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.


Protecting Indigenous People: Recent Recommendations for UN Conference 2014

June 21, 2013


Greetings from Honduras.

The “Alta Outcome Document,” described in a VOA headline as “Indigenous Peoples Stand Up to Exploitation” and more circumspectly by The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) — an official advisory body to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) — as “a set of recommendations,” was signed in Alta, Norway on June 12, 2013 with the expectation that it will serve as the basis for the upcoming UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in September 2014.

Two of the main themes of the Alta Declaration are directly related to approaches strongly advocated in this Blog site: (1) participatory involvement of persons directly impacted by “development” interventions and (2) the need to understand, acknowledge, and respect non-formal parallel governance systems to achieve more effective, efficient and properly targeted assistance to poor people.

For further information on the UN-sponsored World Conference for Indigenous People, September 22-23, 2014 (New York, NY), see — a very good source of information about “indigenous people” worldwide and, in particular, .

For UNPFII’s description of the “Alta Outcome Document,” see .

For VOA’s background coverage of the meeting in Alta see .

Best, Jerry

Help Change the Lives of Young Girls in One of Africa’s Largest URBAN Slums

April 24, 2013

Help the Uweza Foundation meet the “Raise for Women Challenge” sponsored by The Huffington Post, Skoll Foundation, and Half The Sky Movement by donating any amount through Crowdrise at either or . A donation is any amount whatsoever will be very much appreciated.

If you believe as I do that developing girls’ self-esteem and providing them with advanced formal education is an important contribution to breaking the cycle of poverty, please donate today. The Challenge is open for only a short period of time – from today (April 24th) to Thursday, June 6th.

The sponsors of this Challenge will donate up to an additional $25 thousand depending on the amount raised by Uweza (or other NGOs) during the short time available under the terms of this fund-raising competition.

Information, films, and photos focused on Uweza – a US tax-exempt 501(c)(3) Foundation registered in the State of Illinois – supports several “demand-responsive” programs assisting children and women in Kibera, a slum neighboring Nairobi, Kenya, is also available at either of those two websites.

Uweza has very low overheads and accomplishes an awful lot of good on an annual budget of only about $150 thousand a year. As a former World Bank staff person used to dealing in much larger sums, I cannot express how impressed I am by the due diligence, record keeping, and fundamental accomplishments of this small NGO.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I am one of only five (5) completely unpaid volunteer Uweza Board Members, the only male, and by far the oldest.

Best Wishes, Jerry

Kenya Election Results: Empowering Kenyan Girls is the Next Step for a Peaceful Kenya

April 10, 2013

As many of you know, I am on the Board of a US-based Non-Profit (the Uweza Aid Foundation) that assists women and children in Kibera, the largest “slum” — or preferably non-formal settlement — at the periphery of Naroibi, Kenya. With that in mind, I believe you will find this article  — …Empowering Kenyan Girls is the Next Step for a Peaceful Kenya both interesting and informative.

Written by fellow Uweza Board member Amy Augustin, the article focuses primarily on the need for, and results of, Uweza’s collaboration with No Means No Worldwide to provide a two-day self-defense and life skills training course to more than thirty girls at Uweza’s Kibera community center. This is an important program in the face of an epidemic of gender-based violence in non-formal settlements like Kibera throughout much of the world.

Clearly, Uweza’s work in Kibera is entirely consistent with the “demand-driven” approach advocated my blog International Development Should….

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

Old Wine in New Bottles – or The Triumph of Form over Function

January 17, 2011

A Personal Reminiscence1

But what experience and history teach is this – that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.                                                               Georg Hegel (1770-1831)

There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.                                                 Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)

Every time history repeats itself the price goes up. (anonymous)

Déjà vu All Over Again

Not for the first or last time, I was experiencing a feeling all too similar to former New York Yankee Yogi Berra’s “déjà vu all over again.” The occasion was a meeting attended by staff of the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ; the German Technical Assistance Agency). It was 19952 and I had just returned to Jakarta following an absence of more than ten years to take on my new responsibilities as the Manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Group for East Asia. The main theme of the conversation at this meeting was the lack of capacity within Indonesian local government planning departments (bappeda); a theme all too familiar to me from my stint as “Chief of Party” and “Provincial Planning Advisor” of the first USAID-financed Provincial Development Project (PDP) fifteen years before (see “How do you know…….?”, posted here January 10, 2011).   

