All posts tagged Development Cooperation

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.


Polis Paper | Turning Aid into Effective Cooperation: Connecting Local to Global

Posted by / 26th January 2015 / Categories: Polis, Reports / Tags: , , / -

A Polis Publication by Balder Hageraats and Isadora Loreto.

Instruments based on traditional development aid-thinking suffer from inherent flaw: their focus on governments and institutions rather than people. This leads to unsatisfactory outcomes. International cooperation is supposed to be about local actors and global actors coming together to achieve a common goal, typically improving the lives of people. In reality, the development sector is often too inward looking, institutionalised and unilateral to create such cooperative relations between global and local actors. In this essay we propose a model in which there exists direct and true cooperation between donors and local actors. It considers any further institutional or NGO support as service providers within that cooperative alliance between funders and populations.

Photo Polis Paper - Turning Aid into Effective Cooperation

Full PDF








Funding development cooperation: Time for donors and local people to unite

Posted by / 17th November 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -


Earlier this month a report was published by GRAIN on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s expenditure and impact. The research shows how little of its roughly €3bn funding has gone to local initiatives, with roughly 80% of grants spent on European and North American organisations. The Gates Foundation refuted some of the conclusions from the report , but its factual claims remain uncontested. The fact that the development sector in general spends most money on itself- rather than on its supposed “beneficiary populations”- is nothing new, and the Gates Foundation is not an exception in this regard. The most relevant and urgent question for donors such as Gates is how their mission statements and overall objectives are best achieved. Is this by stimulating a strong development sector and spend money on governments and institutions, or by more direct support of local populations and thereby cutting out the sectorial or governmental middleman?

The answer is increasingly clear: effective human development requires local-led approaches. The development sector is too administrative, too institutional, too focussed on process and procedures, and too obsessed by internal evaluations to have the impact one would expect from such a billion euro industry. But most importantly, outsiders are not very good at knowing what is needed on the ground. Funders need to change tack if they are serious about achieving their own organisations’ objectives.

People have questions, needs and ideas. Foundations and other funders can- and want to- help them answer and achieve those.  This requires not only greater focus on Southern organisations and people, but a move away from the development sector in its current form. In order to effectively achieve stated objectives, less money needs to go to sectorial actors, administration and institutional support. More needs to be spent on direct support of local ideas and initiatives.

The current situation

Just like the answer provided above, the basic facts are clear: the development sector spends more money on itself than on people outside of the sector. Funding goes to NGOs, experts, evaluators, government institutions, expatriates and a whole host of other such typically “Northern” destinations. Take the typical NGO or institution receiving those funds, and their own expenditure reflects a similar pattern. Even those who claim low “overhead” – i.e. central office expenditure, administrative costs, etcetera – conveniently ignore that overhead does not tell the whole story. The remainder typically goes to sector experts, sector evaluators, sector expatriates, local sector employees, and very little actually ends up in the hands of the groups they aim to serve.

There are three general reasons why this may not be a bad thing. Firstly, money needs to be spent on those who do the best job, regardless of whether they come from Seattle or a village near Lusaka. If it is a non-monetary service that needs to be provided, then it is logical that the funding goes to the expert providing such a service, regardless of origin.

Secondly, unlike other sectors, development cooperation does not have natural adjustment or correction mechanisms. In private sectors, both shareholders and consumers exert daily pressures on companies and service providers to act effectively and in accordance with overall objectives. The development sector does not have such natural adjustment tendencies. It therefore requires, or so the argument goes, significant internal evaluation and assessment.

The third reason given for current approaches is that even though it may not be perfect, there is no practical way for donors to approach non-sectorial actors in an effective and meaningful way. Human development requires significant insight into people’s daily challenges. Donors themselves have neither the infrastructure nor the desire to spend significant amounts on developing such expertise themselves. There are just too many potential targets to support to do so directly, and therefore it needs to be contracted out to partner organisations and experts. These then become responsible for interacting with local communities and individuals that the funder wants to support.

