In Need of Some Development ‘Breathing Space’

Back in January I wrote about how, as we enter the second year of SDG implementation, it’s time to stop talking and planning and start doing. Doing the actual hard stuff that we’re really good at putting off because it’s uncomfortable and removes ‘safe spaces’ of corner cubicles, spreadsheets and monitoring plans. It’s painstaking and frustrating and slow. But it’s even slower if we don’t do it. However, there was one aspect which I did not discuss because I shied away from too much controversy at once – basically, that the ‘doing’ really necessitates letting go.

We can do all the assessments, strategic planning and capacity building that we want, but it isn’t going to mean anything unless we let go. One of the indicators of this is that a majority of development interventions refer to phases, such as ‘in this phase if the programme’ etc, with the implication and intention of having a follow on programme to take capacity, etc, to the next level.

Don’t get me wrong, development takes time – lots of it – but because we are predisposed to roll immediately from one phase of a programme to the next – because we have become firm believers of and adherents to the idea of long term ‘sustainable’ development – we never really ‘let go’. There is rarely opportunity for a trial and error phase among ‘beneficiaries’ to apply their new skills and knowledge on their own and make it work within their socio-economic, cultural and political systems. There’s no time to adjust to growing pains or work out problems and their solutions on their own, blending new ideas with traditional practice, before we’re right back in there saying ‘ok, now this.’

At what point do we stop, take a breather, see what happens and then reengage a couple of years later? It is unrealistic to think that any capacity gains made will somehow vanish overnight (notwithstanding the propensity of governments to rotate staff through departments like rides at a carnival, but you can read more about mitigating that here). On the other hand, we think far too much of ourselves if we feel justified in stepping back in immediately there’s a hiccup, or just not stepping back at all. Moreover, it begs the question of what kind of respect we have for beneficiaries that we work with – our level of confidence in their skill to just get on with it and make it work with what they have. Very little, if the current mode of development planning is anything to go by.

You never learn to walk if you’re only being carried as a child (unless you’re practicing in secret), pilots never learn to fly until the instructor takes their hands off the controls, and you can read all you want about french grammar, but unless you practice it regularly and often, you’ll never master it. The examples are endless. And when we learn to walk, we fall down often; when we learn french we stumble and make countless grammatical errors until our confidence grows and it becomes second nature.

These days I can develop a logframe in my sleep but the first time I was left on my own to come up with one was not pretty – but it got done. With practice and understanding, and learning some tricks of the trade, it got easier and the results increasingly better over time. But I did have to do it on my own before any of that happened – I had to be given breathing space to try and fail and then fix the problem without someone coming immediately to my rescue. We are perfectly fine with this approach internally in our organizations but somehow we have a hard time applying the same principle to our work with beneficiaries. It’s an odd and hypocritical decoupling of theory and practice.

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