Conflict and Progress

Myanmar – indeed East Asia – is an entirely new world to me. As the name of my blog indicates, I have spent a lot of time learning and working in Africa focusing on spreading positive and real stories. Even though I left my job in Malawi feeling like I had so much still to learn, when I come to new places like Myanmar I realise just how much I had learned living in Africa… this is a whole new world!


My job now managing projects in various countries sees me shipping out to some very awe-inspiring places most recently Salta in Argentina and now Myanmar where Mothers’ Union has been working for 100 years. That is some history… more on that later, but for now I am still struggling to understand the balance between the fast and rapid progress taking place here in Yangon (the formerly shut-off country is now open to tourists, and western companies are increasingly investing) with the ethnic and religious conflict between communities, exarcebated by a powerful military and government.

I realise already that I am ignorant of many of the issues; so I caveat anything I write on Myanmar with this.

Last year a great deal of violence spread through Rakhine and Kachin states here in Myanmar; clashes between Buddhists (majority) and Muslims (minority)  caused the government to declare a state of emergency (and introduce martial law) in Rakhine state. Many thousands were displaced from their homes and fled into neighbouring Bangladesh and over 200 were reportedly killed in the clashes.

By the time we have arrived in Myanmar though, it seems things have started improving. Just before our visit, President Thein Sein visited the UK and publicly declared his commitment on the release of political prisoners in Myanmar; a strong symbol of Myanmar progressing on the course to democracy and reconciliation. We drove the road to Mandalay which passes through/near the town of Meiktila – the site of some of last year’s violence. There was no obvious or apparent evidence of conflict or tension, and while in Mandalay itself we saw many tourists and found people to be relaxed and friendly dealing with foreigners. Furthermore, Myanmar is now taking the chair of ASEAN, and will be hosting the ASEAN games in 2014, as well as hosting the ASEAN conference in 2015. This is quite an achievement, and already there are remarkable signs of development and progress building up to these events.

In a country where rural culture seems to have hardly changed in centuries, there is rapid transformation taking place and I for one am very interested to see what impact this will have; there are already discussions around the manipulation of local resources/people as Chinese (and other) investors come in to a market that is unregulated, unprotected and leaves the people of Myanmar relatively vulnerable to an outside world they have been denied real interaction with for so long under military rule.


Incidentally, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the rise of the democracy movement, and Aung Sun Suu Kyi was here speaking in Yangon to mark the occasion. Despite not having permission to hold the rally/protests this week, police let it happen with no reported incident. That in itself is a good thing..



On the road to Mandalay…


 Well here I am in Myanmar; a beautiful country full of temples, pagodas, a despotic military regime and a whole lot of ancient history and culture on show for the few tourists that are increasingly coming on holiday to this golden land… Here there has been a centuries-long bloody battle for peace and democracy that still continues pockets of the country today. Combine that with a drive by the government to open the country to tourism and trade, with a strong refusal by the local people here to discuss anything that might incriminate them to the regime and you find yourself tiptoeing on eggshells in one hell of a country with a population of extremely kind, gentle and gracious people.


I have dreamed of coming to this place for several years now and how fitting that it should be with work rather than as a tourist… The Mothers’ Union in Myanmar is a phenomenally strong organisation here despite the fact that Christians make up a tiny percentage of the demographic of religions (around 4% I believe, to Buddhism’s 80-something%) and Anglicans an even smaller minority with just 67,000 members of the Church here (compared to a population of 60,000,000).


Myanmar happens to be home to one of my idols, as loved by millions across the globe; Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi, The Lady. Her story is incredible, and to visit this place that has been shut off to many for so long and glimpse even just a tiny bit of Myanmar’s history and the people’s story – well that is just an enormous privilege.