The meaning of impact

GRAIN writes that ” of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to non-governmental organisations for agricultural work, over three quarters has gone to organisations based in the US. Africa-based NGOs get a meagre 4% of the overall agriculture-related grants to NGOs”. The Gates Foundation replied by stating that “the central assumption is that only organisations located in Africa can benefit African farmers – and we think that is incorrect.”

This is often true of course. Most organisations working on these issues will have some positive impact on local farmers or other groups. But the word “benefit” covers a wide range of results, from minimal and inefficient outcomes to significant success and effectiveness. Moreover, it does not cover the longer-term dynamics related to this issue. The sector is continuously and rightly criticised for ineffective behaviour and for not offering sufficient bang for the buck. The sector’s tendency to look inward rather than outward is one of the main reasons why: by supporting itself rather than more directly supporting local ideas and initiatives, its eventual benefits to local groups are much less than they could be.

Sector-heavy approaches tend to lead to administrative deliverables rather than true local improvements to people’s livelihoods. They are designed to focus bureaucratic patterns, rather than on the outcomes for targeted people. This problem is almost inevitable given the scale of the development industry, and can only be avoided by micro approaches in which the target population becomes the client of a service provided, rather than a beneficiary who is supposedly being helped. Only then will systemic dynamics start revolving on the right kind of human impact, rather than intra-sectorial results.

Development’s original sin

The origins of the development sector are one of “aid”, rather than “outcomes”. This is still visible in current thinking. National and local governments as well as NGOs are supported in their efforts to help target populations. As long as that help is visible by means of awkwardly named “measurables”, “deliverables” and project evaluations, funders tend to continue their support. Sectorial organisations, especially of the northern kind, are very good at providing their paymasters with such numbers: the number of children gone to a newly built school; the number of tools provided to organic farmers; the number of seminars given on gender equality. This is both because of decades of experiences as well as due to high comfort levels with process and procedure as opposed to outcome. The content and impact of these numbers, however, are much harder to quantify and qualify. Hence the typical ineffectiveness of such measures. To make matters worse, when asked about their levels of satisfaction, local populations have little incentive to be critical; better something than nothing at all.

Local organisations are also becoming pretty good at this please-the-donor game, with many African and Asian NGOs popping up mimicking Northern language on both website and in grant proposals. Local experts and evaluators are becoming increasingly popular in the sector as well, especially among progressive development NGOs and north European governments. Admittedly, this in itself has two positive consequences. Firstly, it ensures that some more money goes into the local, rather than European, economy through expert and evaluator fees. In other words, if you are going to spend money on the sector, it is better to do it on those that actually live among target beneficiaries. Secondly, supporting local experts and evaluators strengthens local capacities rather than those in Northern countries.

Unfortunately, the main problem remains, regardless of where organisations and experts are based: those working in the sector are focussed on satisfying the sector. Evaluators do not write their report for the target population of the project, they write it for the responsible NGO or the foundation financing the project. This is a completely different exercise than evaluating outcomes for local populations. Similarly, grant writers do not send project proposals to funders based on what is best for the beneficiary populations; they write project designs so as to maximise their chances of success during the grant process. That does not necessarily lead to bad designs, but it is nonetheless a perverse mechanic that reduces effectiveness and impact.

Listening to the wrong people

In one project evaluation I carried out years ago, I had to evaluate its peacebuilding outcomes. This was the main stated objective of both the project and the funder, and the basis for the grant. The executing NGO did this through building a medical centre that was to be open to all the different ethnic groups present in the region. Many of these groups had until recently been at each other’s throat in a bloody civil war. During the evaluation it turned out that originally the NGO had- on request of locals- just wanted to build a medical facility without the political baggage. Because of lack of funds, it eventually rewrote the whole grant proposal to make it suit the funder’s peacebuilding agenda. Locals always knew that this would never work, and indeed: because of all the political infighting that occurred between towns because of the imposed multiethnic approach, the project eventually failed. No peacebuilding; no long-term medical centre.

As the GRAIN report argues, “it is hard to listen to someone when you cannot hear them. Small farmers in Africa do not participate in the spaces where the agendas are set for the agricultural research institutions, NGOs or initiatives, like AGRA, that the Gates Foundation supports. These spaces are dominated by foundation reps, high-level politicians, business executives, and scientists”.

