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Doing development differently

The development community must not be afraid to experiment and “fail” sometimes if it helps us achieve success in the long term. The evolution of development work needs critical analysis and increased consciousness that both success and failure are natural parts of development. The Accountability Tanzania Fund (AcT) and Oxfam’s Chukua Hatua project are good approaches to doing development differently:

In the business community, when 80 percent of your ideas are successful, you are a market leader, looked upon with the highest regard and seen as a champion. Within the development community, if you show that 20 percent of your programmes did not achieve their desired results, you are soon looking for a new job – or you just don’t look for it or report it.

Development is a place where the government, donors and NGOs can get together, most often with the common higher goal of equitable growth and access to essential services – but regularly with differing views on what is needed to achieve this.  The views I am sharing today aim to capture actions that affect each of these institutions, however with a bias towards the work of NGOs as this is where my experience is.

Doing development differently is about aims that promote evolution of concepts. Each programme should know where they want to get to – “What does success look like?” But we should not be bogged down in thinking that we have to define each of the steps, with its cause and effects, before the programme has started.  We must trial, we must adapt, we must recognise that it is not bad to fail. It is poor practice to dismiss the possibility of failure, monitoring to prove results only, and not monitoring so as to improve the work that we are doing.

One example where I believe this type of thinking is going into development work is the Accountability Tanzania Fund, or AcT, supported by DfID through UK Aid and managed by KPMG in Tanzania, is providing financial and technical support to Tanzanian civil society so as to increase the practice of good accountability. The programme has express aims around learning, expecting to see that different partners will adopt different approaches in achieving more accountability from the government to its citizens.

Women farmers in Tanzania. Photo: Carly Roberts/Oxfam
Women farmers in Tanzania

They expect success, but also accept failure, looking to stop things that do not work quickly and expand things that are showing positive change.  This AcT fund is important in terms of the way in which funding is provided, being primarily core funding of organisations, but also the way in which organisations are supported by KPMG, which has a team of development experts who are helping partners develop their thinking and demonstrate their learning.  This approach is beyond the “log frame approach” that is seen in some places within the development community.

Following on from the funding that is available, doing development differently can still be learnt from looking back to the past. Paulo Friere shared with development practitioners in the 1960s the importance of being context and cultural specific, seeking to listen to the questions that communities are asking and providing support for them to answer these questions for themselves. Doing development differently is about depth as well as breadth.

Pressures – of the government to provide sustainable services yet at the same time get re-elected; of donors to demonstrate that results are being achieved to their taxpayers; and of NGOs to document positive results while maximising the usage of funds – often lead us to seek out the one-size-fits-all solutions and adopt very linear or mechanical thinking to change. We are focusing a lot on breadth – numbers of beneficiaries, rather than quality of real change.

Our world today, and the rich and poor alike, do not operate in unity. Complexity is real, and we cannot realistically predict the future.  Therefore our solutions must be routed in the contexts of the individual country and at times the individual district or community. This is looking at the visible resources available, but also understanding the power dynamics and cultural norms that so often shape how plentiful resources in fact benefit so few.

Drawing on an example of development work that I feel is doing things differently is Oxfam’s work on Chukua Hatua – “Take Action” in Kiswahili.

Within a variety of different approaches that are being used, one project is what we call “farmer animators”. We have worked with over two hundred of these farmer animator groups, some of the groups already having being formed with membership to organisations like MVIWATA and some naturally forming around market access programmes that Oxfam is supporting.

Our engagement within the farmer animators is providing collective as well as individual support.  The approach has seen that within one year there are over 30 success stories (and equally a number of failings). The successes are extremely diverse and varying in techniques used and the numbers of people engaged.  They range from animators getting community members engaged within government planning processes, to animators getting compensation for the communities from mining companies for sums of money in excess of $100,000.

What is clear is the time spent understanding each community and each farmer animator as an individual has allowed for the collective changes led by communities, not NGOs. The results are not predictive, with the main aims being to see that awareness of rights is increased; that communities are mobilising around common issues, forums and spaces where people can freely contribute their thoughts; and that government leaders increasingly respond positively to their citizen’s voices.

Doing development differently is about doing some things differently, but using successes of the past as well. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to development, and we will progress further and faster the more we allow our programmes to evolve within a complex world.  The evolution of development work needs critical analysis, as VSO is doing today by bringing different thinkers together, and also increased consciousness that both success and failure is a natural part of development.

This is a speech that Oxfam’s Associate Country Director Justin Morgan, made as part of events to mark VSO’s 50th anniversary in Tanzania.

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Written by Justin Morgan

Justin Morgan

Justin is the Associate Country Director with Oxfam in Tanzania. He is based in Dar es Salaam

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