Monday, June 8, 2015

Violence against development

"When I started the village organization, the local elites surrounded my home and snatched my attendance register.  They said they would break the organization.  They also beat my husband.  I took all of the organization's members to the home of the local elite leader.  I said to him, 'Either you give us the right to grow rice or give us work.' We did it in reality!  Then he said to us to continue the organization."  Maksuda, one of BRAC's first community health workers, speaking of her experiences in the 1980s in setting up a local community group for poor women. (Unpublished manuscript, Ishikawa)
Development likes to keep its hands clean.  Many NGOs focus on "neutral problems"--health, education, finance, sanitation.

Unfortunately most problems aren't neutral, if one goes below the surface.  Many of them link back to power, and power, as the saying goes, is never given, always taken.

I would argue that the greatest achievements for non-profit organizations have been in the area of technical problems--those where lack of information, services, or economic barriers are the main drivers of the problem. Technical problems tend to have relatively simple solutions that can usually be addressed through local activities, without system-level reform.

Bangladesh has many success stories here: despite persistent levels of high corruption and low public spending in key social areas, we have seen impressive successes in family planning, life expectancy gains, poverty reduction, and agricultural productivity, largely due to the activities of NGOs (and the government's support for them).

Looks innocent enough, right?  But BRAC's intent on educating girls
had violent pushback in early years.
Unfortunately, NGOs have been much less successful on issues whose solutions rest primarily on changes in power or politics--fair elections, eliminating corruption, safety codes for workplaces, police reform, civil rights, just to name a few.  These problems require a stronger stomach--while perhaps not advocating violence, at least having the pragmatism to anticipate the likely dangers.  A quick review of worker reforms or civil rights in America (personally I like "A People's History of the United States") demonstrates the level of chaos and unrest required over many years to get to the (imperfect) freedoms and equality that we enjoy today.

Maybe NGOs shouldn't meddle in these areas.  But in order to truly tackle many of these "subjective" problems, including some that look "technical" on the surface, one must focus on the correction of deeper "relational" issues of power and politics.  As a recent paper by Leftwhich and Hudson said (highlights on Duncan Green's blog),
"Ultimately, if you wish to defeat poverty, prepare to address the power and the politics that keep people poor."
Consider 1994, when fundamentalists burned down and damaged over 200 of BRAC's primary schools in Bangladesh because they were disproportionately educating girls.  They went on to harass teachers and intimidate other female NGO workers.  These fundamentalists recognized that large organizations, like BRAC and Grameen, were challenging the social status quo through a portfolio of seemingly-technical activities which had an end-result of empowering women financially and socially.  That was, in fact, the reason that the NGOs were engaging in these activities--not simply to improve health and finance.

While the fundamentalists managed to cause significant financial damage to the primary schools, they were unable to successfully stop the female empowerment efforts that the NGOs had initiated.  Women themselves were taking things into their own hands.  And once things are set in motion, they can be tough to stamp out (I'm having a hard time finding a good link for this, but Marty Chen wrote a marvelous book called  A Quiet Revolution on women's empowerment in Bangladesh, and Malcolm Gladwell had some really interesting insights into what makes social movements tough to smother in David and Goliath).  Freedoms aren't really one of those things that people want to give up, once they get them.

A few years ago, several studies on microfinance found a positive correlation between loans to women and domestic violence. While providing access to loans can empower women in many tangible ways, there can also be dangerous risks.  When the existing power dynamics in the family are disrupted, the new power players may pay a price on their journey.
One of BRAC's early empowerment strategies was training women as community health workers.
In the 1980s, it was revolutionary to have women going door-to-door and asking questions
about health and well-being.  In 2015, what's the boundary we should be pushing?
Many organizations, including BRAC, know the importance of power implicitly, even if it's a sub-text of their work instead of the headline (social revolution is not a cause that many donors want to associate themselves with, or governments look kindly on!).  An old office adage is,
"The poor are poor because they lack power.  We must organize people for power.  They must organize themselves in such a way that they can change their lives."
Indeed, sometimes the "technical needs" of food, health, money, etc., have to come first.  But these are symptoms of larger problems that also need to be addressed, by going to the heart of the problem. For example, there has been significant research on role of democracy and more broadly governance in preventing large-scale famines.  So even taking on a challenge as seemingly "simple" as hunger (cured by food), comes back to bigger issues. This is obvious to many--Maksuda's story above about telling the local leader he had to provide poor women with "rice or work" indicates a deep understanding about implications of power structures in her community, and showing the courage to confront them in order to move ahead.

Christian Seelos recently published a new framework to enable practitioners to more systematically think through the problems that they are trying to solve, identifying the major "technical" and "relational" dimensions of the problem, and developing strategies to address these dimensions based on that thinking.  I like this framework a lot, but I'm worried that the bigger issue in development is less that we lack a good framework to help us see, but more that we're trying really hard NOT to see the big picture.

Power is a dirty word in development. And yet by not talking about it, we are in denial about the potential risks to our organizations, staff, and clients that the work creates, and we're likely to create programs that fail to tackle all of the key issues that need to be addressed in order to truly accomplish our objectives.

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