Posts Tagged ‘paternalism’

Paternalism in conservation and development (reprise)

I’ve blogged a few times before about paternalism in conservation and development. Despite its fallbacks, and pejorative associations, paternalistic is a label I happily apply to myself, because I think it is both accurate, and highly relevant to the successes in which I have been involved up to now. However, it most certainly does have its limits, and one must be constantly on the watch for over-doing it.

As I have argued before, I think just about all aid is inherently paternalistic, so it is not surprising that paternalism is rife within the conservation and development worlds. But I also think it is highly prevalent because that is what practitioners are used to: it has become the default way of thinking for many, and in that lies many dangers. However, these self same practitioners can be highly critical of paternalism when it is done to us, even when, in fact, we might benefit from it; something we would do well to remember when our own paternalistic instincts generate unexpected resistance.

Advice: the gift that is so much easier to give than to receive.

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Admitting it’s not good enough

The call to be open about failure in development projects has much to be said about it, as I have blogged before. But between success and failure there is a middle ground in which many conservation and development projects cluster. Sometimes acceptance of this result is appropriate; it may not be appropriate to expect rich country levels of achievement in some of the poorest countries. And such compromise is de rigeur in any policy processes, whatever a country’s level of economic development.

But when it comes to project implementation I think that too often we are too ready to accept this half-baked mediocrity, write up our ‘success’ reports and move on. Unfortunately short term papering over of the cracks can lead to long term failure, although by that point usually the main protagonists have long since moved on. Many times this takes the form of an initially successful project that has been poorly scaled up into a programme that grinds on for years based on its initial fanfare, before eventually donors get tired off the lack of progress and pull the plug, often one at a time so it limps on for quite a while with ever-diminishing financial support. My guess is that this kind of failure rarely even gets noticed as anything other than a sense of regret amongst those who were involved that so much early promise should amount to so little in the end.

But sometimes the failure can be more dramatic, such as the drastic short-comings both morally and militarily that have been brutally exposed in the Malian army over the last 12 months, despite years of capacity building from the US previously. Todd Moss laments the tendency to see those policies and results through rose-tinted glasses. I’m no military man, but allow me to guess a little at what might have happened: the junior officers on the ground would have reported the good start they made whilst making their reservations clear that there was a long way to go. These reservations were subsequently air-brushed out by senior officials and politicians keen to declare success and move on. Doh!

The even bigger difficulty occurs when that conversation needs to take place across the cultural boundary. How do you tell the local partner that while their efforts are nice and appreciated they do not, ultimately, deliver on the requirements? That technically their output is lacking a necessary level of sophistication? Arrogance does not become one, and us oh-so-enlightened Westerners are guilty of that far too often. Smooth diplomacy, however, can only get you so far: either you need to accept the product delivered with all its flaws, or you need to risk giving offence in pushing for improvements, whoever is tasked with delivering them.

At this point budget strictures can come into play. Few project designs incorporate budget for doing anything twice (although a contingencies budget can help). So as well as having the courage to reveal the hard truths to local partners one faces the challenge of finding the budget and/or fessing up to the donor how you stumbled. Little wonder then that many project managers opt for the easy way out. A little less neo-colonialism, may come at the cost of a lot less development. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess which outcome the target beneficiaries would prefer.


Before I get deluged in a pile of hate mail, I should point out the big but in this. There is obviously a huge slippery slope starting with robust and honest assessment of technical quality of local partner outputs and descending to rampant neo-colonialism, and at the bottom of which one is likely to find the target beneficiaries having very different views. Alternatively you can just call the bottom of the slope charter cities, on which it seems the jury is still out, and will almost certainly stay out, until one is actually attempted.

I should also like to add that such eventualities as I describe above are not the rule. Many times I have seen excellent outputs produced by local partners. But neither, unfortunately, it is as rare an exception round here as one would like, especially when dealing with quasi-governmental institutions who do not have a meritocratic culture.

Trust (part 1)

Trust is absolutely fundamental to any community-based work. Whenever I am asked about our own projects, I always cite a good trust relationship with the communities we support as fundamental to our successes, and indeed building that trust relationship is one of the things I am proudest of*, even though it is usually the subsequent achievements which we end up trumpeting more.

Trust is vital if you want to bring about social change, whether it is wearing condoms during sex or looking after your local environment. In particular communities need to be able to trust that:

  • You are there for the long haul. They are, but are you?
  • You will come back when they need help, not just when you decide to plan a visit.
  • You will listen to their concerns, and adapt your plans to fit with them.
  • You are on their side.

