From flooding the African market with unnecessary freebies which undermine local sellers to providing phones and computers to Indians without electricity, well-intentioned development initiatives often go wrong.
In Afghanistan, billions were spent to strengthen the ability of local governments to speak to constituents based on the false assumption that technical skills were the missing link. Western governments failed to note that state and non-state actors had been dialoguing for ages. The problem was not poor communication skills but an acute lack of trust in local government’s will and ability to back locals on the issues they cared about.
When development failures surface, experts are quick to point out the most common missing ingredients: lack of engagement of local people in finding solutions and limited consideration of the historical and cultural context.
So why do we repeatedly see little heed paid to past failures?
- Taking the time to understand local needs is well…time-consuming! Donors, governments, and NGOs are under pressure to act fast.
- Spending time on the ground to better comprehend locals’ issues is often not possible, especially in conflict situations.
- Does asking people what they need raise expectations? It may, but there are robust techniques for doing this well.
- It’s seen as expensive in the short term (even if botched aid is much more costly in the longer term).
All said and done, charity and aid without understanding is a lame excuse in a hyper connected world where some forethought and outreach can go a long way toward increasing the impact of development aid.