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


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About the author
The Polis Team's publications focus on local-global realationships, problems and solutions. All Polis Team publications are related to The Polis, ReSeT's flagship project.

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