On the 21st and 22nd November, the University of Technology Sydney hosted the Australian Council for International Development’s (ACFID) 4th DevelopmentFutures conference. This year’s theme, ‘alternative pathways to end poverty’, brought together an eclectic mix of academic, practitioner, student, activist and bureaucrat. I was lucky enough to both attend and present, and harangued four other attendees for this post to present their key takeaways. First up is Enrique Mendizabal, one of the keynote speakers at the conference.
1. How may we work with them?
Enrique Mendizabal – Think tanks researcher, advisor and promoter, Founder onthinktanks.org
I think there is a deep sense of realism about the state of the Aid Industry. I was surprised (pleasantly, of course) that my direct attack on the development sector elicited a great del of support. Many of the reactions to my speech, which called for the dismantling of the industry and for an unmediated relationship between people, organisations, and governments, went ever further. Particularly keen on this idea were the Australian Award Scholars who, for the most part, were not studying ‘development’. Rather, they were undertaking postgraduate degrees in engineering, chemistry, underground water management, education, business, anthropology, economics, etc.
To me, this choice denotes agency. Uma Kothari’s excellent key note speech made reference to this by questioning the legitimacy of global development targets, namely the MDGs, which predefine an homogenous future; in essence, robbing people from the opportunity and responsibility of defining it themselves.
I felt the conference was successful in providing the space for different futures to be imagined and from perspectives other than of the development sector. Instead we heard of the contributions that the media, the private sector, and academia could make, not by joining the industry but by pursuing their own purposes. Not, then, ‘how to get them to work with us’, but ‘how may we work with them?’
2. A developmental ‘secret sauce’?
Gerard McCarthy – Director (Asia-Pacific) at TechChange: The Institute for Technology and Social Change
The irony of hosting a ‘Development Futures’ conference weeks after the dismembering of AusAID wasn’t lost on many of those who attended the conference. Despite the incongruence between the ‘blue-sky thinking’ focus of the conference and it’s timing, there were plenty of insightful take-outs. Unsurprisingly, the major one for me was that the next few years will be a time of great change in Australia’s aid and development program. As Robin Davies of ANU’s DevPolicy Centre observed, the imperative for NGOs to reduce their reliance on government funding is stronger than ever; whether that be by exploring ways to boost contributions from individuals or partnering with business and social enterprise where there is a good operational and values fit.
On the macro level, I was given reasons to be a bit more bullish about development outcomes after the expiry of the 2015 MDGs. As was repeated throughout the two day conference, the Rustovian ‘take-off’ model of development can and is being ‘leap-frogged’ by many developing countries who are reducing poverty and delivering public goods much sooner than the 1960s model might have predicted. Indeed, it’s clear that the emergence of centralised, bureaucratic governments are not the only trajectory to improving development outcomes. Rather, as Macquarie University’s resident ‘futurist’ Sohail Inayatullah summarised, clever governments and NGOs are recognising the weaknesses of highly centralised public-sector models and are enlisting technological innovations to ‘fly-over’ archaic institutional designs.
If ‘development’ does indeed have a future, as Enrique Mendizabal of On Think Tanks questioned, I actually think it’s likely to look much more like the health system innovations that have emerged in places such as Bangladesh and Nepal. As ODIs research on Nepal has shown, a cross-sectoral combination of strong government commitment, increased remittances and deployment of digital tools to improve data collection, service delivery and political accountability has reduced maternal mortality by 47 percent between 1996 and 2006. A remarkable outcome, and one which might just hint at what the ‘secret sauce’ of 21st century development practice might be made of.
3. If we can imagine a future, we can create it
Marianne Jago-Bassingthwaighte – Adjunct Research Fellow at James Cook University’s Centre for Disaster Studies
There is a deep sense of cynicism about the current aid architecture, and a deeper sense that anything is possible. Conference themes cohered around futures thinking, or the idea that any future is possible. This unleashed my inner aid heretic and revolutionary. The enormity of the dilemmas facing us as a planet, as a species, as a sector, felt pressing and insurmountable under current mechanisms that the conference discussed. There were several hundred Australian Leadership Award Scholars present, ostensibly as part of their leadership training. The trouble was that most were there under duress, and the program had not been structured to accommodate them or nurture their leadership skills. If grassroots empowerment is a cornerstone of a better development future, this was a perplexing and missed opportunity.
But, the very great intellect, integrity and straight talking at the conference profoundly energised and emboldened me. During Suhail’s workshop, for example, I imagined women and men experiencing themselves and each other as unconditioned, authentic, empowered, and imagined how we might get there. I heard others sorting world hunger, and donor arrogance, and empowering grassroots development initiatives. If we can imagine it, we can create it. This is the world I have started to inhabit.
4. Let’s scale down and have more events
Anthony Zwi – Professor Global Health and Development, UNSW
Linkages between policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and teachers is crucial to broadening and deepening the humanitarian and development fields. The crowded agenda and hectic pace mimicked the real world, with people and issues championing their causes, screaming for attention or identifying their issues as the priorities. Aside from a valuable annual meeting of this sort, we need more smaller-scale events that are more focused, more searching, across the calendar year involving a wider range of people in different parts of the country. This can be done alongside enhanced virtual interaction with people working together to take forward (conceptually, strategically and practically) a number of key areas.
A wide range of issues could be placed on the agenda. Here are a few that immediately spring to mind that emerged directly or indirectly from conference debates:
- Engaging with the general public around development and humanitarian issues: innovations and experiences in stimulating understanding and critique;
- Interfacing with DFAT: is there place for development values within an aid and trade environment?;
- Indigenous rights and development: learning and exchange from within and outside our borders;
- Taking forward the ACFID Principles for Ethical Research and Evaluation in Development: strategies, challenges and opportunities to extend learning and debate around these issues and to apply these principles within the humanitarian and development fields;
- New media – tools for voice and vision or control?;
- Slowing down: are we expecting too much too quickly?;
- Innovations in humanitarian and development education, training and professionalization: broadening partnerships and critique;
- Real time learning and critique: what to do and how to get there?
The list continues and they all need work. I’ll put up my hand to organise one in the next year and maybe others can do the same as a start to extending the fertile directions uncovered during the meeting and interpersonal connections made.
5. Game over man. Game over.
Brendan Rigby – Director of WhyDev
One thing is clear: NGOs need to critically and urgently rethink their roles within the public and development space. It’s game over. NGOs are no longer intermediaries between the public and development. Consider the following put forward by Andrew Hewett and Chris Roche at the conference:
- Development assistance has played little direct role in poverty reduction over the past two decades. (Thanks China!);
- Inequalities are growing along multidimensional lines, and most people living in poverty are in middle income countries;
- There are an increasing number of people affected by humanitarian emergencies;
- The urgency of climate change is increasing as its impacts are multifaceted from peace and security to disease and poverty.
Many NGOs still operate under a transactional model with the public in their role as intermediaries. However, the way the public can engage with development, through microloans (Kiva), direct cash transfers (GiveDirectly), voluntourism and advocacy (Global Poverty Project), is rapidly changing. On the other side, ODA funding is heading backwards and government aid agencies are leap-frogging NGOs as intermediaries. Bilateral relationships are trending as the aid architecture changes. However, I do not believe that NGOs can critically address these issues without first admitting and embracing failure. It is not something they do well. And, I was struck by this again at the conference as ‘success’ story after ‘success’ story was trotted out and failure was relegated to ‘lessons learned’ (if at all). Many experienced leaders in the Australian NGO community are convinced of this need for change. But, where that change starts and who initiates it is unclear.