Developmental utopia

Annabelle Wittels
July 7, 2015
Source: Annabelle Wittels.

The Millennium Prize Problems  are seven mathematical problems, which were seen, in 2000, as some of  the most difficult to solve. They were chosen by a committee of  mathematicians on the basis that if they were solved – a  solution to one has been found so far – several key computational  questions would be answered that could have revolutionary effects in  various fields such as computer science and physics. In the world of  international development, we have Millennium Development Goals, also set in 2000 and soon to be renewed in 2015.  However, the Millennium Development Goals are not problems, they are  symptoms. If they were an equivalent to the Millennium Prize Problems  for the study and practice of international development we would need to  look at issues as grand as inequality, economic interdependence and  political repression. These maligns are instrumental in many other ills  such as poverty, poor provision of basic services and inadequate medical  aid – all of them issues that the Millennium Development Goals try to  address. In a way, the MDGs are the top line of a vast and intricate net  of problems. If one could solve them as one can their mathematical  counterparts, the solutions could be used as tools to build new things  and fix existing malfunctions. The solutions would trickle down – at  least theoretically – and turn into a developmental utopia.

One problem that tops this list of Millennium Development Problems is  that of how to democratise development. It is one of the most important  questions as it constitutes the missing link between wanting to do good  to others and letting them choose what good means to them. Development  until now has failed people many times because in absence of their  active choice, it had outcomes that were harmful or only benefitted a  few, rendering gains made unsustainable. Development as a practice in  which predominantly governments, NGOs and (social) businesses are  involved has created a conundrum, where democratic countries and  liberally-minded practitioners impose measures on populations with  little, or in countries without effective democracy, no consultation nor  mechanism to hold them to account. In this sense, development is an  endeavour characterised by outside intervention that pressures or  incentivises communities to adopt changes that would have not come about  without the intervention. It is not organic or random. It is induced  and planned, although outcomes often appear differently to how initial  objectives had predicted. The Millennium Prize question is how such an  endeavour can be turned into a process. It should be a process that  allows decisions to be made by the very people who are targeted or  affected by a development project. It ought to have mechanisms in place  that render all stakeholders of a development project answerable to  those targeted and affected by it. In other words: how can we  democratise development?

I am not a mathematician nor an erudite scholar and development is  not mathematics. In applied mathematics or physics an approximation is  often good enough to get you the result you wanted, such as when we  calculate the area for a globe without knowing every decimal of pi.  However, development is more like politics than mathematics. Even if you  had the perfect formula, it does not mean anyone will use it.  Development means human endeavour, empathy, power play, grand utopia and  the petty realities of daily life. I think it is time that we free this  question from the bounds of scholarship and professional practice and  ask ourselves what solution we can come up with. If we try to answer how  to democratise development, we need a broad-based dialogue capturing  ideas and concerns of all spheres of society. The answer of a question  of democratization should in itself be democratic, I want to argue. The  following paragraphs are a start and an invitation to you for more.

A short history of attempts

Many attempts have been made to answer these questions but so far  they have only been partial. If you want to create development for the  power-poor masses, your solution must not leave the power-rich elites  out in the cold. After all, it is them who fund most development  projects.

Because of the need for money and power, development for long was  something dealt with only by governments. This model of international  development has survived until today. When donor funds are given to  developing countries, the focus of programmes and priorities within them  are usually derived through a process of negotiation between the donor –  may it be a foreign country, an intergovernmental institutions such as  the United Nations or an NGO like the Gates Foundation – and the host  country. Unfortunately, countries where governments have long  legislature periods, democracy has a patchy record or elections are  personality rather than policy-based, political decisions often lack  links to what the population wants. What is more, when decision-making  processes are opaque and there are no clear parameters for populations  to check whether a development project or partner was chosen over  another in their best interest, corruption is more likely to occur. In 2012 The Economist afforded a special issue on how to tackle corruption and graft in international development.  Democracy, ensuring that people’s voices are heard and feed into  decision-making, was one of the ubiquitously applicable solutions to the  problem. As Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a global development think tank, has shown with  an experimental study in Indonesia, embezzlement of development funds  can be considerably reduced by increasing public oversight.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the development community thought that  problems with unaccountable governments and a corrupt bureaucracy could  be solved by circumventing the state and dispersing aid directly to NGOs  based in the country. Chosen NGOs were able to deliver health or aid at  a small scale but often failed beneficiaries as they had no mechanisms  to vote for new programmes, elect staff or hold them to account in any  other manner.

As the problem of accountability and popular demands for large-scale  infrastructural changes such as access to water, roads and electricity  persisted, it became clear that the coordinative capacity of the state  was still needed. To tamper the power of an unaccountable state, donors  tried a third way, turning to the private sector: First through  structural adjustment that forced governments to privatise state-held  enterprises and open markets. Later through promotion of public-private  partnerships. Needs and provision of services would be matched like  demand and supply. There was hope that problems of accountability would  be solved because people would only buy from those who served them best.

