I envy those of you who are scientists - the so called 'hard' or 'real' scientists as opposed to those of us from the 'soft' or "people" sciences. Say "scientist" and people think of biologists and physicists and chemists and nuclear this and nano that with a sprinkling of words most of us do not understand spelled in ways that we can never get right. In people's minds, at the mention of the word scientist, politics, sociology and communication [he writes with self-reflection] do not normally come to mind.

I do not envy the knowledge of scientists - was never any good at science personally, had little interest and am constantly amazed at what scientists know. Neither is there envy of their exulted status - they have earned it. Many from the scientific field have of course made very significant contributions that have earned that status for their peers and those that follow them. What I do envy are the presentational simplicity and unwavering certainty of scientists. Whereas sociologists, political scientists, communicators and others in the people focused sciences tend [perhaps that should be "race"] towards the complexities, nuances and uncertainties of context and time, scientists boil it down to their own potent weapon - the universally applicable equation! And they do it with such positive simplicity and certainty.

E=MC2 - just beautiful

Pi= c/d - wonderful

0 - extraordinary (a gift from the Mayans and Indians)

Of course these are just a few of the gold standards of science. But not all science is like that. As anyone who has read the recent book "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson [excellent people's guide to both scientific history and the present state of the scientific art for non-scientists] will learn, the hard sciences have had their fair share of deceit dressed as certainty, politics in the guise of academic rigour and the ignoring of inconvenient facts and phenomena that do not 'match' the theory being posited. But these circumstances simply reinforce rather than detract from the scientists most powerful weapon - the simple theory as easily remembered equation - even when it is wrong!

Contrary to this approach, when there are attempts to explain the essential nature of the strategic thinking that underpins international development practice it is most often in the form of long books and papers that are very difficult to access and understand. Which got me thinking: how would we write a simple theory that describes the present dominant approach to international development action? And, given the struggles to make a significant impact on the vast range of issues we face, what might be a much better theory to guide more effective international development action in the future. With a third consideration: what are the implications of this theory for those of us seeking to expand the role and contribution of communication processes for more effective development action.

Here is how I would represent the theory that presently guides almost all major international development efforts.

SI = T x I x F

where - SI = Sustainable Impact; T = Technical Assistance; I = a specific intervention; and, F = Funding

In prose form:

SUSTAINABLE [long term] IMPACT on any single development issue or combination of issues results when there is extensive, high quality TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE [people brought into the relevant situation with the knowledge and skills to address that issue], multiplied by the availability and wide spread application of a specific INTERVENTION - a product [e.g. vaccine] or packaged idea [e.g. structural adjustment] - that is believed [in the judgement of the technical experts] to have universal efficacy, multiplied by the necessary FINANCIAL RESOURCES to reach the population scale necessary to impact on the presenting issues. The stronger that each of these elements is the more effective will be the action on the development issue in question. They have a compound effect on each other.

We have any number of "I's" and more are being 'born' every day. Just a few examples from a very long list of products - Vitamin A, GMOs, condoms, any number of vaccines, water pumps, telecenters - and strategic ideas/services that are 'sold' as packaged products - micro-credit loans, crop substitution, traditional birth attendants, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and a myriad of others. A [perhaps extreme] example of this is the major international HIV/AIDS agency's 'marketing poster' which just has two vials and a syringe. Vaccines only: no people required. The "T" is of course everywhere [mea culpa]. It most often flows north to south. At any one time there are a multitude of experts in contexts and countries that are foreign to them advising on everything from crop rotation and drug resistant strains to waste disposal and democratic voting systems. The "F" is all pervasive. It would be interesting to take 1,000 development organisations - across the spectrum from small, local agencies to the largest UN entities - in order to discover how much time and energy the staff, Board and volunteers spend fund-raising. I am guessing to 40 to 50%. Any counter offers?

I and T and F are universal - they underpin and structure the practice of international development - they are its theoretical brain and heart combined. The bigger the agency, the stronger the commitment to this theory about how international development should take place. There are two confirming tests. First, irrespective of context, in most corners of the world, you very often see the same programming forms related to each issue - there is an attempt at global uniformity in programming. Second, what do programme managers and policy makers tend to stress that they most need when programmes are not working - either better skilled people to provide the technical assistance and/or more money to improve the product - most often both! If you doubt this then check the financial budgets and accounts.

But there are very significant problems with the SI = T x I x F approach. Like, it does not appear to work. And it does not seem to fit the ways in which the major national and global social changes have "happened" over the past 50 years. In common with some of those less than gold standard scientists we may be ignoring inconvenient facts and phenomena that do not 'match' the theory being posited. Both of these assertions require detailed justification and will undoubtedly be the subject of considerable argument and debate. Only a quick insight is possible here.

