Developmental utopia

The Millennium Prize Problems are seven mathematical problems, which were seen, in 2000, as some of the most difficult to solve. They were chosen by a committee of mathematicians on the basis that if they were solved – a solution to one has been found so far – several key computational questions would be answered that could have revolutionary effects in various fields such as computer science and physics. In the world of international development, we have Millennium Development Goals, also set in 2000 and soon to be renewed in 2015. However, the Millennium Development Goals are not problems, they are symptoms. If they were an equivalent to the Millennium Prize Problems for the study and practice of international development we would need to look at issues as grand as inequality, economic interdependence and political repression. These maligns are instrumental in many other ills such as poverty, poor provision of basic services and inadequate medical aid – all of them issues that the Millennium Development Goals try to address. In a way, the MDGs are the top line of a vast and intricate net of problems. If one could solve them as one can their mathematical counterparts, the solutions could be used as tools to build new things and fix existing malfunctions. The solutions would trickle down – at least theoretically – and turn into a developmental utopia.

One problem that tops this list of Millennium Development Problems is that of how to democratise development. It is one of the most important questions as it constitutes the missing link between wanting to do good to others and letting them choose what good means to them. Development until now has failed people many times because in absence of their active choice, it had outcomes that were harmful or only benefitted a few, rendering gains made unsustainable. Development as a practice in which predominantly governments, NGOs and (social) businesses are involved has created a conundrum, where democratic countries and liberally-minded practitioners impose measures on populations with little, or in countries without effective democracy, no consultation nor mechanism to hold them to account. In this sense, development is an endeavour characterised by outside intervention that pressures or incentivises communities to adopt changes that would have not come about without the intervention. It is not organic or random. It is induced and planned, although outcomes often appear differently to how initial objectives had predicted. The Millennium Prize question is how such an endeavour can be turned into a process. It should be a process that allows decisions to be made by the very people who are targeted or affected by a development project. It ought to have mechanisms in place that render all stakeholders of a development project answerable to those targeted and affected by it. In other words: how can we democratise development?

I am not a mathematician nor an erudite scholar and development is not mathematics. In applied mathematics or physics an approximation is often good enough to get you the result you wanted, such as when we calculate the area for a globe without knowing every decimal of pi. However, development is more like politics than mathematics. Even if you had the perfect formula, it does not mean anyone will use it. Development means human endeavour, empathy, power play, grand utopia and the petty realities of daily life. I think it is time that we free this question from the bounds of scholarship and professional practice and ask ourselves what solution we can come up with. If we try to answer how to democratise development, we need a broad-based dialogue capturing ideas and concerns of all spheres of society. The answer of a question of democratization should in itself be democratic, I want to argue. The following paragraphs are a start and an invitation to you for more.


A new window into development?
Source: Annabelle Wittels.

A short history of attempts

Many attempts have been made to answer these questions but so far they have only been partial. If you want to create development for the power-poor masses, your solution must not leave the power-rich elites out in the cold. After all, it is them who fund most development projects.

Because of the need for money and power, development for long was something dealt with only by governments. This model of international development has survived until today. When donor funds are given to developing countries, the focus of programmes and priorities within them are usually derived through a process of negotiation between the donor – may it be a foreign country, an intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations or an NGO like the Gates Foundation – and the host country. Unfortunately, countries where governments have long legislature periods, democracy has a patchy record or elections are personality rather than policy-based, political decisions often lack links to what the population wants. What is more, when decision-making processes are opaque and there are no clear parameters for populations to check whether a development project or partner was chosen over another in their best interest, corruption is more likely to occur. In 2012 The Economist afforded a special issue on how to tackle corruption and graft in international development. Democracy, ensuring that people’s voices are heard and feed into decision-making, was one of the ubiquitously applicable solutions to the problem. As Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a global development think tank, has shown with an experimental study in Indonesia, embezzlement of development funds can be considerably reduced by increasing public oversight.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the development community thought that problems with unaccountable governments and a corrupt bureaucracy could be solved by circumventing the state and dispersing aid directly to NGOs based in the country. Chosen NGOs were able to deliver health or aid at a small scale but often failed beneficiaries as they had no mechanisms to vote for new programmes, elect staff or hold them to account in any other manner.

As the problem of accountability and popular demands for large-scale infrastructural changes such as access to water, roads and electricity persisted, it became clear that the coordinative capacity of the state was still needed. To tamper the power of an unaccountable state, donors tried a third way, turning to the private sector: First through structural adjustment that forced governments to privatise state-held enterprises and open markets. Later through promotion of public-private partnerships. Needs and provision of services would be matched like demand and supply. There was hope that problems of accountability would be solved because people would only buy from those who served them best.