However, this did not work for those without money. They were  excluded because they were unable to spend and therefore lacked  influence over the private sector. Those who could spend also had  limited power as in many instances there was a small array of providers  to choose from. If well intentioned, the state attempted to play a  moderating and redistributive role but was overpowered by commercial  expertise during negotiations of leases and tax deals. If  self-interested, it neglected its duties. In sum, the search continues  for the perfect formula to first match delivery to population needs,  secondly empower them to choose what they want to see delivered and  thirdly do so in an accountable manner. These three challenges need to  be solved to democratise development, to give aid recipients greater say  in the what, how and for whom of development aid.

One problem, three challenges

The first challenge is one of information. In many instances it is  too costly to determine the needs and priorities of a population,  especially when they live in remote locations and communication channels  such as access to phone networks are lacking. Governments cannot poll  for opinion and populations lack channels to communicate directly to  them. Populations might know what they need but in most cases outsider  skill and money, and in many cases a larger, coordinating force such as  government are needed to implement large infrastrucyral changes and  provision of basic services. Otherwise, communities would have probably  tackled the issue themselves a long time ago. For a successful  cooperation, information must pass from communities to outside support.

Let’s take Helmand province in Afghanistan as an example. Although  aid organisations started to re-populate the area in the mid-2000s, we  know little to nothing about the priorities, opinions and needs of  people in Helmand province. The persistent threat of violence and  on-going insurgencies have made it impossible to conduct any  comprehensive survey of demographics, health status or opinions on  matters such as constitutional rights for ethnic minorities in the area.

From a purely humanitarian perspective that means Helmand’s  population is not served as it should be. It is unclear whether access  to drinking water or safe roads are a more pressing concern, and even  less in which villages they are needed most. The closest we get to  knowing what the people of Helmand think are a handful of anecdotal reports  collected by the Helmand Province Reconstruction Team lead by the UK  military that looks at whether a small number of household heads in  Helmand are happy with the initiative’s infrastructure projects. It is  impossible to know whether they speak for the near 1.5 million people  living in the province. Statistics would tell you that they are probably  not representative. Apart from humanitarian considerations, the lack of  information makes it incredibly hard to regain the trust of its  population, which is crucial from a security and state-building  perspective. Taliban who have developed sophisticated networks to  provide health, educational and judicial services are locally based.  Villagers can knock on their doors to voice demands or discuss matters  of concern. Government representatives are often only to be found in  urban centres, which makes communication difficult. Being better  informed, it will more likely be Taliban than governors who get the  right solutions to the right people at the right time. Without  information, without being able to hear their voices, i it comes down to  pure luck whether a development project can be implemented in a manner  that reflects its people’s needs.  It either works or it does not.  Without information it is like flicking a coin and hoping it lands on  the right side. Admittedly, having information is only the first step.  Once it is clear what communities need and what they see as fit for  purpose in their circumstance.

So the second challenge lies in finding a way to give aid recipients  the opportunity to choose for themselves. Citizens’ ideal choices are  often different from what experts or technocrats decide is best for  them, even if they are thoroughly informed by polling data and research.  The decisions they take might be perfectly rational and in line with  the interests of the majority, but infringe on vital rights of a  minority. In such a scenario, activism and venues for public protest are  common channels to voice discontent and influence decision-making. Even  if demands voiced in such protests are not followed up on, later  elections give the electorate a chance to punish governments who ignored  their demands.

This is true for mature democracies like the UK. Caps on university  tuition fees were increased following thorough study, which culminated  in The Browne Review.  Masses of students protested in 2010 and 2011, but to no avail. Student  fee caps were increased to GBP 9,000. However, the Liberal Democrats – a  party that had campaigned on the promise of tuition fee reductions –  subsequently lost most of their student voter base. Unfortunately, in  less mature democracies with less opportunity for public voice and  dissent, similar miscalculation of popular sentiment is often without  consequence. Elites who failed to deliver on their promises remain in  power.

In Malawi, for example, government and donor attempts to deliver  access to essential medicines continuously failed despite extensive  studies into the best ways of providing such services, drawing heavily  on consultations with affected populations. Studies  had not taken into account entrenched social norms that stopped people  from speaking out against those of higher status or power. Dissent had  previously been violently repressed in Malawi. People lacked examples of  when public disagreement led to more accountability and improved  service delivery. Therefore, people remained silent, although they were  given the opportunity to determine how their health systems should be  developed. To solve the second problem, we thus not only need  opportunity but also time to create mechanisms for and a culture of open  dialogue. Decisions must be agreed between those who have funds to  fertilise development initiatives and those who should profit from the  fruits they bear. Once needs are known and those affected are involved  in decision-making, a lot has been achieved. Many development projects  today can proudly point to having successfully tackled these two  hurdles. Yet their sustainability is compromised by questions about  accountability.

