Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development
I remember, as a teenager, looking at myself in the mirror. After nights of wearing a durag, I only had a canyon-like crease on the crown of my head. Sadly, no waves. (To the confused reader, waves is in reference to getting a wavy-texture to one’s hair – see picture below).
In high school, to be without waves was a sanction to lands of social ostracization. The process was arduous. Excessive brushing, the right haircut, the right product and the right technique. Despite the advertisements of the products I used which “guaranteed” waves, and despite the sanguine smile of the models with waves on the products I bought, I instead had my own version of Lake Pacid.
This experience reminds me of the promotion which many development organizations in general, social enterprises in particular, engage in. These practices become evident in goals set and claims made in the development industry.
Poverty is a condition that has existed since man’s establishment of civilizations. Against this backdrop, individual organizations – with no reservation– write goals of ending poverty. This goal seems to be, er, a bit of a stretch. If we assume that by poverty, these organizations mean people living below $2 USD/day (a debate which belongs in a library of countless journals, books, and blog posts), then approximately 4 billion people would be considered “poor.” At least a century of human enterprise, and at least a trillion dollars, have failed to eradicate poverty.
Yet, one organization will lift 4 billion people out of poverty.
Understandably, organizations in development need to be visionary. Need to push against convention. Need to push against expectations. Yet, surely, there must be a distinction between sublime aims and serious delusions?
Additionally, these objectives are sometimes partnered with claims of saving millions of lives, or creating millions of jobs. Yet, few organizations can show a direct and causal link between these outcomes and the initiatives of the organization. Few organizations can provide indisputable proof that the outcomes for which they take responsbility are not results of alternate initiatives, interventions or phenomena.
The claims made and objectives set by these organizations matter because of the critical importance of the matter at hand. Specifically, improving livelihoods. These claims and objectives matter because “gold-plated” marketing obscures an understanding of meaningful change.
Yet, setting unattainable objectives is more of a marketing exercise than a visionary statement. The dissonance becomes patently clear in the lack of a clear plan for how the organization will achieve these goals. What are the specific measurable targets for achieving this objective? The people accountable for the results? How will a link be shown between the organization’s work and the claims made?
To address this, organizations need to set visionary, yet achievable goals. Clear plans are needed with the required resources and timelines, with evidence of concrete results that can be causally linked to the organization’s efforts. Thankfully, while surely not perfect, IRIS and GIIRS are steps in this direction. For the advent of total and rigorous adoption in the development industry, I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, I am going to work on my waves.