These people from the development sector- as well as those hovering in its periphery- work in order to obtain funds. Without it, their organisation or their personal employment will be terminated. It is true that funders know this potential flaw in the system, and therefore impose a whole range of administrative measures to ensure compliance with their ultimate goals. This does not work, at least not in general terms. Not only does it make the sector slow and bureaucratic, it also makes it hopelessly ineffective in achieving desired outcomes. It is almost paradoxical: as long as the sector works to please funders rather than local people, the funders will not get what they ultimately aim for.

The Gates Foundation, as well as many others, is aware of this challenge: “The needs of millions of smallholder farmers – most of whom are women – are very much at the centre of the Gates foundation’s agriculture strategy. Our grants are focused on connecting farmers with quality farming supplies and information, access to markets, and improving data so that government policies and resources are in line with their needs. Listening to farmers to understand their needs, and to developing country governments to understand their priorities, is crucially important“, said spokesman Chris Williams.

Less oversight, more results

The challenge for the development is not related to changing general objectives or having better intentions. The problem is one of ineffective systemic patterns. Intra-sectorial ineffectiveness is not solved by greater administrative control or simply by employing more local NGOs or experts from Southern regions, even if that is a slight improvement by itself. No, the solution lies in making the relationship between funders and beneficiary populations as direct as possible.

Let the people who are referred to in foundations’ mission statements and governmental policy papers decide how to spend the funds that are ultimately supposed to improve their lives. Remove the middleman, stop encouraging the sector’s excessive administrative processes, and create direct connections between local people and financing. That kind of local-global alliance can then contract services from organisations and experts, instead of the sector contracting itself. This will not only reduce overhead and intra-sectorial spending, it will create a natural market mechanism in which all those currently trying to win favour with donors need to show outcomes to developing communities. Fortunately, if you are a foundation or a development NGO, this is a change that you will surely welcome. After all, your mission statement says that satisfying local needs is what you are all about.

Full disclosure:  the above article makes the case for ReSeT’s current Polis Project. Our team is setting-up such a local-global mechanism to link local ambitions with global resources. Bringing this project to life involves a lot of grant writing to please-the-donor. Local populations will have to wait. As always. 


Development and the Knowledge Problem: Towards an open source development sector?

Posted by / 13th October 2014 / Categories: Opinion, Polis / Tags: , , / -

Knowledge about development is temporary, diffuse, and not locally owned. Apart from a few large International organisations, the almost infinite amount of data gathered by (International) non-governmental organisations (NGO) is completely inaccessible. This configuration, in which the interests of individuals and organisations are not aligned with the sector´s general purpose, is detrimental for effective development. In a world where knowledge means employment, such a configuration is hard to break through. But if the sector started sharing development knowledge openly, would it make itself redundant?

Over the past decades, mountains of valuable information have been gathered about pretty much every development issue imaginable. From crop yields per acre to training manuals for civil society groups, and from exploratory research on seasonal migration to impact studies of literacy campaigns; there exists a whole universe of baseline studies, impact studies, manuals, databases, and evaluations.

Some of this information is freely accessible at the online platforms of large international organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, and Transparency International. Access to such data is great for comparative research. However, the bulk of the existing data about development is gathered by INGOs and small-scale NGOs that work from international to local scales and that keep their research to themselves. The number of INGOs can still be counted (around 40.000 worldwide), while the number of NGOs can only be guessed. India was estimated to be home to 2 million NGOs in 2009, one for every 600 citizens. Considering that each of these organisations collects a variety of data each and every year, the combined knowledge is almost infinite.

So data published by big international organisations is just the tip of the iceberg. The specific and local knowledge is completely intransparent and inaccessible. Many people in the sector seem to acknowledge this problem, but only few point out or do something about it.

Knowledge about development is temporary, diffuse, and not locally owned

Knowledge is temporary because the people that own it come and go. Very few foreigners are committed to one issue in one region for a lifetime. Most world-changers come for a few years, make a contribution, up their street credit, and move on. After all, that is what is best for one´s career and that´s what counts. The interests of the sector as a whole and those who depend on it thus fail to align. In the meantime, the beneficiaries who should benefit from the knowledge accumulated in the sector stay empty handed.

