Posts Tagged ‘fads in conservation & development’

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!

The importance of choosing the right tool for the job

Duh! I mean obvious or what? Except, as is well known, people equipped with only hammers often see too many problems as solvable purely by use of a hammer. International donor engagement with Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) has long struck me a case in point.

The international donors come armed with their hammer, which is money to support the government in the recipient country. This is primarily what big international donors do. They work often through diplomatic or pseudo-diplomatic channels. Aid should be channelled to the host government; anything else could be construed as meddling in someone else’s country. This is a pretty good hammer for things that the host country government is already good at, e.g. building new schools all over the country: the more money you pour in, the more new schools get built.

CBNRM has been just one of the sexiest concepts in conservation for about 30 years now. Even Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), including REDD, hasn’t fully displaced it, just been added to the mix, since rich folk much prefer to pay those poster children of poverty porn – poor rural communities of farmers – for protecting their local environment than a bunch of shapeless bureaucrats. So plenty of donor investment in conservation in recent decades has focused on CBNRM. Except that, as I pointed out previously, the same government officials who are charged with enforcing local environmental laws do not really make the most sensible agents of change when it comes to facilitating the development of CBNRM projects.

Now along comes a World Bank report critiquing participatory approaches to development. It includes a substantial section on CBNRM, which is certainly pleasing to see. The main conclusion is that the majority of CBNRM projects do not appear very successful; depending on how they interact with existing policies and laws they may even be counter-productive, helping the rich at the expense of the poor. Now I am familiar to some extent with some of the CBNRM projects they are talking about (or citing others talking about), and I noticed one thing in common: they were all classic international donor funded efforts, working through local government.

So yeah, I’m not particularly surprised by Messrs Mansuri and Rao’s findings, but I’m not convinced that it greatly undermines the theory of CBNRM so much as the practice in the context of international development aid. (Which one presumes was very much Mansuri and Rao’s starting point, given their employer, and is supported by their associated blog post. All of which is not to say the report is not worth a read.) Major donors, of course, employ some very bright people, some of whom have come to realise the same thing. Alas, while they would choose to fund us – a small NGO – if they could, the only thing their employer ever gives them is a metaphorical hammer.

She would if she could

There’s an old English rhyme that one is supposed to recite whilst pulling the petals off a daisy: one line per petal, whichever line corresponds with the last petal supposedly tells you how your intended really feels about you. It goes:

(S)he loves me,
She doesn’t,
She would if she could,
She can’t.

Sometimes I feel that rather sums up our relations with donors. Fads in conservation and development come and go a lot quicker than it takes to see real on-the-ground projects through to satisfactory conclusions, hence the first two lines.

The latter two lines seem reflective of another, equally frustrating problem. There’s one particular desk officer at a local embassy who seems to really like what we do. Lesson learning teams and strategy development consultants are sent down to visit us, a shining beacon in a sea of failing mediocrity (even if I do say so myself). Conversely our friend appears close to losing patience with many of the actual projects that she’s been landed with to oversee.* But several years of warm words and appreciation have so far failed to yield a single dollar of funding. One remains ever hopeful but, like any unconsummated love affair, bitter experience has taught us not to expect anything. Although she is too professional to say so, I surmise that our friend would fund us if she could, but head office has a rather fixed view of things, so she can’t.

* Many donor projects have such long gestation times that desk officers on short 3 year stints get to design their successors’ projects but may only get to manage whatever confused mix they inherit from their predecessors.

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