All posts in Analysis

Connecting Local Realities: The case of women’s groups in Kenya

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

In recent years, there has been increasing focus on the role of women in development. A number of countries have committed themselves to tackling gender issues with the goal of improving the socio-economic status of women. This position of women is seen to be crucial for achieving wider developmental and social goals. Kenya, for example, has initiated a number of activities and policies that address the socio-economic empowerment of women, ensuring its integration in national development strategies aimed at achieving targets such as the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, efforts from International Organisations (IOs) and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also contributed to the advancement of gender equality, especially within the education sector. However, their efforts do not always reach local women’s groups in rural Kenya, who themselves struggle to access the necessary information available to them. Although there exist initiatives that attempt to resolve this crucial chasm, improving connectivity is the key to local women’s groups partnering up with other actors in order to strengthen rural development.

Since the 1990s, an increasing number of women’s groups have been formed at both the grassroots and the national level in Kenya. Women’s groups make up the majority of local initiatives in rural development and they can play a fundamental role in the alleviation of poverty and addressing the social problems in their local communities. The motivations behind the formation of these groups vary from groups and communities: some groups are formed primarily to improve the living standards of their members, and some often in response to challenging situations faced by the community at the time, such as prolonged drought, famine or at times of socio-economic stress.  Some groups, such as the Mwethya women’s groups of Machakos District, are known for their commitment to water and soil conservation activities. On top of the need to conserve land, the key factors for the groups’ motivations is also the training, education and advice they receive.

Many women’s groups have multiple agendas, and act as catalysts for manifold national development targets. These include poverty alleviation and the eradication of hunger, promote gender equality and empower women. A number of women’s groups in Nyamusi Division in Nyamira County, that undertake women economic empowerment programs engage in activities of income generation such as merry-go-rounds, known as a chama. A chama is a scheme where members pool their resources for investment, allowing them to access the resources to address individual, family or community challenges. Women’s groups in the Nyamusi Division also run programs that range from household poverty reduction programs; education programs, for example to address the need for equal opportunities for boys and girls in schools; or health initiatives to raise awareness in the community of the importance of good nutrition and hygiene, and the effects of HIV/AIDs; as well as social initiatives to raise awareness and tackle gender-based violence.

And yet despite evidence reporting the contributions of women’s groups to community-based activities and socio-economic and national development, there is still a crucial gap between the national and international entities working towards universal development goals, and the women’s groups who are contributing to these same goals. Efforts have certainly been made by governemental organisations, IOs and NGOs to increase funding and support for women in Kenya. NGOs have contributed to the facilitation and support of women’s groups, many of which provide guidance, loans, materials or training. Governmental efforts have also contributed to the economic empowerment of women, such as the Uwezo Fund and Women Enterprise Fund, are initiatives to finance and support women-led businesses and enterprises throughout the country.

However, these governmental initiatives are not reaching many women, let alone many rural women’s groups. Studies reflect that there are still barriers impeding the success of these women’s groups, and inadequate funding is a primary concern. For the women’s groups in the Nyamusi Division, this is certainly one of the leading obstacles they face. Lack of funding along with high levels of poverty mean that many programs, including merry-go rounds and income generation activities struggle to remain sustainable and effective, especially when individual members are unable to contribute financially and are obliged to leave the group. A problem that often occurs with NGOs supporting women’s groups is the traditional structure and approach that still drives many NGOs. They have a tendency to create dependency through non-local leadership. NGOs setting their own agendas instead of listening to the agendas set by local groups, make the latter adapt to the former. This then leads to a donor-recipient relationship, with the relationship turning into one of one-directional need, rather than partnership. Other constraints that can hinder their potential advancement include certain cultural norms, which can prohibit the full participation of women in rural development, such as women’s rights to land and property. Despite the elimination of gender bias in Kenya’s legal framework, many women are still unaware of laws that protect their rights to property ownership.

In addition to these barriers, there is another important question to explore: if the government’s incentive is there, why is it not going to the women that need its support? For many women’s groups, the answer is simple: they lack access to the knowledge and the tools necessary to connect to these opportunities. Many women’s groups lack the information to access funding and support; in fact, rural women’s access to current information in general is one of the major challenges facing women in developing countries. Access to relevant and affordable information is particularly scarce for those who are marginalized either by their locality, gender or due to limited access to other resources. Another important factor is poor infrastructure, which imposes constraints on women’s groups.

The importance of access to information cannot be underestimated, it is the gateway to finding essential knowledge, resources and funding required for the success and sustainability of women’s groups. There have been some innovative approaches to tackle the lack of access to information, such as the Association of Media Women in Kenya who set up the ‘radio listening groups’ initiative to make information more accessible to marginalized communities. Through these, some women have learned how to access the UWEZO Fund, as well as information on government services. But initiatives that focus on connectivity are too scarce.