The news has been filled with stories lately of how this country is opening up, and that tourists are increasingly drawn to this place which is home to many holy Buddhist shrines and sites worthy of ‘wonders of the world’ status. And it’s true! While in Yangon we haven’t seen so much, on the road up to Mandalay and beyond there is a definite presence of tourists and what is most striking about this place is how safe it is. There aren’t many places I would feel comfortable and safe walking around as a complete foreigner, but Myanmar is one of them!


Well I will start writing up some of our experiences so far on this incredible (but all-too-short) visit to Myanmar, but I will endeavour to change some names and places to protect the work of Mothers’ Union in Myanmar. They are sensitive about the information they broadcast since the militant Buddhist hardliners (I always found it hard to believe that such a group could exist, but they do) can create big problems for them. In the meantime I had hoped to upload some of the photos but the connection just won’t cope…


Move on up….

I stumbled across this article in the Washington Post this week about Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new premier and Africa’s second female leader. Perhaps a more thorough and considered analysis of the future of Malawi’s development should follow here… instead though I want to write about Joyce Banda.

Much has been made of Malawi’s new leader, and the heralded dawn of a new era. After succeeding Mutharika after his heart attack back in April, Banda took no time in making quick and bold decisions in the interest of her country. Devaluing the Kwacha (which the IMF had been advising Malawi to do for some time, and holding back much needed funds in order to try and persuade the devaluation) was one of the policies that was painfully felt by all Malawians as they saw prices soar and the value of their money drop. Many Malawians had the wisdom to understand though that this was a painfully necessary measure to get Malawi back on the path of economic growth. We know from history that printing and circulating more money doesnt work, see Germany in the depression and Zimbabwe in recent times.

Since I have endeavoured to make this blog a forum for positive stories of African development, I am somewhat annoyed by the level of criticism and cynicism Banda has attracted from some Malawians (seems to be a minority though), aid workers, donors and expats. Throwaway comments from people on twitter and so on have sniped at her just trying to appease donors, and being as power-hungry and apathetic towards her country’s poverty levels as her predecessor. So often we overlook the simple facts and refuse to let ourselves feel anything other than bitter cynicism (especially those expat aid workers who seem to enjoy playing ‘expert’ and snubbing anything that sounds like positive African news).

Number 1. Joyce Banda is Malawi’s first female premier (the US has yet to achieve this…) and Africa’s second female leader. Significant!

Number 2. Banda has made a point of doing away with the lavish lifestyle; getting rid of the $12m private jet for example, the cause of the decrease of aid from the UK to Mutharika’s government. This may only be symbolic, and she may well still ride around in a large motorcade, but the symbolism is huge and profound in the context of African leaders who spend more money on their own luxurious lifestyle than on eradicating the poverty of the citizens they are supposed to represent.

Number 3. Banda is focusing policy in line with Malawi’s interests; not her own and not donors. She is doing what she thinks is needed to support and sustain Malawi’s rich and beautiful heritage whilst reforming areas pertaining to human rights and economic reform that have, until now, renegaded Malawi to the bottom of development indices.

Number 4. Whether you’re a raging neoliberal or a passive hippy believing in the sustainability of small scale farming, you can’t escape the fact that when Mutharika was in power there was no fuel, scarce electricity and forex which led to shortages of almost everything up and down the country. Businesses were crippled, investors started leaving the country. Now, under Banda, things are starting to return to normal and investment (which is not necessarily being welcomed with open arms) is returning. Good news!

How much will really change, long term, remains to be seen. Maybe it is too good to be true to expect Malawi to enjoy an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity. Maybe Joyce Banda will join the large number of African leaders who have been paraded as the saving grace for African development by the West, but become dictatorial and oppressive leaders of authoritarian regimes. But for those who protested about media freedom, for those who campaign for human rights, for the business’ now able to get fuel and ensure deliveries can be made – basically anyone living in Malawi who endured the Mutharika years – this has got to be a good start.

Let’s give Joyce Banda the encouragement and optimism that her new government deserves. It is after all, pretty boring to maintain this ‘we decide what’s good for you’ ethos. We talk about participation and ownership, but the cynics out there serve only to endorse the continued arrogance of the West that we get to decide what is good and bad and what development should look like.

