By Ryan Bourque
Back in August 2012 it was announced that the Department for International Development (DFID) was going to label itself ‘UK Aid’ with the tagline ‘from the British people.’ The press release went as follows…
For too long, Britain has not received the credit it deserves for the amazing results we achieve in tackling global poverty. Some in the development community have been reluctant to ‘badge’ our aid with the Union Flag. I disagree: I believe it is important that aid funded by the British people should be easily and clearly identified as coming from the UK. It is right that people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided. British aid is achieving results of which everyone in the United Kingdom can be proud. And I am determined that, from now on, Britain will not shy away from celebrating and taking credit for them.
For anyone that has ever worked for USAID – author included – this sounds all too familiar. Anything remotely related to an American development project has to be labeled with USAID branding, complete with ‘from the American People’. This includes everything from bags of wheat or rice sent to famine zones to the chairs in the offices of USAID projects. So when the announcement came from DFID I first thought: is this a joke? Are they trying to get a rise out of their American counterparts with a blatantly farcical attack on American arrogance? Then I quickly realized that no one was laughing. This man was actually serious and the accompanying branding was in fact going to be promoted throughout the organization.
Now, I’m not going to discuss what I think this type of branding says about current political mind-sets or make any radical criticisms about the cynical nature of development as charity. These arguments have been made more articulately elsewhere. What I will focus on are implications, or at least the potential implications, of such a line of thinking on development practice.
I guess I’ll start with what I do. As previously alluded, I work on a USAID-funded project in agricultural development. We’re pursuing what has become known as a ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’, or M4P approach, to our interventions. Without getting into too much detail, M4P sprung from the insight that in order for development interventions to have sustained impact beyond the narrow temporal horizons of donor-funding cycles, it was important to engage with existing market actors and ensure that, in current development parlance, they ‘own’ the change process.
For example, instead of working directly with farmer groups to train them on better agricultural practice and provide them with access to a major buyer or exporter (agricultural development 101 as I like to call it), we try to work with the best placed actors in a market (e.g. traders, individuals that own hulling facilities, or agric input shop owners) to provide better services to farmers. The goal is to identify mutually beneficial market innovations that can be scaled.
Where this type of approach becomes difficult is in ensuring that the development sector presence is as limited as possible. Often individuals that we work with have interacted with the development industry for years and have certain expectations of what that interaction should look like. Usually there is an assumption of some type of financial reward such as access to grants, free equipment or per diems for attending training events. This problem is compounded when there is pressure on projects to brand themselves from a donor.
Picture, for example, an M4P project that aims to convince agro-inputs shop owners to hire agents on commission in order to bring in orders from farmers; the goal being to reduce transport costs for farmers and give them more regular access to products and advice. One type of activity they might consider early on would be convincing a business to get out to a village and promote its products. On the first visit this might require that the project pay some money up front to the business in order for them to try something new. Now, imagine that at this promotional event, it was required that the project have clearly branded signage with the words ‘from the British people’ plastered everywhere.
Given previously mentioned expectations related to the development sector, this would represent a very different type of training indeed. Farmers would, and do, assume that if the business is getting support from the development sector, than they should not have to pay full price for products or should be compensated for attending the training. If this was seen as a commercial affair, however, there is a higher likelihood of building viable business relationships in the long term.
What this means is that saying both that bilateral aid is achieving results and that the funder of that aid should take credit for those results can be, and often are, contradictory statements. When looking to build local ownership, claiming credit for a change process runs counter to the goals of that process. Sure, if you’re handing out bags of rice or wheat and you want people to know where it comes from, then fine, it can be labeled ‘from the such-and-such people’. But this isn’t the same as sustainable development. This requires ownership and allowing someone else to take credit for your idea requires humility. I see neither in this new branding scheme. So let’s not make this a debate about who gets credit and why, but rather about how to do good work.