Accelerated Development: Who Benefits?

Denika Blacklock Karim

The modern human development paradigm, with its focus on growth and modern lifestyles, has been introduced as a standard against which the development level of a local community is measured in stages. This paradigm has produced a sense of urgency, whereby development needs to be accelerated as though the speeding up of the development process will decrease inequality gaps faster and produce a sense of social harmony, alleviating conflict and allowing us to categorize social injustice as a characteristic of a ‘bygone’ era rather than the present one.

‘Accelerated development’[1] has become a watch word, particularly in relation to development programmes targeting indigenous communities and least developed countries. We fear that some groups would be ‘left behind’ and being accused of ‘not doing enough.’ Thus, development programmes have begun focusing not only on the key human development related activities such as improving the quality and effectiveness of education and health care services and supporting sustainable livelihoods and local economy, but also on trying to figure out how to make these processes take place faster. The development paradigm where ‘accelerated development’ has become a perceived ‘key to success’, in turn, perceives indigenous communities and least developed countries as the target rather than the drivers of development.

What are the repercussions of this concept? Is anyone truly benefitting from accelerated development? We must ask: by accelerating development, what concessions are being made in practice? Concession 1: Absorption Capacities

How much information, and how quickly, can an individual with secondary or basic university education absorb that information? This is a critical question. Although it is the responsibility of the groups or individuals who are delivering training or other capacity building activities to ‘get it right’ in terms of the particular cultural/geographic/historical context, there is more often than not a gap in how capacity building is undertaken versus the optimal approach in that context. Beneficiaries cannot ‘drive’ development if they are learning through an approach that is at odds with traditional approaches to learning in their community. The sustainability of any development outcome relies heavily on the ability of the ‘beneficiaries,’ particularly those in local government, to be able to retain and consistently and effectively utilize information gained through capacity building programmes, that is, to take what they have learned and ‘get it right’ in a very short time frame. There is little room for learning-while-doing. UNDP[2] has listed the key functional capacities necessary for effective and sustainable local development:

  • Capacities to facilitate participatory planning through dialogue and priority-setting
  • Capacities to gather, disaggregate, and analyse data for planning purposes
  • Capacities to undertake integrated planning and budgeting.
  • Capacities for networking, with voice and knowledge, to link local development processes to national strategies and finance.
  • Legal and administrative knowledge to implement and monitor decentralized fiscal and competencies handed to sub-national levels.
  • Capacities to mobilise resources, including the networking and risk management skills.
  • Capacities for effective and efficient project management.
  • Capacities for effective service delivery.
  • Capacities to monitor and review progress.

When we view these capacities in the context of least developed countries, they strike as a significant amount of information to absorb, on top of the technical skills and knowledge necessary in particular sectors, such as the environment, health care, and economic development. Furthermore, this is a significant amount of information to absorb and apply effectively for individuals without significant levels of education. In areas where access to higher levels of education has been limited, or where the quality of education has been sub-standard, this is a lot of pressure to place on the individuals who will be the recipients of capacity building, generally local government and local NGO staff members. Some capacity building programmes put their primary focus not on delivering information, but on the application of that information. Even then, it is a learned process, and information will always be missed or forgotten. In my own extensive experience in delivering training programmes and undertaking capacity building through mentoring and coaching processes, even the most promising individuals were incapable of retaining all of the information provided in the short term, let alone applying it consistently and effectively.

For example, in the highlands of Papua, in Indonesia, the literacy rate amongst village leaders in indigenous communities averages around 50 percent.[3] With such low literacy rates, how conceivable is it that village leaders would be able to learn quickly and retain all that they have learned? How much information can they be realistically expected to absorb, and then implement transparently and accountably, while achieving the standards of efficiency and effectiveness necessary for ‘accelerated development’ to happen? If we took a step back, we should also ask ourselves how much of the information presented in the two- and three-day trainings that we, as development professionals, attend, do we retain and then use effectively and efficiently?

Concession 2: Local Wisdom

The ‘acceleration’ concept leaves little room for taking the necessary time to learn about the local communities, their traditional governance and decision-making structures, and about local wisdom gained over generations, upon which entire communities and societies function. Have we taken the time to learn and appreciate how the community defines progress, and understand the vision that community leaders (and members) have for the next 10, 20 or even 50 years?

Is it possible to ‘accelerate’ development in communities or countries where the processes through which development programmes are being implemented are imported or have little credibility with the intended beneficiaries? How can such initiatives become locally owned, and therefore their results sustainable? Perhaps more importantly, can the results of such programmes be sustainable if they are not grounded in local custom, practice and understanding? How can beneficiaries possibly be the drivers of development in their communities in such situations? Effectiveness and sustainability necessitate time, for the beneficiaries to understand and appreciate the intended outcomes of our development programmes, and to focus on achieving these outcomes using existing systems and processes to the greatest extent possible. This, in itself, is not a process that can or will happen quickly.

For example, the approach to governance among Papua’s indigenous communities —and quite possibly their understanding of ‘development’— would appear to be at odds with the generic governance and service delivery programmes implemented by foreign donors, international organisations and NGOs. The impact of the work undertaken in the province over the past decade has not been sustainable, which suggests that ‘successful’ approaches to project implementation elsewhere in Indonesia and internationally need to be reconsidered in Papua. Development programmes would be better guided by principles that are culturally and conflict-sensitive, which should assist in defining an approach to development in Papua that responds to local understandings of development and ‘modernisation’[4], thus ensuring relevance to the local community.

