Small is Beautiful

J over at the Tales from the Hood blog has recently been reminding us about how important professionalism is in development (1, 2, 3, 4). For the most part I agree with him: I find it incredibly frustrating dealing with well-meaning amateurs whose suggestions are mostly the opposite of helpful. But I believe that the drive for professionalism (including proper professional standards) needs to be balanced with consideration for what can be lost through taking such a focus.

Exhibit number one is to note that all the ‘professionalism’ of the donors, multi-lateral agencies and the big NGOs has not got us very far to date. The conservation and development industries may well have made life more bearable for millions of poor people around the world and mitigated some of the worst environmental practices, but both have fallen a long way short of all the promises they made.

It is true that many flaws of international aid have been pointed out by various commentators over time (see my blog roll for a small selection), and perhaps if all these flaws were addressed, the professional approach of all these various agencies would suddenly bear more fruit. But right now, we don’t know that for sure.

What does seem clear to me is that ‘professionalism’ generally seems to be associated with the established players who have the resources to hire the right people and do all the proper evaluations before embarking on a new course of action. I think this omits an important class of conservation and development initiatives.

Small is beautiful. I know it is a cliché, but there is a lot of truth to it. Firstly small projects can be a lot easier to manage; lack of complexity is certainly a virtue. Secondly small projects and organisations are a lot more personal; I think this element of personal endeavour can do a lot to ameliorate the charge of development work being patronising.

Small also allows for experimentation; where the sums are low, there often won’t be much lost if a project collapses for having failed to follow one or more pieces of best practice. Some of these holes can, and should, be filled in later before scaling up (if that is the goal). Bill Easterly constantly reminds us of the power of many different people making their own separate attempts to achieve their goals over a centrally-planned system. I think the aid industry could benefit from a lot more disruption from nimble, radical-thinking start-ups.

All in all, despite the manifest problems of DIY aid, if I had a donation to make, I’d far rather give it to a small local organisation I know well with relatively modest objectives and a long-term commitment to the communities it supports than to a BINGO.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. My recent post also explores the important concept of “small is beautiful.” Rather than being the lowest common denominator of international development assistance, it’s time to recognize local indigenous organizations as vital to supporting genuine, demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries and unleash social change.

    1) Local indigenous organizations are key to the elusive “scale-up.”
    2) Local indigenous organizations have capacities that larger aid agencies just don’t have.
    3) Local indigenous organizations have vital expertise about how poor people cope day-to-day.
    4) Local indigenous organizations are better positioned to make communities more resilient and adaptive.
    5) Local indigenous organizations fill existing gaps in the government and international aid sectors.

    My perspective is that professionals and amateurs alike must examine how we can best support local organizations that are grown from the inside and fueled by the dedication and vision of the very people they serve. Read more at: http://www.how-matters.org/2010/11/08/missing-from-diy-aid-debate/

    Reply

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Crystal Hayling, How Matters. How Matters said: Small is Beautiful – the latest from Bottom Up Thinking http://t.co/R1xdhX0 [...]

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  3. I think that there are some good things to take out of the discussion that’s been taking place over the blogosphere about these issues.

    The problem that I have, though, is that a lot of it sounds like vested interests talking and protecting their patch. It sounds a lot like London’s tube workers who sometimes act as though they are they only ones with the required knowledge to do something. Actually, plenty of people can an aid or development or environmental worker. All you need is the right learning and experience and you can get there. The problem is that the industry values too many things that are useless (eg, masters degrees) and too few things that are useful (eg, the ability to get things done, the ability to learn, the ability to solve problems).

    And in a similar sense, it seems to me that the fact that people feel the need to say these things is a symptom of the problem. You don’t ever see Unilever executives taking the time to tell you how people need a masters degree to market the best soap. They spend their time recruiting good people and doing their work. And the end product is that people get the best soap they can afford (on average). The fact that people have to turn around and criticise others seems to indicate a fight to the bottom. Otherwise, shouldn’t the cream simply rise to the top?

    Reply

    • I entirely take your point about entrenched special interests defending their turf; J and other defenders of professionalism in development need to ensure they do not stray too far into this territory. However, most blogs on development issues are united in their anguish at the myriad shortfalls in the sector. There is a lot of ‘bad aid’ out there, and some of it is originated by poorly informed but well-intentioned ‘amateurs’. I agree with J that the world would be a better place without these doomed and counter-productive efforts. I also agree with you and others (e.g. David Week) that we should not erect barriers that are too high in the process.

      Reply

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