Conflated meanings of ‘development’

Inspired by the book’s superb title and Chris Blattman’s post Books development economists and aid workers seldom read but should?, I’ve been reading The Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson.

I’m only part of the way through but I felt compelled to share this beautifully cogent explanation of how different meanings of ‘development’ can be conflated and exploited:

“In the first sense, one speaks of “development” as a progression toward a known end point, usually modern industrial capitalism… In the second sense, so much in vogue in the late 1970s, 
development” is taken to mean the improvement in quality of life or standard of living…” (p55)

“The implicit argument is of the sort known to logicians as a fallacy of equivocation, of the form: (1) all banks have money; (2) every river has two banks; therefore, (3) all rivers have money. This fallacy, of course, consists in changing the meaning of one of the terms of the syllogism in the middle of the implication. The “development” version goes as follows: (1) poor countries are (by definition) “less developed”; (2) less developed countries are (by another definition) those which have not yet been fully brought into the modern economy; therefore, (3) poor countries are those which have not yet been fully brought into the modern economy.”  (pp.55-56)

Problematising the term ‘development’ is hardly a new trend (The Anti-Politics Machine was first published in 1990), but this is probably as logically as I’ve seen it framed before. What are your favourite examples that capture the essence of the problem?

Ferguson, J. (1994). The anti-politics machine : “development,” depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.




NZ Election Aid and Development Summary

The NZ Council for International Development (CID) asked the parties contesting this year’s election five questions about “party policy on aid and development, and the individual party’s willingness to engage with the development sector.” The full questions and answers can be found here, but I thought I’d make a bite-sized summary that cuts to the chase.

I’ve only included the responses from parties that I think could be relevant in influencing the outcome of this election, and note that the Conservatives, Internet Party, and ACT did not respond to CID’s questions and are hence excluded from this post. I considered pulling answers from the websites of these parties but decided it would be better to be consistent and just stick to the CID answers.

I’m deliberately being pretty brutal in cutting through the rhetoric and these summaries are based purely on my interpretations of the answers posted by CID, not outside comments or past policy. I welcome your comments.

1. Commitment to 0.7% of GNI to ODA

National: No. Labour: Yes, no timetable. Greens: Yes, within four years. NZ FirstYes, wants timetable. Mana: Yes, wants timetable. Maori: No. United Future: Yes, by 2020.

2. What NZ should focus aid on

National: Economic development in the Pacific. Labour: Elimination of poverty and post-2015 goals. Greens: Climate, gender, economic and social rights. NZ First: Gender, climate and environment, health and reproductive rights. Mana: Child poverty, inequalities, climate. Maori: Whanau Ora, rights-based approach. United Future: Agriculture and education.

3. NZ’s involvement in post-2015 agenda process:

National: Advocating for goals important to NZ and Pacific: economic development, agriculture, oceans, energy. Labour: Thinks NZ should be more assertive and focus on non-violence, gender, health, education. Greens: Supports involvement of civil society and a consultative process for setting goals. NZ First: Supports advocating for above focuses and needs of the Pacific. Mana: Focus on the above areas and resourcing of NGOs and Tangata Whenua. Maori: Thinks goals should be for NZ too, we should practice before we preach. Key areas as above. United Future: Supports teaching countries how to build their own economy and not rely on aid.

4. Government relationships with NGOs:

National: Yes, particularly in disaster response. Labour: Wants greater consultation with NGOs, re-establish NGO-NZAID strategic partnership. Greens: Focus on supporting programmes consistent with above priorities.  NZ First: Strengthening NGOs and greater collaboration with them to get public support. Mana: Yes, with MFAT. Maori: Yes, separate from MFAT. United Future: Yes, with MFAT.

5. Cross-party approach to aid and development

National: Thinks this already happens, wants to continue. Labour: Supports connecting MPs from all parties to NZAID and enshrining aid targets in legislation. Greens: Supports this.  NZ First: Supports this, providing NZ’s interests are put first. Mana: Supports this. Maori: Supports this. United Future: Supports this, but thinks it’s unlikely.

That’s my run through. Also check out Tear Fund‘s helpful infographics.





Impact Sourcing (what I was doing in Zambia)

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to explain what I was doing in Zambia – both while I was there and since I’ve been back in NZ. Unfortunately, “working for an impact sourcing company” just doesn’t have the same intuitive ring to it as “working at a school/hospital/orphanage/wildlife sanctuary”.

“Impact Sourcing is the socially responsible arm of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and Information Technology Outsourcing industry. Impact sourcing intentionally employs people who have limited opportunity for sustainable employment—often in low-income areas.” (Rockefeller Foundation)

For anyone who doesn’t immediately recognise the ‘outsourcing’ industry, yes, it’s basically businesses lowering their costs by sending work to other parts of the world where you can pay people lower wages than at home. Cue images of sweatshops and incomprehensible call centre operators.