Come on Malawi, prove all the boring buggers wrong!!


Do the arguments in favour of development aid outweigh the arguments against? An old debate, but it’s time for some new answers.

1.0 Introduction

Development Aid (DA) ‘works, it doesn’t work, it can work but that depends…’ (McGillivray et al 2006). Aid works well in some contexts, has no impact in others, and at times can cause negative outcomes in what has become the increasingly complex business of aid. The literature is now saturated; everyone has an opinion on whether or not aid is a good idea, and if it works (however that is measured). Scholars have argued convincingly for both sides of the polarised debate, but there is only a small body of literature that recognises the growing complexities of aid, focusing on reforming and strengthening the case for aid in poor countries. This paper addresses the critiques for and against DA, but also demonstrates that the picture is not entirely negative and that much can be done to improve the system. The question is not just whether the arguments detailing why aid doesn’t work outweigh the case for aid but how we make aid more effective and efficient.

This paper will not provide detailed analysis of the econometrics of the debate since that has already been covered sufficiently (Pritchett 2008; Lensink and White 2000;) nor will it provide discussion on emergency aid, trade or debt[1]. This paper will focus on DA, otherwise referred to as official development assistance (ODA), and defined as aid which is given either bilaterally (from government to government) or multilaterally (from agencies like the World Bank to governments in recipient countries). DA largely consists of grants and concessional loans that are invested in infrastructure projects (roads, dams, and ports), the provision of large public goods, as well as the more traditional balance of payments support (Whitfield 2009; Riddell 2007:8).

This paper will provide a broader analysis that goes beyond ‘cherry picked’ case studies[2], choosing instead to focus on the structural constraints that prevent effective aid delivery and augment the arguments of DA’s critics. Aid does work and is likely to always exist in some form so let the debate not be a question of whether or not to provide aid and why, but rather, what we can do to improve aid delivery and how we can constructively use critiques against aid to improve the system (Riddell 2007; Whitfield & Fraser 2010; Birdsall 2008).

2.0 Review

The history of aid is important to briefly review here since the way that aid is provided has changed greatly over time, with rising multiplicity of donors, and DA flows at unprecedented peaks. In the fifty years since DA first appeared, the business of aid has diversified and become more complex than anyone could have predicted. Figure 1 shows how the provision of ODA has changed in the last 50 years.

Fig.1 Net ODA disbursements, total DAC countries

There are key identifiable trends in the provision of DA; in the 1950s DA was mostly invested into infrastructure projects, in the 1960s and 1970s the developmental state model ruled, whilst the 1980s saw the neoliberal discourse become main-stream and the rise of the Washington Consensus (conditional lending). This meant that donors were able to force recipient countries to roll back the state and support the market in the belief that this would sustain economic growth. Evidence tells us though that this was not the case, and nowhere was the pain of structural adjustment felt worse than in Sub Saharan Africa (Kanbur 2000). This led to the post-Washington Consensus of the 1990s, which placed greater importance on ‘getting institutions right’. Evidence was published by the World Bank and others that disputably showed a positive relationship between the provision of aid, growth and a good policy environment (Burnside & Dollar 2004; Reddy & Miniou 2006). At the same time as these developments occurred in the provision of DA, so too was there a big shift in the way that the international community conceptualised poverty and the rural poor allowing poverty to be understood beyond income indicators alone. This culminated in the creation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the desire of donors to start seeing tangible results and reductions in poverty directly because of the aid they were providing; this supports the argument made here regarding the focus needed on making aid work.