Connections to multiple sources of information increases women’s awareness of their rights to land and property, to available funding, to resources and materials, to knowledge and ideas. Connectivity would enable women’s groups to proactively find and choose the resources that will allow them to proceed with their initiatives, without relying on a third party, without depending on external approaches, but with direct connections to partners beyond regional borders. It is fundamental to bridge that chasm between national and international partners on the one hand, and local partners on the other. Both sides are strengthened through these relationships; with this connectivity comes access to information, and with information comes further growth.


Localising the Post-2015 Debate: What are the realities?

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , / -

On my flight to Nairobi, Kenya in March this year, I sat next to Lydia, a director of a subsidised maternal health centre in the outskirts of Nairobi. I was itching to find out if the waiver of maternity fees in all public hospitals in Kenya as declared by president Uhuru Kenyatta two years ago, was making a difference as far reducing maternal deaths is concerned (Millennium Development Goal (MDG) no.5 – improve maternal health care). Lydia spoke of the doubts that many Kenyan women continue to have about the quality of maternal health care in public hospitals now that it has been made free. When I asked her whether there was awareness on MDG no.5 among the health professionals she has interacted with, she mentioned the health goals are not known by many local health workers and are usually first encountered when seeking for funding from international foundations and thus perceived as donor-driven. She pointed out that the health goals amongst others needed to be better communicated and ‘localised’ with incentives for them to be achieved.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) akin to MDGs, are discussed and agreed upon between United Nations, international organisations and country representatives. However their successful uptake and implementation depend on the involvement of ordinary local people who are not always aware of the objectives nor included in the decision making process. The anecdote above begs for a more detailed account of why localising SDGs is important and what simply the breaking down of these goals to locals implies for their achievement. Localising the SDGs is about getting the message understood and put to action beyond the national level. It is about making sure locals or ordinary citizens, businesses and community based organisations have a clear understanding of what these global development goals are for in order to fuse the goals with their own ideas or businesses. It is about them seeing that they have a stake in them and are hence motivated to insist that their leaders work with them towards making them a reality.

One of the key reasons to localise SDGs is that regional or local governments as well as other local actors (private sector, informal groups and community based organisations) are best placed to inspire and monitor ownership and commitment to realise these goals. Understanding that SDGs are not externally driven but part of improving livelihoods, can create an incentive for the locals to participate in their uptake. A localised approach of SDGs follows a multilevel and multi-stakeholder approach in enabling transformative agendas at the local level and a strong national commitment that provides adequate legal frameworks and institutional financial capacity to local and regional. The lower tier of government in many developing countries enjoys closeness to ordinary citizens and therefore serves as an essential partner and agent for change on the ground. The realities on the ground whether man-made or environmental cannot escape the observation of local leaders, and they are far better placed to understand which groups are marginalised, and how to involve them in bringing about change. The access of local actors is particularly essential in reaching out to invisible and ignored  groups who have for a long time been the subject in international development. Furthermore, national governments in most cases rely on local authorities for an assessment of the local requirements as well as capabilities.

Localising SDGs can also be a vehicle to building legitimacy of the national and local governments. Local governments play a fundamental role in ensuring that there is accountability, equity, transparency and rule of law when it comes to service delivery to citizens. When services are delivered to locals and they are content, citizens gain confidence and trust in government activities in their lives. Moreover, being on the frontline and affiliated to central government, local governments possess legitimacy; the SDGs demand national commitment to provide the necessary legal framework and financial as well as institutional capacity to local and regional governments. This ‘call-to-action’ to central governments pushes the implementation beyond the adoption of goals only in the national agendas but decentralising it to the local level, which was not done nor mentioned in the MDGs.

Duncan Green and his colleagues have underscored the importance of examining whether MDGs strengthened or weakened the social contract between citizens and the state, i.e. the impact of MDGs at the national level and what kind of decisions were made from the national to the local levels. The MDGs and SDGs stemmed from principles of the Millennium Declaration aimed at according various rights to people globally. Engaging locals and their leaders to understand and implement SDGs presents an opportunity to strengthen the social contract between the state and its citizens. By raising awareness of the goals, and creating the climate for people to follow through with the adoption of SDGs which can then feed into their own personal development, local involvement is likely to be guaranteed and government would have also in a sense fulfilled their role.

Accepting and acting on the fact that local communities understand their situation and can best articulate what is needed to make their lives better, is yet to take firm root in international development. Beyond 2015, an aggregate of ongoing Post-2015 debates equally shows that evidence for the goals to ensure involvement of locals abounds. Initiatives such as the Ground Level Panels which were held in Uganda, Brazil, Egypt and India, revealed the importance the groups surveyed put on inclusion, rights and identity and less attention on gender or water or energy or aid which were more emphasised by the High Level Panel.Localising SDGs in this case means recognising the potential of, or ongoing projects led by groups commonly perceived as vulnerable or marginalised. It calls for a shift from solely focusing on the vulnerabilities of these communities and moving on to harmonising their ideas with the targets of the SDGs.  As sharply articulated by GCAP Co-Chair Marta Benavides  ‘it is not for these people to accompany development but for development to accompany these people’.

