Committed development workers: you are not alone

Dear KM4Dev community,

People are asking, after this chaotic time, what can and should change? Well, many who are deeply committed to the potential of international development see new possibilities for a better field. How can we make them real? Here's my statement from my recent participation in the KM4Dev cafe entitled Uncomfortable Truths in Development. 


Thank you for the introduction and event, and the KM4Dev community that has been a wonderful constant in my career.

I have to say, it's not easy to put myself out there like this. I’m speaking today as an individual, representing my own personal views. I’ve had friends reach out to me, worried I am endangering my career. But I have been inspired by people and protesters around the world, and my conscience said go for it. So here I am.

Today I am talking about what I call the personal-professional perspective. That is, those who are personally devoted to doing meaningful professional work. 

When I wrote several recent articles critiquing today's development, I was shocked by the 25,000 reads. But what has really hit home is the flood of personal outreach I receive from around the world-heartfelt, plaintive, angry, dispirited, rebellious. The kind of people I am hearing from represents many roles, working at all levels. They deeply care about inequality, climate change, poverty, dehumanization. They believe change is  possible.

I’m compiling them into a document currently at 50 pages and growing. It reads like a rolling therapy session, tell all, and technical critique of the field all in one. 

“This hit me so hard...I refuse to stand down from endorsing this critique, and it's important others to come out of the woodwork and say it like it is and enough is enough.” 

The people describe having to do their best work under the radar so as not to attract the attention of insecure bosses and organizations. When they do attach attention, payback for expressing doubt or suggesting alternatives ranges from disinvitations to key meetings  to getting laid off when their “position” is coincidentally  eliminated. We have a joke that if you haven’t been laid off you haven’t been trying hard enough.

The portrayal of the aid sector problems is “brilliant,  and all so painfully familiar. I learned the hard way what happens when you argue for organizational integrity instead falling in line with the corporatization of our sector. It didn't go well.”

Those I hear from that represent local “partners” in “recipient” countries are even more outspoken, Kishor among them. 

I worry that this represents the canary in the coalmine of international development. It reads like a work force ready to either give in or rise up.

“I'm a bit apprehensive about moving so far away from my global health background, but I just tell myself that I'm not happy now, I don't see a career path that will keep me moving, and I have lost faith in the mission, so maybe a bold move is what I need right now.” 

“I left because I felt like I was propping up a resource-wasting white colonialist juggernaut, and was ashamed.”

To sum it up in two points:

  1. What’s leaving the canary breathless might be what you’d call the “projectization” of international development 

Their gasping request: shift the balance back from predominantly top-down, outside-imposed, expert-driven, siloed, projectized (phew!) development to development that is co-created with the people whose lives will be affected. 

  1. A source of oxygen might be found in increasing calls for locally driven, systems approaches. 

Various names include: community-led development, collective impact, new power, and movement approaches. Increasing evidence shows they work. 

Systems approaches called for adaptation in a dynamic real world. And that calls for space and capacities of workers and partners to speak up and adapt accordingly. 

I finish with this comment from a senior--and still idealistic--development professional 

“If I were young, I would not consider a job in "international development." I would consider a job in sustainable social and human development, because it's a great and worthy vocation. And I would still try to get hired so that I can work in Mauritania or Palestine, because, oh my God! I love these places. If that were not possible, guess I'd have to work in other developing countries, like France or the U.S.“


I'd love to hear from anyone about their personal-professional experience, insights, ideas...


Links to the recent articles referenced:

It’s time to put an end to supremacy language in international deve...

What’s killing us in international NGOs?

International development was built on supremacy culture. It’s time...

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Comment by Alex Counts on December 8, 2020 at 3:35pm

I strongly endorse your points.  The way I think about it is to contrast efforts to implement "projects" (usually in a top-down way) from those to build/support locally owned and controlled institutions.  But I think we are driving at the same issue with slightly different terms.  

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