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10 Challenges to 'business as usual' for development agencies: FP2P flashback

August 18, 2011
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OMG, nearly three years on and almost everything on this list would still be on today’s version. But at least I could point to progress, in the shape of specific bits of thinking, reseach and/or programming. on nearly all of them. What new additions would go on today’s list, I wonder? Domestic taxation; resource scarcity and planetary boundaries; the damage wrought by an excessively large and powerful financial system – any other candidates?

From Poverty to Power is explicitly not official Oxfam policy, but its combination of literature review, programme experience and extensive discussions, both within Oxfam and beyond, highlights a series of challenges to ‘business as usual’ in the development sector. In response to a number of requests, Penny Lawrence (OGB International Programmes Director) and I put together this initial short-list.

1. What difference does inequality make? Using inequality, rather than poverty, as your starting point takes you in different and potentially more interesting directions. Inequality is about relationships – within households, communities, countries. Reducing inequality by rebalancing power, opportunities and assets is central to development. But how different is that from what we are doing already? If we applied an ‘inequality lens’ to our work, what would we do less/more of? Progressive taxation? Land reform? Birth registration?

2. Do we have a religious blind spot? Religion is a key driver of active citizenship (both good and bad) in many communities. While many believers work in development agencies, and figure prominently among their supporters and overseas partners, the development industry remains largely secular. How could we improve our understanding of the links between faith, religion and development, and engage more constructively with different faith groups?

3. Is it time to go urban? For the first time in history, the world’s population became majority urban in 2007. Burgeoning shanty towns are home to a billion people now, rising to 2 billion by 2030. Yet a glance at their websites will show you that many development agencies continue to focus on rural areas. They argue that this is because most poor people still live in the countryside (and are predicted to do so until 2040). But the shanty towns will probably be home to the new social and political movements in the years to come: urban change is a messy affair, involving some familiar issues – water, education, health and some unfamiliar ones – housing, crime and property rights; do rural-centric development agencies need to follow the migrants into the shanty towns?

4. Is building effective states part of our remit? What is the role of international NGOs in building states (identified in the book as critical to development success)? Do NGOs have an anti-state bias – how many staff see the state as part of the problem, not part of the solution? In both effective and ‘fragile’ states, do we need to work with local government institutions, often following decentralization processes? Where has this been successful? Or should NGOs stick mainly to supporting active citizenship, and their ‘convenor’ role, facilitating dialogue between citizens, states and other actors, such as the private sector?
 
5. Are we biased against waged labour? Experience suggests that what poor people often want more than anything else is a regular wage: job creation is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Yet NGOs can often be ambivalent about labour markets – they support (and campaign for) modern, formal, unionised labour, but in other situations, seem to prefer peasants to casual labourers. Would we rather have no jobs or bad jobs? What determines our view? How much are we listening to the communities we work with?

6. How do we integrate humanitarian and development work better? The book gives added urgency to this organizational chestnut, stressing the role of shocks in driving long-term social and political change and pointing out that many of the emerging issues in development (climate change, social protection) sit between the two camps. These may eventually prompt a wholesale restructuring away from separate ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ departments, but in the meantime, perhaps the best way forward is to identify the best forms of integration across different types of emergency and at different stages of the humanitarian cycle. These would require incorporating issues such as partner strengthening, social protection, institutional and policy reform into our humanitarian work as an emergency develops.

7. The future of INGOs: Although the book avoids large doses of navel-gazing on our role, it does raise some difficult issues on accountability (why have agencies often demanded less of themselves than they have of many corporates?) and political engagement (we need greater clarity on e.g. what it means to be ‘impartial but not neutral’; the difference between becoming more politically literate, and becoming political actors)

8. National v global: The book argues that development remains primarily a national process, born out of the interaction between citizens and states. Global forces, including rich world activists and INGOs, can help or hinder, but they are not the main actors in the drama. That analysis holds implications for how we design both our national programmes and our international campaigns (e.g. Make Poverty History), where big “global” messages can seem incompatible with the analysis of where change really happens.