Harking back to those earlier days, I had thought that PDP was the “jewel in the crown” of my professional career to that date. That project was the first in Indonesia of any kind dedicated to developing the capacity of planning offices at local provincial levels to identify, recommend, prepare, and finance community-based projects rather than solely by the Central Government in Jakarta. Indeed, PDP was designed to be:

  • One of the earliest projects anywhere to specify the “poorest of the poor” as target beneficiaries;
  • One of the first to foster a village level participatory process through which beneficiaries themselves could select the kind of benefits they would receive (although from a limited list of pre-determined choices);
  • The first project in Indonesia designed specifically to support decentralization of planning and financing of development projects to provincial governments; and, therefore
  • The first foreign aid project channeled through the Government of Indonesia’s equivalent of a Ministry of Local Government and semi-autonomous provincial planning offices.

This first project was designed to be a “pilot” and was, therefore, limited to assisting only two provincial planning offices; one each in Central Java and Aceh. Nonetheless, long-before any actual impact evaluations of PDP could be conducted, USAID and other donors began to expand the program; first to Bengkulu, East Java, East Nusa Tenggara and South  Kalimantan (PDP IIA) followed by West Nusa Tenggara and West Java (PDP IIB) plus the World Bank’s assistance for a similar project in Yogyakarta followed by the Federal Republic of Germany’s financing of a PDP project in West Sumatra and East Kalimantan not long after.3 By the time I returned to Indonesia during 1995, the establishment and capacity-building of local government planning offices had expanded to almost all of Indonesia’s provinces. Nonetheless, the complaints of weak institutional capacity I was hearing at this meeting were essentially the same as those that had consumed my attention those many years earlier. To be honest, the discussion was making me feel really depressed and disappointed. The last time I had glanced at PDP a bit more than a decade before, it looked to me to be emerging as a major success story. Had the opposite been true; had we failed completely in that earlier attempt to foster local governmental capacity? 

There was a moment of relief as I finally realized that, although the conversation was focused on the same capacity-building themes with which we had struggled in an earlier time, the focus this time was on the inadequate performance of planning offices at the lower district (kabupaten), rather than provincial (propinsi) level. While in 1980, planning offices had not yet been established in most Indonesian provinces, they had subsequently expanded not only to all provinces but to almost all districts as well. That was clearly a major achievement of a kind. But – and there is always a “but” – it turned out that another major complaint of those present was that the now very powerful provincial planning offices were exercising too much control over district planning offices. 

I had a different concern than most of the other persons present at that 1995 meeting. Leaving aside the question of who was exercising power over whom within provincial and district governments, it was apparent that planning offices at both levels were no longer focused on their primary responsibility under PDP to identify, plan, and implement innovative small-scale community-based projects. Instead they had shifted their attention almost exclusively to larger scale, more conventional, mainstream infrastructure and social investment projects. Further, consistent with that shift in emphasis, the provincial planning offices had increased their staff, administrative and operational budgets, and logistical resources beyond anything that any of us would have thought possible in 1980. Thus, our initial efforts during PDP had succeeded only too well with respect to establishing provincial, and subsequently district, planning offices as mini-versions of the Central Government’s own Planning Agency (Bappenas). However, that “success” had apparently been achieved at the expense of effective participation of poor people in the planning, decision-making, implementation, and evaluations of projects involving those planning offices.

That did not mean that projects directed toward the original PDP objective of identifying and supporting small-scale demand-driven community-based project had been abandoned. But responsibilities for those types of projects had begun to shift to other quasi-independent entities; a shift formalized with the launch of the new Kecamatan [sub-district] Development Program (KDP) during 1998. What accounted for such changes? Although the shift of community-based demand-driven projects away from provincial planning departments began after I had left Indonesia in 1981, my subsequent analysis suggested two different contributing factors: (1) the shift of PDP focus in some locations from the core objective of fostering community-based demand-driven project identification to improving the capacity of provincial governments to plan and supervise infrastructure investment projects (see “Bigger Must be Better” below) and (2) the eventual shift of responsibility for community-driven projects from the largely USAID-financed PDP program to the World Bank initiated KDP program (see “By-Passing Local Governments” below).

Bigger Must be Better

I had already been directly involved in my international development career for about thirteen years when I met a World Bank staff person for the first time. That meeting occurred following his phone call to me at my office within Central Java’s provincial planning department in Semarang and request that I come to Jakarta to discuss our experience implementing the USAID-financed PDP. It turned out that he wanted to talk with me because the World Bank was beginning the preparation of a new PDP project for the Special District of Yogyakarta  located immediately south of Central Java Province. So I flew to Jakarta a few days later and we met, if I remember correctly, at the Borobudur Inter-Continental hotel there. As he began to describe that forthcoming World Bank version of PDP in Yogyakarta, I became increasingly dumbfounded; and quite frankly concerned.