In translating the SDGs into practice, local governments will inevitably face challenges. One of these challenges with particular relevance to implementation to be conducted by local governments touches on choosing the relevant targets and setting them at the local level. The targets that could be taken up will ultimately depend on country policies, priorities and decentralisation and how they can also be aligned with national and local development plans. This alignment requires governments to set aside funding – an issue which remains thorny in many developing countries, some of which express that SDGs similar to MDGs did not take into account voices of those in developing countries.  The question of financing SDGs is also problematic because the goal setting has been primarily externally led, and there is a high probability of SDGs being perceived as another excuse to channel aid into developing countries, which reinforces traditional narrative of development with ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors‘. In a recent consultative meeting on Post-2015, some government officials complained that during the MDGs, donors did not provide funds to support ‘their’ MDG. Therefore in some circles, the feeling that SDGs are still donor driven remains strong and is hindering the ownership of these goals contrary to what localisation is advocating for. Recent debates on how to pay for the SDGs by the big financiers also unveiled the interests by different international organisations to channel money to specific sectors and not to others. These interests contravene the core goals of the SDGs meaning that for the local needs to be given priority, the narrative of development also needs to change to one that puts people first.

The means of implementing SDGs is a chance for member countries particularly in developing countries to mould the goals into country-specific development agendas and find ways of financing them. That way, local ownership will also be assured and the development narrative that speaks of partners is likely to develop in the long run. Several domestic options to finance SDGs have been tabled ranging from foreign direct investment, impact investment, tax collection from natural resources (put forth by the African Union) and close collaboration with the private sector. These domestic resource mobilisation options are also more likely to better take into account the needs of local actors and propose what kind of collaboration will be necessary with international actors. By focusing on local alternatives to finance the goals, Lydia and other health professionals in Kenya will understand the relevance of SDGs in their work.


Global Problems, Local Solutions: The Case of C.A.R. and the International Community

Posted by / 29th May 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

We live in turbulent times, where new crises hit anytime and anywhere,” said Christos Stylianides, the European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management. “But our attention must not shift from ongoing humanitarian crises such as this one. The people of the Central African Republic (CAR) continue to need our help to survive and rebuild their lives.” According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 2.7 million people are in need of aid in CAR, 436,000 are internally displaced, while more than 460,000 people are living as refugees in neighbouring countries. The humanitarian community has received only about a fifth of the total funds required for the UN strategic response plan. On Tuesday 26 May, the European Union announced a new assistance package for CAR worth €72m following the call by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza urging European countries to help CAR to return to democracy by the end of the year. “CAR lacks a lot of money” she said, which is needed to re-establish security and long lasting peace and to organise elections. She added that CAR “cannot go to the polls without having security in the country”. All of this typifies a reaction from the international community that is too little, too late and possibly even counterproductive.

As is all too common in the case of sub-Saharan conflicts, the upheaval in CAR has been accompanied by headlines describing it as a “forgotten humanitarian crisis” and “ignored emergencies“. These types of phrases are not all that hyperbolic, with the wider world only showing moderate interest at best. What is even more “forgotten” and “ignored”, however, are underlying local dynamics before and after such crises hit their peak. The current meek reaction of the international community- with peacekeeping intervention and diplomatic pressure- is still an improvement on the status quo. Engaging local communities during those times that no imminent crisis looms, engaging local communities would go a long way in avoiding humanitarian crises in the first place, but those are hardly ever priorities. Unfortunately, without humanitarian victims, interests in long-term dynamics tend to be deep down on the agenda. As a result, international information and knowledge on grassroots realities on a country such as CAR are minimal. When a crisis then forces a reaction, national governments and other parties that can hardly be considered neutral and constructive counterparts are the only partners the international community focuses on. The result is insufficient and ineffective action. CAR is a clear example of this lack of local connections.

The international community has always had this tendency to react to conflicts, rather than help preventing them in the first place. This has direct consequences during the crisis itself. Without a network and local engagement mechanisms in place, the reaction of outsiders is almost completely dependent on their direct and centralised counterparts: government officials, rebel groups and large scale actors. They are the primary source of information, and the go-to actors for understanding the underlying problems. The true social and economic factors- only clearly understood at a local level- are unknown to, or simply ignored by, a reactive international community. As a result, any solutions brought forward from the outside tends to be a patch to stem the bleeding, rather than a constructive contribution to long-term stability and wellbeing. And thus the cycle continues in perpetuity: ignored local and national problems fester; crisis hits, political and humanitarian reaction from the international community; underlying local realities and causes are ignored; most visible problems are hastily dealt with; international community withdraws; local and national problems continue.

