Online Conference – Decolonising development: Whose Voice, Whose Agenda?

On May 22 – 24 2017 Leeds University Centre for Global Development (CGD) and INTRAC ( held a global online conference which brought together over 200 participants to discuss and engage critically a number of important questions for the development community:

Why we ‘do’ development; who decides what development is; what types of development we are arguably feeling forced into promoting; and what type of development we want to see?

With the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the list of urgent, interdependent and seemingly intractable global challenges seems only to grow. Addressing issues such as climate change, poverty, gender inequality or prolonged conflict is believed increasingly to depend on the capacity of stakeholders to form inter-organisational and interdisciplinary partnerships across academic researchers, donors, private sector, government and civil society practitioners.  Multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaborative processes – underpinned by knowledge sharing, pooled resources and expertise – are being promoted as essential modalities for achieving the SDGs in efficient, effective ways. Greater participation of, ownership by, and devolution to, Southern-based partners to set agendas, build local capacity and identify solutions is being lauded as the way forward to address the growing chorus of concern around how to ‘do development differently’.

Yet to what extent are the assumed democratic, creative principles of partnerships borne out in practice and whose values, knowledge and evidence count in decision-making and evaluation processes?  Research undertaken amongst Leeds CGD members and INTRAC and the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment in diverse development contexts exposes the complex power dynamics and contradictions often inherent in multi-stakeholder initiatives. The research demonstrates that donor funding environments and imperatives, and different priorities and approaches to development, affect how ‘impact’ is conceptualised and measured, how results are interpreted, how change pathways are established, and whose ideas and voices are included or excluded. Recent working papers, seminar series, edited collections and books (produced largely by Northern institutions) contribute to this debate.

The conference was organised around three interrelated themes:

Power, voice and inclusion

  • Whose voices really count within multi-stakeholder processes and to what extent are certain actors brought in to legitimise approaches and projects without being really heard?
  • Who gets to set priorities for research and in whose name/for whose benefit are multi-stakeholder partnerships being promoted? With what short- or long-term purpose?
  • To what extent are more progressive concepts like ‘voice’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘downward accountability’ and ‘agency’ being appropriated and even co-opted by donors and other powerful policy actors and stripped of their political intent in the process?
  • How is the dominance of the English language in global development practice skewing our understanding of specific experiences of poverty in different contexts, and marginalising non-English speakers?

Accountability, evidence and ‘impact’

  • Who decides on what counts as quality and rigour in research? Is ‘academic’ evidence the most rigorous? And how is the relative value of ‘evidence’ framed in relation to ‘on the ground’ experience in multi-level decision-making processes?
  • What counts as ‘impact’ from research partnerships that stretch across different disciplines, development issues and cultural contexts? Is it the same for all partners? Does impact have to be ‘measurable’?
  • How can anyone decide on what constitutes ‘best practice’? Is it even possible to identify interventions that provide the most benefit? How might we do this given the complexity of people’s lived experiences?
  • How can we ensure that research evidence is considered as part of decision-making processes and outcomes in the ‘post-truth’ or ‘fake news’ era?

Partnership and capacity building

  • How can diverse development stakeholders work better together given the different institutional contexts in which they exist? How do we encourage longer-term engagement and collaboration? What are the potential drivers of such a process and what support needs to be in place to facilitate ‘better’ partnership?
  • What would a funding model/system look like that created space for dialogue and support for capacity-building amongst a greater diversity of voices in sustainable ways, and how can space for mutual learning be created?
  • How are people already working more creatively within the current frameworks and with donors? To what extent is passive or active subversion or even outright challenge possible? To what extent is change possible? What type of change might that be?

Below are summaries of three days of conference discussions:

Day one 22 May 2017

Session 1: Who Holds the Power?

Session 2: From Response to Change

Our first day has been overwhelming in a very positive way, and judging by the liveliness of the discussion boards even as I write this, we look forward to reflecting on what colleagues from other time zones think of the discussions so far and to learn from their insights and experiences when we wake up in GMT+1 tomorrow morning!