I might not remember the exact amount of the financing actually available during the time I was directly involved in the USAID-financed PDP or planned by the World Bank preparation team for their PDP Yogyakarta Project; but I do remember my jaw dropped when the person with whom I was meeting stated the World Bank’s cost expectations for their project. Indeed, the World Bank was planning to provide about four times the amount USAID had initially provided to finance small-scale demand-driven projects within three districts in Central Java and two districts in Aceh; but in Yogyakarta the World Bank was programming that larger amount for only two districts.

I had at that point in my career never been exposed to the sums being considered by the World Bank PDP project preparation team. So I asked him how they could possibly spend so much money on a PDP project so much smaller than ours. I just couldn’t see how Yogyakarta’s planning department could at that time absorb the responsibility for such levels of funding. His response was that a substantial amount of that funding would be used to construct a new office building for the planning office and to purchase a fleet of 4×4 vehicles. It was true that a new provincial planning office was also under construction in Central Java, but it was clearly more modest than what the World Bank envisaged for Yogyakarta. And it was also clear to me that the projects to be financed through their involvement in PDP were more likely to be of the larger physical infrastructure kind than the type of small-scale community-based activities financed through our original version of PDP.

After my return to Indonesia in 1995, the various provincial planning office buildings I had occasion to visit were of the large variety financed by the World Bank. Perhaps more significantly, the small office building that was built in Semarang during my tenure in Central Java had already been replaced by a dramatically larger three-story office building occupied solely by the substantially larger provincial planning department.

It occurred to me that this transformation was probably due to the capture of the PDP program and the provincial planning departments responsible for it by managers and staff primarily focused on conventional infrastructure-heavy projects rather than more innovative small-scale demand-driven investments. It is important to remember that the World Bank’s involvement in PDP occurred well before it expanded its operations to include “Community-Driven Development” during the 1990s. Thus, by the end of that 1995 meeting, my feeling that we might never be able to overcome the well established development view that “bigger is better” was reinforced. That suspicion was reinforced by the focus of the development professionals attending the 1995 meeting on the inefficiencies of lower level planning and management of large investment projects rather than on the need for facilitation of community participation in project identification and implementation.

By-Passing Local Governments

By contrast with PDP, the subsequent KDP program was managed through stand-alone project management units that essentially by-passed established provincial and local government planning units throughout its decade-long implementation.4 By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the broader international development community had come to believe that central and local government agencies were obstacles to reducing poverty and, in its place, the private sector was to be relied on as the “engine for growth5 while reliance on quasi-public non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for small-scale community-based projects was increased. A concomitant of that approach was to shift the donor community’s focus from building the capacity of governments to implement infrastructure projects to reliance on quasi-public/private entities to improve the efficient delivery of project benefits to target populations while reducing the scope of governments’ in that process; an approach included in the broader policy framework eventually known as the “Washington Consensus.” That new emphasis clearly contributed to a shift of responsibility for community-driven projects away from local government planning agencies back to the quasi-independent project or program management units favored by donors during the 1960s. Thus, although the World Bank itself traces KDP directly back to PDP,6 it was by virtue of the establishment of parallel management structures entirely separate from provincial and district planning offices clearly separate from, and not simply a continuation of, PDP.7 The by-pass organizational arrangements established for KDP have been perpetuated and reinforced by the more ­­­­­­­­­recent successor National Program for Community Empowerment for both poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas established in 2006.8

Why do donors continue to by-pass established governmental agencies for community-based projects by establishing decentralized parallel structures substantially similar to what – at least theoretically – could be integrated into already established governmental structures? That question would seem to be particularly relevant to countries like Indonesia with democratically-elected governments and mature bureaucracies.

Learning from Experience?

That 1995 meeting reinforced yet another of my growing suspicions; that development assistance agencies have responded to weak local government capacity with short-term tactical “fixes” rather than taking a longer-term strategic overview of the appropriate relationship between community demands and priorities on the one hand and technical and financial responses by governments on the other hand (a subject to be addressed further in a future post to this Blog). Instead, international financial institutions have consistently resorted to “project” (and more recently “program”) management units (PMUs) while bemoaning the “need” to do so because of “inadequate capacity” of governments’ conventional line agencies.

