Why do development efforts continue to fail?
Guest blogger Jina Moore explores the background behind failed development projects, and why many organizations make the same mistakes over and over again.
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A few years ago, Harper's Magazine published a piece about the the first Millennium Village, in Kenya. The piece is buried behind a pay wall, unfortunately, but among the takeaways was this: Sauri, the site of the village, has been a pilot site of Great New Development Ideas before; in fact, the piece says, more than half of the research MVs at the time (2007) were built in places with histories of development projects. It makes some sense – the article says the idea was to avoid inexperience and cultural barriers that can impede development work early on – but it also makes weird science.Skip to next paragraph
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Last summer in Sierra Leone, I met an American guy working on a justice access initiative. He was not your Ivy League bona fide development worker. He was brash; he didn't use the empty but politically acceptable vocabulary. He had a haircut I'd never see in a major American metropolis. But he was smart and committed to his work, and as I had breakfast with him and a Sierra Leonean colleague, he said to me in passing, "I hate the word 'sensitization.'" To his colleague, he said, "What are we talking about, right?" And to both of us, or no one in particular, he said, "What we're really talking about is cultural engineering. So we should just say that, because that's what we're doing."
I thought of that guy when I read Walt's article, because there's another reason I think we repeat bad ideas: we invent and use language – even grammar – that allows us to willfully lie to ourselves. "Sensitization." "Capacity building." Even "local ownership," which I like to imagine as revolutionary when people first bandied it about at meetings, has come to feel like an empty abstraction.
It's not development workers' fault, of course. The field doesn't have final say on these, or so many other, things; it's the guys back home, contending with the politicians and diplomats who pull the budgetary strings, who sanction our language. And I'd lay the blame first at the feet of the diplomats, who have spent centuries refining this linguistic game before imposing it on the allegedly apolitical projects they fund.
But while we're on the "why" of bad ideas, I think that's one of them. Here's another I think development suggests: Sometimes, you just can't do nothing, even if every rational synapse in your brain is screaming, "This has never worked, and there's no way it can work now." And that's the rub – for development, for aid, for advocacy. What do you do with a moral imperative to act when the actions themselves are (at best) unlikely to work?