All posts tagged International Actors

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