We have held two half-day sessions on separate but inter-related themes. In the morning we considered ‘Who holds the power?’ and in the afternoon we wanted to galvanise our shared thinking in order to consider ‘From response to change’, reflecting on how we might think about power and change differently.

It is also worth emphasizing that all the threads from today will continue to be open for the three days so if you have registered for the conference but have not yet had a chance to contribute please do read through all of the contributions and let us know your thoughts on the discussion so far.

How do you synthesise all the voices of this one-day (out of three) in a way that is not reductive and doesn’t miss all the nuances? It has been a rich discussion so far, but as promised, we will try to do justice to some of the key themes emerging out of today’s conference proceedings and share some thoughtful quotes from participants over the day.

‘Development’ is a very powerful idea: whose knowledge counts?

The power of a certain idea of ‘development’ itself and the hierarchies that operate at all levels in both North and South seemed even to transcend the stakeholders that occupy the so-called development ‘space’. As on partcipant suggested:

The fact is that the way we understand and practice development, majority of us endorse fundamental underpinnings of one model of economy.

With others sharing concerns about how development is done, concuring with another post about the ‘structural’ concerns raised in development practice:

[I] would like to add that much of the development interventions are too ‘cosmetic’ and short-lived and to a large extent divorced from lived- realities on the ground. It is very disturbing that some donor communities would rather provide partial funding for instance; are quick to commission studies with no meaningful outcomes for affected communities.

Some of you suggested that you ‘struggle’ with the idea of sustainability, which seemed in many instances more about building capacity for an individual or organisation to be financially independent rather than any serious consideration of what this term means or why it might be important for people and planet.

There was also agreement that this notion of ‘development’ is then produced, proliferated, then reproduced, re-interpreted, circulating from the local to the global and back again through a narrow range of ‘acceptable’ mechanisms, ‘frozen’ and ‘decontexutalised’ as one participant suggested, in textbooks used in formal education, written up and then launched in academic reports and books as ‘expertise’ or applied as part of funding cycles, programmes and projects and policies.

And what about people’s existing knowledge? The shared emphasis on longer-term goals of social justice, voice and inclusion captured by elements of the SDG agenda, for instance, are not just contradicted but actively undermined by short-term funding and project cycles, as another participant highlighted. And all the stakeholders are caught in the middle between their own longer-term goals and their own survival that responds to the (sometime perverse) incentives in the system, as one contributor noted. For some of you it was very clear whose knowledge did(n’t) count:

But who takes small farmers, peasants and their economies seriously. They are considered vestigial and policies around them facilitate their disappearance to be superseded by industrial agriculture all over the world. And their values, ethos and practices are considered retrograde.

Is the idea of development really fixed? As yet another participant suggested, perhaps there is a danger of essentialising those people at the margins as if they are also part of fixed-space cultural constructs or that capitalism/development has nothing to do with them – can we have a development that takes account of culture, any so-called local knowledge, that does not either essentialise what ‘local culture’ means or indeed what ‘development’ might mean? As the discussion evolved over the morning, it became clear that there were shared concerns around narrowing how we talk about development that has material consequences, and so this discussion around what we mean about, for example, ‘gender equality’ or what role this has in development needs to be examined carefully.

Another important theme was how then do we ‘do’ development? A number of issues were raised here, including around existing feedback and accontability:

Unfortunately in my experience, the very definition of (the industry of) “development” is a series of disconnected “projects” that don’t even refer to one another, much less build on them. For this reason, any “feedback” is filed with the project evaluation, and there’s no incentive to make changes nor to value feedback. But I think the problem is far deeper than that. The intense rejection of feedback that I’ve experienced (over and over again) comes from INGOs, donors and the United Nations being unwilling to consider alternative views and especially not criticism! Many people feel that their “doing a good deed” should exempt them from accountability and even from scrutiny. The power dynamics of exclusion work at all levels.