Impact sourcing, however, is none of these. While it operates on the same basic premise, it has an explicit social mission of providing valuable employment and skills to those at the bottom of the global economic pyramid. As the definition above mentions, impact sourcing largely involves BPO and ITO work such as data entry, web research, transcription, and customer support.

It’s a rapidly growing industry, too. The mammoth BPO and ITO industry is expected to be valued at $574 billion in 2015; impact sourcing is projected to have an almost 30 percent CAGR and account for 11% of this market, up from 4% in 2010 (Rockefeller Foundation). Like regular outsourcing, it remains most concentrated in south/south-east Asia, but is also rapidly growing in sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya in particular).

There are a number of different models amongst the Impact Sourcing Service Providers (ISSPs): industry pioneer DDD combines employment with tertiary education, Samasource is non-profit and has a focus on women, and Cloud Factory uses its unique technology to break tasks down into tiny micro tasks. I worked for Impact Enterprises, a new entrant to the industry that focuses on partnering with startups.

After having mainly worked with non-profits over the last few years it was refreshing to work with a company that was turning a profit. I have, however, always been torn in my views about social enterprise: can it truly deliver social goods on a grand scale or is it just a capitalist wolf in sheep’s clothing?

While I still haven’t fully made up my mind, I’m pretty positive on the potential of impact sourcing. ISSPs aren’t just highlighting a nice spin-off benefit of their work while pursuing a profiteering, damaging, business-as-usual. They may epitomise aspects of the neoliberal economic project, but ISSPs don’t directly damage our environment and could employ thousands upon thousands of un- and under-employed in the global South while helping them develop 21st century skill-sets.

The lack of valuable employment, particularly for youth, women and minorities (all of whom are also increasingly educated), is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges facing developing economies. ISSPs can help address this through targeted hiring of the most disadvantaged (DDD in particular). While most clients are currently northern companies, there is also huge potential for South-South impact sourcing, particularly with regards to the digitisation of government records in Africa.

However, despite these positives, a question mark will always remain regarding their clients and the role they plan in an unjust international economy. While one hopes they would try to live up to their branding as ‘social enterprises’ when choosing their business partners, it cannot be taken for granted.

There’s a growing body of literature out there on impact sourcing, but key starting points are Impact Hub  (a network for ISSPs and businesses interested in impact sourcing) and Rockefeller Foundation’s “Digital Jobs Africa” initiative (see the links to the reports by Accenture and Avasant).

Internal review and training session at Impact Enterprises.

Internal review and training session at Impact Enterprises, Chipata, Zambia, 2014.

The anti-climatic Zambia post

Before leaving for Zambia I was super excited for all the amazing blog posts I would be inspired to write while I was working there. Now having been back in New Zealand for over a week, with no blog posts written, one might expect an enthralling, tell-all essay to cover what was been an incredible trip. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

All I can muster is a series of bullet-pointed thoughts that were at the forefront of my mind during different parts of my trip:

  • Poor people aren’t all lazy, but neither are they all hard workers. I met some both the laziest people I’ve ever seen and the hardest working people I’ve ever seen while in Zambia – they were all ‘poor’ and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future, almost entirely because of the environment they lived in.
  • It’s so easy to take for granted the computer literacy we have developed from growing up with them all our lives. Even if ambitious attempts to bring digital tech to the hundreds of millions of world’s poor succeed, the lack of intuitive computer (not cell phone) skills amongst most of the developing world’s youth means the benefits flowing from rapidly advancing computer technology will continue to be source of global inequality for at least another generation.
  • There are a myriad different kinds of poverty. The needs of and challenges facing people living on <US$1.25 vary wildly from doing so in a rural village, to those in a minor city, and to those in a large city. I think most anti-poverty campaigns could do a better job of appreciating this.
  • Land cruisers may have become a lightning rod for criticism of large, out-of-touch development NGOs, but after seeing the quality of roads in parts of Zambia (despite massive and ongoing road building efforts) and the difficulty of access to many communities where NGOs work, it’s clear they’d often be (at times literally) wallowing in the mud without them.
  • Perspective is a tricky issue, and it’s difficult to be able to properly and simultaneously grasp the big and small picture. I met a lot of people (including myself at times) who would use global or national statistics to paint pictures of unrealistic optimism, and a lot of people who would despairingly just throw their hands in the air at the seemingly stagnant and hopeless situation in their locale.

Hopefully I’ll be able to draw more on my time in Zambia in the future, but this is it for now. I also hope that getting this post on the board gives me some momentum to write more regularly.