From: Warren Feek - Executive Director - The Communication Initiative, January 7 2014

Wishing you a very happy and fulfilling new year. May your crucial and important work thrive.

As an initial contribution to 2014, a few ideas for your consideration and reaction follow - Trade and Aid, Networks and Organisations, Growth and Equity, Cash and Technical Assistance, Values and Deliverables, and more.

Common to all of the most significant change processes are conversation, debate and dialogue. In my view these dynamics are as important as messages, technical delivery and scientific break-through for positive development progress - maybe more so.

As we enter 2014 what are the most significant conversation themes? On what topics is dialogue focused? Naming and framing these tensions is crucial to positive progress. (NB These are my views and analysis only - not those of The CI Partners)

This is not a reference to the major Development decisions such as the MDGs replacement priorities; the next UN General Assembly resolution on Syria; the forthcoming World Bank strategy and structural changes; refinements to disease specific strategies; the official themes for the next G20 meeting, and so on. These are really important.

There are some themes that underpin and cut across these and other Development decisions. It is these underlying dynamics that attract significant and widespread conversation, dialogue and debate across the full range of people engaged in Development action. The conversational focus on these advances development action.

Below is an attempt to distill 7 (seven) crucial debate topics that are at the heart of these conversations.I am sure you will have a different view - and a different list. Please do share your thoughts, ideas and reactions through: the comments facility below this piece; a Facebook post and/or Like at The CI on Facebook; The CI's Twitter feed.

Of course there are no clear answers to any of the debates that follow. It is the process of debating, conversing, examining, identifying options that both highlights effective responses.

CONVERSATION 1: Trade vs Aid

This has been a tension for some time of course. Develop markets or develop people? Enhance competitiveness or solve health concerns? Facilitate entrepreneurs or strengthen civil society? Though these should be complementary and balanced actions, experience tells us that they are not. There are only limited resources, time, priorities and attention.

Progress on the trade front seems really difficult for many of the lowest GDP per capita countries. For example, across Africa absolute export and import levels have risen, but the continent has fallen even further behind: Africa remains a marginal player in world trade, accounting for only 2.8 per cent of world exports … and 2.5 per cent of world imports in the decade from 2000 to 2010… The shares of both Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in world exports and imports have fallen significantly over the period from 1970 to 2011." - UNCTAD - page 11

Pendulum swing: Trade will have a much higher emphasis in 2014. In particular, the investment role of China in the lower GDP countries, the World Bank restructuring (focus and organization), pressures on Aid budgets, etc., will push trade and the associated economic development to a much higher development focus.

CONVERSATION 2: Equity vs Growth

Growing the economic base has held sway for some time as a priority. Equity concerns have been somewhat marginalized. The argument is that with increased wealth from a growing economy everyone will benefit. We do not need fancy gini coefficients to tell us that that has not been the case. From Brazil to the First Nations in Canada, and South Africa to China, issues of equity, fairness and reducing the gap between the richest 10% and the rest are becoming a central theme of conversation. Development will need to find a way to engage this issue in a meaningful manner.

Pendulum swing: This will be an equity year! 6 years have passed since the big, global, economic crash. Recovery from that, through increased growth rates, has been the prevailing mantra for those last 6 years. Wealth distribution (or the lack thereof) underpins almost every major development issue. There are many signs that equity will have a more significant focus in 2014.

CONVERSATION 3: Cash vs Technical Assistance

The international development scene has been structured around technical assistance. People, governments and organizations with knowledge and skills "help" those lacking these "capacities". Funds are primarily funnelled through the groups that have "capacity" so they can help those who do not. We have recently seen a move towards placing cash directly into the hands of the people who need it the most. Bolsa Familia in Brazil is the most notable example. But just on The CI site there are 268 example of cash based development processes, 104 of which have been added in the past couple of years.

Pendulum swing: Towards more direct cash transfer initiatives. Perhaps the development focus has been too much on the technical? But please note that I did suggest this in 2007 as well!

CONVERSATION 4: Values vs Deliverables

Oh, how outcome focused Development has become! Very natural, I guess. If you are going to intervene in people's lives then it obviously helps to know what you are trying to achieve and for what it is that you are accountable to people engaged, your funders ...and yourself. To ensure that we all meet these requirements, there are any number of planning and accountability procedures.

But what about "values"? Where do they fit? Should not the core elements of a strategy rotate around some very clear values for both the interventions themselves and the relationships/partnerships that are developed? There are some leading, most often locally developed, wide-scale interventions that are values focused, for example, the Heartlines (South Africa) focus on acceptance, compassion, honesty, perseverance, forgiveness. Do they show the way?

