Thoughts on Development and Sustainability

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

-Lawrence J. Peter*

Lawrence almost assuredly wasn’t speaking about development and sustainability, but he eloquently states my uncertain position as to the pros/cons in the development and aid industries that I’ve been initiated into with Peace Corps.

A post over at Waylaid Dialectic describes the three roles for aid out there today and discusses the on-the-ground realities:

  1. Development aid – the ideal, sustainably transforming countries
  2. Band-aid aid –  improving people’s welfare in the absence of systematic change, makes no pretence at changing societies
  3. Keeping it together aid – tries to keep states together and functioning even if it’s not transforming them
The Peace Corps development philosophy focuses squarely on type one aid by teaching the PACA approach (Participatory Analysis for Community Action). In other words, to assist the community in selecting projects that they themselves feel are priorities will be able to continue on their own. I agree with this philosophy whole-heartedly, though of course true sustainability is incredibly hard to get right. Our advantage as Peace Corps Volunteers, is our ability to fully integrate into our communities and our long time horizon.
Waylaid Dialectic’s post says this regarding type one aid:
…it’s [the] aid that most aid agencies and politicians talk about. This is also aid that rarely, I think, succeeds on its own terms. It turns out that development is too complicated, aid too cumbersome, and the ability of external agents to effect change too weak, for this type of aid to succeed often. Not often isn’t the same as never – it probably sometimes works. But success is less common than one would think from the rhetoric of aid. And I think we kid ourselves much of the time regarding the potential for[this type of] aid to work, and end up wasting money.
I myself have been conflicted lately on a few projects where I don’t believe I’m really doing sustainable development, and may be drifting into type two aid. One example: my organization has a lot of data, but organizes it inefficiently. With my background in MS Access, I’ve been working on making a database to enter and track borrower data. And while I don’t anticipate having any problems teaching my colleagues how to use the system, teaching them how to make the actual tables/queries/tables and their interactions might be a little out of their league. But I’ve decided to make it anyway. If I were in the US I’d most likely run into the same problem. Users wouldn’t know how to make the database (or the website or almost anything else), but they’d know how to use it, and that’s what counts. The key will be to fully train my colleagues on the concepts of the system, but not worry about making them all IT professionals.
Waylaid Dialectic’s post continues:
I’m a big fan of the second type of aid. This, I think, can work — and it’s probably where aid has had its most major success in improving welfare. The main argument against it is that you have to give it in perpetuity, or at least for a long time. But, hey that’s what we do with our own welfare state. No one in New Zealand says “we’re funding a health service now so that one day we won’t have to have one”. I’m comfortable with aid as a global social safety net, as part of a global social contact of sorts.

And while I agree type one aid is the ideal, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong or evil about type two aid when done right. So while I will always strive for true sustainable development, I am open to the idea that bringing in outside aid and/or expertise that is potentially only sustainable for the short to medium term can still be a good thing. What do you think?


* If this and his other quotes are any indication, I think Lawrence and I would have been friends.


2 Responses to “Thoughts on Development and Sustainability”

  1. June 7, 2011 at 03:35

    Hey Scott!

    It seems like you have really accomplished a lot over the several months. You should really be proud of what you are doing. From what I know the first year is still getting to know where you are and what can really be accomplished in a community. You seem to be ahead of most PCV at this time.

    Hope you are well.

    • June 9, 2011 at 16:14

      Thanks! I’m trying to get some things done, though it has been difficult with the security situation here. I don’t think I’ve ever strung more than a few weeks in a row at site. I’m aiming to change that!

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The opinions on this blog are only those of the author, and and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.