It’s not quite unconditional love, but the parallels with good parenting are obvious. Work in the poor, remote rural communities in which we work inevitable has a strong tinge of paternalism, however much one might shy away from the implications of such a relationship. That said, when I come across failed community projects, a common underlying factor is that the relationship with target communities combines all the negative aspects of paternalism without any of the positive elements of a mutual trust relationship listed above. In particular, projects whose primary field staff are government workers often seem to fall into this trap.

In tropical conservation and development work one always starts as an outsider. It is thus critical that before you can really move the dial on any of the issues that brought you to a particular community in the first place, you must first bridge that gap with a solid trust relationship. Where, perhaps for political or religious reasons, that gap is especially hard to bridge, consider finding an appropriate intermediary who can. This is not just about hiring local staff, but presenting an acceptable institutional face, and may require aid organisations to cut back on their usual copious and prominent display of logos.

In my next two posts I will talk about other significant trust relationships in the aid industry: with donors and with local government. These work in substantially different ways, and also contribute to successful project delivery, but fall far behind, in my own estimation, the absolute central importance of the trust relationship with your beneficiaries. If you work on getting one thing absolutely right in your project, make it that one, and you have a good chance of succeeding.

* Most of the credit, however, belongs with our field staff.

Facilitating What?

Aaron Ausland raises the age old question of how exactly ‘participatory’ all this community-centred development (and conservation) work is. It’s a serious and almost inescapable problem. Our overall goal might be facilitating community development, but in any given meeting we are almost certainly focused on facilitating the next step of  our project. A good facilitator will ensure a meeting stays reasonably focused on the topic at hand, but, given the topic was most likely chosen by the facilitator, how can we be sure this isn’t just a box-ticking exercise? Is this what the community really most want to discuss? Probably not …

I think this issue is another facet of paternalism in development.  Aaron’s criticisms of ‘facipulation’ as a ‘bad thing’ are 100% on the money, but I also think a certain amount of facipulation is almost inevitable, and even sometimes desirable, because the fullest forms of participation are just too onerous. (The cost-benefit ratio of the project disappears to infinity.) Sometimes a certain amount of facipulation may also be appropriate in order to achieve a constructive outcome from a meeting with local politicians or officials who might otherwise cause trouble.

Another difficulty is that if we are to achieve the highest levels of community participation, then we have to be prepared to let our projects take a very different direction than what we perhaps first envisaged. This is often problematic since if we’ve promised our donor a chalk project we cannot then deliver a cheese project, even if that’s what the communities want. Even if we were wise enough to promise donors a mixture of chalk and cheese in the first place, high levels of community control and direction inevitably pose management challenges. This requires high calibre staff on the ground able to adapt and adjust strategies on the go.

In all of this what I think it is very important is to realise when one is guilty of facipulation; to understand when the reality falls short of the proposal rhetoric. Knowing this, we will hopefully strive to ensure the manipulation part is minimised. In short, a guilty conscience is good for keeping us in check!

Paternalism in Development

Bill Easterly bizarrely posits feminism as the anti-thesis of paternalism, arguing that paternalism in development is a bad thing, and because he is against paternalism, he must be some kind of feminist. So I’m going to be a bit controversial and suggest that a bit of paternalism is almost essential in many aid projects. Hopefully no-one will interpret that to mean I am an anti-feminist.

First the obvious: paternalistic approaches are inherently condescending and patronising, and can rapidly descend into sexism, racism and probably a bunch of other undesirable -isms too. (Feminism can thus be viewed as a countervailing force to some aspects of paternalism, but that is only part of the story.) Paternalism also comes with a strong current of hubris, and misplaced paternalism explains many of the failures of the past 50 years of international development aid.

But … whilst respect for the knowledge and skills of the community is a minimum requirement for effective development work in any remote, rural community, we must also recognise the following:

  1. Said poor people want to become richer people, and to live lives more like ourselves.
  2. They tend to be very poorly educated and, as such, do not know much about how ‘our’ world works.

(These arguments hold much less water in poor urban communities who are more exposed to what a modern economy looks like.)

Hence these poor rural communities are often heavily reliant on us advising them and acting upon their behalf, often advocating to other elites what we perceive to be their interests. (A strong trust relationship with the communities we’re supporting is a prerequisite.) And if we’re not doing it you can be sure the various local and national government authorities will be doing so, often, unfortunately, with worse results.

