Development effectiveness: "What can be done?" – An easy question without an easy answer

A young friend of mine currently volunteering for a youth organization in Malawi expressed his frustration the other day because the criminal justice system in the country was apparently doing nothing to combat serious crimes such as the rape of young girls. He said the police are reluctant to do anything unless there is an incentive for them.
I completely understand my friend’s frustration. The question – frequently asked, frequently met with solutions or strategies or ideas – is simple enough: What can be done?
Many times the answers, from governments to NGOs to donor agencies, come in the form of projects or programs or incentives or professional development aimed at “strengthening” someone’s “capacity.” I’ve used “capacity building” enough times in my career to realize the utter ambiguousness of the term but at the same time I am reluctant to let it go for lack of finding a more suitable term.
Years working on human rights issues have (at least I think) cleared things up for me. I was in my friend’s shoes nearly twenty years ago, a young volunteer in that same country (and same town), full of enthusiasm and irrepressible energy aimed at changing the world. The harshness of the poverty in Malawi assaulted my senses and left me with a sense of anger. The anger was partly directed inward at my own inability to change things quickly enough, partly directed towards the undefined mass of people everywhere more fortunate than the poor in Malawi but too ignorant or apathetic to care, and partly directed towards those in Malawi who could make a difference but chose not to.
The last group – those who could make a difference in Malawi but didn’t – bugged me. I sometimes looked at my fellow teachers and became frustrated at their listless attitude towards their profession. Some taught when they felt like it. One teacher refused to teach for a week because the students did not stand up as he entered the classroom one day. They occasionally went on strike and stayed in the staffroom drinking tea. Hard to change the world when you’re surrounded by a lot of blah.
Empathy went a long way towards understanding their attitudes. Most had not chosen their careers: there were few options in Malawi. If you were fortunate enough to get an education, you either became a nurse, a teacher, or some other type of civil servant. Most had extended families to care for. Everyone got paid once a month (if they were lucky), and the amount was usually less than 200 dollars. How do you expect them to change the world?
The police were no better. If a crime took place, it was the responsibility of the victim to go to the police station and find transportation to bring the police to the crime scene. I found that out when my place was broken into. A friend walked to the police station, found an officer, and took a taxi with him to my place. I never gave the officer any money, but then again, I doubt any effort was made to catch those who robbed me. The corruption remains in place today from my friend’s insight, and while I will never find any form of corruption justifiable, I understand why it happens. There is no accountability, there are no services, there is no support, there is no reason to work with a strong sense of ethics and get nothing in return. It’s just not in a police offer’s interests to do things right unless he or she will get something for their effort.
To get back to my friend’s question – What can be done? – a rights-based approach would make sure that those whose rights have been violated know and claim their rights and those who should be accountable also know how to fulfill their obligations. In the case of a young girl being raped, police officers have an obligation to investigate the crime, find and prosecute those responsible, and to do so quickly. The fact that the police won’t do anything unless you give them money is partly due to their ethics but also fed by an inefficient criminal justice system; now we’re getting into systemic issues, in other words, there is a bigger picture to consider. The difficulty is that solutions (either by governments, NGOs or donors) are too often compartmentalized and project specific aimed at changing a lot of micro stuff at the expense of neglecting a macro picture. The police officer who came to my house in Malawi after I was robbed had proof of this in his hands: he carried with him a briefcase with state of the art fingerprint-detecting equipment. His pre-CSI gadgetry was of little use for a police officer who had to take a taxi to a crime scene. But perhaps a donor thought it was a good idea at the time.
The solution – the ever present “capacity building” – must also be directed towards educating children, their parents, and ultimately communities in general about protecting the rights of children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child essentially states that any decisions made that will affect the lives of children must take into consideration their “best interests.” These are not mere words: they must also be reflected in the actions we undertake to protect our children from violent offenders. Children must feel safe at home, in the schools, and elsewhere in the community. The creation of those safe spaces will in one way or another reduce the possibility of placing children in vulnerable positions where their rights can be violated. These are measures to prevent the crimes form happening in the first place. Add to this the need to provide support for those who are already victims.
All this to say that there is never an easy solution to one problem. But anger, like the kind I had all those years ago witnessing the injustice, corruption, and poverty around me in Malawi, is not an answer. However, I do think that anger, when properly redirected, can be a rechanneled into positive force of change. After all, we do want to change things for the better because what we see now makes us angry.

