What is the point of the development sector? Unmediated support is the future

1 December 2013

[Last updated February 2021]

I gave a speech at the ACFID Universities Network’s conference in Sydney in late November 2013 that challenges the need for an Aid, or Development, Sector.

This is not a word for word account of that speech but rather an edited version of it, written afterwards, and with the support of very useful comments provided by some of the participants; e.g. via Twitter:

There was also a heated pre-conference debate with some ACFID staff members at the famous BBQ King over delicious crispy duck. So I thank them for that. +

The point of my speech, an idea that is still ‘work in progress’, was to argue that the development sector, the aid industry, has developed into such a separate sector, sometimes claiming to be a profession and a discipline in its own right, that now bears little resemblance with other sectors and professions from where it should (or at least did) draw its relevance. As a consequence, international development policies are not designed and implemented by, say, education, public health or energy experts, as would be expected in developed and developing countries alike, but by a motley crew of individuals, some of whom, have little more than the study and knowledge of ‘the aid industry’ itself to claim as their expertise.

I say this knowing that it is a crass generalisation yet I cannot help but thinking that many of the most prolific ‘development experts’ would not be trusted with policy in their own countries; but are still free to logframe the lives of millions around the world.

Discovering the development sector

I studied a BA in economics in Peru. After university I worked for a Peruvian think tank and at the Andean Community looking first at trade policy, then competitiveness and trade in services more specifically, then child policies and social protection, and afterwards focused a bit of my work on people with disabilities. My colleagues at the think tank worked in other areas: regulation, macroeconomics, monetary policy, infrastructure policy, health policy, etc.

In 2002 I travelled to the UK to study an MSc in Social Policy and Planning in Developing Countries (it is now called Social Policy and Development -as if to stress my point). It was a few months into the course when I discovered the ‘Development Sector’. Back in Peru, whenever I had searched for literature to inform our work I sought out mainstream journals such as the NBER (this was our first point of call at the time –this is pre-Google, of course). My colleagues and I looked for information and ideas in the literature of specific professions and disciplines or in journals or other publications specialised on a policy issue or even a geographic region or country. But in the UK, the literature I was asked to read about came from development studies sources: journals focusing on development, NGOs focused on development, think tanks that only worked on development policy, etc.

I took a credit on urban development and another on rural development but the literature focused entirely on developing countries and came from these development sources. There was little, nothing really, on urban development in the UK or in the US (or other more urbanised countries in Europe); nothing on the challenges that London had faced over its long history and how they city, in its many reincarnations, had managed to overcome them –or not. And even when the literature looked at the urbanisation challenges faced by Latin American or Asian metropolis these had a development angle to them.

I found out, to my surprise, that development urban experts didn’t hang out much with non-development ones. The development sector, with too few exceptions, is separate from the rest.

But this separation is only possible in donor countries where there are different teaching programmes, NGOs, think tanks and consultancies dealing with domestic and developing countries. In developing countries, where, ironically, they are supposed to be relevant, this separation makes little sense. While in the UK, for instance, international development policy and the policies of developing countries are marginal political issues (and nobody really cares about them except for the industry itself), in developing countries these are mainstream politics. Cash transfers for developing countries in the UK pass as a technocratic issue that can be resolved by a few randomised controlled trials but in developing countries they are political interventions, highly politicised and laden with value and ideology.

You only need to look at the debates around Obama Care or hints at the privatisation of the NHS. These are not small marginal technocratic decisions. They are the big political arguments of their time; evidence plays a role but only a small one.

At the time of my speech, the Lowy Institute in Sydney hosted Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She was asked about her status as an icon. Her response (from the Sydney Morning Herald) provides another illustration of the separation between development and the mainstream:+

“I always thought that I was a politician, I look upon myself as a politician, not as an icon,” she said. ” I always object to word icon, because it’s very static, it stands there, sits there, hangs on the wall, and I happen to work very very hard.”

We like icons in the development sector. And we like to lift them above their politics: people like Mandela, Johnson Sirleaf, Chavez, Kagame, and Morales come to mind. But by removing them from their politics we hide the unavoidable messiness involved in the lives of anyone attempting to change the world. After all, their actions are not value free. That messiness needs to be principally confronted in the same way that it is in developed countries: domestically.

My argument is that the development sector, this industry that has separated itself from the rest, has to go. It is redundant and self-serving. It builds walls around itself to ensure, like any other professional body, lobby or industry, that its interests are protected -not the interests of the poor that they claim to defend, but their own interests.

