The pitfalls of pushing development ever faster… we need compassion for all
There is great need for compassion in development, for all those pushed to perform. First, for the participants of development projects, who can have projects imposed on them with timeframes that do not accommodate their participation and learning. They can feel pushed that "current project cycles and procedures do not allocate attention, time or resources for such consultation… the urgency to distribute resources on a schedule set by donors (often 'too fast') as undermining opportunities for outsiders to understand local social and political dynamics and processes" thus sustainability.
Parts of the system are broken when we development workers push projects designed abroad, don't have time we know is vital to take to involve participants in needs assessments, project design/ implementation/ monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Many of us feel such pressure to perform, to prove impact that we work 80 hours a week, race to meet donor reporting requirements… Everyone suffers from such incessant pushing, For instance, a Columbia University study examined the mental health of national humanitarian aid workers in northern Uganda and found that of 376 national staff working for 21 humanitarian aid agencies, over 50% of workers experienced 5 or more categories of traumatic events. Sadly, 68% reported symptoms putting them in high risk for depression, 53% at risk of anxiety disorders, and 26% of respondents were likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Staff are often pushed to the brink from wanting to serve participants, meet their Headquarters and donor requirements and function in situations that do not offer optimal safety, great functionality, much less time for learning or collaboration.
While not as dramatic, equally painful is the donor push of projects out the door to get more funding through the pipeline. Such pressure at headquarters often doesn't allow for design to emerge from their field offices, they may be time-forced to use templates from old projects, without the benefit of analyzing evaluations to learn what should be replicated, or not. My own Appreciative Inquiry study into Learning at USAID found wonderful learning champions who were also overwhelmed. Lessons from them were distilled into headlines, some of which included "I"m late, so late and so tired" and "Make Time!".
One project which will likely perpetuate such problems entered my inbox today from USAID, Government of Sweden via the African Development Bank. It offers up to $1 million funding to grants in 6 East and West African countries. This Agriculture Fast Track Fund wants to accomplish so much that its benefit may be limited at the grassroots. It offers winners a scant 24 months to accomplish a broad range of agriculture infrastructure projects spanning the entire value chain – from production to market. It focuses on investment-ready agriculture infrastructure projects. Yet what time is there to participatorally plan? Further, what is the absorptive capacity of smallholders, their communities and the networks that support them to sustainably and collectively design projects that absorb such massive funds so quickly? How much collaborative implementation, M&E and learning can happen so very fast?
This goes against what the end-of-the-line wants. As one Time to Listen Myanmar/Burma interview tells us, "People want self-reliance and to focus on long-term development and planning after they have awareness and training. People talked about how project timeframes are too short and long-term projects with community involvement in needs assessments, planning, and evaluation are necessary. People want…to be able to figure things out and to assess their problems for themselves, rather than having NGOs tell the people the issues they face." Other Time to Listen participants told interviewers of disenfranchisement: “'If you ask me what my priority needs are and I tell you, but then you bring me other things instead, I will take them, but you did not help me (Mali)' and 'Donors do a lot of assessments and focus groups, but then when what comes out of these focus groups doesn’t fit their agenda, they simply change it to make it fit (Lebanon).'" We have a far way to go but need to change course now, with compassion (and participation) for all.
Where have you seen great listening in the field? Where have you been heard?