In these situations, the fact that central counterparts are the only negotiating partners as well as sources of information is a major obstacle for an international community not knowledgeable on the very issues they pretend to solve. With very few attempts at talking to people at a grassroots level, any action taken is biased towards those responsible for the crisis in the first place. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2013, the privileged interlocutors of the international community have been the transitional government and the main opposing armed groups (the Séléka and anti-balaka). Due to their role in the conflict these actors were given a monopolistic space within the negotiating sphere. Given that these parties are both responsible for any violence as well as using it to their advantage- as is the case in any of these conflicts- not involving and representing grassroots actors means dealing with the rotten surface, rather than finding true answers. Without representation from the wider population it is hard to believe there is a real support for reconciliation and national cohesion. Finally, this month, the CAR took an important step toward fostering national cohesion through its Bangui Forum on National Reconciliation. The Bangui Forum brought together nearly 700 leaders from diverse groups within the CAR’s society—including the transitional government, national political parties, the main opposing armed groups, the private sector, civil society, traditional chiefs, and religious groups—to define their collective vision for the country’s future. Although peace and national reconciliation have not been achieved yet, the conclusions of the forum seem to mark the beginning of a new chapter for CAR.

A good example of how, from the beginning of the conflict, the international community’s interests were to stabilise the conflict and avoid bloodshed while undervaluing the importance of local realities and its complexity, is the deployment of the peacekeeping operation MINUSCA (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic). The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) established it by its resolution 2149 of 10 April 2014 with the mandate to protect Central African Republic civilians. If the reasons that pushed the UNSC to create the MINUSCA are understandable with regards to the violence of the conflict, it is by no means a long-term solution. Then again, the language used suggested that MINUSCA was a profound solution to the problems faced by the country. The text includes indeed the full “peacekeeping package” with sentences such as “to assist the Transitional Authorities in mediation and reconciliation processes at both the national and local levels (…)” and “to provide good offices and political support for the efforts to address root causes of the conflict and establish lasting peace and security in the CAR”. Without any deeper understanding of what those root causes were, these phrases were fanciful at best, and disingenuous at worst. Sub-Sahara African history is littered with all too many similar cases of pretension trumping reality.

More than a year after the establishment of the MINUSCA, the expected impact of the peacekeeping operation is still uncertain. The mandate of the operation is too ambitious and does not correspond to the complexity of the field. In most places in the Central African Republic, reconciliation has started between the different communities but it stays fragile. The country is still working to end the cycles of violence and reunite its people. 436,000 people are internally displaced and most cannot go back to their hometown because they fear the re-eruption of violence. On top of that, the peacekeepers’ first mission is to protect civilians, but the latest scandal about the UN covering up the sexual assault of children by French troops raises the question of trust. The success of peacekeeping operations depends on creating a bond of trust with local populations. What kind of message does an institution that covers up sexual assault on minors send to vulnerable populations? They may stop other types of violence in the short run, but the long-term outcomes may be to exacerbate the very human insecurity that leads to conflict. The unholy mix of an unrealistic mandate, absence of long-term solutions and a lack of trust by local populations is the ideal cocktail for ineffective and counterproductive outcomes.

Sadly, CAR is an all too typical example of an international community uninterested in- and therefore out of touch with- local realities in sub-Saharan Africa. Lingering conflicts that require long-term international approaches based on local networks are instead ignored until a humanitarian crisis can no longer be avoided. Reacting to the symptoms rather than the causes means a perpetual cycle of violence in which the international community is at risk of being a perpetuating influence by strengthening centralised and warmongering actors, rather than representing those suffering the consequences. Greater investment in grassroots networks and development of local human security before conflicts escalate is essential for sustainable social development. That is where the international community’s priorities need to be, rather than using the military to bring only temporary short-lived peace.

This article was written by Isadora Loreto and Balder Hageraats.


Global Problems, Local Solutions: The Case of the US and Yemen

Posted by / 21st April 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -

Emboldened by Yemen’s continued internal fragility, Saudi Arabia is attempting to strengthen its control of the Arabian Peninsula through aggressive military action. It does so with direct support from the United States, which earlier removed its own remaining troops from the republic. Both Washington and Riyadh view the violence in Yemen as part of a wider conflict against hostile regional groups as well as Iran. For Saudi Arabia this is consistent with its regional aspirations and concerns about its rivalry with Tehran. For the US, however, the situation in the most southern tip of the peninsula is an unfortunate mess. The Americans continue to view the world as one of global struggles with transnational solutions. Still enslaved by its Cold War superpower mentality of old, Washington seems incapable of engaging the world at a local, practical level. In this thinking, local dynamics are mere building blocks of global systems, and as such are shifted around through grand strategies and complex analysis. If there is no obvious connection to such global struggles, the realities on the ground lose relevance, and America moves on. Eventually, it will not just be the Yemeni population that suffers; the US insistence on seeing the world as pawns of a global game is accelerating its own fall from grace. Only through practical, local solutions can this world tilt back into Washington’s favour. Yemen is a case in point.

