Why did local approaches to development go out of fashion?

An interesting post from Duncan Green, with even more interesting comments, on a bottom-up approach to ‘doing development differently’. Duncan is reasonably concerned that the recommendations of ‘Local First in Practice’ a new book by Rosie Pinnington might just be a rehash of old arguments in new clothes. (Although I don’t see this necessarily has to be a bad thing.)  Duncan’s concern is backed up by a few commenters, with John Magrath asking:

“This is exactly how international aid agencies used to operate most all the time in the 80s + early 90s. What’s missing ? – is any analysis why all this was ditched, suppressed, fell out of fashion….”

I wasn’t working in development in the 1980s and 1990s so cannot speak as to the accuracy of Magrath’s assertion, but assuming it is true his question is pertinent. And if so, I would venture it is not relevant just to this specific example, but the constant churn of development fads that hinder all long term initiatives. (The sort needed to achieve any kind of social change …) Donor fickleness is an old curse.

Here’s one thought: might it be related to changes in senior management in big conservation and development agencies (donors and BINGOs)? When senior people take up new posts they often want to stamp their own style on an organisation (especially if they have come from outside). Hence the constant re-configuring and search for the latest silver bullet. Most development project portfolios mix great performing projects with desperately poorly performing ones. So incoming managers always have plenty of evidence to support their own prejudices in deciding what to chop and what to proceed with.

Big businesses suffer from this too, but most business cycles last only a few years, so the business can withstand such convulsions, and metrics for success (profitability) are clearer. In contrast many development programmes operate over far longer time horizons, and it can be hard to find good objective measures by which to judge success. So management rotation could lead to a lot of babies get chucked out with the bathwater.

I write this post watching just such a process happening in front of us right now where I work. It is incredibly frustrating!


2 responses to this post.

  1. I haven’t been in the development field at that time either, but I have studied that period. I wonder if part of the shift is that initially there was some progress and then there was a move to standardise it, bringing with it a tick box mentality. In other words, open meeting – check, interviews – check, workshops – check, okay that’s good, participatory initiatives done and now for the report that bears little resemblance to anything that came out of those but some standard report. Lo and behold it doesn’t work. The problem with bottom-up initiatives is they are varied and can be messy, not exactly the sort of thing that makes for an easy sell to donors. I also find there is little time for finding out what has worked, what drove the successful initiatives in the first place.


  2. Developers are searchers. They search for something better in acknowledgement of what has gone before. This is clear in the DDD manifesto where they focus on the possibility and necessity for greater impact. It is the section below:
    As an emerging community of development practitioners and observers, we believe that development initiatives can – and must – have greater impact.
    I don’t think they are new fad people. Like yourself I have short knowledge of development history. I only began to look at the subject through the blogosphere a couple of years ago. A satellite connection makes a big difference to browsing time. I think this new method, is not about fads, but more about frustration and wanting to get things right, based on the debates that have taken place over the last years and with the need for something that will help implement the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, successfully.
    If there is an invisible hand then it is difficult to see and I just leave the speculation out of it.
    But I don’t see much coordination in the way forward. DDD has numerous signatories. Some are from academia; some are from ngos; some are from development schools; multilateral organisations, etc., but all are signing up as individuals. The few organisations that have signed up are not insignificant but not major either. So these individuals don’t represent the organisations to which belong. They can only try to campaign for the new method but they can’t make it the new method. That decision belongs to others, although they may be part of the decision making process. So I see it as the beginning of a campaign without coordination. It may be that sometime soon a new organisation will appear with a leader, staff, premises and funding to define DDD procedures in relation to development projects. They then make approaches to donors and try to convince of the methodology and donors adopt it. Or donors themselves come up with the DDD methodology based on the manifesto. Say, a DDD audit officer is to be part of every ngo. All project officers have had DDD training and the project is implemented using the methodology.
    Is development in turmoil as a result of this new initiative. Will there be marginalisation of staff who don’t accept it. These things will be known by people in the development world. Interesting to be a fly on the wall in these circles. But the schools of Collier, Easterly, Sachs, Bill Gates, others and the Sustainable Development Goals are all what is bringing this to a head.
    By none of the above do I mean that I support DDD.


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