The temporary nature of knowledge has been exemplified during the past months by the ebola crisis in West Africa. Besides the obvious and horrendous public health disaster, the food shortages, the security threats, and the virtual economic standstill, Guineans, Sierra Leoneans, and Liberians have also been forced to say goodbye to most of their NGO workers. Contrary to a few brave health workers and volunteers that poured into the region, most traditional NGO workers have gone the other direction, waiting for the storm to blow over. As months go by, it becomes clear that many of those who intended to leave temporarily feel compelled (or are forced) to look for other career options, taking with them lots of built up experience and expertise. From the individual´s perspective this makes complete sense, but it is disastrous for those who stay behind.

Knowledge is diffuse because it is either stored with temporary experts or with the internal documents of NGOs and International organisations. The true origin of the knowledge problem lies here. The competitive nature of the sector, in which access to donor money seems to be a zero-sum game, causes organisations to keep knowledge internally rather than sharing it freely. On top of that, organisations are also afraid to publish on failed projects. After all, those NGOs that fail to deliver might miss out at the next round of proposals.

Data from ´competitors´ cannot be accessed, meaning that newbies have to invent the wheel over and over again. Consultants that monitor and evaluate projects suffer from – and contribute to – the same problem. The lack of centralised information leads them to – unknowingly – replicate studies that were already done by ´competitors´. On top of that, the quality of their work cannot be controlled because there is no possibility of peer review. So it´s not only about good knowledge being inaccessible, but also about bad knowledge being undetected! Nobody seems to really care though, because on an individual level everyone on the donors’ side seems to benefit. Newbies get more time to settle in, consultants keep on creating work for themselves, and everybody lives to work another day.

Finally, knowledge is not locally owned. One would perhaps expect local populations to know all about their development; they should by now be experts about methodologies, interventions, and the impacts of the NGO projects in their region. After all, for many aid recipients, development is their daily bread. They are the only ones who will be around in the long term and they have an obvious interest in what´s going on.

In reality, local populations are largely outside of the information flow. They don´t have a subscription to the newsletter. NGO´s and International organisations study them, and consultants ask them thousands of questions about the impacts or projects, but the results are mostly taken home and the only ones that really learn anything are those who do the studies.

The uncomfortable truth is that a world in which locals lead their own development knowledge is a world in which many expats, experts, and consultant become redundant. In the information age, information is power. For many people in the development sector, this means that information is employment. Giving that away for free is shooting oneself in the foot.

The development sector is thus not much different from normal business sectors, where information is sensitive and where owning information gives one a competitive advantage. And yet, the sector claims to be different, to work for the greater good. Its members tend to work for not-for-profit or public actors, and as such cannot solely focus on profit margins or competitive advantage. For them to be effective and outcome focused, considering sharing their knowledge with other sector members should be on the table: sharing knowledge among peers in order to mutually strengthen the sectors outcomes would distinguish it from other sectors, and be consistent with claims about their charitable nature.

Towards open source development

Data about development is plentiful in virtually every imaginable region and sector. If it were available as open source data, the accumulated knowledge would probably be bigger than that stored at academic storages. One can only begin to imagine the research possibilities, ranging from big data to local anthropological studies.

If knowledge were permanent, centralised, and locally owned, the development sector would benefit greatly. Donors and NGO´s would not have to waste thousands of dollars on duplications of studies. Independent consultants would truly be independent. Failing NGOs would be easier to identify, and knowledge would be owned by those who it´s all for: local populations.

For the moment, development as an open source is only day dreaming. Data is not widely available and is stored with self-interested individual experts and competitive organisations. As long as knowledge about development is not locally owned and publicly shared and stored, it cannot be used optimally to deal with urgent issues in the sector. Donors will lack comprehensive insight, projects and evaluators will be unaccountable, and locals will stay in the dark. For knowledge to be permanent and widely accessible, those who own it will need to share it.



