The DDD agenda: questions from a development practitioner from the South

by 15th Mar 2018
A teenage girl at a community gathering in a village near Hardoi, India A teenage girl at a community gathering in a village near Hardoi, India

The Doing Development Differently (DDD) agenda promises a number of changes in the development business. It has a manifesto that advises development practitioners to start with problems, not ready-made solutions; understand and engage with the local politics; support locally-led reform; not be afraid to try, fail, and try again; and think like an entrepreneur, taking risks, and making small bets.

These promises look like decent and indeed practical aspirations. The first three, in particular, would seem to be speaking with the recipient in mind – let her participate in identifying and defining the problem; there is politics that surrounds why things are the way they are so pay it close attention; and, there must be on-going reform, so support it, or if not, ignite it, and let it be led by locals... all good aspirations.

As a Kenyan practitioner of development for more than 10 years working in Eastern, Southern and Horn of Africa, the DDD agenda, good as it may sound, is problematic on a number of levels.

First, the characterisation – ‘doing development’ – would run into immediate trouble with those opposed to paternalistic tendencies in development. It evokes the idea of development as a package of things, capabilities, values, visions, assets, etc, parachuted from one part of the world into another. To the post-development discourse, for instance, it would stand accused of being the newest of the many shades that developmentalism has taken in its controversial, largely paternalistic relationship with Africa and the developing world. While some of the ideas may be the right ones, they were, nevertheless, formed as a Cambridge Consensus (at Harvard). Its creation wasn’t led by locals. So, how much is this really OWNED by the South?

Situating it within dominant streams of thought in Africa, apart from the liberal tradition that would see the DDD agenda as a nuanced advancement of its long-standing modernisation paradigm, it would most certainly face hostility from the other intellectual traditions – the essentialist, Afro-Marxist and postcolonial traditions.

They would accuse it of having a mild, yet mostly pernicious effect on Africa. To the essentialists and Afro-Marxists, it would be seen as the continuation of the hegemonic discourses from the West that promote elite white international economic interests at the expense of discourses from the South that would voice popular Southern political, social and economic aspirations. To postcolonial thought, it might be seen as the newest form of the liberal positivism that not only perpetuates problematic power relations, but also justifies certain habits of domination locally, nationally and internationally in the name of transitions to modernity.

Away from criticisms from dominant streams of thought in Africa, there are also certain unclear things even to casual observers and practitioners of development.

First, there are certain concepts that need further clarity – on ‘politics’, what exactly is DDD’s stance? And do signatories to the Manifesto agree? Is it going to resign itself to the reality of neo-patrimonial politics like those ‘working with the grain’ or is it going to have a more progressive stance as regards local politics? By locally-led, who is the local leader – the government, the private sector or civil society? Does it pay attention to power structures in the recipient parts of the world as well, and recognise how, in the spirit of strengthening either state capability or social demand, it could potentially turn a blind eye to local structures of domination and exclusion? Will it ensure that in acquiescing to local leadership, it does not pander to local elites?

Second, beyond clarity of the aspirations above, there is need for clarity regarding who this agenda is meant to convince. This would allow for evaluation of the agenda – if meant for funders of development (eg USAID or DFID), this clarity would provide the ease to evaluate their actions. If for practitioners, think tanks, the private sector and other players in the development business from the North, then this clarity would also help us tell from what they are doing and how they are advancing the agenda in their programmatic actions. It would be interesting for instance to establish how the DDD agenda applies to the for-profit actors that have recently entered the development industry under the banner of efficiency, displacing the not-for-profit actors that have traditionally been the dominant agents in the industry.

Third, what is the outcome that DDD hopes for versus what needs to change in the South? Granted, the Manifesto aspires to ‘real and sustainable results,’ but so do the numerous despotic regimes, particularly in Africa. In short, do unequal power relations feature prominently as part of the reason for persistent underdevelopment in DDD’s agenda for transformative development? How keen on promoting representation and building agency and people’s subjective capabilities is DDD?

There is little explicit hint in the DDD agenda that these questions are receiving encouraging attention. Instead, one fears that there may emerge a bias towards state capability as the focus of DDD, rather than the capability of society to shape the state towards progressive behaviour. A focus on state capability is likely to lead to more problematic relations of power from which the state’s (often) negative domination of society will be perpetuated rather than reduced.

However, despite issues of origin and ownership, and clarity about what the real goals are, some streams that sit under the DDD umbrella would appear to be informed partly by a number of promising practices taking place on the ground in the South, some of which have had a positive influence on power relations between and within various relationship loops – governments and society, INGOs and local NGOs, NGOs and communities, etc.

A number of international development practitioners including donors, INGOs and multilateral institutions are applying methodologies, tools and approaches in development arenas that would sit well with the DDD agenda. These methodologies, tools and approaches can help local actors reconstruct power relations. Feedback mechanisms, participatory decision making over policy issues such as budgets, and state-society negotiations regarding the quantity and quality of public services through Community Score Cards, for instance, all help shape new relationships between different actors, (re)constructing subjectivities and strengthening representation. This in turn can help to design more sustainable ways for states and communities to overcome obstacles that perpetuate poverty.

These methodologies, tools and approaches contain within them potentialities for bringing together different actors and systems to overcome low accountability traps and to bridge the divide between the capability of the state and its legitimation by the general society. It should be pointed out however that the methodologies, tools and approaches are not an end in themselves. In fact, if not carefully applied and observed, they can easily be distorted and adapted to existing negative relations of power. Their deployment, functionality and effects should be part of what concerns, informs and constantly shapes the DDD agenda if it truly seeks to do development differently in the developing world.

This blog is written in reaction to the recent discussion paper: ‘How International Non-Government Organisations are Doing Development Differently’ by World Vision, CARE, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps and Oxfam.

Gilbert Muyumbu

Currently I am advisor on inclusive governance and accountability for the Eastern, Southern and Horn of Africa region within CARE International UK’s inclusive governance team. I joined CARE International UK in June 2014. My area of interest is exploring ways through which organised society interacts with and shapes the behaviour of the state and its agents in the developing world. As part of CARE International UK based in Nairobi (rather than within its headquarters in London), I constantly navigate the zone between complex theorisations of development formulated in the North, and their practical application and implications in the South.

I have an MA degree, focusing on the politics of industrial policy in Kenya, from Egerton University in Kenya. I am currently pursuing a PhD focusing on state restraint through social organisation and action. Previously I worked for ActionAid International as coordinator and manager of governance projects in Kenya and regional advisor for Africa based at MS TCDC in Arusha Tanzania.

One good thing I’ve read

Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony should be a very refreshing read for those interested in new perspectives on the African post-colonial situation. I highly recommend it.