Historical Yo-Yoing in Yemen

When, in October 2000, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack on the USS Cole- harboured at the time in Aden- the US began strengthening ties with Sana’a. Yemen was the very definition of a fragile state threatened by internal rivalries as well as outside interference. During the previous period- which started with Yemen’s unification in 1990, which is still the main origin of conflict in the present-day country -the US had mostly managed its relationships with the country through Saudi Arabian proxy. This had been mostly the result of US withdrawal of financial, military and diplomatic support for Yemen because of its opposition to American intervention in Iraq during its occupation of Kuwait in 1990. It was only after the USS Cole bombing that Washington’s concerns about international terrorism in the region led to a return to a more proactive approach. This then spiralled out of control after 9/11.

Local realities at the time were of deep local division and destructive regional meddling. Despite such fragility, the Bush Administration declared Yemen to be an ally in the War on Terror in November 2001, when then-President Saleh visited the White House for what would be the first of an unprecedented total of four times between then and 2007. Being recruited into the War on Terror did ostentatiously lead to economic and diplomatic benefits: humanitarian and development aid shot up through USAID support, and intelligence and military cooperation was re-established. Predictably, however, this quickly proved to be a poisoned chalice.

The US carrot and stick approach was the last thing Sana’a and Washington needed. The former was still struggling to create a stable, nationally recognised sovereign state after a violent and divisive past. The latter needed the same thing: a state capable of taking responsibility for its own territory, and able to resist outside interference or the establishment of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. What it got instead was a magnet for anti-US sentiments, a magnet further reinforced by the destructive nature the War on Terror both regionally as well as ideologically. Any direct benefits to the local economy were more than compensated by perverse outcomes: the undermining of governmental legitimacy, internal division and lack of sovereign control, and the consequent inability of the Yemeni state to reassert itself at either a regional or national level.

When in 2011 this culminated in increasingly violent protests and weakened stability, the Obama administration attempted to support peaceful transition towards a more natural, local balance of power, but it was too little too late. By not dealing with local realities and instead viewing Yemen purely through the spectre of a global struggle against al-Qaeda and other such groups, the US had accomplished exactly the opposite of what it had wanted. Now, in 2015, it has closed its embassy in Yemen, withdrawn its last al-Qaeda fighting troops, and has no clear policy with respect to Yemen except for support for Saudi Arabian interests.

A focus on local realities without pushing for global involvement would have allowed different outcomes, more in tune with reality. The hunt for global ghosts in local closets, not so much. Instead, the yo-yo effect of support, pulling out, support again, and pulling out does nothing but harm the nature of social and political stability. It is what makes rebel groups and international terrorism thrive, and what makes US power only a shadow of its former Cold War self. In this sense, Yemen has followed the same template as in many other regions of the world.

The American Quagmire

By supporting the House of Saud in its quest to control Iran, further dominate the Arabian peninsula and secure its oil interests, US policy displays disturbing signs of multiple personality disorder. Not only is it also supporting Iran’s proxy groups that are fighting IS- essentially strengthen both sides of the regional rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh- it is also further destabilising its already complex relationship with Iraq, and even endangering stability in Saudi Arabia itself. For years the walls surrounding the Royal Family have been crumbling, even if not yet collapsing, and yet Washington seems to cling on to its traditional ally at all cost. This goes even as far as to endanger its much more pressing needs in Baghdad and elsewhere. With Afghanistan essentially seen to be a lost cause from an American geopolitical perspective, there is no other nation on the planet that has received so much attention from Washington in exchange for so few positive outcomes as Iraq. And America’s local coalition in Iraq is under severe pressure by recent events. With the fight continuing in Mesopotamia, Yemen’s destabilising effect on other regional relationships is not something the US is capable of dealing with right now.

If it had focussed on strengthening the state, rather than defending allied governments, things would have been very different in Yemen. If in 2000 it had recognised the importance of state building rather than coalition building; of supporting local stability and growth rather than a relationship conditioned on participating in an abstract war; if it had dealt with Yemen as a sovereign yet young and fragile nation that needs to strengthen its own institutions before it can shoulder militaristic alliances; if the US had looked at local solutions to its global problems, rather than global solutions to its local problems; if all these things, White House policy makers would have been in a very different position. Such alternative hypothetical scenarios are a fun playground for creative historians, but also a useful tool for analysts to explain the current situation, and how to proceed from here.

Right now, Washington’s foreign policy is divided up into separate, unconnected and mostly uncoordinated pieces, only hanging together by some vague yet grandiose master plan of making all the bits fit so as to create the perfect goldilocks situation. Unfortunately, the world does not work like that, nor does US influence. There is no grand theoretical scheme available that makes the global environment behave according to US interests anymore; and even if there was, the US State Department has no capacity to perform accordingly. They react to what rises up from the uncontrollable global weed, rather than cultivating green local pastures.


International Cooperation: reality or farce?

