3 Common Development Mistakes

Sphere ( http://www.sphereproject.org/ ) is a set of minimal standards for humanitarian responses.  Sphere points out (among other things) that many attempts at assistance run into unintended consequences.  The following are three common mistakes to avoid when helping Friends.

Doing What They Can Do Themselves

One of the most common mistakes made by short-term visitors is to do something or provide something that your Friends can do for themselves.  The classic example is when westerners come and build a school, church, or other building.  A local community may need funds for land, bricks, paint, or other materials, but they rarely actually need someone else to do manual labor.  That is one thing that they have in abundance.

When we build things for our Friends, they do not take ownership of it.  It is the westerners’ building.  They receive the cultural message that westerners built it, so westerners should be in the key decision-making role regarding usage of the building; this is a neocolonial attitude which doesn’t allow them to develop with dignity.  They also ignore painting or maintenance because there is an (entirely reasonable!) expectation that “next year the westerners will come and do that for free”.

Providing expertise which they do not have locally is a real blessing, though.  If we have skills that they cannot provide locally, in IT, healthcare, accounting, or some other complex field, then that is a great gift to our Friends.  An even better gift is to help them develop the capacity for these things locally; this is often a long-term endeavor, but it will pay huge dividends.

Parachute Technology

“Parachute technology” is common in international assistance.  A magical piece of high-tech equipment is deployed in a context where the infrastructure doesn’t support it and there are no trained personnel with the technical skills to maintain it.  This is widely recognized as a Bad Practice, and yet it is also widely done.

An international NGO provided a NAS (Network Attached Storage; a special hard drive available to all computers on the local network) to a local partner organization for use backing up their computers.  They provided brief (< 1 day) training to the local desktop support person.  They were dismayed a year later to discover the NAS sitting in a back room unplugged and unused.

  • The NAS required a functioning network with DHCP, gateway to the Internet, etc.
  • Its “cloud” backup capability swamped the limited Internet bandwidth available.
  • The NAS required typical power (110/220V).  Electrical current at the location frequently exceeded 300V.  While they had provided a power conditioner for the NAS, the electrical wiring in its room had burst into flames during a surge, and melted the network wiring running alongside.  (This was not an unusual problem on the compound.)
  • Lastly, the entire concept of NAS as a backup medium was only somewhat understood by the users.

The international NGO never investigated to determine why the NAS wasn’t used, simply writing it off to indifference and incompetence of the locals.  This incident soured relations between the organizations and especially with the local technical support person for years afterward.

This parachuting of technology has boundless examples.  Some are spun as successes, but dig deeper and they look a lot less helpful to our Friends.  An international NGO team deployed “project-offices-in-a-box” to a number of remote sites.  These systems contained everything necessary for self-contained operation, including solar panels, batteries, electrical equipment, and satellite Internet terminals.

During the next round of civil conflict, one of the sites found itself inside rebel-controlled territory.  The national employees took everything apart and buried the solar panels and other equipment to prevent looting.  They put all of their work on one laptop and sent a runner out through the combat lines with it, to ensure their work was not lost.  After a harrowing night trip in a canoe drifting downstream past the fighting, he finally reached nominal safety in the capital city.

This is an epic story, showing the level of commitment of our national Friends.  It made for great fund-raising.  However this sacrifice and risk was complete unnecessary.  The office-in-a-box included satellite Internet equipment and their primary software has a well-integrated Mercurial-based send/receive backup capability.

The NGO personnel deploying the systems had been on a tight schedule and none of the national workers had been around.  They spent an hour explaining the new equipment to some random elderly nationals and then headed down the trail to the next village.  The project workers were unaware of this and had never turned the Internet hardware on.

This doesn’t mean that we should never assist our Friends with technology.  It does mean we shouldn’t bring our Friends technology that isn’t locally available.  The exact model doesn’t have to be available, but the same general type of technology should be available in the marketplace.  And ensure that resources (money) is available for local support.  This brings us to our next mistake…

Breaking Rice Bowls

To “break someone’s rice bowl” is to destroy their ability to earn a living.  The point of most economic development projects is economic development.  Yet it is surprising how often the law of unintended consequences causes well-meaning but not fully thought out projects to destroy the livelihoods of the fortunate people in an area that may have productive and constructive work.

At one point, Africa had a thriving clothing industry, tailors sewing clothes for local use.  While the skill to enter the industry was not inconsequential, it could be learned with common vocational training.  The capital requirements were modest: a foot-pumped sewing machine.  So hand-sown clothes were common.  Today, in many parts of Africa, large-scale sewing is dead.  It is a popular vocation for widows, often for the tourist market, but most men and some women wear western mass-produced clothing.  What happened?

In America, some NGOs have large ministries collecting used clothing.  The best of the clothing is sold in local thrift shops.  Everything else is baled up and sent in bulk shipping containers to the developing world, where it is bought by the pound by brokers, sorted through, cleaned, and minor repairs are done.  Then it is sold, still for less money than local seamstresses would have to charge.  Some clothing sold in Africa still has American charities’ tags on them.  Today, sewing as an industry allowing many people to earn a living is in decline in Africa.

Consider the economic consequences of anything large-scale that you are doing.  To the maximum extent possible, acquire resources locally.  Where practical, work with local businesses to import appropriate technology.  As a simple example, rather than simply dropping a large quantity of phones, tablets, or laptops out of the blue into a community, instead ask a local mobile phone dealer to stock a specific type of tablet appropriate for school children, with a guaranteed sales quantity.