Monday, December 08, 2014

The Problem with International Development…is Us

A friend of mine sent me this article a few weeks ago, and I’ve since seen it blow up all over my Facebook feed. Doing a blog post on such a rich and thorough article is daunting, but Michael Hobbes gets it so right on so many points, I can’t help but get on my little soapbox to echo them. 

1. The myth of Overhead. The cost of keeping the lights on (overhead) versus handing out the blankets (activity funds) has already been written about prolifically in the domestic non-profit sector (See here. Or all of here). It’s just as bad in the international scene. I’ve seen donors reject multi-million dollar proposals, on the grounds that they only want to see a 15% overhead. How does one run the activities without the means to pay a living wage to staff, or keep the lights on?  Mr. Hobbes says what I've always wanted to say to a donor: just because you say we shouldn't pay for it doesn't mean the need for it doesn't exist. We need toilet paper. We need printers. We need (like, reeeally need) HR Managers.

Instead, those roles and tasks become diffused throughout the organization until the staff are wearing so many hats they lose their heads. In my own working life, I’m a logistician, supply chain manager, low-level bookkeeper, financial manager, janitor, HR manager, GIS expert, chief operating officer, communication specialist, procurement manager, contracts manager  and, apparently, the only one who can refill a fuel card in less than 10 working days. 

2. The myth of scaling up. Man I hate that word, "scaling up" As in somehow, magically, what works in Malawi will work in rural Azerbaijan. Hobbes calls this the Paradigm of the Big Idea. Why are we so intent on finding a one-size fits all approach to saving the world? Is it easier than actually thinking broadly, creatively? I think we've duped ourselves into believing this.

Letting go of this myth that what works in one place will work in another makes space for innovation and creativity. It embraces this wild crazy patchwork-diverse world we live in.  It's scary and messy. Shouldn’t the “solution” to a complicated problem such as endemic global poverty be as equally confounding and similarly heartbreakingly intricate? Then let it be so. Acknowledging that it is half the battle.

3. Our expectations of international development are off. I’ve read many of the same books as Mr. Hobbes and thought many of the same downtrodden thoughts of international development. Why isn’t this working? Why are Malawians still so poor? What am I even doing here, messing around with these stupid fuel cards? 

Hobbes argues that development is happening - just not in the way we expect. Since 2008, Lilongwe has seen three and a half new, enormous shopping complexes erected. (Never mind that most people are still too poor to shop there, and they are mostly empty). Change will look like what it looks like. 

I realized that it was time to let go of the expectation that world hunger will fall away because we start giving fortified peanut butter instead of living wages; that we have a magic bullet to scale up; that someone will notice that there is fuel in all the cars. Letting go of this expectation has been tremendously thought-provoking, and a bit freeing (thus, why it took so long to write this post).

Hobbes ends this article with some of excellent advice:  

 “If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits […] NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.”

Amen, Mr. Hobbes. A-freakin’-men.

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