The mayo’s sticking, or: human rights educators like the participatory approach

The first day’s over. I spent most of the day busying myself with the tedious but necessary work of writing daily plans for the facilitators. The real work was in the hands of the facilitators. The first day of any workshop sets the tone for the remainder of the training: do great and it bodes well. Do bad: well…
The ebullient facilitators’ were unshakable in their enthusiasm and their readiness to get going and do well. They did not disappoint. From the morning break the participants were saying how fortunate they were to be part of the program. Another mentioned he was having so much fun he didn’t realize he was learning, but in fact he was.
I’m glad, relieved, but most of all unsurprised that the first day went well. I would have preferred a slightly later starting time of 8 AM, but that decision wasn’t mine and I wasn’t about to question it either. Thankfully we ended early at about 4:30, which is basically the only time that will happen over the next two weeks. It meant that the end of the day came refreshingly early. However, the facilitators still had to meet to plan Day 2, and that meeting lasted for two hours. Planning for a Minister of human rights and an ambassador’s arrival takes a fair bit of though – the protocol issues were hard to agree on.
Something I insisted on –
Hold on, screaming women in the distance, hard to concentrate. Ok, they’re still fighting, but walking away from me at the same time. Not any of the participants, though.
– was to invite some of the participants to attend our end of daily debrief. One volunteer from each group showed up and shared their thoughts on how the day went. At this point I admit I was surprised, because they spoke of the things we normally hear about our programs, but it’s as though they were saying everything I would normally hear after a two-week program now stated after one day. One said, “Each one of us felt important.” Another participant: “We see we’re not only receiving something, but we have something to offer others as well.” One participant remarked how easily the facilitators opened the discussions by asking the simplest of questions, most of which require not-so-simple answers. Asking Why? How? goes a long way.
La mayonnaise a pris,” was a common phrase heard from many of the facilitators. Essentially meaning “Things have caught on,” it alludes to the readiness with which participants are easing into the participatory approach and happy that they’ve found a learning environment where they learn, express themselves, and are listened to.
For me the greatest comfort I get out of this day is to see how useless I have become. I’ve said that before about my work in Indonesia and the Middle East and I don’t mean it in a self-deprecating way. Anyone working in “development” should make damn sure that their work has an expiry date. If you’re doing the same “development” or “capacity-building” work over and over again, you’re not doing it right. You should be working your way out of a job. The process Equitas has gone through to make sure that its program alumni can do the stuff we do works. It takes time, and the alumni here in West Africa are not fully independent from our support, but they are certainly getting there. There’s a lot more to a training session other than facilitation. The entire organization of the session, including the fundraising efforts, is not to be neglected. My job is to work with the facilitators, and judging what I’ve seen so far, they won’t miss me when I leave by the end of the week and let them complete the program on their own. It’ll be time to move on.

On NGO jargonmania and the futility of pre-meetings

A friend of mine emailed me a top ten list a couple of weeks ago that really hit home. Entitled, “Top Ten Reasons You Know You’re Working at an Aid Organization Headquarters,” almost every item on the list rang true. The first reason pretty much sums up the convoluted, impossibly heavy jargon-laden language we use in the non-governmental organization (NGO) field. Here it is:

You just had a pre-meeting to discuss your strategy planning session for the new initiative to reduce poverty by increasing access to safe water/credit/food/health care through fair and equitable distribution to those with the right to said good or service through engagement with duty bearers in the government and other stakeholders and civil society organizations.

