Posts Tagged ‘trust relationships in development’

Trust (part 3)

Over the past two days I have blogged about the contrasting trust relationships we NGOs have with communities and donors, how important they are, and yet how frequently they fall short. Both, however, are wonders of mutual respect and cooperation compared to the relationship we have with government.

I think it is hard for anyone in my position to be openly and completely honest about their relationship with government. To be sure there are positive elements; there are genuinely good people in government – well-meaning and able – and we do reach out to each other. Some government policies, moreover, can be truly enlightened to the benefit of ordinary citizens, although regrettably implementation often falls somewhat short of ideal.

Sometimes government objections are reasonably founded, or based upon miscomprehensions which are readily appreciated and not unreasonably derived. However, it can be hard to spot those amongst the general tide of basic intransigence; the default attitude that they should impede your proposals unless given a reason not to, rather than the other way around. New ideas and new approaches are greeted with suspicion: this is not the way things are done around here!

Deciphering exactly what is meant when bureaucratic obstructions are raised can be difficult, and there is no doubt that subtle cultural and linguistic barriers can play a significant part; we need to remain watchful of when we may be the ones erring. However, if you are experienced (not just generally, but with the specific culture in which you are working) and working closely with local partners, then these problems should be minimised. Thereafter you are in a world of political shadow-boxing and doublespeak, in which few things are exactly what they mean, and your real task is to decipher the real issues, and what perverse incentives may lie behind the words chosen. Then you need to respond in kind, with a tip of the hat to the justification originally supplied by the official(s), but also addressing what you hope is the underlying cause. Liberal application of per diems can often work wonders!

But finally, many obstructions are raised because your project threatens a little off-the-books sinecure or maybe bigger vested interests. A few per diems will not solve this problem. So instead we have to resort to the same nonsense; allies are sought, reassurances are given, half promises made, attention is distracted with a big workshop which conveniently glosses over the proposed transfer of power from bureaucrats to ordinary people.

Little of this will be news to anyone who has spent much time in the aid industry, and it regrettably fits all kinds of derogatory stereotypes of life in the “third world”. But where is the trust in this relationship? Donors expect us to work in partnership with government, though, contradictorily, they also fund civil society groups to add dissenting voices to otherwise untrammelled government propaganda dressed up as participatory consultation exercises. I hate it when we find ourselves having to resort to sleight of hand and political trickery. Mostly we only use it on the littlest of things, for it is no way to handle strategically important issues; these need to be properly thrashed out.

The aid industry is founded upon noble ideals, but its practice can be anything but. Is the local MP the people’s popular representative or a venal kleptocrat? What do you do when the answer is both? We want the government to coordinate but may deliberately fail to give them all the information they need. We want the government to enforce its laws but get frustrated when they do so in perverse ways. Self-righteously proclaiming oneself the saviour of poor people and riding roughshod over officious objections in their name is no solution, but then neither is following the path of negligible impact which many government officials would prefer you take.

Having the trust of local government is a vital badge for most NGOs engaged in development work, and we wear it proudly. But sometimes I wonder if it stands for anything more than a few inane platitudes from the guest of honour at our last workshop. I cling to the belief that it does, and the good, comparatively trusting relationships we have with the genuinely concerned and committed government officials is the basis for something nobler. I just wish that belief were not swamped in a thicket of dissimulation, from which the precious virtue of trust seems to have been all but extinguished.

Trust (part 2)

Yesterday I blogged about how the critical elements of a healthy trust relationship are too often missing in community development and conservation projects. Today, I turn my attention to the donor-implementer relationship, where trust seems to be even more lacking.

It is axiomatic of human nature that when given a job to do, whether just by our boss or a contract we have won, that, as far as possible, we just want to be left alone to get on with the job. Of course, if we have not completed the task to a satisfactory standard within a reasonable period of time we expect our boss to come asking awkward questions. But equally, we really resent a boss who checks up on us too much or asks lots of detailed questions about process rather than simply assessing the actual final product. This is just a fact of basic human nature and the need for both self-respect and the respect of others.

Some donors really do seem to get this, focus on the big picture, and we love them for it. But others unfortunately cannot resist the urge to quibble about minor details and to obsess about issues such as corruption or gender-mainstreaming in projects that have little otherwise to do with such things. Unfortunately, the message that sends out to us as a project implementer is: they don’t trust us. And nobody likes to work for a boss who doesn’t trust them, so you can expect us to carp about it … a lot! E.g. accusing one’s donor of neo-colonialism.

This issue can be bad enough between donors and NGOs, but I get the impression it gets even worse between bi- and multi-lateral donors and recipient country governments. After years of failed delivery, of course, the donor officials hardly trust the government officials, but each are locked into a system in which the donors are compelled to keep on giving, and the officials are compelled to keep on receiving. Worse, both sets of officials are accountable to their bosses for the successful continuation of the grant giving, and so are doomed to fight the same running battles about use or misuse of funds over and over again.

It seems to me that if donors want their donations to succeed, then we need to restore proper dignity and trust to this relationship, and not just with a few inane platitudes from ambassador to minister. In order to do this we need to simultaneously put aside all our historical bad feelings, while at the same time ensuring we have learned the necessary lessons so we do not just fall into the same trap all over again. This is what Cash on Delivery aid promises to do.

Some NGOs which are both (a) darned competent and (b) lucky to be working on a zeitgeist issue, can get popular enough with the donors that they can start to push back, and dictate terms to some extent as to how they are supported. Maybe even some more effective governments (Ethiopia? Rwanda?) have some success in this respect to? But most of us are stuck with benefactors who, despite all their protestations of being mere partners in the development process, clearly do not trust us very much. That can be hard to stomach.

Tomorrow, I will consider the even more poisonous non-trust relationship between civil society and government in developing countries.

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.

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