Innovative small-scale participatory initiatives are increasingly included within an expanding international development portfolio. However, such components remain at the margins of other entrenched core practices; we continue to do things in much the same way as we have since the 1950s. The result is that we are increasingly confronted by several fundamental inconsistencies; include the following:

1.    Although formal governments of many sovereign states have demonstrated that they are either inappropriate agents of development or incapable of serving as such agents —

Formal governments continue to serve as the main channel for the use and distribution of official international development assistance;

2.    Although there is increasing recognition that the reconstruction model of the Marshall Plan years, which was dramatically successful in the context of that time, does not adequately address the realities of development since the 1960s —

International development assistance still relies primarily on creation or rehabilitation of physical infrastructure and enhancement of human resources instead of promoting effective changes in the structure of institutional incentives;

3.    Although it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no agreed definition of what is or is not developed and, therefore, no single path to that objective —

Official development assistance agencies continue to define development almost exclusively in economic terms and to rely (at least implicitly) on theories that posit that the development process must pass through the same stages of economic growth as have Western Industrialized countries;

4.    Although master planning and central planning have been discredited by many development professionals —

The procedures and organizational arrangements through which development investments are proposed and approved continue to be rooted in a combination of scientific central planning and economic theories underlying such approaches; and

5.    Although an increasing number of development professionals understand the importance of securing the voluntary support and commitment of civil society for development decisions —      

No substantial channels have been institutionalized for the efficient, effective, and sustainable participation of the people in official investment decision-making.

Unfortunately, the view that by-passing the established public sector by creating quasi-independent special purpose management units effectively responds to the perverse inconsistencies identified above is much too simplistic and is clearly not a sustainable approach to substantially reducing global poverty. Therefore, a future blog post will summarize what I believe would be necessary to square that circle.



[1]     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 the “lessons learned” from those experiences. Nonetheless, the ability to remember being limited, the specific details presented in these stories might not be completely correct in each and every detail. I have also 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.

[2]     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 the aphorism “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.

[3]     For an official USAID evaluation of PDP, see Devres Inc., Final Evaluation of The Provincial Area Development Project (November 1989) available at For a contemporaneous academic description and analysis of PDP throughout the 1980s, see Moeljarto Tjokrowinoto, Integrated Rural Development in Indonesia: Problems and Prospects in H. Ramachandran and J.P. de Campos Guimaraes (eds.), Integrated Rural Development in Asia: Learning from Recent Experience (New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1991), p. 119 – 134 available at

[4]     For a general critique of the management by-pass approach, see George Honadle, David Gow, and Jerry Silverman, Technical Assistance Alternatives for Rural Development: Beyond the By-Pass Model, Canadian Journal of Development Studies 4 (1983), p. 222-240.

[5]      For an early argument that the performance of the public and private sectors was affected more by whether they operated as monopolies or were subject to competition rather than to their public or private character, see Jerry M. Silverman, Paul Crawford, George Honadle, and Gary Hansen, A.I.D. Assistance to Local Government: Experience and Issues (Washington, D.C.: Agency for International Development, November 1983) available at

[6]      KDP itself is an immediate descendant of the Provincial Development Project (PDP)….[and] many of the current KDP staff, in fact, came to Indonesia through PDP;” see World Bank, Indonesia Kecamatan Development Program, available at

[7]      See “Activity” and “Management” charts in World Bank, Workflow, Management, Financing, Results, Monitoring: Indonesia Kecamatan Development Program, available at

[8]     See World Bank, Empowering Indonesian Communities Through Direct Participation in Developing Infrastructure and Services (April 2010), available at  and Results Profile: Indonesia’s Community-Driven Development available at

Keywords: Aceh, Bappeda, Bappenas, Bengkulu, bigger must be better, bureaucracies, by-pass strategies, capacity-building, central government, Central Java, central planning, community-driven development, decentralization, demand-driven, Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit, development, East Asia, East Java, East Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara, engine for growth, Federal Republic of Germany, Ford Foundation, German Technical Assistance Agency, GTZ, Indonesia, international development, international relations, Jakarta, kabupaten, KDP, Kecamatan Development Program, local government, Ministry of Local Government, National Program for Community Empowerment, NGOs, non-governmental organizations, ODA, official development assistance, participatory process, PDP, PMU, poorest of the poor, poverty reduction, poverty, program management unit, project management unit, propinsi, Provincial Development Project, provincial government, provincial planning, rural, Semarang, South Kalimantan, Special District of Yogyakarta, supply-driven, supply-responsive, United States Agency for International Development, urban, USAID, village participation, Washington Consensus, water and sanitation, West Java, West Nusa Tenggara, West Sumatra, World Bank.

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