These walls have become rather tall, lately, to mask an unfortunate reality. That more and more, its members, are generalists; specialised in the industry itself (its history and processes –its jargon and acronyms) but with only limited (mostly read about) knowledge of any one thing (policy issue or region or country) in particular.

A few years after my speech the concept of ‘doing development differently’ became the latest buzzword. This was, of course, promoted by the same organisations at the centre of the industry. It was, in my view, another example of an industry reinventing itself to protect itself.

The possibility of unmediated aid

The development industry stands in between opportunities for direct collaboration and support. It seeks to mediate all the relationships that could develop between peers in developed and developing countries –and even between developing countries.

So-called development experts (what is a development expert, by the way? How can anyone be an expert in ‘everything’?) stand between experts: between public health professionals in the UK and their peers in the developing world, for example. They claim that they are necessary to translate knowledge and to adapt it to different contexts. They claim that this translation or brokering requires some kind of expertise that only development professionals have. They often claim (and this was claimed a few times at the conference) that a British or Australian policymaker, for example, would not be able to understand the differences between the context in their countries and those in others, say, in Malawi or Peru. By this they suggest, although would not dare say it, that Malawian or Peruvian public health professionals would not be able to understand their British or Australian peers; that they would not know what could be adopted and applied in their own contexts; that they need to be helped; things need to be explained to them; that the decade that Peruvian medical doctors need to study before they can be considered as experts in their fields is not enough; or rather, it is enough to be allowed to work in US or European hospital but not enough to make public health decisions about and for their own countries.

This is of course not true. Anyone can see this. But it is also patronising and arrogant and neo-colonial. (The BBC’s The Toughest Place to Be a …. provides excellent example of what can happen when people rely on empathy instead of pity.)

How is it possible then for a Canadian to lead the Bank of England? Or why would top British banks hire Nigerians or Mexicans? And why would a South African or Chinese corporation hire foreigners? Are they mad? Do they not know that these economists, MBAers, engineers, political advisors, journalists, scientists, etc. are incapable of applying their knowledge in other contexts? (sarcasm intended).

I am advocating for an unmediated relationship between countries, organisations, and individuals. Or at least for significantly less mediation. In a world in which information and communication technologies make it possible to find out about what others know about with enormous ease and in which more and more traditionally recipient countries are becoming more intelligent consumers of advice and support, the days of ‘donor-driven’ (and donor staffed) solutions are over. Or they are soon to be.

In this unmediated world, donor countries (but this applies to all countries really) should seek, through more direct means, to help others but focus mainly on what they are good at. The main drive, demand, will come from developing countries themselves.

I thought of some examples of policy issues that developing countries could learn from Australia to use at the conference. I referred to Australia in my talk but I believe this could very well work for any country. And I use Peru as an example of a developing country because it’s the one I know best.

Urban planning, public spaces, parks: A visit to Sydney or Melbourne confirms the world rankings of the best cities to live in. Both are incredible places to live and work in. The  world (and not just the developing world) could learn much from Australian city politicians, planners, researchers, and developers. Twinning cities, encouraging staff exchanges between city authorities, and establishing scholarships to train the next generations of city players in developing countries would be excellent examples of direct support.

Australian cities could also learn a great deal about the challenges faced by cities in developing countries. They may learn about how to deal with them as they begin to appear in their own cities or even how to prevent them altogether. There is no need for an Aid Agency to get involved, or for a development studies programme, or an international policy think tank to attempt to summarise the literature on the history of Australian urban development. Nor is there a need for an Aid funded programme to implement reforms in developing countries (which no doubt involve lots of development professionals).

If cities in the developing world want Australians to help them out they can hire them. They can certainly pay for their airfares and fees. They can prepare the terms of reference and they can monitor the delivery of the services. And if they don’t like the Australian experience they can go elsewhere: Medellin, in Colombia, is often hailed as a city to watch and learn from.

Lima, the city where I am from and where I now live, is in dire need of help when it comes to public parks and spaces. It has embarked in a new effort to address what has now become an embarrassing lack of green space but it could use with some help from Sydney or Melbourne experts. This is something that the Peruvian and Australian embassies could handle.

I would now argue that this has turned out to be true. The new generation of urban experts in Peru hail not from development studies programmes but from development architecture schools, urban planning programmes and public policy degrees from across the world. Their networks involve their peers in city governments in Latin American cities as well as North American and European cities.

