Apparently the world of international development is at an impasse – so many theories, so many conferences, so many papers published, and still the poor remain poor and the development workers somewhat at a loss.; The journey has been long – from a certain General Marshall’s utterances in 1947 through the large-scale construction projects, from the ‘discovery’ of poverty by the World Bank in the seventies to the present day era of glamour-aid. Though some successes have been noted, poverty on the whole is still here – and increasing. More importantly, the results of all this effort is contested– listen to the best and worst of aid here.
So then, why is so much goodwill generating such conflicting results? What are we doing wrong? Well, this is my view – in the first instance, what is development? My belief is that development is – in the words of McEwan – a natural, immanent evolutionary process without intentionality. What I think he means is that, left alone, people will find a way to improve their lot in life. That in fact this is an instinctive drive in all of humanity to improve our condition. We do this in a form of trial and error – learning, adjusting, adapting – and in the process, developing or improving. The process is as important as the result. But more importantly, the result is not always clear at the beginning – so for instance I set off thinking I am going to be a farmer, and through trial and error find that actually I am a talented musician, and maybe I should be a rock star. We all more or less meander our way through life in this way – and the key thing here is that we make the choice of what lessons to keep, and what lessons to discard – a process described by sociology as agency : the ability of people to make independent choices.
However, with the ‘discovery’ of poverty, development changed from being a natural process informed by independent choice, to ‘an intentional practice with a set goal’ i.e. a means to create order out of the social disorder of rapid urbanisation, poverty and unemployment. Development thus could be determined and directed towards a known end using suitable tools. This therefore meant that someone (the development expert) sat down and decided what the desired goal was (the poor person will be a farmer not a rock star) and then said expert devises tools to make this happen. Expert then sells plan to a donor and a timescale is agreed – so development worker has 3 years to turn poor person into a farmer.
This is where the fun begins. We have had five decades of tools of development – from the original blue-prints that assumed so much and achieved so little. We have redefined words like participation, local ownership, sustainability etc. In fact we have even debated and understood agency (and then tried to manage it…..) We have created complex tools like the log-frame. Conference papers have been read in their numbers, and small successes hailed. But in the main – people are still poor. And now we have an impasse.
The impasse is, I believe, the best thing to come out of international development. Because now we can look at what development is – a natural process. And what it is not – the intentional practice. All the effort of trying to harness what is essentially an internal process has not worked because it cannot work. No amount of planning and funding can replace agency – the need for people to make independent choices. Both those who hand over this internal drive to another, and those who try to manage this in the lives of other people – no matter how well intentioned, will fail. Development is the process, it’s what people achieve for themselves – it cannot be planned and managed by a third party.