The inefficiency of international actors’ involvement: time for a change

Posted by / 9th October 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , / -


In the current development system, international actors – international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and foreign development agencies – frequently decide which challenges to address in developing countries. Local populations are then not the ones who design or implement the programs that are supposed to improve their livelihoods. This development approach often makes international actors’ contributions ineffective and potentially harmful. As a result, international actors are often criticised regarding their involvement, even if there is a very simple solution: in order for international actors to contribute to effective development, they need to listen and respond to local demands. To do so, international actors must abandon their leading position in the design and implementation of development programs and support existing local initiatives instead.

Needs and wants of people often diverge; depending on the society or the country they live in. International actors, however, frequently push for what they perceive as being the priorities of locals. Yet, most of the time, it doesn’t coincide with local populations’ real wants and needs. What is a priority in Italy is not one in Peru or Malaysia, and international actors often disregard these disparities.

International actors design most development programs and projects, without taking into account what already exist on the ground. They arrive on the field, and efforts are made, but the results are hard to see. Local populations usually welcome internationally designed programs because they expect real improvements to their lives. They hardly ever say “no” to the implementation of projects defined abroad. But, as these types of programs do often not correspond to local priorities, in the end they do not receive the expected local response. It is indeed difficult to persuade someone to be enthusiastic about an idea that is not his/her own.

Since the 1990’s, international actors have assessed the need to take into consideration local population’s views when implementing projects. The development of concepts such as local consulting, participation, involvement, ownership, community-driven or empowerment is evidence of it. But international players often consider local participation sufficient to enhance effective development – although the concept of local participation has been criticised over the past decennia – and thus do not give much credit to existing ideas and initiatives.

Current ways of defining international development policies,indeed, often imply that ideas and projects developed by local populations are not interesting or good enough. Local initiatives, however, do exist and they are innovative as well as adapted to local demands. There is no country in the world in which people do not want to improve their living standards, and societies so far have evolved without the need of external actors coming to show the way. If the inhabitants of a country are the ones who, by definition, know better what their problems and ambitions are, and are the ones responsible of solving them, then why should development projects be designedabroad? Neither economic poverty nor technological challenges mean that local populations do not know what they want to improve in their lives or how to achieve it. Maintaining this common belief of local populations lacking innovative and interesting ideas and initiatives only leads to missed chances of using their capacities that are so essential to eventual success. On the contrary, by assessing the complexity of local realities and the existence of initiatives, international actors are making the first essential step to contribute to effective development.

The essential question is why do international actors decide to disregard local populations‘ priorities and initiatives and to follow their own agendas. The focus of international organisations is very often on administrative priorities rather than on producing effective outcomes at a local and human level. Internal pressures on having rapid outputs and outcomes push actors to design programs without properly listening to the needs and wants of local populations, on the one hand, nor searching for initiatives that already exist, on the other. The belief among international actors that they represent universal values of human rights and such also makes them design the development agenda regardless of local wishes. Furthermore, individuals work in the development sector for a wide variety of self-interested reasons – like in any other sector – and the challenge is to align those with the sector’s goal: improving people’s livelihood and helping them building their future.If international actors take decisions that satisfy their interests without being in line with the sector’s purpose, effective outcomes at a human and local level cannot be reached.

The external design and implementation of development programs means that the money is not spent in accordance to local needs and ambitions. As a result it often leads to the waste of large amounts of money spent year after year. Program and project’s external imposition can also lead to the perpetuation of the problem that those projects want totackle, or even to its exacerbation. This is specially the case when addressing cultural, social and more traditional issues. The misunderstanding of local realities or the meddling in private affairs can very easily produce unfortunate results. A very clear example is the international campaigns for the abolition of female genital circumcision. In the Republic of Mali, the practice was banned from the medical centres in 1999, with the support of the international community and several INGOs campaigns. Far from ending the practice, the ban led to a bigger exposure of women to its dangers: the practice was maintained but banned from the health centres. This resulted in less hygiene, recourse and oversight, and thereby to greater suffering among affected women. The banning of female genital circumcision did not emanate from the society. Besides, international community support to the ban and the several campaigns held in place, spread the feeling that foreign interference and a breach of sovereignty were taking place. As a result, the negative rejections towards the ban increased. This case is an unfortunate example of international actors pushing for changes without society asking for them, without local populations leading their own development.

