As the great financial crash of 2009 slides forward most of the attention in the international development community has been transfixed on the funding implications. With OECD governments budgeting massive deficits and foundations seeing their capitalisation wither, where will that leave overall funding levels? More specifically, how will that affect the financial base of each of our development initiatives [un crie de coeur!]?
These are vitally important questions. But should we not also be looking at the strategic lessons and implications for international development from the financial depression enveloping all of us?
When I worked at UNICEF in New York we lived in an area that had a lot of up and coming merchant bankers and other financial and business types - young people on their way up corporate ladders. They also had young families - as did we - which is of course how we came to mix. And when the discussion got around to work, one thing was very clear - I did not have a real job. The second thing that was clear was that the real center of development, with the best and brightest driving economic standards ever higher, was finance and business. And the triumvirate of clarity concluded with clear indications that if international development adopted the strategies, practices, and values [e.g., competition] of business then we [the development types] would be much more effective and the world would be a much better place. None of this was explicitly stated, of course, but the body language, conversation flow, and types of questions all had clear meaning. [As did the quality of wine each of us brought to parties!]
Those same vibes were sonically writ large across international development. International agency leaders flocked to Davos to learn from and develop "partnerships" with global economic leaders. The leading Davos types from business outlined the remedies they thought would fix world poverty, HIV/AIDS, and other global ailments - most often, of course, remedies that matched their own world view. Private sector partnerships become a big deal. Major business consulting firms were hired to review development agencies [two in my 5 years in UNICEF]. The Governments of countries were given clear messages that they needed to balance their budgets. Public subsidies were taboo. [What quaint notions these two now seem.] Services were cut as though they were unproductive production lines. There was increasing pressure on local, national, and international agencies to adopt market based strategies - witness the issues and debates around water or media regulation. Supposed good business practices such as log frames and value-added assessments became standard development practice. And much more.
As communication and media people, we know the power of predominant social norms. And as an international development community, we got caught up in the prevailing business social norms in the 1990s and early 2000s. It seemed to make sense. Business was thriving [at least in some rich countries] so why should we not learn from their approaches and partner with them for more effective development action.
Such an approach may still make sense. But the growing understanding that the finance and business sector was as much a mirage of success as it was real achievement should at least give us cause to review our own development strategies. A review that will be supported by a rapidly changing set of social norms. In the past 6 months, the association of effectiveness and efficiency with business and finance no longer holds automatic water.
On reflection, it does appear rather puzzling that international development became so enmeshed with business practice and ethos. There is little connection in substance or analysis between trading derivatives or currencies and tackling HIV/AIDS or gender equity. If universal access is desired, then maybe the countries whose governments have socialised medicine for all - Sweden, New Zealand, etc. - provide much better partners and models than private business. Contextually - from culture to financial capital - being a community member in rural Zambia has about the same commonality with a high tech company in Silicon Valley as the proverbial chalk and cheese. The intended outcomes are also very different. Business puts an emphasis on individual achievement and financial success but development is most often about common achievement and the intangibles of rights, social progress, and security, as well as economic growth - these are very different things. In many cases, the finance and business sector could also have been regarded as part of the problem that needed to be addressed - environmental issues, for example, come strongly to mind. By definition in the competitive world of business and finance there are losers - but isn't our job to focus on the interests of those perceived to not be doing so well? - I am not sure how to square that circle. So development, business, and finance are not a great fit from many different perspectives. Just like you would not ask a swimming coach to coach a basketball team maybe our development team entrusted too much faith in the business and finance team values, skills, and practices.
The issues around media regulation provide a good case study here. Media play a vital role in conducting the national conversations of life. They are a crucial force for social cohesion and inclusion as they reflect different voices and perspectives. The accountability of elected officials is held through media processes. Important knowledge and information is shared. These are bottom lines for both effective development action and effective and independent media processes. And yet we have seen a very strong advocacy push within international development circles for government policies and priorities on the privatisation of media - sometimes under the Orwellian cover of phrases such as 'independent' media. Of course this is somewhat of a backlash to perceptions of a legacy of controlled government media. But a policy that replaces perceived government control with perceived advertiser or owner influence does little for either development action or genuine media independence. And a media process that is judged by an expenditure and loss balance may be equally faulty. Media pluralism is required - a full slate of different forms of ownership and engagement. Public service broadcasting needs to return as one vital component of overall media processes. But pluralism and public service were out of kilter with the predominant development social norm of increasing adoption of business values and practices.
As the hackneyed phrase goes - "out of chaos; opportunity"!
Perhaps given the continuing severity of the issues we face in development we can take another look at the fundamentals upon which our practice and organisation are predicated. Who should be providing the leadership? What kind of core knowledge should we be collecting? What systems best support development practice? What kind of culture of development do we want to create? What constitutes efficiency and achievement? How do we recognise success? The questions look remote and abstract but the answers have very real implications for the effectiveness of all of our efforts to substantively reduce poverty and make significant progress across all development issues. We do not need to rely on the business and finance models for these answers.
Perhaps we should move to building Development Street instead of buying Wall Street - as cheap as it may be at present?