In this post I will continue with the discussion about the particular assumptions which now seem to underpin theories of social development as currently practised by staff in many INGOs. I will also offer some thoughts on the specific configurations that have evolved in the domain of international development between a handful of very large INGOs and others, as well as between INGOs and the state and the public which supports them. In doing so I will be exploring what I consider to be three historical trends which have interwoven to bring about significant changes in the way that staff in INGOs have come to think about their work and how they undertake it.
The first of these is the exponential growth of INGOs following the first Ethiopian famine in the mid-80s and their increasing dependence on government funding. Where previously a number of larger INGOs set themselves limits as to the amount of money they would accept from governments in order to maintain their independence, over time this self-imposed limit has continued to be raised, some might argue with a commensurate loss of independence. The increase in funds flowing between government and INGOs was initially mutually beneficial: while INGOs were tempted by growth, government was interested in contracting services out and keeping civil servant numbers low.
The contractual nature of the relationship between INGOs and governments brought with it compliance mechanisms and rule-based application procedures which sets a heavy premium on documentation. Sometimes large pots of money are contracted out to leading UK consultancy firms, which contract out further to smaller more specialist development organisations, who contract out further to freelance consultants who may assess tens of applications solely against written criteria. Funding can be awarded with little knowledge of the applying organisations and perhaps even little understanding of the projects they are proposing. In keeping with the need of bureaucracies to have phenomena legible at a distance, much emphasis is then placed on compliance with application criteria, the ‘measurability’ of outcomes and the need for the work to be considered ‘effective and efficient’. Government of whatever colour has come to have an increasing influence over what might be considered good development, including the way that development is contracted and assessed.
The second trend is the way that managers in INGOs have responded to their increasing size which has also brought about greater internal differentiation and the usual difficulties of co-ordination of large numbers of people, many of them working at a distance. INGOs have become progressively professionalised as well as commercialised in keeping with the increasing marketization of all aspects of both public and private life. Greater size and the largely uncritical adoption of management methods arising from north American business schools in symbiosis with the private sector, led to a significant change in power relations within INGOs, and between the larger INGOs and those of lesser size. Where previously, and to caricature, INGOs had a strong narrative of social development based on ideas of justice and human rights and management was considered an administrative adjunct, subsequently the development narrative has been increasingly clothed in the language of management rhetoric. As noted in previous posts, this particular management rhetoric makes grand claims for its efficacy. Staff in development INGOs are said to be able to ‘deliver results’ and to ‘transform people’s lives’, in ways which are ‘accountable’ to donors, both public and private. The discussion of accountability is particularly fraught: it would not be possible to make the case that staff in INGOs were always highly conscious of their accountability to the people and organisations in the geographical South with whom they were working. Some were and some weren’t and the way this was reflected institutionally was uneven. However, the relationship of accountability that seems to cause the most anxiety currently amongst INGO staff in my experience is that of accountability to donors. Making bids to donors to elicit money, accounting for how the money has been spent and making the relevant representations in anticipation of what donors are expecting currently absorbs a lot of time and emotional energy. It also makes the relationship between staff in INGOs and the organisations they work with in the global South more fractious.
Whereas previously, and rightly or wrongly, the cadre of development workers were dominant in INGOs, over time their place has been taken by development management professionals, not all of them from a development background. The development narrative has been hybridized and amalgamated with the discourse of managerialism so that both co-exist at the same time in INGOs, and sometimes within the same person. In the last post I mentioned the way in which management qualifications have gained currency in INGOs along with many other organisations. With this has come what one might term MBA thinking: it is not unusual to hear managers in INGOs talking about the ‘need for growth’ as an end in itself, and to construe the work in relation to imagined ‘competitors’ in the same domain. There have always been rivalries between INGOs, but increasingly these have been systematised and professionalised as each INGO looks to promote its ‘brand’ and its unique selling point and ‘niche’. Competition has come to prevail over co-operation. The handful of very large organisations manoeuvre to maintain their pre-eminence and status, and the category of INGOs at the next level look upon their size and capacities and try to emulate them. The size and distribution of some of the bigger INGOs means that staff are often absorbed in the politics and maintenance of the corporation.
Consistent with what I am terming MBA thinking, is the tendency of staff in INGOs to talk with what Norbert Elias referred to as a heroic ‘we’ identity. In advertisements, promotional material, web sites, and sometimes even in their internal reports on the work they are doing with people in the global South there is a much greater propensity to present what staff in INGOs are doing to the good and to claim to have had a significant effect on improving the lives of others. It is not unusual for INGO staff to claim to have significant and qualitative transformational abilities, and by implication, this is greater than the ability of other INGOs. Claiming a heroic ‘we’ identity automatically implies others who may not be so blessed. In the competitive market place for the donor pound, there is not much room for nuance, modesty and critical thinking, including self-criticism. Indeed, critique or public self-criticism becomes a much more dangerous undertaking, when so many people and organisations have stakes in this highly extended and professional game of international development.
The third trend which directly affects the practice of development is the widespread taking up of management methods based on assumptions of linearity and predictability, which purport to make development practice more systematic and professional, but at the same time have the effect of covering over politics and contestability. They also make it much more difficult for genuine exploration of alternatives, and to value the emergence of inevitably different interpretations of the good as social development progresses. With highly structured project planning methods there is no premium placed on being surprised. The planning, implementation and evaluation of social development turns much more on discussions of the ‘right’ methods to use, usually in the form of a ‘toolbox’ or a proprietary methodology, than it does on issues of justice, ethics and power. Almost all development projects require a logical framework before they will gain access to funding, and most evaluations turn on whether a particular project has fulfilled its pre-reflected targets or not. Target-setting predominates in strategy discussions, project plans and even for individual staff members who have their objectives appraised at least once a year. The log frame, the increasingly popular Prince 2 method (see previous post) are based on parts and whole thinking, where the whole can be disaggregated into logical parts which lead sequentially to the objective in view. These assumptions are derived from natural science methods, particularly those which have proved most useful in engineering.
Whereas previously discussions in INGOs about social development would turn on endless and sometimes repetitive discussions about power, in many contemporary INGOs the discussion of power has become trivialised and reduced. It is not unusual to hear staff in INGOs claim that everything they do ‘empowers’ the beneficiaries they are working with, without any reflection on the relational nature of power, and at the same time covering over their own power relationship with their Southern partners.
It would be wrong to imply that the practice of international development is everywhere the same and the current dominant way of proceeding is entirely monolithic. Even within large, corporate-like INGOs there is deviance and subversion, and the large population of INGOs allows for a variety of practices and approaches. In order to play the game some development professionals learn how to keep the bureaucracy satisfied at the same time as paying close attention to the needs of the people they are there to work with. They are more open to having their views of the world constantly disrupted by what they encounter in the work with others. Equally, some smaller organisations, more modest in their aspirations and their narratives about their achievements, are capable of original and interesting work.