Does doing this make me feel uncomfortable – yes it does! Is there an alternative? Yes, but it involves so much capacity building that it would take a generation before the community are really ready to take on the necessary roles, during which time next to no development would take place. (You can guess which option the poor would go for, though they certainly appreciate the capacity building too.) So in practice we have to make paternalistic decisions on behalf of the communities we support on a fairly regular basis. Sceptics are entitled to call us out for our hubris – indeed I think such questioning plays a vital role in keeping our paternalism in check – but practical alternatives are thin on the ground.

A good example of this in current conservation practice is the desire for full free, prior and informed consent before initiating land or resources based projects such as REDD+. The principles are incredibly important, but there’s a limit to how much you should sensibly invest in such a process before you need to move forward with a project. Anyone who claims a community was 100% fully informed before such a decision was made is deluding themselves; either they’ve over-simplified the situation, or not everyone understood, or (most likely) both.

Two more points bear making. Firstly, I suggest that it is next to impossible for a charitable donation between two people, or groups of people, who do not know each other not to be inherently condescending and tending towards paternalistic. So, if we do not want to dump the whole aid thing altogether, and thus cannot avoid one of the key downsides of paternalism, I think we should also celebrate the potential upsides of a certain degree of limited (!) paternalism.

Finally, is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic? Who exactly does the paternalism sceptic think he/she is?

I now look forward to all the contrary comments from those who disagree with me …

Big farm, big deal

Last but not least on my round-up of what was blogged while I was putting my feet up, my eye was caught by this article from Madeleine Bunting on a massive land deal on Mali (bought by the Libyans). It is so far from least that I have created an entirely new category Land Tenure to house it. I should be blogging a lot more about land as it is critical to just about every conservation and development project* I have ever come across.

These kind of land deals are serious business in Africa these days, and so they should be. Africa has got a lot of land which is underutilised. Various problems raise their head. From a conservation perspective unutilised land might have a lot of utility as a biodiversity reserve. I’m generally not a big fan of trying to cover half the earth in protected areas, but that is not to say there are not good arguments for adding to what we’ve got, especially in lesser known habitats. Moreover, as this blog is certainly prepared to argue, creating a protected area is not necessary to conserving habitat. However, plonking a new big agricultural project smack down in the middle  of a biodiversity hotspot, as I have seen happen, really does not count as a good idea.

Another problem with land deals is you always have to ask: whose land is it? Unfortunately the politicians’ answer does not always accord with local views on the matter. As with any such large investments, even ignoring the lure of corruption, there are often incentives for officials and politicians to simplify a more complex situation on the ground in order to appeal to investors. If all of this translated into full compensation for those affected and better services for all this would be less of a problem, but Africa’s governance problems have severely eroded governments’ capacity to act as an honest broker across all sorts of issues. The strength of feeling over this incredibly sensitive issue should never be underestimated; a major land deal between S Korea and Madagascar was cited as a factor in the less-than-constitutional change of government there in 2009.

But, the thing that often gets missed in all of these discussions is the question: why is this land underutilised? It certainly isn’t all remote wilderness. Agriculture in much of sub-Saharan Africa is a byword for inefficient production. Governments are now seeking to resolve this by bringing in foreign expertise and investment, but the fact is that, around here at least, they could do much to free up the agricultural sector without selling out their countrymen. Government run marketing boards and cooperatives are horrendously inept, and it is hard to see what benefits they bring smallholder farmers; however evil the much abused middle-man is, he at least has the incentive to get the best kind of inputs (seed, fertiliser, pesticides) to the farmers at the right time of year. Unfortunately politicians like to take a rather paternalistic attitude to rural farmers when in fact often the best thing they could do is just get right out of the way other than a few very basic market interventions such as subsidised inputs (ref recent stories on Malawi) and setting floor prices on staple produce (to limit the ‘evilness’ of the middle men).

Finally, governments could clear up land tenure properly so farmers could use their land as collateral on loans. But that would limit politicians’ scope for making those big deals they love so much … so not much chance of that happening any time soon.

* By which I mean either straight conservation or combined conservation and development project. Obviously there are all sorts of education and health related interventions which have nothing to do with land tenure. It is, though, also a critical issue in recovery after natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, see David Week’s recent remarks on the issue. (Refer also to the post and comments on ActionAid Australia’s blog; it seems the government Haiti, in echoes of what I see here, was never much interested in land tenure reform or clarity before the earthquake either.)

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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