Stop Trying to Save the World: Big Ideas are Destroying International Development

November 19, 2014
A close friend just yesterday forwarded an Article to me by Michael Hobbes critiquing international development efforts. I found it very thought provoking — and it is comforting to see someone put into readable words and logic much of what I myself have felt for decades now. Therefore, I think it should have wider circulation than it might otherwise receive; so here is the link and I encourage you to click and read it — Stop Trying to Save the World.
In the classes I teach here now at Armstrong State University, one of my primary messages is that all political interactions result in unintended consequences. That is so as the result of a multitude of human behaviors and environmental circumstances all interacting in ways that individually might be predictable but together are unfathomable. So one needs to pick an objective, put it out there, provide opportunities for those who share those objectives to apply them in their own idiosyncratic ways, and hope for the best — while guarding against the worst through continual assessment of “how we doing” (Mayor Koch’s measurable indicator of how “beneficiaries” thought things were working out).

I was quoted in the book “A Singular Woman” by Janny Scott to the effect that the old saw about giving/teaching a person to fish didn’t have it quite right — lots of people already knew how to fish and didn’t need us to teach them that. Instead, they don’t have access to places where they can “fish” for any number of socio-economic, political and locational reasons. Therefore, my view is that “development” — a poor term to begin with —  is more about opening access to opportunities rather than “training” or “capacity-building.” . I think Michael Hobbes’ perspective is consistent with that view.


UPDATE — Interview of International Scholar in Cairo 2 Years Later

February 15, 2013

This Post is a follow-up to one published two years ago (February 6, 2011) entitled “Interview Internatl. Scholar Cairo Today (Sun. Feb. 6) Although at that time the scholar interviewed was not identified for “reasons of personal security,” this time she is revealed as Dr. Ann Lesch, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, who has lived in Egypt for nearly seventeen years now. This follow-up interview was conducted by Dr. Ja Jahannes; as was the case the first time. If interested in this update of her views two years later, just click here on


January 5, 2011

What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it’s charming.                 Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

If certain things are described to you as being real they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.                                               James Baldwin (1924-1987)

It was 19791 and I had been serving as “Chief of Party” and “Provincial Planning Advisor” of the technical assistance team in support of the first USAID-financed Provincial Development Project (PDP1) since August 1978. PDP1 was the first project in Indonesia of any kind dedicated primarily to building the capacity of planning offices (Bappeda) within provincial governments.  

It was in that context that I began to address my responsibility as the project’s “Planning Advisor” to design a new planning system from scratch for Central Java’s Planning Office. So relatively soon after my arrival, I began to do just that and, after several months, I felt confident in the design I had produced; including the elements that I thought needed to be performed within a provincial planning system and specific procedures to give practical effect to that system. And so, as this was back in the days before Email, I sent a telex to my corporate headquarters in Washington, DC asking them to send two trainers whose job would be to train the Indonesian staff according to the system I had designed.

About a month later, two American trainers arrived in Semarang, Central Java to (I thought) begin preparing a curriculum for training the Indonesian planning staff. I was busy on their day of arrival, so we had our first substantive meeting at my house that evening to review the draft Terms of Reference I had prepared. Frankly, I expected that I would simply answer any supplementary questions they might have and they would go off and begin designing the training program while I went about other business. So I asked them if they had any questions. 

Their very first question was, “how do you know they want to do it that way(?).” I confess, I was completely thrown by that question and not just a little ticked-off. Looking back, I realize that I became quite defensive. Basically, I said; “what do you mean how do I know they want to do it that way – what difference does that make?” From the perspective of 2006, that might seem narrow-minded. But I can assure you my response was typical of many – if not most – task-oriented foreign Project Managers during the late 1970s (and for many today for that matter). The firm that had employed me had been contracted directly by USAID to – at least in part – design and implement a new planning system. That was a significant part of my job.  I had spent several months completing the first step of that task. After all, if the Indonesian staff already knew what they wanted and how to design and implement it, what was I doing there in the first place? 

It was only later that I was informed by a trusting “host-country” counterpart that my own implicit answer to that question was woefully off-base. Indeed, many of my counterparts viewed the presence of foreign “advisors” as a tax imposed by external development assistance agencies required if the other, more desired, project benefits were to be received. Nor did I yet understand that the external financing agency also viewed us, at least in part, as a way of maintaining financial and operational management control over the aid project itself. But at the time I was ignorant of that reality and I reminded these two Americans that their job was not to raise new issues; rather, it was to train the Indonesian staff – period. And that’s when the fun began.  

The only credit I can claim for what happened after that is that I did not send those two trainers packing. Instead, during the week that followed, I worked on my regular tasks during the day and argued with these two guys at night. The essence of what they were saying was that (i) any system I designed on my own would not be sustainable; (ii) the Indonesian staff needed to feel a sense of ownership of the system if it was to work effectively; (iii) ownership required the Indonesians’ participation in the design; (iv) the staff knew how things worked in their country much better than I could possibly know; (v) certainly I had something to contribute, but if the Indonesians and our entire advisory group worked together as an integrated Team, we would benefit from the synergies that would result from the interaction of our different experiences and knowledge; and (vi) effective ways of working together – especially across cultures – was not common-sense.  