The good kind of propaganda: Australia is well known for its public education campaigns. It has had great successes encouraging people to protect themselves from the sun, buckle-up, drink water, etc. This may not sound very ‘developmenty’ but changing these kind of behaviours is an issue of great concern to governments in developing countries. Our attitude towards and the manner in which we use public services, our attitude towards paying taxes, our respect for the environment, and our respect for the rule of law are important factors explaining the many challenges that our countries face.

Several local governments in Peru, for example, have responded extremely well and with great interest to the work of Peru’s probably only behavioural economist (currently not even in the country). A few more PhDs would have an impact that hundreds of development workers could never dream of having in their lifetime.

Again, this type of learning and collaboration is taking place. The nudge experts that have taken over many of our policy bodies in Peru have not trained in development programmes. They have opted for mainstream courses and trained in companies consulting with governments globally – regardless of their development.

Using mining revenues responsibly: Australia has managed to use its minerals and the income it gets from selling them in a relatively responsible way. Certainly much better than what most developing countries have managed to do. Well, alongside Australian investment in mineral extraction, wouldn’t it be great if countries like Peru, whose minerals Australians are digging out of the ground, were able to benefit from this experience?

Establishing or simply supporting the establishment of a centre for excellent in the study of mining and natural resource management in Peru, for example, or supporting exchanges between researchers or journalists in Peru and Australia could help develop a local expertise in the use and monitoring of mineral revenues.

Again, there is no need for an Aid industry to accomplish this. Corporations themselves, in partnership with Australian and local universities, and national mining societies or similar business bodies can do this. Policymakers at the national or state levels could also get involved and again, no intermediary would be necessary. They may need a bit of a push or encouragement but not an entire parallel sector to design and implement it.

This has happened already. A centre focusing on sustainable mining at my university drew support from the founder of a similar centre in Australia. His participation was paid for by the university.

Foreign policy: Unlike Latin American countries and much of the developing world, Australia has a lot of experience managing the tensions that arise from living under the commercial influence of China and the political influence of the United States. This experience is invaluable for Latin American countries, including Peru, who have only recently found themselves in this situation.

Aid agencies do not like to fund foreign policy. They see this as unnecessary or at least not pro-poor enough. Still, they talk and talk about global public goods and more effective participation of the ‘Global South’ in global initiatives. This requires stronger foreign policy capacity in developing countries. In 2014 Peru hosted the COP20 and it could have used some international negotiation support. Granted that Australia is not a name that comes to mind when talking about positive climate change negotiation outcomes but the need is clear and the principle stands: stronger foreign policy capacity could lead to a positive outcome for the entire world. Isn’t that worth supporting?

Investing in foreign policy think tanks and supporting public foreign policy bodies may seem like supporting the competition but it can, in fact, be the best way of creating lasting alliances.

Early childhood developmentinnovation and designemergency responses, etc: Australia has many other specialisms that the rest of the world could benefit greatly from.

Education: The education sector in Australia offers another opportunity. Not only is it a great example of a policy area on which Australia could base a great deal of its support to other countries, but it is also one of the most important and effective mechanisms to achieve this unmediated future.

I was very pleased to meet an Australian Awards Scholar from Zambia studying a postgraduate degree in Education. I have worked in Zambia with several think tanks and am sure that any contribution he could make to improve Zambia’s education system –particularly at secondary and tertiary level- would have unprecedented effects on his country’s future. If only he went back to set up a research centre focused on education policy… one can only dream.

The Scholars I met at the Development Futures Conference provided the best illustration for the disintermediation power of education. The scholars I talked to were studying chemical engineering, under-ground water management, anthropology, and MBAs. They were not based in development studies programmes or schools but rather more traditional (and grounded) disciplines. As a consequence, their professors and peers were Australian and international experts and students.

These scholars do not need a development studies degree to help them understand what can and cannot be applied to their own countries. They can do that for themselves.

The only value of a developing studies programme for students from developing countries is that it can help understand the industry and how it intervenes in their own countries. And maybe resist it, if they wish.

Through education, Australia (and many other donor countries) have the greatest potential to contribute to the betterment of other societies. Scholarships are often criticised as being too elitist or better serving of the host countries –after all, a lot of the ‘aid money’ stays in the donor country.

However, as one of the participants acknowledged, the elites are, whether we like it or not, those who wield power in their countries. Through education, Australia has the opportunity to influence their beliefs and behaviours in favour of more inclusive societies. Even supporting MBAs and other business degrees can have a positive effect in developing countries. Graduates are likely to put into practice the lessons learned in Australia or from Australian professors, including the transfer of ideas and technologies, opening new trade avenues and networks, improving business practices (including good business practices), and develop a more responsible business community.