However, this did not work for those without money. They were excluded because they were unable to spend and therefore lacked influence over the private sector. Those who could spend also had limited power as in many instances there was a small array of providers to choose from. If well intentioned, the state attempted to play a moderating and redistributive role but was overpowered by commercial expertise during negotiations of leases and tax deals. If self-interested, it neglected its duties. In sum, the search continues for the perfect formula to first match delivery to population needs, secondly empower them to choose what they want to see delivered and thirdly do so in an accountable manner. These three challenges need to be solved to democratise development, to give aid recipients greater say in the what, how and for whom of development aid.


One problem, three challenges

The first challenge is one of information. In many instances it is too costly to determine the needs and priorities of a population, especially when they live in remote locations and communication channels such as access to phone networks are lacking. Governments cannot poll for opinion and populations lack channels to communicate directly to them. Populations might know what they need but in most cases outsider skill and money, and in many cases a larger, coordinating force such as government are needed to implement large infrastrucyral changes and provision of basic services. Otherwise, communities would have probably tackled the issue themselves a long time ago. For a successful cooperation, information must pass from communities to outside support.

Let’s take Helmand province in Afghanistan as an example. Although aid organisations started to re-populate the area in the mid-2000s, we know little to nothing about the priorities, opinions and needs of people in Helmand province. The persistent threat of violence and on-going insurgencies have made it impossible to conduct any comprehensive survey of demographics, health status or opinions on matters such as constitutional rights for ethnic minorities in the area.

From a purely humanitarian perspective that means Helmand’s population is not served as it should be. It is unclear whether access to drinking water or safe roads are a more pressing concern, and even less in which villages they are needed most. The closest we get to knowing what the people of Helmand think are a handful of anecdotal reports collected by the Helmand Province Reconstruction Team lead by the UK military that looks at whether a small number of household heads in Helmand are happy with the initiative’s infrastructure projects. It is impossible to know whether they speak for the near 1.5 million people living in the province. Statistics would tell you that they are probably not representative. Apart from humanitarian considerations, the lack of information makes it incredibly hard to regain the trust of its population, which is crucial from a security and state-building perspective. Taliban who have developed sophisticated networks to provide health, educational and judicial services are locally based. Villagers can knock on their doors to voice demands or discuss matters of concern. Government representatives are often only to be found in urban centres, which makes communication difficult. Being better informed, it will more likely be Taliban than governors who get the right solutions to the right people at the right time. Without information, without being able to hear their voices, i it comes down to pure luck whether a development project can be implemented in a manner that reflects its people’s needs.  It either works or it does not. Without information it is like flicking a coin and hoping it lands on the right side. Admittedly, having information is only the first step. Once it is clear what communities need and what they see as fit for purpose in their circumstance.

Market in Granada, Nicaragua.
Source: Annabelle Wittels.


So the second challenge lies in finding a way to give aid recipients the opportunity to choose for themselves. Citizens’ ideal choices are often different from what experts or technocrats decide is best for them, even if they are thoroughly informed by polling data and research. The decisions they take might be perfectly rational and in line with the interests of the majority, but infringe on vital rights of a minority. In such a scenario, activism and venues for public protest are common channels to voice discontent and influence decision-making. Even if demands voiced in such protests are not followed up on, later elections give the electorate a chance to punish governments who ignored their demands.

This is true for mature democracies like the UK. Caps on university tuition fees were increased following thorough study, which culminated in The Browne Review. Masses of students protested in 2010 and 2011, but to no avail. Student fee caps were increased to GBP 9,000. However, the Liberal Democrats – a party that had campaigned on the promise of tuition fee reductions – subsequently lost most of their student voter base. Unfortunately, in less mature democracies with less opportunity for public voice and dissent, similar miscalculation of popular sentiment is often without consequence. Elites who failed to deliver on their promises remain in power.

In Malawi, for example, government and donor attempts to deliver access to essential medicines continuously failed despite extensive studies into the best ways of providing such services, drawing heavily on consultations with affected populations. Studies had not taken into account entrenched social norms that stopped people from speaking out against those of higher status or power. Dissent had previously been violently repressed in Malawi. People lacked examples of when public disagreement led to more accountability and improved service delivery. Therefore, people remained silent, although they were given the opportunity to determine how their health systems should be developed. To solve the second problem, we thus not only need opportunity but also time to create mechanisms for and a culture of open dialogue. Decisions must be agreed between those who have funds to fertilise development initiatives and those who should profit from the fruits they bear. Once needs are known and those affected are involved in decision-making, a lot has been achieved. Many development projects today can proudly point to having successfully tackled these two hurdles. Yet their sustainability is compromised by questions about accountability.