Posted by / 7th April 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , / -


International development cooperation has been heavily criticised over the past decades. Both methods and objectives have been questioned, and involved actors are regularly accused of ineffective behaviour. What is less often analysed, however, is the human psychology on which international cooperation is based. Political motivations are often highlighted, and so are financial incentives, but the underlying patterns regulating those involved in the sector are all too often ignored. This is not a minor oversight. International cooperation actors are trapped in pre-existing psychological structures. These indirectly, and often unwittingly, create tendencies that corrupt the essential process and its true objectives. The main issue here is that cooperation in its true form is virtually impossible in the current sectoral psychology.

On the psychology of cooperation

The meaning of cooperation in international development cooperation can be described as ambiguous at best. It replaced more aid-based terms from the early days on, but the actual nature of the sector never quite made the same leap. Regardless, humans display a unique form of altruistic cooperation that is unprecedented in any other species on earth. Explanations vary from genetic predisposition to social awareness. In its most basic form, cooperation is defined as “the action or process of working together to the same end”. This means that both or all actors involved have a direct stake in the process. These actors can be individuals or groups, and cooperative individuals must have, amongst other factors, an underlying motivation to incur personal losses in return for improved common well being. The key here is “common wellbeing”.

Beyond that basic definition, it is clear that if humans can expect some kind of service or emotion in return for their action, they are much more likely to cooperate. Researchers find that human cooperation, on the scale as we can observe is attributable to prosocial cognition in the human psyche, clear groupings as well as cultural norms and institutions. These prosocial emotions make us sensitive to empathy; shame and guilt as well as social sanctions that could result from e.g. free riding. As such, humans are capable to differentiate between individuals or groups that are willing to cooperate – and tend to be drawn towards those individuals – and those who have solely egocentric intentions. Especially small-scale close-knit groups tend to be very sensitive to individual’s emotional capability to engage with others and cooperate.

Buchan et al (2011)  show in their research that willingness to cooperate and to risk losses varies dramatically over different social self-ascriptions. During their experiments, differentiating between local, regional and global individuals’ inclination to engage in cooperation depended on their sense of belonging to those groups. Few participants identified themselves with the global society, but those who did, displayed striking tendencies. Strong identification with the global society emerged as the sole indicator for willingness to contribute to global welfare: those who displayed this readiness were not influenced by whether their investment would pay off or not. The researchers conclude that conditional on self-identification, global altruism exists just as it does at lower scale levels.

At group level, cooperation looks slightly different, but remains based on similar principles. Groups are formed on the basis of mutual attributes that give individuals a sense of belonging to a specific group, such as cultural, language, political, religious or ethnic groups. Once established as a group, its maintenance is crucial, especially in competition with other groups. When inter-group competition is high, intra-group cooperation tends to function well. Generally, most cultures share prosocial values such as empathy or care for others’ suffering. In comparison, when no external pressures exist, intra-group cooperation tends to suffer, as individuals have fewer incentives to stick together. Even worse, when very high pressures are exerted on groups, their cooperative mechanisms tend to break down and be replaced by individual quests for survival. This last scenario can be observed in these situations of high social distress such as during wars, famines or economic crises.

On the psychology of the international cooperation sector

We therefore have a basic understanding of what cooperation is supposed to look like, and what some of its characteristics are. If we apply that idea to the international development sector, the first problem we face is how to identify cooperative individuals and groups, and with whom do they cooperate? At first sight the idea is perhaps that NGOs cooperate with local “beneficiaries” – please note how this word does not correspond to the definition of cooperation given above – and donors to accomplish outcomes in their field of expertise, such as economic development or human rights. In reality, however, local groups are typically consulted, but not cooperative partners. True cooperation exists between the NGO and the donor, or, in broader terms, the executive organisations and their funding partners. Their mutual goals are quite clearly defined: survival of the respective organisations through implementing common agendas. In this process, the role of local beneficiaries is passive. They do not represent true value in the cooperation equation, besides perhaps having a vaguely defined common goal of making lives better. The hard incentives to cooperate – funding, jobs, organisational survival, evaluations – are all between executive partners and funding partners. Idealism and gratitude are not satisfying conditions to reach true cooperation; they do not represent enough of an incentive, despite the sector’s appearances.

Understanding the imbalanced relationship between groups in international development cooperation opens a new perspective on its past failures and current realities. Many initiatives were created with altruistic intentions, often with the vision of bringing along sustainable change. However, the misunderstanding of cooperation and misuse of the word have lead to the establishment of ineffective mechanisms and programmes. Recipients were never truly part of the process while donors continued to operate on a system that was geared towards themselves rather than the outer world.

The recent economic crisis hit the developments sector particularly hard. Not only did the sector suffer under extreme budget cuts by donor governments and international organisations leading to financial gaps and instability, but it also faced an increasingly distressed developing world suffering under the pressures of the global economic turmoil. Many developing countries faced increased trade prices, and constantly shifting commodity prices bringing along extreme instability and little ability to plan ahead. The reaction by NGOs and other executive actors clearly showed where their true cooperative nature lies. Long-term programmes such as the Millenium Development Goal implementation plan were minimised. Many target countries and governments had to reassess their prospects and curb their progress. The shift towards self-preservation rather than international cooperation were dramatic and self-explanatory: in times of distress groups protect themselves first, rather than pretend cooperation with outsiders (local beneficiaries).  While these observations are barely surprising in the light of human cooperation and the need for self-preservation, they do hurt the vision the development sector portrays. Rather than truly caring for advancing developing countries, the sector’s work is hampered by reality and limits that donors are not willing to cross for the sake of international wellbeing.