Raising questions around the role of NGOs and aid systems:

The aid system is riddled with incentives that prevent well-meaning individuals from practising what they preach; just as the academic system is riddled with obstacles for researchers to shift the power dynamics in research. In all my dealings with practitioners from all over the world in huge institutions and tiny voluntary groups, I don’t find anyone who would disagree with much of what is being said here. But changing many of the embedded practices of the system is a much harder task. For every good pilot initiative or research project there are many, many more examples of poor practice.

And states:

My deep belief – and I know that I am not enough imaginative – is that ultimately states have to be accountable towards their citizens but especially in the so called failed states, where there is a generic lack of accountability, virtually no one is accountable towards the citizen and those working on development have the moral obligation to build such a culture – at least those who still really care about the people we are supposed to serve.

Taken together, it set a firm basis to continue into the questions of how we respond to these challenges and promote change that were then considered in the afternoon.

Moving forward?

In the second session we went beyond just the North-South, East-West discussion and into the power and knowledge hierarchies that exist within communities, between genders, between citizen and state, and between the private and public sectors. Perhaps, it was mooted, IT investments offer one possible approach:

I wish to suggest that innovative methods of communicating with poor communities should be found. The developments in IT enable communicators to use social media to reach a wider audience. Where modern IT devices may not be widely available, the traditional literature, radio, TV and road shows/theatres could be used.

We considered how to identify the windows of opportunity for being creative. There are times and places when saying no and pushing back are possible and we need to be brave enough to highlight the real failures and terrible practices in development. Sometimes though institutional barriers are difficult to challenge:

Donor agency staffs, especially local ones in foreign donor agencies, mostly do not want interviews on their perceptions on foreign aid recorded. Sometimes beneficiaries will say somethings off record that are very much contrary to their written submissions. Local employees in foreign donor agencies may be considered not to know the field very well and puppets not able to make decisions to benefit locals. Their foreign managers are also considered to have condescending attitudes towards recipients. Sometimes, during workshops and conferences, racial divides are visible among employees of some foreign agencies. There, is therefore, need by some development agencies to fight what is perceived as a snobbish attitude of some of their staff. Development agencies need to respect their beneficiaries and opinions.

As this quotation reiterates, there are other times and places where challenging the status quo is a risky strategy, for us as individuals who have our own livelihoods to consider and as organisations and institutions that have incentive structures that can mitigate against upsetting the status quo. Working with the grain is one option, using the dominant discourses, to educate (and re-educate) those in positions of political, economic or social power to think differently about how to approach development. We can bring those with power into learning spaces, build trust and openness and push them to rethink. There are many alternative models and spaces that are gaining traction.

There was not much dissent within the group – so far. There does seem to be a shared sense that our collective interest lies in finding ways to support long-term change that works for all those involved, particularly in relation to inclusion of marginalized groups:

Many of us probably agree that in many cases the voices of the poor and underprivileged who apparently should be the subject of development interventions do not count. Because they lack power and voice, their concerns at best can only be heard by the powerful but such concerns do not form the development agenda in their countries. Having participated in a baseline study in which we sought to establish the degree to which citizens’ participation and needs were considered in service delivery in one of the country’s in East Africa, I was surprised at the findings. Those who have power simply ignore the poor and set their development and service delivery agenda based on information from politicians and government technocrats. What must I do as a development practitioner to ensure that power is used to serve the greater good rather than the agenda of a few?

As one contributor put it, not everyone wants to be an engineer or a mechanic. However, I think the consensus that we saw today is that people who have traditionally been marginalised and without power should have a choice about whether a car is the best option, the type of car that is being bought, and the direction that the car is travelling. There are some great ideas and examples about how to do this; we need to build that into a critical mass.

Written and compiled by Lata Narayanaswamy, Rachel Hayman and Alyson Brody