Do British development NGOs not want to discuss development?

The UN High Level Panel looking at development goals after 2015 is coming to London and will meet representatives of British development NGOs who, it seems, don’t want to discuss development with them. OK, that’s my, I will acknowledge, possibly slanted reading of a single email but help me out here. An invitation arrived last week from Bond – 'the UK membership body for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in international development' – to join in meeting the UN panel. There is a list of themes and then a list of issues that will be discussed at this meeting. The themes are:

  • How to approach jobs and livelihoods for the poor?
  • What are the engines of inclusive growth?
  • How can poor people be brought into formalised economies and integrated into national development?
  • What is the role of ecologically fragile areas in poverty eradication?
  • How should inequality be addressed for inclusive development?
  • Can service delivery be made universal at reasonable cost?

And 'Issues that will be covered include: eradication of global poverty within a generation; social safety nets; food security; health; education; social inclusion; livelihoods and income security; investing in children; social mobility, anti-discrimination and participation; a global social floor; legal empowerment of the poor; and enabling bottom of the pyramid markets.' There are many important things in these two lists, even if it is mysterious why themes and issues are separated. Indeed there are many. United into one, they would make a very long list. But glance through it/them one more time and then tell me where you see any of the following (non-comprehensive list of) issues that some people might think have an impact upon development:

  • Governance, corruption, political participation, the role of elites
  • Conflict, violence, security, the security apparatus, the relationship of citizens to authority, peace
  • Laws and law-making, statutory and traditional systems of justice and access to them
  • The private sector, foreign investment, the role of remittances, international trade
  • Resource scarcity, water stress, climate change, infrastructure, the quality of life
  • Demography, including population growth (by approximately 100 million people per year), the consequent youth bulge, and urbanisation (at an annual rate exceeding 100 million)

For sure, if reminded about these issues, Bond will acknowledge that, yes, these do have some influence on development prospects. What is dispiriting is that either they thought about them and decided not to discuss them with the High Level Panel or, much more likely, didn’t think about them. If they did think about them, it is wholly puzzling as to why they were sidelined. And if they didn’t think about them, that simply reveals the persistent default mode of far too much of the NGO development community (and I write that advisedly – I do not think it is nearly so widespread in DFID), which is not to take seriously issues of politics, conflict, climate change, demography or how the economy really works. That default mode as I remarked in an earlier post, breaks development down into a series of separate actions, selects among them some key points for action, and then does not build the components back up into the whole. It reflects a limited, reductivist, technocratic way of thinking about development, which is increasingly unhelpful. Let’s be clear: the list of themes and issues Bond has invited UK NGOs to discuss with the High level Panel includes important items but they do not cumulate into development. How countries develop is not encompassed by those issues. Successfully deliver projects on time in those fields and development will not necessarily ensue, not unless other conditions are met – the emergence of a peaceful state being key among them. Discuss the items in those lists and you will not be discussing development but something else – development aid projects. It would be good to stop confusing the two. Written by Dan Smith, Secretary General Comment on this blog here