Grounding Action in Local Realities

Thanks to several encouraging developments in the 1990s (see Box 12-1), there are signs that thinking in international development policy circles is converging around several sensible propositions that could reorient the global poverty fight. The first is that no one-size-fits-all model of development can be applied anywhere. The generally poor record of various western-inspired plans for development has been well documented. Even the World Bank draws this conclusion in its reading of the development experience of recent decades: "The central message...is that there is no unique universal set of rules we need to get away from formulae and the search for elusive 'best practices.'"8 Referring to the standard set of free market reforms promoted by western development institutions since the 1980s, in 2006 development economist Dani Rodrik noted that "the question now is not whether the Washington Consensus is dead or alive; it is what will replace it." It is increasingly accepted that each country's path to success will be different, based on the particular obstacles and opportunities set forth by their histories, cultures, social institutions, political climates, and geographies.9

The second sensible proposition is that poverty is about much more than lack of income. The U.N. Development Programme has been publishing annual Human Development Reports since the early 1990s; its Human Development Index combines health, education, and income as an alternative measure of national progress. (See Chapter 2.) Informed by the role of social capital and institutions, this is also about more than investing in the "social side" of development. A much broader view is emerging: development is about the expansion of freedoms that

Mobilizing Human Energy

Box 12-1. Reshaping the Development Agenda in the 1990s

The 1990s were a period of momentous change in global affairs, with significant consequences for international development and, in particular, the environment for more holistic, less prescriptive, more locally driven development.

First, with the end of proxy wars between East and West and the historic "third wave" of democracy resulting in greater political openness, it was no longer defensible for rich nations to prop up and defend corrupt and authoritarian regimes with aid dollars (although by no means has that practice ended). This opened discussions about issues of good governance—democracy, accountability, transparency, rule of law, and clean government—that had long been swept under the carpet in official international development. Evidence emerged over the decade that donors slowly but surely were becoming more selective in who received their aid.

As it became more difficult to tolerate unaccountable behavior on the part of aid recipients, the tables were turned on the providers. Developing countries and social activists argued for greater "ownership" of development by those who ultimately lived with the consequences of aid. Society-wide attempts to transform economies from the top down through "structural adjustment" were deeply resented. In an era of political opening and concern for good governance, it became clear that development policies should be the result of public dialogue between citizens and their governments at all levels, and not principally the result of conditions imposed on cash-strapped governments.

The World Bank instituted sweeping changes in the late 1990s requiring governments to consult with citizens on strategies and policies for poverty reduction. There is still plenty of debate on whether governments yet really "own" their development programs, particularly in the macro-economic arena, but reform of development assistance and "aid effectiveness" are major topics of reform.

Second, it became undeniably clear that the countries that had made the most progress with sustained growth and poverty reduction were following their own unique paths. The good news was that the absolute number of people living on less than $1 a day worldwide had decreased by 500 million between 1981 and 2001, mainly as a result of growth in China and India. Yet the former had done so without democracy and traditional private property rights, while the latter had a significant government role in the economy.

In addition to these and the well-known East Asian "miracle" economies, countries such as Bangladesh, Botswana, Egypt, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Tunisia,Viet Nam, and others also achieved progress with "unorthodox" strategies. Meanwhile, countries that had supposedly gotten their macroeconomic fundamentals in order—Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, and Venezuela, for example—had very mixed records. This experience argued for much more humility among policy reformers and international institutions, and much greater attention to the specific conditions within countries.

Third,globalization of trade, investment, technology, and communications accelerated human contacts and shrank the psychological distance between people. Private capital flows outstripped official development assistance by wide margins, although only small amounts went to Africa. Global threats such as climate change, terrorism, and disease, with their various connections to human deprivation, made it increasingly clear that a more robust global engagement on poverty was imperative.

Fourth, the United Nations sponsored a succession of international conferences on the environment, population, food security, social development, women, and housing that shaped a broad international consensus on fighting poverty. These culminated in the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2000, followed by the International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, to consider how to fund the goals' achievement through public and private financial flows. This agenda helped establish new norms for international development cooperation.

Source: See endnote 8.

Mobilizing Human Energy people experience, requiring the interactive engagement of citizens and communities with state and markets.10

By the early 1980s, there was growing frustration about the top-down, expert-driven nature of prevailing development models. Many commentators saw that the key to reversing this was to value and build on local knowledge and respond to the "felt needs" of communities, an idea articulated by Brazilian educator and activist Paolo Freire. Later, Robert Chambers helped popularize a series of participatory or community-based development techniques that were effective in stimulating greater community awareness, identifying local needs, highlighting local assets, and mobilizing community action around projects of their own conception that fit with their cultures, ecologies, and local economies.11

Use of these techniques exploded in the 1980s and 1990s in NGO projects and began to be adopted by institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Much has been learned and accomplished by community-based approaches, but most have not succeeded in igniting fundamental transformation of societies in an age of globalization. (See Box 12-2.)12

Several pitfalls have been common. In some cases the use of participatory techniques by donors and NGOs was nothing more than an attempt to co-opt communities into development schemes that had already been fully formulated elsewhere. After all, British and French colonial administrations in Africa and elsewhere had used involvement of "tradi-

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