Pendulum swing: We will see in 2014 the beginnings of a swing back to some of the core Development values to balance the very prominent "outcomes" approach that has dominated the past decade.

CONVERSATION 5: Digital technologies: Game changers vs Just another tool?

There is no doubt about the global spread of what we used to call "new technologies". Mobile phones, internet access, wireless connectivity have seeped (in some cases flooded!) into almost every corner of the globe. Sure, there are still major inequities related to access, cost, control, "filtering", etc., but digital technologies are now a big reality for people experiencing many of the most significant development issues. Development focused organizations have responded - see, for example, the summaries at this link and filter to your interests.

There are many exceptions of course, but a considerable volume of development resources related to digital technologies have been dedicated to doing that which was done anyway but in a more efficient and effective manner - for example improving access to commodities, proliferating centrally developed messages, communicating organizational achievement and advancing campaigns. These are important and they will remain important.

Pendulum swing: That 2014 will see us expand our use of digital technologies relative to their inherent capacities to progress different forms of development action, for example: south-to-south organisation relationships and networks; local and national social movements on key issues; peer support and critique processes that can take place irrespective of physical distance; inclusive, dynamic and flexible policy making; the equal inclusion of local knowledge in strategy development; and, the redefining of who are the experts.

CONVERSATION 6: Direction vs Space

There have been some remarkable success stories from a development approach focused on common, clearly defined, centrally directed, measurable and reportable goals. I have always assumed that this approach, at scale, originated with the goals set within the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That model has been followed in everything from the MDGs to polio eradication, and much else. This strategy has a shaping dynamic. Countries adopt the goals. Funders buy into the goals. Programmatic agencies need to get government endorsement/approval and, of course, require funds. The local, national and international development intervention programming focus and dynamics are shaped.

Such an approach may overlook two very important factors: unique contexts and what I will call real sustainability. There is a growing level of data that demonstrates that the "direction" approach may have stalled. One canary in this coal-mine is routine immunization rates. In … regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia and in a large number of countries within every region, infant coverage with the third dose of DTP ... and the first dose of measles vaccines, both given through the routine system, has either declined or stagnated at between 70% and 80% in each of the past 5 years. And the global number of children not fully immunized with the third dose of DTP-containing vaccines - more than 20 million now - has remained largely unchanged over the past 5 years. (Robert Steinglass) Development has stagnated over the past 5 years in its most important contexts on one of its very basic, core foundation elements - child health. Not even past gains seem to have been sustained in real situations.

Pendulum swing: 2014 will see the beginnings of a significant move towards a planning process that provides much greater space and support for (in particular) local organizations in the most difficult contexts to create, develop, grow and sustain the responses that they assess are most effective in those contexts.

CONVERSATION 7: Organizations vs Social Networks

The formal organisation has been at the heart of development action for some considerable time: UN agencies, government bilaterals, local, national and international NGOs, academic institutions, consulting groups and the like. Until now that has been very natural. There was no other alternative. Now there is a different way.

You do not need me to tell you the story of the rise of social networks. And, equally, it will be no stunning insight to anyone that people within organizations spend an increasing amount of time in contact with people outside their organization through these networking processes. The walls of organizations are becoming very thin as development actors form, facilitate and participate in online networks with people external to their organization related to their areas of interest/engagement. This has, of course, always happened. But now it can happen with no regard to face-to-face logistics including scale, geography, hierarchy, status and other previously limiting factors.

Pendulum swing: Thousands of social networks have formed to progress Development Action. There are some examples in this compilation. In 2014, we will see the rapidly growing engagement of these social networks in local, national and global policy development, planning and monitoring processes. They will play a much greater role on the core substance of development.

This is my identification of some of the key "conversations" that underpin the more specific development issues, strategies and actions. If you gather with people engaged in development action they seem to be common topics for discussion. No matter the presenting development issue - or the development context - my assessment is that these are issues that really matter.

There are no clear answers - nor there should there be. It is the dynamic of addressing these issues - the conversations that emerge from these topics - that power creative, relevant and effective programming.

Please disagree. Please debate.

A reminder that you can engage through these processes:

  • By using the comments facility below the online version of this piece


Thanks - have an excellent 2014!


Warren Feek
Executive Director
The Communication Initiative
Facebook: The Communication Initiative Network
LinkedIn: Warren Feek
Skype: Warren Feek
Office - 1–250-658-6372
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Fax 1-250-658-1728


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