Jargon is one thing, acronyms is another. I’m careful about over-acronymizing my speech. While living in Ghana as a Development Worker with World University Service of Canada, I was a policy advisor in the Girls Education Unit of the basic Education Division in the Ghana Education Service, reporting to the Ministry of Education. In other words, I would introduce myself as the WUSC DW in GEU of the BED in the GES of the MOE.

But that first reason above points not only to excessive jargon but also the speed at which decisions are made in NGOs. Having a “pre-meeting” and a “strategy planning session” to discuss eventual engagement of a cornucopia of stakeholders (sorry! jargon alert) sounds to me like nothing meaningful will ever take place! There are times when working for an NGO when you honestly feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as they should. I know that’s not exceptional, after all I also worked for the government and it was much the same. But the causes for the most part are inherently different: in government (based on my experience working for the government here in Canada), things move at a glacial pace because any decision-making has to follow a precise and slow-moving path of approval. It was much the same in Ghana when I worked for the ministry of education, only there the problem was compounded by a bunch of good employees who were unmotivated for a number of reasons including meagre salaries and being stuck in an environment rife with corruption and ineptitude. With some NGOs the decision-making is participatory to a fault; everyone has to be consulted to the point where no one ever ends up making a decision, or if a decision is ever made it takes an inordinate amount of time to actually be taken. Sad to say, but “pre-meetings” do exist in the NGO world. Just have the meeting and make the decision then!

Pre-meetings are annoying but manageable; it’s when a lack of effective and timely decision-making ruins important opportunities to “do good” that really irks me. Read any number of stories of humanitarian assistance coming from Haiti and you’ll discover plenty of small-scale initiatives from dedicated NGOs (both national and international) that are doing wonderful things to restore human dignity to those who have suffered. Then contrast that to wide-scale initiatives from larger organizations that are responsible for millions of dollars worth of aid and they royally bungle things up. Irk!

This irking is longstanding with me. A lot comes down to the people within the NGOs; many have their hearts in the right place but not necessarily the skills to manage an organization. This is in sharp contrast to the business world, where many leaders have the skills (honed either on the job or through education) to manage others. As one leader of an NGO remarked to me once, “We fell into our positions as managers, and we’re still learning.” To those NGO leaders who are still learning on the job, please take some advice: stop the pre-meetings, or pre-anythings. Meet, decide, act, be responsible and accountable, applaud successes, acknowledge failures (and call them that if that’s what they are, do not couch them in terms of “lessons learned”), and move on.

However, it’s unfair to dump a lack of prompt decision-making squarely on the shoulders of NGO leaders. Let’s be honest, any organization – NGO or otherwise – can have its share of leaders and slackers, and the latter can have a serious effect on an organization’s effectiveness. The NGO sector is no different. When I started working in international development in the early 90s, I was instantly thrilled and dismayed at the people who made international development a career choice. To be quite honest, most the people were fantastic: dedicated, caring, eager to collaborate and listen to others, intent on fostering change, creative and willing to take risks, intelligent and indefatigable in their efforts. The rest were total morons: idiots in the truest sense of the word, people I am convinced were totally incapable of finding a decent job back home. I can think of at least one man I had to work closely with for a few months who was a racist and a misogynist. His love for monstrously bloody steaks, hunting big game and watching the antics of would-be wrestlers in the World Wrestling Federation did nothing to endear him to me.

This was quite demoralizing for me as a newcomer to international development. In my naïveté, I suppose I never stopped to think that I would be going into a field – just like any other – where there was a huge range of people in terms of their competencies and motivations for doing this type of work. Perhaps things are no better now than they were when I started in international development all those years ago, but I’d like to think that the general public is gaining a much better understanding of the work that NGOs do, and that in turn is forcing NGOs to become more accountable for their actions, more transparent in their work, and clearer in identifying tangible results of their programs, and that’s something everyone benefits from in my opinion. 

And to go back to that top ten list, number seven was “You realize that your favourite and most frequented cafe is locate in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.” Not true! It’s at the airport in Singapore.