Co-hosted by the Building State Capacity programme at Harvard Kennedy School and Overseas Development Institute, ‘Doing Development Differently’ (DDD), brought together a group of around 40 participants, including multi-laterals, bilateral donors, practitioners and academics. The two-day seminar presented success stories in development practice, and Peace Direct was invited to present its work in DR Congo in advance of the publication of our new report, ‘Local First in Practice: Unlocking the Power to Get Things Done’. You can watch Tom Gillhespy, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Peace Direct, here.
‘DDD’ means a willingness on the part of donors to engage in the politics of complex development challenges. This means not being tied to the rigidity of logframes or beholden to neat plans laid out in project timelines. It involves working with multiple and co-existing theories of change that can be adopted, neglected and reformulated on a daily basis. It also means being firmly grounded in, and responsive to, the context: being led by locally identified development challenges and creating the space for local problem solving.
Of course, engaging in the politics of development challenges and the bureaucratic flexibility that this necessitates has resource implications. Rather than aid money, the success of this kind of support often requires significant investment in human resources, not to mention a time commitment on the part of practitioners to stay in one place long enough to build politically instrumental, and trust-based, relationships with local actors.
But I would say that there is an even bigger challenge in all of this than its practical implications. ‘DDD’ forms part of a wider group of admirable individuals and initiatives – in which the Local First project and even DFID can be included – to make aid more effective. But as I reflected on the Harvard event I was struck by a very clear danger not in what we seek to do, but how we seek to do it.
Senior Strategic Adviser at Oxfam UK, Duncan Green raised the issue of ‘power’; or, more accurately, its absence in our discussion. In his blog, he noted that his input was largely shrugged off by the rest of the participants, and I suppose it largely was. So how can we talk about the politics of development without talking about power? How can we even discuss transformation of current aid policy and practice without addressing power?
Also reflecting on the event, Pablo Yanguas, spoke of how practical examples of ‘DDD’ could be ‘islands of success’ – dependent on individual personalities, rather than pointing towards broader organisational innovation. More strikingly, he commented on the composition of the community of “like-minded practitioners”, “still overwhelmingly Northern, white and even male”.
Efforts were made on the part of the organisers to ground our discussion in practical experience and include those working at the country level. But despite this, nearly every one of the cases presented during the DDD event was voiced and interpreted by practitioners who were either working for, or extremely close to, those with aid money to spend or capacity building to provide. Of course, in terms of changing and challenging the status quo, they are instrumental.
But is this the starting point? Is a group of “overwhelmingly Northern, white and even male” practitioners, researchers, and donors sitting in a Harvard seminar room the first step towards a politically responsive movement for more effective aid – which, let’s not forget, exists for the benefit of an overwhelmingly Southern, non-white, and even female demographic? I agree with Pablo Yanguas that the examples presented during the event demonstrated innovative, creative and intelligent individuals who want to make aid work. But I would say the danger is not so much that they are too exceptional to influence change in the broader system; it is more that they are still very firmly rooted in the current one.
If we seek to transform development practice from within, then we need to recognise ourselves as a part of, not distinct from, a system marked by a fundamental imbalance between aid giver and receiver. Development aid is as much a manifestation of global inequality as it is a resource for combating it.
Because of this, power cannot be avoided when we talk about aid, and especially not in the arenas and spaces in which we seek to change it for the better. If we don’t, transforming aid will become just another delivery-driven exercise that perpetuates dependency on outside expertise and resources, where those who are not actually affected by ineffective aid decide on the behalf of those who are how it should work. This is exactly what critics find most problematic and ineffective about development assistance. To do aid differently, we need to go right to the heart of what is at stake in the very transaction itself – which is as much political as it is material.