Development Aid 2.0

Development projects seem to have become more important, and are treated better and with more consideration, thought and effort, than people. This frustrates me. Pankaj Mishra refers to the “elaborate illusion of progress, maintained by a thousand ‘aid’ programs.” This saddens me.

However, Obama’s recent re-commitment to the MDGsNatios’ recent paper on the counter-bureaucracy and development, and recent debates on relief and crowdsourcing all highlight that many people inside and outside the foreign aid sector are actively searching for alternatives to “business as usual.” This excites me.

In working with large corporate aid agencies over the years, I continually experienced the limitations of large-scale, donor-controlled, project-based funding, recognizing the profound need for community-driven development initiatives that were genuinely responsive to local needs. I’ve also had the unique privilege to experience the impact and potential of alternative mechanisms that directly support community leaders and that, for me, highlight the way forward for our sector.

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been keeping a running list to help me contrast what I consider to be “old school development” and the long overdue emergence of new perspectives and approaches that will move us towards what is actually a very old idea, i.e. we as international do-gooders should empower people to create the changes that they determine will improve their well-being.

I’m sharing this very personal list of raw ideas here in order to inspire and enliven your own hearts and minds. It doesn’t presume to identify concrete recommendations for donors, agencies, or aid workers, but I hope that it helps contribute to a new framework upon which these next steps can be built.

Please note that my experience leading to this list is based in development programming and so I do not suppose that this list is wholly applicable to programming in disaster relief or conflict situations, though I think it could still be useful. I also recognize that this list could be written off as what one blogger terms, “pretentious, more-ethical-than-thou, jargon-laden, pontifical snobbery.” (Love the turn of phrase here.) I accept that my characterization of “old school development” is based on its most negative aspects and does not highlight what is currently working within the system. Rather, my intention with the list is to demonstrate contrast in order to help create a new orientation. I also know that some its aspects below are also an important part of the reality of development work.

I also fully recognize that it is easy to criticize, but much, much harder to identify and outline the options.

But let’s try. Here’s my start. (If reading this on my home page, please click here to view the full table.) What do you have to add?

And as the title to my blog already suggests…

To bring about this version of Development Aid 2.0 will not be easy. We will have to be corrective, restorative, and imaginative, with imperative and profound effect. And although I said I wasn’t ready to share any concrete recommendations, I’m going to throw out a few I’ve been thinking about, for fear that I don’t appear too “anthropological” in my call for Development Aid 2.0.

A couple of Development 2.0 recommendations… Just to get it flowing…

1)   Peace Corps volunteers (and comparable programs in other countries) must include modules about community organizing and organizational development in their training and orientations. Rather than having volunteers develop “their” projects in “their” village, mandate that they seek out existing community initiatives and discover how they can offer support to them. This is vital given the large percentage of aid workers that start their careers through this type of volunteer programs. Let’s ground the next generation of aid workers in what community ownership really means.

2)   Organizations and/or programs devote a certain percentage of their budget to administering small “responsive” grantmaking mechanisms. This would not be tied to any specific sectoral activities, e.g. health or agriculture, but would rather be a pot of money to address priorities identified by community leaders. Though now largely discontinued, the former large aid agency I used to work for had this as a part of each of its country programs. Grants were US$500 or less, had an open application process, needed two positive independent references, and required only one-page proposals and reports.) Many colleagues talk about these small bits of money as some of the most memorable, impactful and fun(!) projects they ever supported.

What would be your recommendations? Again, please share your insights and ideas and let’s keep the dialogue flowing!


Note: Please check out a couple of publications that have been inspiring me to write this post, also containing important insights for Development 2.0.

Community Development Resource Association. (2007). Dreaming reality: The future in retrospect. Cape Town: CDRA.

Hawken. P. (2007). Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York: Viking Press.


  1. I find your table incredibly useful. I’m not sure though that its a matter of one replacing the other. Rather, I see the two paradigms you list as both being of use, and of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each. Large bureaucracies can be frustrating and wrong-headed, but they can also accomplish things that local communities can’t. Local communities can also be regressive and unfair: thing of those towns in the American South that were the targets of the Civil Rights Movement.

    I think of my own situation in my own home community. I have innoculations, AND I have bandaids in the kitchen drawer. I have some thing on my agenda that are long-term and self-directed (like a long-term commitment to writing) AND I have some short-term quick inputs like a short course on blogging.

    I believe that 99.99% of all “development” is done by people themselves. That’s just a fact. All “development” activities are partnerships (well conceived or ill conceived) between communities and external agencies. Prior to negotiation and dialogue with a particular group of communities, about a particular issue, one can’t pre-determine what kind of partnership is appropriate. In one case, communities may feel they benefit between the short, sharp, directed inputs provided by “old school”, and then want you to get the hell out of their lives; in others, they may want long-term gradualist, low-key relationship.

    All I see us doing is gradually expanding the development toolbox. But even the oldest school of development (say, financing the construction of a better road) may still be an appropriate tool, for certain people in a certain place and time.

    Thanks for the great blog.

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  3. J.

    I more or less agree with David, above.

    I think that in a number of places you’re inapproriately articulating as “either/or” things that should be “both/and.” A few that bother me particularly:

    – I flat disagree with “I ‘show up’ and my presence helps let potential out.” Seeing my primary contribution as simply showing up, seems about the worst example of the “Savior Complex” possible. We had better have specific contributions to make or stay out of the field.

    – Sorry, you can monitor through dialogue AND data. But if you only monitor through dialogue and NOT data, you’re missing crucial parts of the picture.

    – “What” matters a whole hell of a lot. You can follow the best process in the world, but if you’re muddled on the “what”, the “how” is a waste of poor people’s time.

  4. Thanks for the comments. My background is in monitoring & evaluation, so I’m a great fan of ‘what’ and data. Indeed and agreed, not either/or but god knows we’re not yet at both/and in the development sector. As a comment also rightly said on my facebook account, “I guess things are the way they are because aid IS business with many vested interests (including legitimate interests of having a job, earning a living and organisational survival). What is important that all stakeholders have a chance to engage in a negotiation process, particularly the citizens in Southern and Northern countries.” For me, it’s the negotiation and dialogue skills embodied in the characterization of Development 2.0 that need more attention in our profession.

  5. Hey Jennifer,

    The ‘Staying for Tea’ Blog referred me to you and I’m amazed by this effort of yours. How can I help? I’m a microfinance blogger, and would be interested in writing a guest post for you. Do you have a topic in mind, or should I suggest some?


  6. I really appreciate the ideas under Development Aid 2.0which are very correct at the ground level.I discard the Top Bottom Approach. You must put the people at the core of the development agenda.People knows what they want, what is suitable for them, No point of having many donor funded projects which run according to their tune, unless reeving people are happy

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