Practical steps

What does this mean in practice? What can the new Australian aid do? Could Australia make a positive contribution without a Development Industry?

I think it could. The first thing we all need to do is stop calling it ‘development’. Let’s call it by what it is: education policy, public health policy, community development, human rights, regulation, banking, business development, manufacturing policy, etc. The only different is the context. Times have changed. Is Indonesia, a member of the G20 deserving of a ‘developing’ label? Should they be treated any different to the other members?

This means that those currently working ‘in development’ need to take a hard look at their networks and contacts and try their best to break away from the grip that the sector has on them. If they are not already well connected to their own peers in Australia then they ought to make an effort to do so. They could, for instance, start attending local conferences dealing with the challenges or policy issues that they work on. I am sure there are education policy or community development conferences in Australia –about Australia.

For those who are about to join, my advice is that they stay out of the industry and pursue careers that allow them to maintain an interest and attention for the needs of developing countries. They should also take a longer-term view to development and their contribution. Say goodbye to illusions of making poverty history (we know they are not real) and focus first on developing your own expertise before attempting to help others.

More tangible and larger interventions will be necessary, too. Instead of trying to influence other countries on everything there is under the sun, maybe the Australian government, universities, think tanks and NGOs could aim to develop centres of excellence (which can be virtual research networks, no need for new buildings and organisations) focusing on the issues and sectors in which Australia excels. These centres of research networks could help showcase Australian experiences and expertise and thus make it easier for other countries to decide whether Australian help is of use to them and choose what aspects of it may be more valuable.

Many of these centres do not have to be invented. They exist already across Australia’s universities (see, for example: Centre for Design at RMIT). And their counterparts in developing countries would not be difficult to find –and where there aren’t any they may need to be developed.  But that is something that developing countries themselves can do (and certainly pay for).

But rather than attempting to plan and control the formation of these new centres, Australia should take a different more long-term approach. I have argued, for some time now, that Peru needs at least one centre of excellence in mining. It is inexcusable that Peruvians have to travel to Australia, Canada or Britain to learn how to dig-up minerals in their own country. They should be learning about it back home. And others should come to study in Peru, too.

One way to achieve this is to encourage (but only encourage, it is not Australia’s -or anybody else’s- responsibility) the development of a knowledge sector focused on mining and natural resources more broadly by supporting the long-term development of a new professional cadre of researcher, experts, and policy makers. By ensuring that Peruvian graduates of Australian universities understand and value the importance of knowledge for the development of their industry Australia may be able to do more, in the long run, than any direct short term effort could. Australian mining companies could play their part by funding local research, using, when possible, local contractors, supporting long term relations between Australian universities and their Peruvian counterparts, or funding postgraduate scholarships.

Beyond research and academia, new and stronger links could be promoted between professional bodies in Australia and elsewhere: engineers, lawyers, economists, doctors and nurses, teachers, etc. Chambers of commerce present another opportunity for peer to peer support.

In the public sector, government departments (agriculture, energy, mining, trade, transport, health, etc.) could seek out links to their counterparts in developing countries. Opportunities for internships, secondments, joint trainings, and other means of exchange would be immensely useful for both a developed country like Australia and its developing country partners. City planners and managers could follow the same path by means of good old traditional city partnerships.

Does any of this need to be coordinated by an Aid Agency or by development experts? I don’t think so. An organisation like ACFID may be enough to help develop and sustain a community of individuals and organisations interested and committed to helping others from their own disciplines, professions or sectors. And there are other networks and initiatives that can support this new approach, the UN Young Professionals Association, for example.

In conclusion…

The point is not to belittle the commitment and contribution that people and organisations ‘in development’ can make. The point is that the same or more can be done from outside the sector. A sector that has for too long focused too much on its own interests and that, for the most part, talks to itself.

Developing countries are no longer passive recipients of Aid. They have become active and intelligent consumers of ideas, technologies, and other resources with the power to shape their own futures –with the necessary mistakes included. They compete with their neighbours and not keen to be treated as voiceless beneficiaries that have to be content with what is available.

Help or support, rather than aid, is what they want. They want partners who consider them special and important; and that don’t then go and give the same help to their competitors.

They want to hire the same consultants that American, British or Australian governments use. They don’t want their infrastructure built by NGOs or their universities propped up by researchers whose only experience is in other poor countries; they want the best infrastructure firms and advice from top universities and education experts. Only the best.

And why wouldn’t they?