Ten reasons to reform international development


Moses Isooba


1. Like tourism, International Development is heavily Eurocentric. It started off on the wrong note – advancing white supremacy, white saviourism, racism and domination over the global south. Today there are multiple unresolved and ongoing injustices which maintain and entrench unequal power relations. This so-called ‘rules-based system’ has undermined people’s agency and initiative. In Africa, we are still fighting this legacy through things like localisation, as international development continues to be stuck in the negative habits of the past.

2. From the perspective of Africa, international development has often undermined some of the most critical things people need to sustain better lives. Until the late 1990s/early 2000s, many interventions facilitated, and therefore encouraged, the absence of a state’s responsibility, with ‘development’ delivering services which the state should have delivered. In many African countries this has undermined the state-citizen relationship.

3. Those who fund International Development are too powerful and this power is largely unchecked. These funders are the ones who decide the priorities that receive their funding. Often, they fund things that are not a major priority in the developing world. The biggest tragedy is that they have not permitted the opening up of a conversation on the power they wield. It is a closed debate, and this continually undermines the impartiality and effectiveness of International Development.

It is imperative that INGOs and donors are people focused and remain truly wedded to the subsidiarity principle, acknowledging that the one closest to the problem usually has the solution. This way, INGOs and donors would be making an effort to hold themselves accountable to the communities. INGOs and donors can also endeavour to work more closely with the national organisations who oftentimes are the “connectors” to the people. It is also important that INGOs and donors appreciate the communities as co-investors and not beneficiaries. While INGOs and donors bring money, the communities too have community assets which they bring to the development ecosystem. These include money, skills, knowledge, relationships and networks.

4. International Development is an out-of-date architecture largely unreformed since Bretton Woods 1944 and President Harry Truman’s speech in 1949 that invented the term ‘development’. This time is another century, and we need evolved and reformed approaches and tools to meet today’s shared challenges.

5. INGOs are closest to the big pots of funding but rarely closest to community needs and contexts. This means they often get in the way when crises occur. Ukraine is one stark example among many. 

6. International Development is stuck on emphasizing poor people’s fragility and helplessness. This compounds a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, discouraging international solidarity in the face of a global omnicrisis.

7. International Development does not centre dignity. It is therefore incapable of nurturing people power so work is siloed and unsustainable.

8. Linked to the above point, international development is rooted in racism, colonialism, and arrogance. It seeks to ‘do development’ believing it knows best. It fails to root in equity, justice, and power.

9. International Development places a higher premium on the ivory tower knowledge while discounting the ebony tower knowledge. The lack of appreciation of local knowledge and expertise means that international development does not have a contextual flavour and often tries to force square pegs into round holes. This means it often simply doesn’t ‘work’.

10. Finally, International Development has too many gatekeepers with vested interests. So they tweak to maintain status quo and are conditioned to define success in $€£ growth. This understanding of success will always demand ‘increased market share’ and control of resources and assets away from communities who know best.

Dr Moses Isooba is Executive Director of Uganda National NGO Forum.

Tagged in: reforming international development

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