I could sort of get my mind around what they were saying at an abstract level. But if I followed their argument to its logical conclusion, we would need to throw-out all the work I had done and start again from scratch. Further, I could not visualize how they would translate what they were proposing into actual actions. I kept asking them – “OK, say I agree with you that we need to start over and more actively involve our Indonesian counterparts, what do we actually do and [importantly] how long will it take?” And the response seemed wholly unrealistic to me —  (1) they would need to interview all the members of our advisory team and the key Indonesian staff of the Planning Office; (2) they would then design an “Action-Planning Workshop” emphasizing a participatory process of objective setting, prioritization, problem identification, and – based on that – initiate a planning system design process; and, following completion of the custom-tailored Workshop design, (3) our entire advisory team and all key Indonesian staff would need to drop our on-going work and devote a full two weeks to participation in that Workshop. Finally, we would need to do this at a location sufficiently far away from Semarang to ensure that we would not be disturbed by other tasks.

Well, come on!! I wasn’t fully convinced that the proposed approach would achieve its objectives – or even understood what “achieving its objective” really meant. But even if it did, drop everything for two full weeks? That had to put them somewhere on the wrong side of the “cost-benefit” relationship no matter what was accomplished. So given all of that, I really can’t recall why I finally agreed – on condition that my Indonesian counterpart, the Head of the Planning Office, also agreed. And surprisingly he did – maybe it was that Masters of Public Administration (MPA) degree he had received from Indiana University.

I had no doubt by the time we returned to Semarang that the alternative system resulting from the Workshop was better and more appropriate than what I had designed on my own. There was no question that the team spirit developed during the Workshop carried-over into our day-to-day working relationships from that point on. 

Punch Line

Participating in that Workshop along with our Indonesian counterparts was a life-transforming experience for me; keeping in mind that this was more than 30 years ago. There were no prepared papers or recommendations distributed in advance. The theory was that all the experience required to begin the formulation of an effective and appropriate location-specific planning system already existed – in combination — among the participants in the room.  The “trainers” did not do any training at all – rather they facilitated a process of discussion and negotiation among us. Their method was to begin each session with a specific question for us to address in small discussion groups – and these questions and responses led logically to the next question and the next session. So the effect was cumulative, while at the same time modeling an effective participatory planning process. The process was highly interactive and forced us to negotiate among ourselves whenever anyone disagreed with anyone else about what our conclusions ought to be. In that way, the process also mediated between the different cultural assumptions and values represented by the people in the room. It was clearly a room full of equals — rather than “advisors” and “counterparts.” And as they say, “the rest is history.

As a result of this experience, I became a strong proponent of more inductive “process approaches” and, over time, designed and ensured the proper implementation of workshops2 and other participatory processes – including extension of such approaches to consultations with intended beneficiaries as well. Nonetheless, I remain disappointed by the fact that, although the number of individual proponents of such methods have increased exponentially during the last thirty years or so, incorporation into the actual operations of larger development assistance agencies remains more rhetorical than operational.



All “Personal Reminiscence” posts are stories told about one or more of my own personal experiences as I remember it. They are true to the best of my ability to recollect them and reflect my view of how they illustrate “lessons learned” from that experience even if one or another aspect of the story as told might not be completely correct in each and every detail. Further, I have done my best to disguise the identity of other persons referred to in these stories, including not using their true names unless references to their presence at that time or circumstance has already been published in other media.

[1]     For anyone who believes that a story about an event or events that occurred 30 or more years ago is too old and irrelevant, I beg to differ. Indeed, an underlying theme of this Blog is that the truth of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s aphorism plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more things change, the more they remain the same”) is particularly relevant to the history of international development efforts for the entire period since the end of World War II.

[2]     See Jerry Silverman, Merlyn Kettering, and Terry Schmidt, Action-Planning Workshops for Development Management: Guidelines (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1986).

The Problem is the People of Surabaya……NOT!

January 3, 2011

I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged.  Then they told me underprivileged was overused, I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I sure have a great vocabulary.  Jules Feifer (b. 1929)

On a humid tropical day in Surabaya (Indonesia) more than fifteen 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 my primary motivation for creating this new blog “International Development Should…..

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.”

This Blog’s theme will be illustrated through posts that 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. At times, the subject of my posts will extend to consideration of broader international issues that I believe are also usefully informed by the conceptual approach advocated here – e.g., “buying hearts and minds” in Afghanistan or understanding inter-state conflicts among “failed states” in Africa. It is my hope that the posts on this Blog 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.

But who am I to think that I have something to say about such issues? Actually, I hope that the force and logic of my arguments (and the supportive data often provided) will be sufficient to establish the credibility of my posts. But for those who also like to consider the source, I hold a Ph.D. in International Relations-Government (Claremont Graduate University ’67) and have taught at several universities either full-time or as Adjunct. But my primary credentials are as a practitioner of the art of “international development;” including stints as a World Bank Institutional Development Specialist and Regional Unit Manager (1984-1999); Senior Development Specialist, Development Alternatives Inc (DAI) and Technical Assistance Team Leader in Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Egypt (1977/82); Project Specialist in the Ford Foundation’s Southeast Asia Regional Office (1973/75); Institute of Public Administration (IPA) Advisor at the National Institute of Public Administration of what was then the Government of South Viet Nam in what is now Ho Chi Minh City (1972); USAID Foreign Service Officer in Viet Nam (1967/68); and for the last eleven years as an independent consultant to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank,

I hope you find this new initiative of sufficient interest to open future Emails (subject “New Post”) that will provide a direct URL link to the contents of each new posting.

With my best wishes for the New Year 2011,



[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 while the original PowerPoint slides presented at the Second Asia Development Forum are available at

[2]   For a list of the countries in which I have had the great privilege of working, see the Biography page of this Blog.

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