The third challenge to solving the riddle of democratising development is thus one of accountability. It is about what mechanisms can be put into place that enable aid recipients to hold development actors to account. There are already a few puzzle pieces available but not enough for a comprehensive picture: Decentralisation can help to increase opportunities for providing input and making government officials accountable. Participatory research methods used in monitoring and evaluation have helped to make NGOs more responsible to their beneficiaries. But there is no mechanism that connects a villager in a remote part of the world with the big intergovernmental donor organisation who gives aid to her government or a private charity.


We need utopia

To tackle this last problem, I believe, we need to reinvent what democracy means and how its mechanisms are used in development. One utopia that I have been daydreaming about is a revolution of bureaucracy. Despite the ghastly sound of it and bad reputation it has amassed over the last century, bureaucracy matters. Bureaucracy is the administrative process of how institutions make and execute decisions. These processes can create inefficient, nepotistic rogue states just as well as leaders in innovation and social progress. Bureaucracy allows for planning, regulation and (re)distribution of resources. It is a tool that can be used to create alternatives. It is the building block that helps to bridge the gap between utopia and real change.

So it begins. Let’s imagine that with every election citizens were asked to not only cast their vote for their candidate but also state their, for instance, top three priorities for development projects during the next legislature. This would mean a voting ballot would now have a second life as a polling station. Such an arrangement would help to solve the first and second problems – giving opportunity to citizens to voice their needs and decide what problems they want help with to tackle. This arrangement could be made politically savoury if donors committed to funding developing country governments on the condition that they allocate the to address priorities, for which their citizens had voted. Political parties would have less room to purposefully misrepresent development needs to their own favour. They would be forced to wage more of a policy- rather than personality-based campaign as they otherwise might need to implement measures for which they did not intend to stand. It would also be easier for voters to see whether promises are followed up on. Seeing as there would be a public record of what the nation decided to be the issues to tackle first, there could be less confusion and scope for dissuasion about what election promises entail.

To tackle the third problem, accountability, all funds and development projects supported by the state and its main donors could be ear-marked. They would only be allowed to be used for projects that address priorities that the country’s population had elected. Instead of catering to commercial interests or those of foreign government donors, partnerships between government, the private and third sector would be guided by citizens’ demands.


Abandoned Hospital in Nicaragua.
Source: Annabelle Wittels.


Of course, realising such a utopia would only be possible if it can stand up to real life challenges. The costs of conducting a poll coupled with national elections could be an obstacle. However, adding one question to an existing poll would mean adding only marginal costs. If national census bureaus would be overburdened, polls could be analysed in partnership with university cooperations or aid agencies that already collect data at a large scale such as J-PAL, IPA, the World Bank or USAID.

Yet, even if costs were not a problem, parties could wage information campaigns based in their favour and thereby hijack people’s choices of development priorities. In an age where radio, SMS messaging services, TV and internet penetrate big parts of even the poorest countries, successfully misinforming the public seems like a herculean task. It is more likely that donor funds would be insufficient to address people’s development priorities. This could disappoint the public and disenfranchise them in the long run. A remedy might be to require governments to communicate action plans on how to tackle issues step by step clearly to its population over the course of its legislator period. Mobile technology could help in relaying this information to those in remote areas and even allow them to give feedback via, for instance, free text messaging services.

Finally, politicians would be dis-incentivised to over-promise on delivery because they would know that donor funds are tied to priorities chosen by the populous. It is unlikely that deprived communities that make up the majority of the population of developing countries would demand harmful policies such as fuel subsidies, which feature in many election campaigns, simply because they mostly benefit affluent urban classes. Politicians would further have an incentive to be precise in their specifications to avoid disappointment and appear to have failed their mandate. Instead of promising to eradicate poverty, ignorance and disease, we are more likely to see ambitious but more bounded agendas such as creating x-amount of new jobs, providing free primary education to all and forming international alliances to lower the costs of pharmaceuticals.

Nevertheless, polarisation and conflict could ensue if polled priorities differed widely between people of different backgrounds or regions. This danger could be lessened by adding decentralisation to a general reform of voting procedures. It could provide needed autonomy to address issues that succeed as top priority for a specific locality but differ on the national level.

To tackle all three core problems – information, decision-making power and accountability – reforming state and donor bureaucracy in a revolutionary manner is imperative. It might not be a smooth ride.  A reform of development bureaucracy as proposed here will most likely need several alterations based on trial and error that differ from context to context. It is truly a millennial challenge, but it is one which is imperative to tackle. The world managed to agree on millennium development goals a second time, but to succeed it will have to ensure that the what, how and to whom of development is informed, decided and made accountable to the people it seeks to serve.

Annabelle Wittels is a Cambridge alumnus and research analyst, trying to find answers to questions asked by developing nations, NGOs and donors. She is about to quit her job at the BBC Media Action to start a PhD at UCL.