Sunday, October 5, 2008

The end of Development?

"The meaning of development exploded, increasingly covering a host of contradictory practices. The development business became self-propelling: whatever new crisis arose, a new strategy to resolve it could be devised. Furthermore, the background motive for development slowly shifted. A rising environmental chorus noted that development was not meant to promote growth, but to protect against it. Thus the semantic chaos was complete, and the concept torn to shreds."

From the latest issue of New Internationalist. I used to like this magazine and subscribe to it-20 years ago- in the UK. Then I found out that they were so wishy-washy about Palestine, and that their radicalism when it came to economic issue turned into mushy pea soup when it came to Zionism. They onece had a special issue on refugees in the late 1980's without a mention of the Palestinians. I wrote a letter that was never published.

But am afraid this article has triggered one of my rants about NGOs and Development. You see, Lebanon has been a recipient of development aid since its creation. But aid to Lebanon only became a priority on donors agendas since the beginning of the Lebanese wars, in 1975. I remember being interviewed by a British NGO in the late 80's for a job in Yemen. One interviewer asked me if I had previous experience of development. I answered: Of course I do, you've been developing me for as long as I can remember, the least I can do is be an expert. I got the job. Anyway, the mid 70's also coincided with period during which Development became an international business. Like all international businesses, development has ramifications deep inside governments. The largest donors are governments, who can donate directly, through their embassies, or indirectly, through the UN system and other (seemingly independent) donors. It therefore comes as no great surprise that development money is often linked to politics.

There are hundreds of development organizations working in Lebanon today, in a big community that brings together Lebanese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with large international players. To get an idea of the size of the operation, one just has to log into, a web site that was created during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and which attempts to gather information about development work. No doubt that the site misses a number of agencies, such as village-based civil society organizations (jam3iyyat) or cooperatives, along with parties who may have elected not to register into the site, but it gives a pretty good idea of the huge numbers of organizations active on the Lebanese scene. These NGOs live off a significant amount of funding that is poured yearly in the Lebanese aid market from a variety of sources. There are no valid estimates of the amount of development money that is spent on development, but it is in the order of tens of millions of US$.

Most, if not all, development organizations, share a set of core values. Chief among these values are democracy and transparency and the respect of all partners. These values are highly commendable, and all citizens should struggle to see them implemented at every level of their lives, especially in the relationship between state and citizen. Short of achieving this in today’s Lebanon, these core values: democracy, transparency and respect; must form the basis of all interactions between the development organizations and the communities they purport to serve.

We hear and read and watch regularly reports about the achievements of the development organizations in the projects they have implemented. We read about workshops, meetings, launch ceremonies and stories of achievements and successes without being able to really judge the validity of these claims. Moreover, as the leadership of development NGOs are usually not elected by the people they serve, but by the people who work in them, it is very difficult to enforce accountability. Many development NGOs (but far from all) publish their accounts on the internet, and share them during their annual general meetings during (which mostly re-elect the same leadership, or clones of this leadership). However, the “partners” (as we call the people who are the recipients of the NGO help), are generally not part of these meetings and do not know enough English to be able check the accounts of the NGOs online! In reality, budgetary issues in most development organizations worldwide are decided by a small group of people who sit at the top of the management pyramid. Very little is debated outside this core group, let alone with the community that is supposed to be served and respected. Communities are usually the passive recipients of the plans that were formulated in agreement between donors and implementing agency. So much for democracy, transparency and respect.

It is against this background that many voices are starting to be heard throughout the country. Voices that ask disturbing questions such as: “If tens of millions of $ in development aid money have been invested in fighting poverty in Baalbak, Hermel, Akkar, the South and in Bab el Tebbaneh and in the Palestinian camps, then how come people are still so poor and how come people are getting poorer? How come millions of aid $ are being spent on agriculture but the status of agriculture is still declining, and farmers are still leaving their lands and emigrating? How come there is still no water, no jobs, no shelter, no schooling, no rights available in Nahr el Bared, one and a half year after it was destroyed and while scores of agencies, headed by UNRWA, claim to be working there to help the poor.

Whoever cares to listen can hear these angry complaints. But hearing is not sufficient. Civil society and development NGOs and donors must engage in a total rethink of the way they do their work. They must assess the real impact of the projects they implement. And if they have the courage to say out loud what they say in private, and to acknowledge the limitation and sometimes futility of their work, then the best option might be for them to dissolve their structures and distribute the project money in cash to the poor who will surely find a better use for it.

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