If improving people’s livelihoods is the goal of both local and international actors, the best way to achieve it is to work together according to each other’s comparative advantages. Indeed, the involvement of international actors is a highly valuable asset, if it is done to support existing local initiatives. Local actors and populations have knowledge of the field and a local legitimacy on the one hand, while international players have access to resources and technical capacities, on the other. Yet, international actors’ approach to development initiatives must be a supportive one in order to achieve effective development. Locals must always be leading the development process and this goes beyond the concept of local participation. Supporting local ambitions differs from imposing a program designed by external actors. Giving support to local actors and populations means that international actors listen to local wants and perspectives and then provide the requested resources.With this approach, local populations are the ones in charge: they are the deciders and shapers of their development. Some international actors have already adopted such an approach, underlining the need to listen to local populations wishes and existing ideas. But yet more actors should embrace the same method in order to call it a real change within the development sector.

International actors have a great expertise acquired through decades of work, which gave them considerable value in the sector. But the world is extremely heterogenic and local needs and ambitions vary from one place to another. Thus, INGOs and development agencies cannot expect to fully understand local realities, and then to take decisions and define their future. Local populations have the responsibility to do so. Following local leadership, instead of importing projects, produces real outcomes. And that is called real cooperation between local populations and international actors.


This article is written by Isadora Loreto and Ivanka Puigdueta Bartolomé


MDGs, SDGs and the road to change: An outlook for sustainable development


Fourteen years into the 21st century global poverty and underdevelopment remain a crucial problem for millions of humans. At the turn of the millennium, the United Nations (UN) and other international organisations rallied to announce the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), setting the path to change the livelihoods of those living in poverty by 2015. The goals ranged from reducing global poverty by half, to providing universal primary education to everyone as well as halting the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS or malaria. As ambitious and idealistic as the goals were, as detached they were from reality in their method and procedure. Instead of focusing on the people on the ground, including them in the process and ensuring that the goals were feasible, the stakeholders rushed to spread the news of change with bold statements and glorious outlooks to the near future. As a result today – one year before the MDG agenda expires – the outcomes are far from complete. While some significant results have been achieved, such as the reduction of global poverty and improvement of health standards, other goals require more effort and dedication.

Today, not enough attention is given to the structural failures of the MDG design, which was built on donor interests rather than developing countries’ needs. Instead, currently the same stakeholders who designed the MDG agenda are feeding a heated debate about the post-2015 framework including the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without taking the time to understand the underlying misconceptions about global development and the need for the inclusion of local actors, the coming agenda is bound to fail.

The flawed design of cooperation

The MDGs were crafted on a very short notice in the late 1990s. At the turn of the century, international organisations and donor governments decided to use the momentum of turning millennia and organise for long-lasting change. In only fifteen years the decision-makers sought to – amongst others – eradicate absolute poverty (humans living on less than 1$ per day) and significantly reduce child and mother mortality. The process resulting in the proclaimed eight MDGs with 18 targets and 48 indicators has been described as top-down, westernised and incognizant of voices from developing countries. The main criticisms are that the UN, which as an institution in itself is dominated by western nations, who also are the main donors in development cooperation, has driven the MDG process. Furthermore, the supporting institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank pressured participating nations to follow a development agenda suiting western interests and hegemonic structures. While serving western interests little space and attention was left to incorporate the needs of local people or developing nations. Even more severe was the disregard of national circumstances such as historical burdens, environmental dangers as well as vulnerability due to other causes. Thus it does not come as a surprise that in many developing countries no coherent MDG processes were incorporated resulting in poor outcomes of the MDG agenda.

In the past efforts to support local people have been made on various levels. The execution lacked the transfer of project ownership to the people. Donors held on to their own agendas without allowing for genuine local lead. As a consequence sustainable local development did not become a widespread movement because donors failed to give adequate solutions to the causes of underdevelopment. Therefore local people remain dependent on donors.