Humans have an essential sense for self-preservation. Humans also have a unique trait for social interaction and altruistic behaviour. Hence supporting each other is just as much part of being human as it is to fight for survival. At the local level, cooperation is based on the mutual understanding that cooperation will advance the wellbeing of the group as one entity. At the international level, the overall benefits of cooperation are less clear, often phrased as increasing well being for recipients. Not only is it difficult to call international development cooperation, as groups within the sector never truly embraced it, but also visible positive effects of international development cooperation remain difficult to identify.

With growing understanding that the lack of incentives to cooperate with recipients left several development challenges unsolved, an opportunity for change is created. If the sector with all its member groups – donors, executives and recipient – understood the need for change, true cooperation could be achieved. It can be based on mutually engaging and trustful relationships where all partnering groups join mutually beneficial efforts to advance development. Just as we do one on one, international development cooperation taking into account global dependencies, could move towards being true cooperation if donors let go off their self-centred bias and recipients were to participate fully.  Various initiatives have already recognised the need for change and work towards enacting true and unbiased cooperation. With introspection and an outward-looking mind-set, the development sector can shift towards a more equal future.


The Dark Side of International Volunteering: shedding light on its negative impact

Well-intentioned international volunteers often have a counterproductive impact where they go. The experience of volunteering in the community of Tsiroanomandidy, Madagascar, is a useful reference to explore the wider issues surrounding the economic, educational and psychological ramifications of volunteering in the education sector.

International volunteers are considered part of ‘the wider international development agenda’, and it bridges a fundamental gap between ‘hard’ development outcomes and ‘soft’ development outcomes. It is a human-centred, bottom up approach to development aimed at benefitting communities in a vast range of sectors, including sustainable development and education. International volunteering is particularly active in the education sector, with an influx of volunteers providing services in schools, youth centres and educational programmes. As education is a fundamental dimension in the Sustainable Development Goals, the role played by international volunteers is pivotal: key skills, languages and teaching methods are transferred and applied to local communities. And yet this unilateral service does not go uncriticised. There are contentious debates with regard to the long-term effects on local communities. These include increased unemployment, disruption in the academic sphere, and psychological ramifications from disillusion and lack of faith in local initiatives.

Ambiguous Economic Outcomes

Many volunteer organisations insist on the direct economic benefits of foreign volunteers for local communities. The increase in revenue from these volunteers facilitates local employment, and there is no doubt that in many cases, these outsiders contribute to improving local facilities, such as youth centres, schools and libraries. An important argument used to justify international volunteering is that it benefits the local community economically, thus increasing the standard of living of local residents. However, the economic implications of international volunteering are more complex than what the immediate effects might convey. In order to send and receive international volunteers, time, money and resources are spent to ensure the smooth running of the volunteering process, resources that may well be spent on local initiatives, development and residents.

Although there may be a slight increase in local employment due to the injection of revenue, the long-term effects reveal a darker side: a constant stream of international volunteers in a community means that these outsiders continually usurp the roles and posts that would otherwise be allocated to locals. Volunteer placements take precedence over local workers, which means that much-needed jobs become less available. If volunteers are unskilled and untrained, as is often the case, it is even likely to cause more hindrance than assistance to the host community. There is a risk of international volunteers becoming the teachers, doctors, construction workers, project developers rather than assistants in each field. In those cases, they assume the characteristics of experts and leaders, rather than learners and students, giving a helping hand while absorbing their new environment and learning the ways of the local community. The skills provided may appear beneficial in the short term, but how are the locals to practice their skills and build up their experience if they are never given the chance?

Educational Setbacks

While the economic outcomes of volunteering are ambiguous at best, the educational impact is even more worrisome. Education systems, programmes and syllabuses vary from country to country. This makes an understanding of the relevant system one of the most crucial criteria for working in the education sector. A particularly common and unfortunate trend in international volunteering is the act of sending volunteers who have not been fully trained nor coached in the specific needs of the educational system of the host community. This can have multifarious consequences for local communities, especially if the volunteer assumes a more hands-on role.

One of the most evident drawbacks in the system is the problematic timing of many volunteers: schools have a set academic schedule with a fixed syllabus. Nevertheless, many volunteers are often not only unable to stay for the duration of the academic term or year, but also tend to arrive after the academic year has started, or in the middle of a semester. The importance of routine, continuity and consistency is paramount for effective student learning and progress; so how can this service – which entails a regular turnover of volunteers with disparate arrival dates and varying timeframes – be an efficient strategy in the education sector? If anything, the pattern of volunteering can be detrimental to the pupils’ learning.