As to whether T x I x F has worked it is important to look at the global trends. The gross figures across many development issues either show very little progress and/or a worsening situation. Economic development is crucial for all other development issues. According to World Bank stats GDP in sub-Saharan Africa in 1965 was USD 543 per capita and in 2001 it was USD 564. Of course you have to be alive to develop! Life expectancy for the same period in the region only rose from 42 years in 1965 to 46yrs in 2001. It was at 50yrs in 1990 and, of course HIV/AIDS along with other factors has contributed to the fall. Children are classically described as "the future" but in the recent series of Lancet articles, a group of child health experts provided an insight into a disturbing situation and trend. More than 10 million children younger than 5 years still die every year. Though this is an improvement there are very worrying signs - again from The World Bank data, measles [a major child killer] immunisation in South Asia fell from 70% of children under 12yrs in 1995 to 56% in 2001. In the 100th issue of The Drum Beat (click here to view) The CI provided an overview of development trends. They were mostly negative. Even if slight gains have been made we need to judge those against the huge investments that have been made in international development - a theme developed in a previous Drum Beat - maybe trillions of dollars [think of The World Bank and IMF alone]. In relation to the effectiveness test of SI = T x I x F it can at best be described as struggling and providing a poor return on the financial investments made to date.

This comparative lack of impact is strange because many of the Interventions are proven sound, the Technical advisers are skilled and there is a fair amount of money [never enough of course]. Just to focus on the "T" - the technical interventions. Many of them are indisputably essential. You can not argue with the value of condoms for HIV/AIDS, vaccines for child health, water pumps for water, crop rotation for more productive farming, bed nets for Malaria and any number of other technical products and interventions. However, it has been very frustrating for many in international development that these have not resulted in the scale of impact predicted. A question we should all ask is - why?

It may be that the proven intervention/technical assistance/funding theory for promoting development is better suited to a secondary rather than primary role in international development. And the argument for this comes from within both the major social changes that have positively taken effect globally and those development issues on which positive progress can be assessed.

The following social movements and the corresponding social changes that resulted and continue to result, were NOT based on an SI = I x T x F model: the women's movement, anti-apartheid movement, civil rights movement, anti-globalisation movement, anti-racism movement, anti-genetically modified crops movement, anti female genital mutilation movement, Jubilee 2000 movement to reduce/eliminate the debt of developing countries, environmental movement, non-violent independence movements in many countries and territories, gay rights movement, the land rights movements of many so-called ethnic minorities, peace movements and many others. These movements were from the North and the South often crossing and bridging that divide. Though some utilised technical interventions - the birth control pill for example - and they accessed and utilised technical help and funds, the I, T and F factors were not central to the principles that drive their change process. They came at it from a very different perspective and position [more of which later]. To test this, imagine the civil rights movement in the USA or the global anti-apartheid and anti-racism movements being run on the basis of agencies outside the most affected communities playing the dominant role in deciding the key intervention that would be introduced, flying in to provide that assistance and exclusively funding those initiatives. It would never have worked. Of course many of the movements cited have a long way to go to achieve their goals. There is a long struggle ahead, especially for the more recent processes such as the anti-female genital mutilation and land rights issues. But there can be little doubt for all of the processes cited - and others - that a considerable dent has been made in their issues of concern.

The successes and struggles of some very prominent international development issues ensure that social movements are relevant even when there is a technical intervention that can address the presenting problems. Family planning has made very significant progress - overall family sizes are coming down - in some cases pretty rapidly. Modern contraceptive family planning methods are of course an essential part of that strategy - they are the "I" of this process and considerable levels of Technical assistance and Funding followed and flowed. By accident or brilliant design [or perhaps as an outcome] the family planning activities had social movement "cover". Family planning was a good fit within overall issues, challenges, changes and action related to the status of women. The Cairo declaration stressed this. Similarly the most effective HIV/AIDS action appears to have been outside the SI = I x T x F model. This was certainly not the guiding principle for the Treatment Action Campaign [Group] which took on and beat the major pharmaceutical companies and the South Africa government on key HIV/AIDS issues. Likewise much of the most effective action on HIV/AIDS has been driven from within communities led by local leaders and handling issues internal to those communities - see recent writings on Uganda and Gay communities in the early days of the pandemic. These were movements, not programmes. Seeking an understanding of why child immunisation levels appear to be dropping so rapidly and going beyond the simplistic "UNICEF dropped the ball" assessment, it is possible to link this to the absence of a strong "Parents for Child Health" movement. Child immunisation was conceived and run as a technical intervention. Consequently when an essential plank of the I x T x F theory falls apart, the programme falls off. When the technical leadership and money go elsewhere the end result is lowered immunisation levels.

So, if SI = I x T x F is a secondary rather than primary theory for guiding international development actions, then what is the primary theory? Using the wisdom of our scientific friends, in my opinion it should be:

Degree of SI = level L x scale V x focus A

Next month - the alternative theory and why these issues are vital for more effective communication for development. And thanks to science for simplicity - my science teacher would choke and splutter at hearing me say that!

Thanks - Warren
September 25, 2003