December 6, 2009

Innovation or Fad?


While presently working in Nairobi, Kenya and awaiting transit to the Dadaab Refugee Camps to oversee a new economic development project, I have been reading Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock.  Published in 1989, Hancock provides an aggressive overview of the multi-billion dollar aid agency and its inability to actually achieve the goals of aid or development.  While stating that NGO's are likely more capable in the field do their reliance upon private donations and public transparency, the text otherwise slams institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the other primary bi-lateral and multi-lateral players on the development scene.

The good news is that a great deal has changed in the 20 years since this book was published.  Although there is extensive room for improvement, the fields of economic development and humanitarianism have significantly improved.  Today there is more oversight, higher expectations, greater coordination among agencies, and standardized protocol.  Throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, aid agencies were often at odds with one another in the field, each operating independently of one another and with differing agendas, expectations, and methodology.  Now with tools such as the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster response, aid agencies can at least work alongside one another in the interest of accomplishing the same objectives.  However, there is still great variation in how agencies may pursue these objectives.  As Sphere only provides guidelines, and not methodologies, agencies must rely upon the skills and experience of their staff to attain these objectives.

It is much more difficult work in aid and development today than it was in the 80s.  At least when comparing my own experience to that of Hancock's portrayal.  Today a relevant graduate degree (at least one) is an essential pre-requisite to working within humanitarian and development work.  In addition, an aid professional today will require foreign language skills, specialized training, management and budgeting experience, specific technical skills, and several years of similar work history experience;  which is generally unpaid for for 1-3 years prior before landing a decent job.  A former World Bank development consultant once told me that an ideal strategy is to acquire two Masters degrees, as one should provide technical skills - such as engineering - and the other within social science.

The desired consequence of all this education and experience is naturally a great deal of versatility within the field.  A competent aid professional should be capable of attending to any task that might arise with an array of skills, concepts, and insight.  Of course it is only natural that differing opinions will arise among such professionals, depending on their areas of expertise and geographic experience.  While reading Lords of Poverty, the variation among these concepts have apparently remained a mainstay within the evolution of the humanitarian field.
"Since the Second World War, the aid industry has, at one time or another, appeared to believe all of the following things;

* That progress in the poor countries will only be achieved through rapid, high-tech industrialization administered by central-planning boards under the aegis of the state; after a few years the benefits will 'trickle down' to the poor;

*Ditto, except that the state control and central planning are inefficient and that private entrepreneurs must be given a free hand in the industrialization process;

*The the industrialization drive has been premature and that the progress in poor countries can in fact only be achieved by boosting agriculture - since this is the real economic base of the majority of people in the majority of developing countries;

*That agriculture is best boosted by supporting large-scale farms;

*That agriculture is best boosted by supporting small farmers;

*That wealth will not trickle down to the poor and that, therefore, development must be 'bottom-up' in design rather than vice versa;

*That the main focus of development should be on meeting the 'basic needs' of poor and vulnerable groups through the provision of primary health care, village-level education systems, food subsidies, etc;

*That it may, unfortunately, be necessary to neglect the basic needs of the poor and vulnerable groups in order to achieve 'structural adjustment' to a hostile international economic environment;

*That it is possible to have 'adjustment with a human face' that achieves austerity goals but that also builds in protections for the poorest;

*That it is impossible to have adjustment and growth at the same time;

*That it is after all possible to have adjustment and growth at the same time."

Upon reading this list, I could only laugh to realize it basically summarized everything I was taught in graduate school.  Hancock further points out that while these concepts didn't evolve within any particular chronology, they did nonetheless evolve in relation to the development of various fads.

These evolution of fads within development ideology continues today.  Within the last 5-7 years, it seems that every NGO has established a micro-loan program, based on the success of the Grameen Bank.  NGOs have likewise developed the flawed construction of targeting specific demographics within the their programs - such as micro-loans only for youth or women.   Yet by continuing to fracture the societies with development programs, they only cause more societal strife by prompting new internal inequities.  A successful program would better take on those who truly want to participate and succeed, regardless of sex, race, tribe and so on.

The challenge however is to discern the differences between fads and actual innovation.  Are concepts building on interconnectivity or micro thinking actual models for development, or are these simply fads that reflect the economic happenstance of now?  What defines a fad, aside from the longevity of the concept?  And is it wrong to ride the waves of new ideas, or is this really the best we can do, regardless of where it takes us?