Another example comes from the Solomon Islands. Law and justice programmes have a difficult time gaining traction at the community level, not because people are not interested, but because communities are more comfortable with their traditional customary justice practices —they are cheaper, faster, more accessible and better understood (because they are often more relevant to specific community contexts than formal law) by community members. Efforts are made at the community level to implement formal law, however it is often a lack of understanding that results in weak implementation, with customary law filling the gaps. One problem is that formal law and customary ‘laws’ (which differ across the archipelago) are rarely compatible. For example, issues such as sexual violence are more often than not dealt with through customary practice rather than formal law for the reasons mentioned above. In these instances, given the increasing exposure that younger generations have to information related to, for example, the rights and experiences of women and girls in other communities or countries, it is possible, and even likely, to presume more interest in understanding how women and girls may benefit under formal law. What is needed is a process by which formal law can accommodate relevant traditions (such as the application of justice by the village elder, under the guidance of the local prosecutor). This will be a very long and complex process, precluding ideas of ‘accelerated’ justice programmes. In the long term, however, we may be able to witness sustainable change in the position and rights of women and girls.

Concession 3: Sustainability… and good governance

In the context of this essay, when development practitioners engage with stakeholders and broader beneficiary groups, and with indigenous communities and in least developed countries, assumptions are made on existing but weak institutions and capacities to implement good governance. Baseline studies are undertaken, information is collected and analysed (sometimes, this analysis depends on who is analyzing, or how the data is going to be used during the life of the project). However, we often use the results of baseline studies to assist in target setting within a predefined time frame rather than devoting time to understanding whether the targets can be sustained once they have been achieved, and concurrently, whether improvements in good governance will be sustained. It is not a question of whether the beneficiaries of a project are genuine in their commitment; it is related to a combination of Concessions 1 and 2 above: once a project has been ‘completed’ (i.e. targets achieved) and technical advisory support is withdrawn, can the beneficiaries continue what has been started with the same intensity? Further, local wisdom and traditions will weigh heavily; without ‘balance’ from foreign technical advisors (not necessarily foreign nationals, but from other regions in the country) tradition and belief can begin to have more significant influence.

This is by no means a criticism of tradition and local belief, but rather an example to demonstrate that ‘accelerating’ development does not allow for new ideas and practices to trickle down to the most grass roots levels. Sustainable change takes time – far more time than the average development project cycle. Accelerated development is potentially less likely to be sustainable than projects that last for 4 or 5 years and that go through many phases – sometimes totaling 15 or 20 years of implementation.

A Nice Idea… but Would the Opposite be Better?

Accelerated development is a genuine attempt to close human development gaps sooner rather than later. Amongst others, one of its aims is to demonstrate commitment to social fairness and equality of opportunities by national governments, donor agencies and international organizations alike.

Where the theory falls short, however, is in its forgoing three aspects that are crucial to ensure that development is locally owned, sensitive to community aspirations and culture, and accountable. Practitioners’ main shortcoming lies in failing to go back to the site of the interventions, three or even five years later, to assess whether or not the changes that were effected have been sustained. In all fairness, this is a rare occurrence regardless of whether a development initiative has fallen under an ‘accelerated’ programme or not.

Thus, what if development strategies focused on ‘decelerating’[5] development, that is, on slowing down the processes that are crucial for achieving the overall purpose of development. Communities need to be able to identify the path they want to take, and to follow that path based on their traditions and local wisdom at a pace that they are comfortable with, to continue along that path after outside support has concluded. Sustainability and good governance rest heavily on the capacity of the community to conceptualize and generate new ideas and act on them (i.e. driving them) rather than on absorbing foreign ideas and skills. Communities need to feel confident and comfortable implementing activities, to ensure that they can achieve their goals. Sustainable development, therefore, is about the right pace, the right amount of information, the applicable policies and local ownership. Decelerated development —development at a slower pace, delivering smaller amounts of information over longer periods of time and through culturally–sensitive approaches— could be more effective in the long term. But it will be a tough sell to policy makers and donors alike.

[1] Accelerated Development is a concept conceived by the UN Development Group with the aim or improving progress on achieving Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets by 2015.  See the following links on the approach ( and process (
[2] UNDP Practice Note: Capacities for Integrated Local Development, 2007, pg 4
[3] Denika Blacklock Karim (2012): Whose development? The Need for Conflict-Sensitive Development in Papua, Indonesia, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 7:1, p. 98
[4] As it is often independent consultants and experts who ‘fly in and out’ to delivery various capacity building activities, it is thus unquestionably important that the staff of the NGOs or organizations implementing a project to understand the local culture to the extent possible as an ‘outsider’ and work closely with consultants and experts to tailor trainings and other capacity building activities to traditional learning approaches, and account for cultural context.
[5]Credit for this idea goes to Mr. Edd Wright, conceived during a mission to prepare for an ‘accelerated development’ programme for Papua, Indonesia in 2009. He rightly pointed out that our understanding of ‘accelerated’, compared to that of the many indigenous communities in the province, was likely far apart on the spectrum. Many continue nomadic and hunter-gatherer traditions, while cash economies and formal education were only introduced in the early 1990s.

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