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The Development Disconnect

Updated: May 9, 2020

Why well-intentioned institutions often do more damage than good.

The challenges of international development are vast and multifaceted. What are the main factors of food insecurity in a developing nation? How about within a specific region of that nation? Is it agricultural practices? Access to markets? Gender inequality? If an organization or institution wishes to create direct impact through its initiatives, it must inevitably narrow its efforts to align with specific and actionable goals.

Aside from the obvious desire to witness positive change as a result of philanthropic work is the often-unavoidable need to provide direct, quantifiable evidence of its efficacy. Any experienced practitioner can attest to the fact that sustainable project funding streams are often predicated on an organization’s ability to demonstrate impact. This, in conjunction with narrow organizational strategy, has the tendency to lead to what I would refer to as the “Development Disconnect.”

The Development Disconnect occurs when an institution’s development strategy is shaped more as a consequence of Western ideology and bureaucracy, as well as interests of key donors, than of the on-the-ground realities of its supposed beneficiaries.

Institutional, government-backed organizations are the monoliths of the international development realm. These organizations tend to have the greatest access to capital and are often lending and regulatory institutions themselves to smaller development organizations. These institutions have historically set the rules that constitute which organizations receive development dollars and how those dollars should be spent.

In the Western context, this makes smart, economic sense: to invest in an organization that has not adequately demonstrated its ability to create impact within a given timeframe is a waste of money. Donors need to know that their money is being put to good use.

But the quantification of impact is in itself a dubious challenge. What makes impact measurable? Is it the number of shoes or eyeglasses donated to a certain number of villages within a specific region of a continent? Is it the number of households within this region that can now afford to send their children to primary school or that can afford basic healthcare? Is it the number of farmers that have access to valuable inputs and tools? Is it a certain percentage decrease of the prevalence of a chosen disease?

The most easily operable figures are those which have material backing; i.e., it is much harder to measure intangible effects such as happiness (see our post on “Measuring Development”).

Thus, it is easier to understand that most large-scale development dollars are invested in initiatives which guarantee an appreciable ROI, such as equipment and infrastructure - as opposed to social and behavior-change based initiatives which are vastly more difficult to measure.

In theory, this form of assistance has the potential to relieve many insurmountable challenges faced by developing nations. For example, developing nations that lack access to resources such as machinery to build or repair roads are, as a result, subject to further devastating challenges, such as the inability to provide rural regions with access to clean water sources or food products from local markets to ensure a diversified and nutritive diet. It is important to note that these seemingly localized issues have significant ramifications in the global context. A community that cannot access local markets means that the country as a whole invariably suffers from the handicaps associated with lack of access to international markets.

The logic appears sound: provide impoverished regions with valuable infrastructure, solve multiple development challenges at once, and offer donors quantifiable evidence of their impact (thereby securing future donor dollars). “X” number of roads plus “Y” number of communities reached equals “Z” impact, right? The disconnect comes into play when one considers the fallacy of this logic:

“X” number of roads may connect “Y” number of communities, but this excludes many factors necessary to solve for “Z”, such as “W” policy changes, “V” host country national buy-in, and “U” systemic technological advances.

An analysis by UNCTAD of over 40 national development plans from developing countries and least developed countries suggests that, “there is too much emphasis on infrastructure as a business opportunity and too little emphasis on its links to structural transformation.”

Examples of this “rent-seeking” and quickly-quantifiable mindset run rampant in the international development context, from latrine- and well-building projects, to the donation of equipment and machinery, and beyond. Consider further the extreme prevalence of rapid assessments in development (i.e., a program evaluator spending a few weeks on the ground measuring the efficacy of a multi-year initiative).

Let’s first consider sanitation projects such as latrine and well-building projects. On the outset, it makes sense. Lack of clean water and sanitation/hygiene (#WASH) resources in rural communities can lead to public health crises that would boggle the Western mind (though perhaps in this era of COVID-19, there may likely be increased comprehension of the importance of hand-washing). Thus:

Building latrines (X) leads to the reduction of outdoor defecation (Y), which equals decreased prevalence of downstream water contamination and airborne illnesses (Z). And building wells (X) leads to increased supplies of clean drinking water (Y), which equals decreased frequency of waterborne disease such as giardia (Z).

An institution, organization, or donor can rest easy under the assumption that these figures add up. But what about the behavior-change (W) required to ensure that members of a community will actually use the latrine? And what about when the well runs dry (W)?

The Development Disconnect occurs all-too-often under the guise of goodwill, which fails to take into consideration the realities faced by the communities intended to serve. It is possible to make the argument that “there is only so much that can be done,” and even, “these communities should be grateful and take on greater responsibility.”

To which I would make the counterargument: if it is large Western institutions and organizations (benevolently) imposing these supposed development innovations onto underdeveloped nations and communities without their behest, is it not also their responsibility to ensure its long-term efficacy at the risk of not meeting quarterly budget lines?

- Meg Geddis, Founder

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