Game on: It’s time to stop looking at development issues as a matter of emergency

A guest post by Clement N. Dlamini

The short game: HIV and food security

Community development in Sub-Sahara Africa has been clouded by the emergency response mentality, which was exhibited in the knee jerk reaction of many countries in the initial response to the HIV pandemic. This has resulted in governments and community leaders concentrating all their efforts on combating the disease’s impact rather than designing strategic interventions that will close the tap of new infections.

Efforts to combat the spread of HIV have proved very difficult because of this ‘emergency response’ mentality. Behavior change interventions, such as the reduction of multiple concurrent sexual partners, zero grazing, and safe sex practices, have failed because they were not informed by the recipients; instead the service providers used the top-down approach to dealing with individuals, communities and organizations. The common practice is that these interventions are designed for communities and communities end up just being consumers. Yet we all know that if communities don’t participate in the creating change, then we might as well forget about changing their behavior.

Swazi-boys-playing--footballHIV programming is just once example, but we have seen this type of response also evident in our development agenda, where donors and governments have a tendency of responding to development issues as a matter of emergency. I am not against emergency response because during disasters, emergency response can save a lot of lives that would otherwise be lost if there would not be any type of assistance in place. In Swaziland, for example, we suffered drought in the nineties, in 2001, and in 2005.  Yet through research I’ve found that there are still some pockets of the country that continue to receive food aid in 2012. Our response to food security is still an emergency response, in spite of the number of times the country has gone around the same mountain. The question I ask myself is what would happen if we could invest in disaster preparedness, which will require governments to leverage development partners’ technical support to develop strategies that will prepare communities and countries to be ready?

A good example would be the case of cereal yields in Sub-Sahara Africa that have stagnated for almost five decades between the period of 1961 to 2010.[1] During this same time, Asia and South America have experienced an increase. This doesn’t correspond to the poverty levels in this region and the food aid we are receiving from development partners. This is where the question arises—if we have had continued high levels of poverty, unemployment, HIV prevalence rates, why do we continue to treat these issues as emergency response issues?

From where I stand, I believe Sub-Sahara Africa needs a strategic response to development. I have heard some of my colleagues argue that Africa doesn’t have the same technical skills as compared to the other continents. But five decades is too long for Africa to still be struggling with such, considering the amounts invested in education. Why haven’t we learned from these calamitous experiences?

The long game: People-driven development

One reason may be that a people-driven strategic response to development remains a low priority among governments and donors. While communities may not have the technical expertise in economic development, they make it up in social capital. This is the extent to which members of a community can work together effectively to develop and sustain strong relationships; solve problems; make group decisions; and collaborate effectively to plan, set goals and get things done. Unlike other forms of community capital, social capital does not get used up, and in fact, the more it is used, the more of it is generated. That is the reason communities—whether dealing with HIV, poverty, unemployment or marginalization—have the power to become what they have always dreamed.

A people-driven approach that leverages social capital, however, requires “meaningful” participation. Developing a project in my office and then sending it down to the community for endorsement and approval doesn’t qualify. What we continue to see is a form of tokenism and or manipulation, where community consultation is disguised in two forms. The first is through a community elected “representative” who holds no real power and has no input except being present. The second is where incentives are given as a means to foster “participation,” usually involving tasks being assigned and outsiders have the power of decision and direction of processes. In both cases, there is no devolution of power, nor transparency and clarity of processes for the people. In these cases, it’s not development, nor is it people-driven.

In my years as a development practitioner I have seen that a participatory rural approach has a higher likelihood of sustainability than any top-down driven initiative. Once development becomes an imported concept that is externally driven, then it will never be sustainable since it will not be owned by the people.

Less game, more teamwork

Without sounding ungrateful, one wonders if aid agencies or donors can be effective in Sub-Saharan Africa’s course towards sustainable development. Some international NGOs have initiated water projects, cooperative schemes, and other forms of income generating activities responding to community needs as they perceive them, and have not made their lives better off. How does this occur?