The third challenge to solving the riddle of democratising  development is thus one of accountability. It is about what mechanisms  can be put into place that enable aid recipients to hold development  actors to account. There are already a few puzzle pieces available but  not enough for a comprehensive picture: Decentralisation can help to  increase opportunities for providing input and making government  officials accountable. Participatory research methods used in monitoring  and evaluation have helped to make NGOs more responsible to their  beneficiaries. But there is no mechanism that connects a villager in a  remote part of the world with the big intergovernmental donor  organisation who gives aid to her government or a private charity.

We need utopia

To tackle this last problem, I believe, we need to reinvent what  democracy means and how its mechanisms are used in development. One  utopia that I have been daydreaming about is a revolution of  bureaucracy. Despite the ghastly sound of it and bad reputation it has  amassed over the last century, bureaucracy matters. Bureaucracy is the  administrative process of how institutions make and execute decisions.  These processes can create inefficient, nepotistic rogue states just as  well as leaders in innovation and social progress. Bureaucracy allows  for planning, regulation and (re)distribution of resources. It is a tool  that can be used to create alternatives. It is the building block that  helps to bridge the gap between utopia and real change.

So it begins. Let’s imagine that with every election citizens were  asked to not only cast their vote for their candidate but also state  their, for instance, top three priorities for development projects  during the next legislature. This would mean a voting ballot would now  have a second life as a polling station. Such an arrangement would help  to solve the first and second problems – giving opportunity to citizens  to voice their needs and decide what problems they want help with to  tackle. This arrangement could be made politically savoury if donors  committed to funding developing country governments on the condition  that they allocate the to address priorities, for which their citizens  had voted. Political parties would have less room to purposefully  misrepresent development needs to their own favour. They would be forced  to wage more of a policy- rather than personality-based campaign as  they otherwise might need to implement measures for which they did not  intend to stand. It would also be easier for voters to see whether  promises are followed up on. Seeing as there would be a public record of  what the nation decided to be the issues to tackle first, there could  be less confusion and scope for dissuasion about what election promises  entail.

To tackle the third problem, accountability, all funds and  development projects supported by the state and its main donors could be  ear-marked. They would only be allowed to be used for projects that  address priorities that the country’s population had elected. Instead of  catering to commercial interests or those of foreign government donors,  partnerships between government, the private and third sector would be  guided by citizens’ demands.

Of course, realising such a utopia would only be possible if it can  stand up to real life challenges. The costs of conducting a poll coupled  with national elections could be an obstacle. However, adding one  question to an existing poll would mean adding only marginal costs. If  national census bureaus would be overburdened, polls could be analysed  in partnership with university cooperations or aid agencies that already  collect data at a large scale such as J-PAL, IPA, the World Bank or USAID.

Yet, even if costs were not a problem, parties could wage information  campaigns based in their favour and thereby hijack people’s choices of  development priorities. In an age where radio, SMS messaging services,  TV and internet penetrate big parts of even the poorest countries,  successfully misinforming the public seems like a herculean task. It is  more likely that donor funds would be insufficient to address people’s  development priorities. This could disappoint the public and  disenfranchise them in the long run. A remedy might be to require  governments to communicate action plans on how to tackle issues step by  step clearly to its population over the course of its legislator period.  Mobile technology could help in relaying this information to those in  remote areas and even allow them to give feedback via, for instance,  free text messaging services.

Finally, politicians would be dis-incentivised to over-promise on  delivery because they would know that donor funds are tied to priorities  chosen by the populous. It is unlikely that deprived communities that  make up the majority of the population of developing countries would  demand harmful policies such as fuel subsidies, which feature in many election campaigns,  simply because they mostly benefit affluent urban classes. Politicians  would further have an incentive to be precise in their specifications to  avoid disappointment and appear to have failed their mandate. Instead  of promising to eradicate poverty, ignorance and disease,  we are more likely to see ambitious but more bounded agendas such as  creating x-amount of new jobs, providing free primary education to all  and forming international alliances to lower the costs of  pharmaceuticals.

Nevertheless, polarisation and conflict could ensue if polled  priorities differed widely between people of different backgrounds or  regions. This danger could be lessened by adding decentralisation to a  general reform of voting procedures. It could provide needed autonomy to  address issues that succeed as top priority for a specific locality but  differ on the national level.

To tackle all three core problems – information, decision-making  power and accountability – reforming state and donor bureaucracy in a  revolutionary manner is imperative. It might not be a smooth ride.  A  reform of development bureaucracy as proposed here will most likely need  several alterations based on trial and error that differ from context  to context. It is truly a millennial challenge, but it is one which is  imperative to tackle. The world managed to agree on millennium  development goals a second time, but to succeed it will have to ensure  that the what, how and to whom of development is informed, decided and made accountable to the people it seeks to serve.


All by
Annabelle Wittels