This danger was evident with respect to the educational volunteering service in the rural community of Tsiroanomandidy: a new person entering the classroom triggers a change in dynamic; valuable time is used to ‘break the ice’ and connect with the class and understand the needs of the students. The teachers often spend time explaining the syllabus, what has been taught and what the students have yet to learn, and this time-consuming process leads to an interruption in the calendar, a disruption in the teaching, and subsequently an interference in the learning. Furthermore, when volunteers in Tsiroanomandidy stay to teach for varying timeframes, these disruptions can occur biweekly to every six months; as the schools and teachers are often uninformed with regard to volunteer timeframes and arrival dates, this contributes to an environment of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Another glaring issue with the inconsistent nature of the volunteering service in Tsiroanomandidy is the disruption of the syllabus content and teaching methods. For example, volunteers from some organisations have a one-day training course before visiting the schools and meeting the teachers. This course consists of practical activities and songs with only one focus: primary students. Considering volunteers teach in primary as well as secondary schools, youth centres and clubs for working adults, this training day hardly scrapes the surface. With little information on the syllabus, volunteers are expected to jump in, take the lead and teach courses they are not familiar with. This inevitably leads to volunteers creating their own lesson plans, often misjudging the students’ level, and generating content which is incongruous with the school curriculum. Furthermore, each teacher has a specific teaching style, and this crucial skill needs to be acquired as a trained and qualified teacher in order to maintain consistency and coherence.

The dangerous combination of inexperienced volunteers, underdeveloped teaching styles and incompatible teaching methods create a fragmented learning experience for the students. The hindrance this can cause to the students’ learning and understanding of the respective subject must not be underestimated. The process of learning is parallel to building blocks: strategic steps must be taken to ensure students build up their knowledge at each level. Disruptions in the syllabus, the timeframe, the teaching styles and the content will only serve to confuse and impede their development.

Disregarded Psychological Consequences

In addition to the contentious effects on the educational dimension of communities, there is also a psychological factor that needs to be considered. This aspect is a fundamental, yet often unstated dimension of international volunteering. As volunteers become a regular presence in the classroom, students begin to connect and accustom to their voluntary teacher. A relationship is formed between volunteer and student that can even transgress the traditional teacher-student relationship. In Tsiroanomandidy, volunteers are not only welcomed, but become a novelty in the community. Children know and call out volunteers’ names in the streets; students, enthusiastic about their new teacher and intrigued by the volunteer’s alien status, attempt to form bonds instantaneously. The volunteer, eager to gain a better cultural understanding of the community, connects with students and adults outside as well as inside the classroom, by taking part in community events, extra-curricular activities and learning the local language. The emotional ties that are typically formed between the volunteers and local residents can be beneficial on multiple levels, especially for the volunteer. However, the departure of volunteers can cause deeper ramifications for the local community, especially for the students. The natural progression in education is that students learn, advance and achieve. Each year they leave their teacher behind and move on to the next stage in their education. In this case, however, volunteers leave their students behind. This can create a sense of abandonment, invalidation and stagnation.

For many local communities, international volunteering is a normalised process, and they even act as role models to the local community. However, international volunteers are also perceived as outsiders, and the notion of outsiders acting as role models is problematic. It makes students in schools and youth centres accustom to this dynamic and perceive the outsiders as superior and better role models than the local teachers. This attitude towards volunteers and the mistrust in local alternatives is damaging for both students and teachers, and especially detrimental to their self-esteem. A key drive in development is upholding confidence and value in the community, and in order to reverse this damaging dynamic, it is important that volunteers are not just outsiders, or perceived outsiders, but that volunteers are also local. Initiatives to encourage local residents to volunteer can increase self esteem, dismantle the unilateral pattern of volunteering and restore faith in the local community.

The assessment of international volunteering impacts on local communities is not one-dimensional: the many factors that come into play, including the community, its specific needs, the timeframe and skill set of volunteers, result in complex economic, emotional and psychological impacts. Its detrimental implications are often underestimated, even if it is rooted in good intentions. This is especially visible in the education sector. There exist situations in which volunteerism is positive and even a necessary tool in the hands of local communities. One example of this is is the socio-cultural centre Bel Air in Tsiroanomandidy, operated by the Bongolava Antsitrapo Association who succeed in sustaining a local led nature of these activities. In their case, they continue to employ a bottom up approach, always focussed on listening and implementing local ideas. But this is the exception rather than the rule, and great care has to be taken to ensure that volunteers are properly trained, and are aware of their roles and potentially negative impact on communities. The role of a volunteer is not to be a pillar of the education system, but to assist, support and encourage local capacities. Furthermore, volunteerism from local communities themselves needs to be expanded. Local initiatives and local expertise are typically free from the pitfalls of international volunteering, and directly strengthen the long-term capacity of recipient communities.