It is an unfortunate fact that many projects run by international development organisations are often beset with serious problems that can cause them to fail. Examples of such problems include mismanagement, inadequate planning, political interference, and poor coordination among the various stakeholders involved in the project.
In this essay I will be focusing on problems resulting from a lack of local knowledge by comparing two different development interventions designed to improve market access for the poor and the marginalised.
The first case relates to the attempted creation of an inclusive network in the Ethiopian dairy sector by an international developmental organisation (van Wijk, van Wijk et al. 2020), while the second involves a project designed to make rural markets more inclusive in rural Bangladesh, implemented by BRAC, a local development organisation (Mair, Marti et al. 2012).
If a development organisation does not understand the local context, including norms, power structures, informal practices and kinship relations, it is at risk of encountering three broad categories of problems that can lead to a failure in achieving the desired outcomes. These are design flaws, when the project is not correctly aligned to the environment, orchestration failures, when the project is not adequately adjusted when problems arise, and maintenance failures, where the planned change unravels as soon as the development organisation is no longer supporting it (van Wijk, van Wijk et al. 2020).
Examples of each of these three types of problems are evident in the case of the project run by an international NGO in Ethiopia. When it embarked on building a new, inclusive dairy value chain in Ethiopia, its project managers failed to take into consideration several factors.
The first was the fact that the dairy sector was not a priority for the Ethiopian government, so public sector support for the project was perfunctory at best.
The second was existing tensions between milk producers and the two incumbent milk processors, which they aggravated when they encouraged the producers to form a milk processing cooperative, further alienating the incumbent milk processors who came to view the entire project as a threat.
The third was language – knowledge transfer objectives were missed because seminars were given in English, to an audience who did not understand the language.
And finally, the governance structure put in place did not reflect power realities on the ground, so it did not have the clout to continue the project once the NGO was no longer involved, resulting in the collapse of the project (van Wijk, van Wijk et al. 2020).
By contrast, BRAC, who has been working in Bangladesh for decades, came up with a project plan that took into consideration the community they were operating in (patriarchal, patrilineal), the political sphere (a system based on patronage, corruption, and a dependence on informal justice processes) and the religious realities (purdah and Shariah law) (Mair, Marti et al. 2012).
One of the first steps BRAC focused on was building a strong partnership with the government, ensuring public sector support for the project. They then engaged with local elites and decision-makers to make sure their objectives were aligned. Instead of attempting to replace existing structures, they built upon them and around them, thus increasing the chances that the planned change would be accepted by locals.
In addition, they built strong bonds with all stakeholders, keeping a constant lookout for problems and adapting their strategy when necessary – ‘… informally, everyday day and night, morning and evening you’re visiting and you are having contact with them. That is how you’re becoming very close to them and part of them.’ (Mair, Marti et al. 2012, p. 833).
This intimate understanding of the local context enabled BRAC to design and subsequently adapt their plans as required, increasing the chances of a successful and sustainable intervention. Furthermore, the fact that they were able to engage in the local language meant that it was possible for them to communicate directly with the people who they were trying to help, getting feedback directly from the source.
The importance of speaking the local language and taking time to engage with the locals cannot be over-emphasized.
In fact, it was one of the main findings in a report commissioned by the UK’s Department for International Development, with Nepali officials stressing the importance of ‘fluency in Nepali, a good understanding of Nepali society, time to spend with people and openness and willingness to learn’ as crucial for development projects to succeed (Loizos and Clayton, as cited in Eyben 2000, p.11).
That said, while it is tempting to point the finger of blame at international development organisations and chalk project failures down to their lack of local knowledge, it is important to consider the possibility that there might be issues that are hindering their ability to obtain such knowledge and to change course when projects encounter problems during their implementation.
The first obstacle faced by many development organisations is the fact that they are hamstrung by ‘donor-driven blueprints and models’ (Eyben 2000, p. 9), especially when the donors are governments or large supranational organisations that have political agendas that dictate when and how the money is to be spent (Apthorpe 2011; Kaufmann 1997).
It is often the case that development aid workers end up spending more time navigating the ‘power map’ and political constraints imposed upon them than on planning the aid projects themselves, with their options severely restricted because of their financial dependence on the people and organisations who are doing the politicking (Kaufmann 1997).
Another problem occurs when donors impose totally unrealistic timeframes, such as the one described by Griffiths (as cited in Apthorpe 2011, p. 216) – “‘five years work [done] in four months.’” Clearly in such situations there is no time to absorb very much local knowledge and even less time to change course if issues arise.
In addition to these organisational and structural issues, there is also a concern regarding the power difference between the people receiving the aid and those giving it, which on occasion results in aid workers being told what the locals think they want to hear, as opposed to the truth of the reality on the ground (Kaufmann 1997).
Conclusion – International Development Organisations Require Local Knowledge
In conclusion, this essay has shown how important it is for international development organisations to have sufficient local knowledge when running projects, to avoid design, orchestration or maintenance failures that can arise if issues such as power structures, kinship systems or religious beliefs are not properly considered. However, notwithstanding the criticality of such knowledge, these organisations are often impeded from obtaining it because of a combination of factors, including pressure from donors who impose their own agendas on the project, with restrictions on how money is spent and over which timeframe.
Apthorpe, R. (2011) “With Alice in Aidland: A seriously Satirical Allegory” (Chapter 10), in Mosse, D., Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Eyben, R. (2000) “Development and Anthropology: A View from Inside the Agency.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 7–14.
Kaufmann, G. (1997) “Watching the Developers: A Partial Ethnography” in Grillo, R. and Stirrat, R. (eds) Discourses of Development: Anthropological Perspectives Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Mair, J. Marti, I., Ventresca, M. (2012) “Building Inclusive Markets in Rural Bangladesh: How Intermediaries Work Institutional Voids.” Academy of Management Journal, no. 55 (4), 2012, pp. 819–850.
Van Wijk, J., Van Wijk, J., and Stam, W. (2020) “Challenges in Building Robust Interventions in Contexts of Poverty: Insights from an NGO-Driven Multi-Stakeholder Network in Ethiopia.” Organization Studies, vol. 41, no. 10, 2020, pp. 1391–1415.
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