Rethinking International Development: Visions of Progress



When speaking about international development, one may envision a starving child rustling under the brush of a deserted paramilitary compound somewhere in East Africa, his life forever changed as rations are first delivered to the village. Or, maybe the vision is of a young Pakistani girl, ripe with potential, experiencing her first year in grade school following its construction. These images proliferate not only in the media and ad campaigns seeking our donation dollars, but in the psyche of the West, its history beholden to histories of colonial legacy. It is a story of the dejected, the tortured, the ill, and the underserved, awaiting the moment of radical transformation and progress when Western aid arrives and builds futures. This story resonates with many well-intentioned global citizens, and it defines the terms by which funding structures and other forms of aid operate globally. Critiques of this aid project, thankfully, are gaining traction.


My particular intervention into mainstream thinking about Western aid, albeit nascent, is intended not to discredit the countless development interventions that have—to varying degrees—positively impacted the lives of beneficiaries. This would get us nowhere and would be of great disservice to the years of strategizing and laboring carried out by passionate individuals who have dedicated their lives to this end. Rather, my aim is to focus on where Western development has fallen short in negotiating indigenous priorities, claims to sovereignty, and alternative development imaginaries, or conceptual framings of development and its practice. To be clear, these topics are tremendously complex and the conversation around them expansive, and I am but a humble participant.


In the spring of 2011, I interned with a small social and local development program within a chief supranational in Lebanon, a country that has been torn apart by years of war with Israel and waves of internal conflict. At the time, I was nearing the end of my graduate study in International Affairs, in which I had been exposed to various strands of development critique—Marxist, feminist, post-colonial—the gamut. In Beirut, however, I quickly found that this thinking was far from becoming institutionalized.


Within the first several weeks of my term, I became knowledgeable of the various types of projects carried out by the program. These included such things as constructing a marketplace in the city center to support commerce, recovering a dilapidated children’s soccer field for youth, digging an extensive water canal for improving sustainability, and installing updated technology in medical centers for health improvements. Projects were carried out by workers contracted by the organization who consulted with local leadership to establish the technical methods by which interventions were carried out.


As I neared the first month of my term, I discovered a precarious absence of any practice in monitoring the impact of projects. Although monitoring and evaluation was part of the program’s mandate and evaluation guides were nestled in their archives, nothing but a brief follow-up conversation after project completion informed efforts. This proved of consequence in a variety of situations. For example, when returning to a farm near Tripoli in which irrigation canals were dug some months prior, the beneficiary had informed us that the canals were poorly planned in relation to the types of fruit-bearing trees on his land and there was little, if any, discernible benefit. We found that the farmer was offered little say in how the canals were dug. Plans were drafted almost entirely by contractors who acted in concurrence with local leadership. This was not an isolated incident.


This raised in me a concern for how or whether results-based thinking figures into development practice and the degree to which beneficiaries are given the opportunity to participate, if at all. Together with a member of the portfolio presiding over the project, I began crafting a strategy for measuring the impact of development interventions, which would fold in beneficiary input into various levels of project procurement and implementation. It was my thinking that local beneficiaries would be most equipped to define the very terms by which these projects were considered impactful, particularly given the variability and complexity of our projects, and the diverse types of populations they served.


Participatory development has taken many shapes, and this was but one feeble attempt at it. Generally, participatory development aims to involve beneficiaries during various points of project conceptualization, implementation, and at times, measurement. This has been prompted by development legacies criticized for cookie cutter methodologies that have missed out on local priorities and needs, and indeed have extended the reach of the colonial project. Gradually, methods such as rapid and participatory survey tools were developed to solicit information from beneficiaries. Due to the level of debate around these and other participatory methods, I found myself knee deep in murky waters.


This project set in motion a series of discoveries that defined and redefined my reflection on how development can and should operate. As I became increasingly aware, results can mean very different things, depending on authority and circumstance. This was made clear when rummaging through evaluative methods used historically by the UNDP and the World Bank, where I noticed the ubiquity of economic measures (e.g., income per household and value added through agriculture), while other measurement paradigms (e.g., qualitative quality of life measures, estimations on charitable circulations of goods, indigenous exclusions, and percentage of gender minorities in low paying jobs) moved in and out of practice, depending on where discourse was at the time.


Throughout my time working on this evaluative project, the responses I received from the program were less than encouraging. In addition to a general malaise due to failing MDGs in Lebanon, I encountered a strong hesitancy to embrace a results-based participatory approach. Granted, there were legitimate doubts around monitoring and evaluation, as its usefulness is dependent on reflexivity and a feedback loop informing future models of intervention, as well as administrative practice guiding these corrections. Nonetheless, my objective was to provide results and include beneficiaries in their framing, regardless of the measurement methodology.


When presenting my findings, I received but one arresting response. Per its mandate, this particular supranational organization —I was reminded—is responsible only to national and local governments. I was told that local political officials were not necessarily interested in how or whether the beneficiaries' priorities were being met. It was suggested that local government officials cared only that the box was checked and that the community was aware that an intervention had been made on their behalf. I asked myself: Given the function of political authority in these situations, how and when is the pursuit for discernible impact present? How is this model to provide service in a country of such entrenched sectarianism? What does this mean for indigenous groups and other minorities? Certainly, I was not in the position to decide these things.


Many months later I remain fixed on how conceptualizations of development are deeply political projects, given shape by views on progress and modernity. Since the Enlightenment, the project of constructing modern society has generated archetypal understandings of what progress can mean, taking shape as modernization and economic development theories,each imbued with authoritative preferences based on race, class, gender, and privilege. Consequently, a hegemonic modernity has emerged that situates views on the individual and the community according to their perceived contributions to this narrow idea of progress, which privileges the economically vibrant, patriarchal, and responsibly consumptive.


There is no shortage of literature covering modernity and its discontents, so I will spare you any attempt at a summary. Though as it relates to development, views on modernity determine nearly every layer of its execution, from the position of the beneficiary all the way up to perceptions of support systems and the communities they benefit. As I will discuss in future blog posts, neoliberalism, the operative frame guiding our global economy and flows, has multiple impacts on development practice. Neoliberalism has come to mean many things, though my work examines how the emphasis on capital profit accumulation operates at the expense of other factors that together constitute a more complex picture of how the individual and/or community benefits. Perhaps more importantly, my question is also how local groups are actively resisting these neoliberal approaches when carrying out their own development practice.


In subsequent posts, I will cover these areas in greater depth. As I am not an authoritative voice nor do I believe there should be one when it comes to international development, conversation is most important. Please share your comments as this area has become increasingly complex and can be examined from very different vantage points. I look forward to our conversation.



Follow Brandon on Twitter @brandonmfischer



* Editor's note: Images are for illustrative purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the author's experiences. 



Lebanon, Development, Neoliberalism, United Nations, Rethinking International Development