Western donors are having difficulty knowing about local needs because they are not measurable and difficult to advertise. It is not in the donor’s and global institutions’ interest to support individuals in developing countries and transfer them the power to change. Furthermore, developing countries do not enter negotiations on an equal level, marked from the long history of skewed cooperation mechanisms. On top of that regional, cultural and historical differences frame development cooperation today as much as they did throughout its past. As a result countries that have received development assistance over a long time carry the burden of previous agreements and are heavily indebted towards donors. This hinders current negotiations from being unbiased and fair. Also, two structural flaws are apparent: Local people are not included into national development plans and national governments have trouble being accountable actors to their electorate while having to following donors’ agendas. Caused by this discrepancy, today’s development cooperation is biased towards the donor, following their lead rather than strong governments’ from developing countries representing their people’s needs.

The new agenda

With the MDG period drawing to a close at the end of 2015, a new agenda is currently drafted. At the heart of the post-2015 agenda are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which have been designed since the early 2010s and will replace the MDGs. At the core of the SDG is the aim to focus on environmental problems and combine the quest against poverty with measures against climate change. By the time of implementation, the SDGs will consist of similar targets and indicators, in essence continuing the legacy of the MDGs. Similar to the MDGs; the SDGs are being drafted throughout a series of High-Level meetings involving stakeholders from multiple counties. Actors from the south raise their voices claiming the right to be involved in the drafting process, especially in the light of the failures within the previous MDG process.

Necessary ingredients for change

Observing how the global community develops and implements abovementioned frameworks underlines inherent problems. Global indicators with measurable outputs and outcomes are far detached from the individual human living in a developing country. Certainly the ideal scenario expected within the MDG/SDG framework would entail a trickle-down implementation where national leaders develop strategies that work within the MDG’s vision and support individuals. However, little action has been observed.

The essential question is whether national governments are willing and equipped to support local change and development, but also – whether they should. Developing countries as aid-recipients and shapers of their own national future need to be heard when global policies are crafted. Western leadership and proactivity aiming at sustainable change can only be successful when interacting with developing countries in a serious and unbiased manner. Otherwise development cooperation becomes a farce disguising western interests without truly devoting itself to alleviating developing countries. Such policy includes the establishment of feasible implementation plans at regional and country-level as well as a move away from geostrategic interests and prioritisation aligned to trade interests.

Simultaneously, local people need to be included in national plans. More recognition of local efforts through governmental support and global development plans would have aided the quest of the MDGs and resulted in better outcomes. The power of local change and its triggering effect at regional or even national levels may not be underestimated. On the contrary, global development plans using the inspiration and force of local people are most likely to incur significant change. Local people know what they are missing and a capable of assessing previous failures. The power of local change can transform the development sector if used accordingly. Together with national governments – acting as the middleman between donors and individuals – those stakeholders are the key to sustainable change. The interplay between local, regional, national and global level must become more coherent and focused.

Advancing human development, changing people’s livelihoods and increasing their resilience is most effective if it is an effort sought after by the people themselves. Individual people and local communities know best what they need and where their weaknesses are. Therefore, they ought to be consulted for the design of development agendas. Those agendas need to be adapted to local specifications and supported by the administration. In that case, instead of following global agendas, national governments will request global money for local solutions. If local people became the leaders of their own development they would make choices that they deem most suitable, and support the necessary efforts to develop sustainably.

Therefore, developing nations taking the center stage of the current post-2015 process and raising their voice will have the power to change their futures. Governments as true representatives of their people advocating for their needs, will turn the SDG process towards becoming inclusive and local-led, and thus more effective. Developing countries must use the momentum – the creation of a post-2015 agenda – and turn it into a southern momentum. A success of the MDG process was the placement of development efforts on the global agenda. For the first time global development actors decided to cooperate in order to solve global poverty together. As flawed as the MDG process may have been, as useful it was to tie development efforts together. Now, in the second stage of global development, developing countries need to enter the drafting process with clear cut requirements that will help the nations to advance as well as incorporate the needs and ambitions of individuals in order to make development the process it should had always been: a unified effort between individuals, groups and their representatives.