and incentives to adopt the right priorities to support them on their journey to self-reliance.

Any vision of development that is appropriate to the setting must start with a deep understanding of the political context. This kind of approach calls for adaptive management as political situations change, and skillful analysis on a regular basis to know what is driving change and what is holding it back. This kind of work often gets to the heart of power dynamics and can upset the status quo, so it must be done with care and consideration. In other words, these aren’t academic exercises but often hard-hitting, truth-telling reports that not everyone may want to hear. Any new development vision must take these complexities into account if it is to be meaningful.

Learning and evidence need to drive new approaches and innovation.  At a time when oppressive governments are ever smarter about their methods and tactics, it is more important than ever for activists and reformers to collaborate. Empowered networks are at the heart of any new development paradigm, with international organizations playing a convening and capacity building role.

A powerful illustration comes from Counterpart’s work in Ukraine. Ukraine is a country experiencing transition and conflict. It is transitioning to democracy and pursuing EU membership while simultaneously engaging in active conflict with Russia that includes traditional warfare, cyber-attacks, and social media disinformation. The internet is at risk of becoming more securitized and less democratic as the Ukrainian government orders the blocking of hundreds of Russian-language websites. Proposals are floating in the Parliament to require internet service providers to install surveillance technology to enforce the blocking – bills that will be voted on any day now, and will determine what access Ukrainians have to viewpoints and conversations that their government disagrees with. In response to this threat, Counterpart’s network of partners issued a ten-point declaration of principles of internet freedom in Ukraine. These principles serve to unite the Ukrainians fighting for a free internet, open discourse, and political transparency, and will act as the basis for the coalition’s advocacy efforts moving forward.

Perhaps locally grown movements like those fighting in Ukraine can serve as a model for a new vision for international development; one driven by countries where the challenges exist, and in partnership with those who want to support them. Not the other way around.

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