Recently, I took a trip to Dhangadhi- a town on a dusty plain in southern Nepal near the Indian border, which could not feel further away from the halls of the luxury hotels of Davos. I met representatives of the local Madheshi community to try and understand more about political, developmental and accountability dynamics in the region. While sipping chai, the groups I chatted with talked for hours about the difficulties they faced on a daily basis- which ranged from the inaccessibility and corruption of politicians, to issues of exclusion and inequality.
I have two enduring memories of that visit. First, Dhangadhi is very, very hot and the mosquitoes are relentless. Second, it was driven home to me once again that societies all over the world cannot function effectively if people with power are too far away from those for whom they make decisions, and do not understand how their policies play out in practice. This distance can create a deep sense of frustration and alienation among citizens, which is when democracy begins to wither and protest or violence become other means to change the status quo.
Through the Accountability Lab, we have been working at the grassroots in countries like Nepal to ask how we can move from development approaches that don’t work to those that do; and how creative, bottom-up initiatives can inform international policymaking. While it is foolish to generalize too much, there do seem to be some common trends emerging from our experience which the leaders at Davos might consider as they work to finalize post 2015 development policies. These may seem obvious, but are too often ignored.
First, start by listening and building trust. It is amazing how much you can learn about how people feel, what their challenges are and where the possible solutions might lie when you ask pertinent questions and take the time to listen. This is not a quick or easy process, but provides the platform for relationships- based on mutual trust- that can be used to turn good ideas into realities. It is a function of repeated interactions, demonstration of commitment and then delivery on promises. There are some organizations that understand this brilliantly- CDA, for example. But at present- the majority of development is faddish, donors are fickle, and international aid workers rarely stay in developing countries (usually in capital cities) for more than a few years. We have to begin by proving our willingness to engage with and commit to the difficult process of change over time.
Second, collaboration is better than competition. The international aid model tends to pit organizations against each other because too often development becomes a competition for funding. This distorts goals, turns civil society organizations into contractors and sucks the voluntarism and commitment out of societies. There is something seriously wrong when more much more money can be made in the non-profit sector than in legitimate, for-profit businesses, which is often the case in developing countries. Ghana is a good example of a country where civil society groups have managed to come together to push for shared solutions to collective problems. Elsewhere, we need to ensure that development is an equal partnership between donors and partners- not a patron-client relationship which only reinforces existing negative dynamics.
Third, accountability and transparency must be central to everything. Until and unless citizens are given the information they need to realize their rights and fulfil their duties to hold those with power responsible, development will remain unequal, unsustainable and ineffective. Lip service is often paid to these ideas by many donors and governments- but in practice they are avoided at all costs. A recent independent review of the UN Mission in South Sudan, for example, found significant gaps in accountability- with local procurement activities ranked only partially satisfactory- including problems such as poor registration processes, inadequate vendor details and conflicts of interest. It is hard to preach accountability if we do not live by it ourselves.
Finally, creativity is essential and mistakes are the key to success. Too much of what happens in international development lacks imagination. Reports are written (and used as doorstops); workshops are held (and quickly forgotten); and results matrices are completed (but real change on the ground is absent). The motivation within many aid organizations is to spend money quickly, rather than spend it effectively- this inherently prevents changes in approaches and inevitably precludes experimentation. We have to understand failure as a learning process and build this idea into incentive structures- mistakes are wasted if they are not embraced and used as a way to improve in the future.
The World Economic Forum provides a critical opportunity to create consensus on policies and approaches that could transform the livelihoods of billions of people across developing countries in a post 2015 world. When the world’s elite converge on Davos, their high-level discussions will be immeasurably enriched when informed by principles drawn from bottom-up experience on the ground.