Wednesday 24 November 2010

Donor Playgrounds and Unknowable Outcomes

"Donor Playground Cambodia" is the title of a highly commendable paper Adam Fforde and Katrin Seidel have contributed to a conference on development policy, Thinking Ahead, organised by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin. A core theme of their paper: "the tensions created by the belief that development is both a known product of interventions guided by predictive knowledge, and the sense that, really, the future is unknowable".
Cambodia is presented as a case study - it is a "donor playground" in that more than half of its national budget is still funded through development assistance, and that the country has been a field for massive "experimental donor interventions" since the early 1990s. It appears that the huge body of experience built over almost two decades has spawned only patchy and inconsistent knowledge on "what works"; the authors note "a plethora of statements about cause and effect that are inconsistent and ignore each other". Government officials, donors and NGOs seem to hold highly conflicting assumptions about each other's work; local processes that exist independently from donor agendas appear to receive too little attention. In some fields, the country has recorded enormous progress, e.g. in agricultural productivity, "despite" the absence of policy requirements as defined by donors. Massive donor investment in land registration has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in land conflicts, but donors have apparently missed the opportunity to examine their policies more carefully - or learn about "traditional" types of land tenure in Cambodia before introducing new systems.

The case study illustrates three central theses pointed out in Fforde's short conference presentation. They could be summarised as follows:
  • Development policy is likely to be counterproductive if it relies on linear, cause-to-effect thinking which assumes that the effects of development interventions are straightforward and predictable. Such "lock-frame" notions (I borrow the term from R. Hummelbrunner - see my earlier post on Beyond Logframe) may exclude genuine, effective engagement with and among those who are supposed to "benefit" from development policies.
  • Development "experts" do not intervene in socio-culturally or politically "neutral" contexts. "What works here" will not necessarily "work there": there is no empirical evidence to prove that "best practice" can be transposed from one context (e.g. country, "community") to another. The widespread idea that universal experts' recipes can be applied anywhere makes it hard to gain a specific understanding of specific contexts. It also clouds the politics that guide decisions on development interventions.
  • The debate on aid effectiveness tends to frame problems of human rights and power assymmetries in terms of effective delivery of aid programmes. Political oversight of development interventions is limited and lacks complaint mechanisms that would allow "target populations" to claim their rights and hold development actors to account.
A first step to overcome these problems would be to shed the assumption of "knowability", and plan with "adaptive reference frames" that are built on contributions from wide, diverse groups of stakeholders, among whom the "target populations" play a central role. "Beneficiaries" should not only contribute their knowledge (which must be acknowledged to start with), but also get the opportunity to complain about development projects that affect them.

The full Fforde/ Seidel paper is available as part of the conference materials - find it here. A cold kept me away from the actual conference here in Berlin (still on-going as of today), but I could follow the presentation on my computer screen via livestream - a wonderful technology!

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