The Covid-19 pandemic has had a monumentally disruptive impact on the international development sector, explains Dr Seb Rumsby from Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies
While thankfully, much of the Global South seems to have avoided the colossal death tolls hitting the USA and Europe, there is no doubt the socio-economic impacts of lockdown, associated drops in market activity and unemployment will hit poorer economies hardest. Plus development sector activities have been severely restricted, and are now preoccupied with vaccination roll-out at the expense of other projects. The UN has warned that coronavirus could reverse human development for the first time in 30 years.
At the same time, these past 30 years have witnessed a dramatic surge in the number of small-scale, non-profit organisations which don’t quite fit the traditional Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) box.
These small-scale operations are usually informal, unregistered and privately funded. This new trend has been described as the ‘fourth pillar’ of development alongside states, international agencies and formal NGOs. They all come from similar origins. You know the sort of thing, some Westerners go backpacking, are shocked to see abject levels of poverty and decide to ‘do something about it’. They start teaching English to local children, and raise funds for materials among their friends and families back home and in no time a new ‘do-it-yourself’ development initiative is born.
COVID has brought with it global travel restrictions which have hampered much of this activity, as well as restricting the ability of larger, formal NGOs to monitor the results of development projects being carried out by local partners. As international travel slowly begins to open up again, both NGOs and private development initiatives will be eager to make up for lost time – and the rest of us can expect to receive lots of requests for charitable donations and fundraising campaigns.
So what are the relative pros and cons of traditional NGOs and this emerging movement of ‘do-it-yourself’ development? Are they in direct competition or can they be complementary?
A longstanding critique of large NGOs has been that much of the donations they receive go towards administrative costs like overheads, staff and further fundraising. This reduces the amount of funding which reaches those in poverty. Small-scale, independent development practitioners claim to offer a more efficient alternative by avoiding this bureaucratic ‘red tape’ and connecting directly with local communities, often relying on voluntary labour and providing personal ‘success stories’ back to funders.
However, if ‘do-it-yourself’ development practitioners are untrained and inexperienced, then they are likely to waste time, energy and resources on ill-conceived projects. Larger NGOs can clearly benefit from accumulated organisational wisdom, established methods of measuring results and economies of scale to carry out development projects more effectively. So the question of relative efficiency remains highly contextual.
Another familiar concern raised against international development aid is that it is tied to unequal neo-colonial power relations whereby wealthy donors and Western agencies dictate the means and ends of development interventions, without consulting impoverished communities.
To be fair, most established NGOs have taken this critique seriously and endeavoured to work in partnership with local organisations to promote empowerment. But when larger NGOs receive more state funding than ever (raising the question of how ‘non-governmental they really are), there is still a lot of ‘top-down’ at play in development planning and implementation.
‘Do-it-yourself’ development is not exclusively a global North-to-South affair. But when wealthy Western volunteers bring their own conceptions of development without taking the time to consult the local community or understand local hierarchies and inequalities, they are in serious danger of replicating the paternalistic attitudes that NGOs have strived to move away from.
Reinventing the wheel
This leads on to perhaps the biggest problem with ‘do-it-yourself’ development: by largely staying ‘under the radar’ and distancing themselves from the ‘professional’ development industry, everyday humanitarians miss the chance to learn from the mistakes of others, or identify opportunities for collaboration.
This is what we are trying to address by creating www.diy-development.com. Aimed at citizen aid founders and volunteers, this website offers an interactive self-assessment survey and free, personalised feedback in order to encourage users to reflect on issues of local power relations, measuring project effectiveness, potential for wider collaboration and sustainability.
The idea is to get people to critically reflect on what they are doing, encouraging them to think about the bigger picture and learn from others.
24 March 2021
Dr Seb Rumsby is a researcher at the University of Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies. He is an expert in everyday politics, ethnicity and religion, international development and sociolinguistics in Vietnam and South East Asia.
He holds an Independent Scholar Fellowship funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation.
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