9. We need a better way to analyse change: Oxfam, along with many other NGOs, describes itself as a “change agent” – but agreeing and making explicit our understanding of how change happens is difficult. From Poverty to Power’s annex on change builds on DFID’s ‘drivers of change’ work and proposes an analytical framework covering both drivers (context, institutions, agents, events) and dynamics (e.g. path dependence, lightbulb moments, alliances), which it applies to eight case studies from individual grassroots struggles to the Gleneagles G8 Summit. However it is still pretty abstract and needs to be refined through experience.

10. And finally, (cheating on the ’10 challenges’ format here…) three other candidates for the short list:
· Migration: we need to understand better its role in development (both internal and international migration) and what policy or programme actions can increase the benefits to both sender communities and migrants themselves
· Democracy: we have a default preference for democracy, but how central is it to development? Does it distort our understanding of active citizenship and development in countries like China and Viet Nam?
· Technology: critical to development, yet many NGOs are instinctively ‘anti’ – stressing issues of risk and control over access to knowledge, and seldom supporting any new technologies (except renewables).

It would be great to hear your views on these (whether you work for Oxfam or not). What stands out? What have I missed? Over to you.

This post was first published in December 2008

6 comments

  1. “the development industry remains largely secular”. Isn’t that just the view from a tiny corner of the Western development industry. I know that the religious right are currently making great social changes in Latin America, the Catholic Church have been in the development industry in Latin America for 500 years. Islam too has always had profound social dimension. We do have a religious blind spot in certain sections of the development industry. Thanks for raising the issue

  2. What a great opportunity Duncan. Here is my wish list of the themes crying out for attention:

    – inside the household and more generally the ‘private’, including the ’emotions’ that help rule them (pace Nancy Folbre work on Trust etc.). Not new by any means and it pops up in all analyses (also in P2P )but still we struggle (much of the problem with our poverty stats, especially from a gender perspective,stem from this)
    – sexualities..how we shy away from this! including the way they are reflected in the constructions of masculities and feminities

    And one smaller point: woud it not be useful to talk about spirituality rather than religion? still a ‘driver of active citizenship’ (sic!) but amplier and perhaps more suitable to a secular industry

  3. I think you can extend point 2 to blind spots about other belief systems and the hybridization of such systems. And it’s not always blind spots of development actors but community members as well. For example, I am constantly surprised to see the influence of Confucianism in SE Asian in supposed Buddhist countries but it’s rarely discussed. Similarly, animism still plays a big part.

    Definitely inequality is about relations and I would have thought that social relations of gender would have been included, particularly as an example of how we cannot understand inequity and priviledge without a relational lens. As Rubin (1975:158) succintly said “What is a domesticated woman? A female of the species…She only becomes a domestic, a wife, a chattel, a playboy bunny, a prostitute or a human dictaphone in certain relations. Torn from these
    relationships, she is no more the help-mate of man than gold in itself is money…”

  4. Thanks so much for this list and some tentative additions.number of good responses here to.

    Two things for this list to consider-perhaps- that we need to look at the global development challenge from emergence of new Southern actors.Connected to this is the financial doldrums-we treat this in an episodic manner but there is a far reaching change and implications that need to be understood and therefore addressed differently.

    The above brings me to the structure and decision making of International Ngos.Mostly immediate post 60s structures that have gone through some cosmetic changes but essentially remains like IMF.WB-unchanged.im not just talking about power issues but also changing the way we are addressing change and the vehicle that we choose to address it.this will mean understanding ourselves more critically-are we ready?tokenism will not take us far.

  5. I am very interested in #2. We see religious influence played out on the world stage daily. The Middle East is a prime example of the constraining weight of religion’s influence on socio-economic conditions….

  6. Thank you very much for this thoughtful post, Duncan.

    Are there studies which have looked into the extent to which NGOs are ‘anti’-technologies? I would also be thankful if you share with us your source for the statement about NGOs “stressing issues of risk and control over access to knowledge”. Thank you very much.
    With best regards,
    Omkar

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