"Investing in the immaterial": Development practitioners reflect on the messy business of facilitating change
April 27, 2011 - Wangu Mwangi (Web Editor, Capacity.org)
Development resources are scarcer than ever before which means that at all levels of development practice, there is pressure to demonstrate (and perhaps to creatively tweak) the results of projects and processes. It is therefore refreshing to come across a set of candid personal reflections on the challenges of facilitating change in complex real-life settings. "Investing in the Immaterial" is the first of what aims to become an annual practice digest compiled by the South-African based Community Development Resource Association. Its goal is to contribute to building a body of practice in this area and kicks this off with 10 thought-provoking contributions from practitioners across the development spectrum.
One of the common threads running across the articles is the huge amount of energy and resources that practitioners have to put into second-guessing donor requirements and tailoring their project reporting to fit into ever more stringent 'management for results' frameworks. As Sue Soal (CDRA) notes in her opening article, this leads to a situation where the very initiatives that aim to tackle 'capacity' at all levels - personal, community and institutional - are framed in short-term, 'material-delivery' project terms. "Little regard (or resourcing) is given to the very conditions needed to achieve these goals ... time, trust, sustained engagement, voice, participation and human agency."
The irony of development effectiveness
Drawing on her extensive experience with international cooperation programmes, Rosalind Eyben (University of Sussex) observes that, ironically, some of the more successful approaches in change facilitation are deliberately left out of project reports because they do not fit in with the underlying 'philosopical plumbing' of aid relationships. Eyben urges official aid agencies to undertake a serious study of their own staff's everyday practice (rather than 'what they report they are doing - and their effects'). The response of the DfID Peru programme to a rapidly changing political environment following the fall of President Fujimori is an example of an unplanned approach that helped bring about positive results. DfiD moved beyond its own logical framework and adopted a largely relational strategy - typical of complexity thinking - in which staff practiced 'planned opportunism'. She describes this as a modest, step-by-step way of working that "requires the capacity to judge when an intervention might be critical in supporting a process of change, with active and horizontal communications between all those involved concerning what they are observing while learning from the changes occurring as an effect of the iniital intervention."
It is not surprisingly, though, that donor organizations are reluctant to admit that a relationship-driven strategy may be critical for achieving desired outcomes. They are hesitant to be accused of taking sides and/or privileging certain local actors and networks, or even undermining the principles of transparency and accountability. And sometimes, it is simply better not to know or to turn a blind eye to what is going on! How for instance do you deal with the fact that a trusted local partner has been diverting project resources, while at the same time doing really valuable work with local communities? Eyben admits that this is a very real dilemma for many practitioners and wonders whether continuing to subscribe to the substantialist orthodoxy is not infact a subversive survival strategy adopted by practitioners to prop up a dysfunctional system, similar to what Soviet era farm workers did to collectivized agriculture.
So is there any real chance that the critical development practitioner can help reform the system from within?
The contribution by Renko Berkhout (Hivos, the Netherlands) explores the role of intermediary organizations in bridging the gap between the expectations and requirements of donors and public in the North, with the needs and realities of the operational context in the South. He notes that Hivos defines development in terms of "politics and power," and that over time their practitioners have learned to "stretch and fit immaterial support needs into acceptable programmes." Facilitating effective development relationships thus becomes an issue of balancing between diverse interests and constituencies. This results in a mixed bag of flexible approaches, in which development practice is the art of mixing "principles and pragmatism, the technical and the social, the economic and the political." In Indonesia, for example, Hivos works to foster religious pluralism while investing in a large bio-gas programme.
A moral dilemma
But it would be naive to assume that learning to play the game is in itself sufficient to free the development practitioner from the "constraints of the aid chain." One of the most poignant illustrations of this 'co-optation' dilemma is a piece entitled "No Place to Run?" by Rajesh Tandon, a founder of one of the most successful Southern civil society organizations (PRIA in India). After three decades, PRIA is at a crossroads, caught up in a changing aid environment in which it no longer qualifies for international aid. So what next? Should PRIA join the queue for government funding, essentially becoming a service-delivery arm of the government? Should it target philanthropic resources? Should it become a kind of transnational NGO - beefing up its position by exporting its expertise to poorer countries and thus taking a share of the international aid that has been redirected to these countries? Should it take up the numerous offers on the table to 'partner' with successful Indian corporations, eager to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility credentials? Or should it simply throw in the towel and become a for-profit organization, using its post-tax surplus for pursuing its vision?
At the heart of Tandon's dilemma is the recognition that all of the available options come with strings attached. Is there any way for an autonomous civil society organization to enter into direct competition with consultancy firms and other private sector interests and still remain true to its core mission, which has always been about strengthening local capacities and institutions? As he stresses, PRIA does not believe in "mixing funding with capacity building since such approaches become supply-driven ... and not 'owned by the local institutions themselves." Or, as he muses, is that vision itself outmoded and outdated? It is appropriate that Tandon ends with an open question, underlining that 'changing with the times' is perhaps one of the very real challenges facing practitioners today.
All in all, a lot of food for thought that should inspire an interesting debate. The digest therefore concludes with a set of questions for further reflection and discussion and invites more voices to contribute to this debate.