What started in Swaziland as emergency relief food aid has become an annual event. Communities, even if they have received good rains and farm inputs, etc., still will not plough their fields nor even make an attempt to food production. The aid has created such a dependency syndrome that Swaziland will be left to address, not the donors when they inevitably leave.

One doesn’t want to believe the “myth” that donor agencies have another agenda besides helping those who are poor and living in the margins of society. But I can understand how people wonder if the aid we see is not pegged to vested interests. Any aid approach that doesn’t integrate the voices of those who are beneficiaries of the aid is suspect because from where I sit, it is unsustainable and keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty.

There are better approaches that can be employed to make sure that our development approach is participatory and strategic. But if we continue to force on communities ideologies born out of top-down approaches, we are not going to see the impact and change we desire. There is need for donors to work together with government, NGOs, and communities to forge a cohesive development strategy, so we can see where aid will be most effective and useful.

Does people-driven development require long-term, more complex, more costly investments? Maybe.

Is it worth it? Definitely.

[1] UNDP. (2011). Africa Human Development Report. New York.

Clement N Dlamini***

Clement N. Dlamini, from the Kingdom of Swaziland, is an International Development Practitioner who is a Social Worker by training and at heart. Clement has 12 years experience working in development with local and international civil society organizations, the U.N., and government and has a Masters in Social Work from the Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. He is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Development Management based in Matsapha, Swaziland.



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  1. Gugulethu Dlamini

    Unfortunately the development agenda is crafted not in the development countries themselves but in the developed countries. for as long as they are under pressure to spend resources, then effective participation will always be ellusive and remain an emrgency response.
    The other aspect is that donors respond to country strategies and national development plans, if these too are not crafted from a participatory platform, then you cant expect a proper response from the donors. I think we also have to look inwardly and try to address the problem from within. How can governmnet programmes be more participatory? what drives our own development policies?

  2. Great post! Same issues, still unresolved. Genuine participation is essential for home-grown change. Yes to longer-term interventions, that address complexity and invest more for real participation and real development!

  3. Falethu Sukati

    Many have said that we now live in a microwave generation. It is no wonder then that governments and donors make up a recipe for community development, pop it out there and expect quick results. One can understand their predicament, after all it is usually four to five years before the next election of contract renewal.

    The kind of development sought here requires visionary leaders. People more concerned with the desired result that their own name or pay cheque. Such people know that perseverance on the right path will yield the best result. It is an arrogant superiority complex that assumes such leaders do not exist in the communites needing development. They may only be harder to find.

    Such leaders can act as the portal through which communities not only identify with but also develop a sense of ownership of the said initiative. Their participation from an early stage ensures their input which can fine tune the intervention to fit the community. It also provides an opportunity to enhance their leadership skills. This cannot only go a long way in eliminating the rejection that is associated with top down approach but also ensures longevity after the bureaucrats and donors are gone.

  4. Clement N Dlamini

    Thank you for your comments. One wonders really how we can educate our governments and development partners on strategic development approaches, because for me, the resources we spend on top down emergency approaches can be reduced if we focused on maximum preparedness approaches. I believe it costs far less to be safe than sorry. I recently had a discussion with a friend who works for a donor agency, and he told me that for them it is more mileage when they respond to emergency as the immediate returns to investment that waiting for program to close, conduct an evaluation before they can know the impact. Which is why for such a long time there has been a focus on outputs i.e. number children benefiting from a school feeding project. And our governments have also been found wanting in their celebrating outputs i.e. number of OVCs enrolled into primary school, where this is sustainable is another story.

    We appreciate that now some donors are pushing for a results based management that goes beyond celebrating outputs but answers the “so what” question where interventions are concerned. I just hope we will speedily change our approaches and adopt a results based thinking even in programming so as to avoid these hit and run methodologies.

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