Mission

On a humid tropical day in Surabaya (Indonesia) almost twelve years ago, I was in a meeting of City officials, consultants to the City, and World Bank staff discussing why a sewerage and sanitation development program was way behind schedule and what might be done about getting it back on course. Not the most interesting of subjects, but that is the sort of thing which, if done correctly, ought to be what development assistance is all about. Anyway, after several attempts to explain to us ignorant foreigners why this particular program had not moved very far, the senior City Government official present said —

But ‘Pak Jerry, you must understand, the real problem with this project is the PEOPLE of SURABAYA.1

That statement summed up almost everything I believe is wrong with the way the concept of “international development” has been framed and pursued ever since the pre-World War II colonial period; including by “us foreigners.” And that, in turn, provides the primary motivation for creating this blog.

Thus, the underlying theme of this Blog is that the problem is NEVER the people of Surabaya — or for that matter other intended beneficiaries of international development efforts. Instead, the problem is that too many government officials and development professionals still think that whatever obstacles they face in alleviating poverty would disappear if only “the people” were smarter, or better trained and educated, or honest, or committed to the “common good”, or less burdened by other deficiencies of intelligence, skills, or character.  That is a refrain that I have heard repeatedly in one form or another while working in more than forty African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries over more than four decades.  And to be blunt about it, “it ain’t true.”

Therefore, the primary mission of this Blog is to provoke readers to think anew about the purpose of international development efforts and alternative approaches to the design, implementation, and evaluation of “international development” projects, programs, and policies. Posts will range from personal reminiscences, subjective opinions, and data-based objective analyses to my own take on current events that illustrate what “international development” efforts should be about and how they could be improved. I VERY MUCH appreciate feedback and comments in response to the posts published on this site and ask only that comments, whether or not of a critical nature, remain civil.

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NOTE:

[1]   I first used this story to introduce a paper presented at the Center for International Development, Harvard University (May 4, 2000) and revised for subsequent presentation that same year at the Second Asia Development Forum, Singapore, the USAID Open University in La Paz, Bolivia, and Bolivia’s Universidad de Catolica. Nothing fundamental has changed in the decade since then to change the significance of that story. The version of that earlier paper presented at the Universidad de Bolivia is available at www.eldis.org/fulltext/silverman.pdf while the original PowerPoint slides presented at the Second Asia Development Forum are available at info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/128841/silverman.pdf.

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2 Responses to Mission

  1. Dear Dr. Silverman, I saw your post about the UN v WB on the LI group and so looked at your blog. Very laudable.

    The one thing I wonder about, with huge respect for your experience which is very extensive, is your premiss that it is NEVER the people. In some respects you are right, that the parameters of the development industry (and it is an industry in which huge sums of money are made for small aggregate results)mitigate against success.

    That said, to discount the cultures in which “us foreigners” work is surely naive? Perhaps I misunderstand you? My own belief is that dysfunctional social mores and strange belief systems impede progress, if one defines that (as we do) in the sense of western-style economic growth. To me this is the elephant in the room.

    You use Surabaya as an example: I have just completed a mission in Indonesia (by the way I have worked in South-east Asia for more than 20 years and have a family here). Progress is significantly impeded by a level of corruption that makes Thailand seem squeaky clean. The cultural ideas that allow this weren’t imposed by foreigners since the Dutch are rather straighter than most. Indonesia culture permits corruption and so this does indeed lead in part to the failure of development. It’s their choice, don’t get me wrong, but if you want to have a successful Western style economy organize yourself like Singapore. If you want to live in some theocratic backwoods believing in Pashtunwali, then by all means organize yourself like the folks in Kandahar do – but don’t expect to have your Western cake and eat your Islamic one too.

    I’ll look forward to an interesting discussion!

    • Hi Geoff —

      I actually agree with much of what your comment. Indeed, I do not have a romanticized view of “The People,” elements of which range from the saintly to the venal, selfish, and parochial just as in any group of human beings. But as with most intellectual arguments, mine is meant to redress an imbalance in the view of many development professionals who tend to rely on notions of technically ideal solutions that view “people” as simply one of the cogs in their grand design and who then blame “the people” when things go wrong because they do not behave the way their grand design requires. My point is that when designing a “development” intervention, one must start where the people actually are with respect to their actual behaviors and what motivates those behaviors.
      A project or policy intervention by outsiders — including formal sector government officials and foreign development professionals — is not likely to motivate substantial behavior changes in the larger society or group of so-called “beneficiaries” for a very long time (if ever) and, certainly, not within the initial year or two of project implementation. So, as a more specific example, if the people of Surabaya for whatever reason (and, of course, I use Surabaya metaphorically to represent all target “beneficiaries” of all projects everywhere) throw plastic bags and condoms and various other materials into sewerage or drainage canals that eventually harm the sewerage processing machinery, the fault is only technically “the people.” The problem is that the sewerage plant and the sewers or canals that feed it have not been designed to take into account those actual behaviors of the people or, alternatively, the fault lies with a calculation of financial/economic rates of return that has not taken into account the shortened economic lifespan of the plant given those behaviors.
      Therefore, in the context of the kind of situations characterized above, the problem is not the people of Surabaya primarily because government officials/technical staff and their foreign development professional advisors do not consult or properly take into account the peoples’ actual behaviors as saintly or venal some of them may be. Instead, it is the former, not the latter, who are normally initiating and designing those interventions. In short, those who design are responsible. If “the people” are not consulted or do not participate in the design process, they really shouldn’t be considered to be the problem when the actual project/program/policy fails because their behavior does not conform with those required for the design to work.

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