The methodologies employed to determine aid effectiveness as defined by donors, are often deeply flawed. This is important because the resulting data sets inform the mainstream perception of poverty. For example, the World Bank’s figures on the number of people living on less than $1 and $2 per day are based on data from only 79 countries, with no data at all for 65 countries (Riddell 2007:167). Measuring aid is a significant challenge; not only do donors and scholars seek to discover trends in line with their own institutional affiliations and motivations, but the constantly changing delivery of aid makes it extremely difficult to measure. Is aid successful if it achieves short term objectives (such as building schools, providing health services to rural populations and so on) but fails in the long term to generate sustainable economic growth? Furthermore, who decides what the objectives of providing DA are and what successful ‘development’ looks like? It is generally agreed that many of the data sets used to prove aid’s effectiveness are inaccurate or incomplete (Pritchett 2008; Easterly 2008; McGillivray et al 2006; Riddell 2007). This is in large part due to the lack of any overarching, long-term, cross-country data sets making it difficult therefore, to draw definitive conclusions about the overall impact of DA. Furthermore, donors are confident to launch projects that are not founded on evidence-based evaluations or trials (Pritchett 2008:123; Riddell 2007:12) so it is not surprising therefore that some projects succeed while others fail.

What follows is a broad analysis of DA looking at both sides of the argument. Some of aid’s critics (notably Dambisa Moyo) employ what I refer to as a ‘lazy thesis’; their focus is on criticising the weaknesses of the aid industry, arguing that DA should be stopped completely. They fail to recommend tangible reforms or address systemic constraints. It would be far easier to stop DA than to reform the structure of the current aid architecture (Whitfield 2009:13). Scholars like Whitfield, Riddell and Easterly instead provide a constructive critique on what is wrong with DA and, most importantly, how it can be changed to work more effectively and efficiently.

3.0 Analysis

In analysing the debates both for and against DA, the aid/growth/poverty reduction nexus needs to be better understood. Does such a nexus exist and where are the linkages? ‘The effect of aid on poverty reduction is still something of an enigma’ (Degnbol-Martinussen & Engberg-Pedersen 2003:257).  Significant research published by Burnside and Dollar, claims a positive link between aid and growth in a good policy environment (refer to Figure 2). Their data however, has been largely disputed (Easterly, Levine & Roodman 2003), and the linkages between growth, aid and policy are somewhat more vague than studies suggest. The general trend does appear to be that aid works better – in terms of promoting growth – in countries that have good policies and strong public institutions. However, there are too many outliers in the data and examples of fragile or fragmented states experiencing positive economic growth, sometimes without aid; DA does not necessarily result in growth and development (Degnbol –Martinussen & Engberg-Pedersen 2003:19)

Figure 2. Growth, aid and policy



 Source: Burnside and Dollar 2004.

Nonetheless, the economic case for aid contributing to growth is relatively straightforward (if contested). DA offers financial and technical assistance to ‘late late industrialisers’ to provide balance of payment support and close the ‘savings gap’. This is the idea that poor countries necessarily incur chronic trade deficits and disequilibria of their balance of payments in order to close the gap between investment needs (which are high to encourage economic growth) and levels of domestic savings (usually very low). The main economic justification for the provision of DA is to close this savings gap in developing countries (Riddell 2007). Large injections of short-term, directed DA has helped countries like Botswana and South Korea to develop relatively strong economies without maintaining aid dependency. The case for aid is hard to argue against, but many scholars have raised issues with the delivery and impact of DA that potentially outweigh its justification. Figure 3 summarises some of the key criticisms of DA, though time and space constraints deny the appropriate level of analysis on each of these issues.

Figure 3. DA rationale

Table: authors own input from Banerjee 2007; Lensink & White 2000; Moss et al 2005; Riddell 2009; Whitfield 2009.

Key proponents of DA cite the positive short term results and improvements in quality of life variables as evidence of aid’s achievements. The success of the WHO’s vaccination programs, the provision of free primary education throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa illustrate the modest successes achieved through DA (Easterly 2008:25). To counter these successes though, donors do not widely publish the success they have sustained in terms of democratic process, economic growth, institution building and budgetary support; these are the largest budget lines of donors and it is significant that there is little conclusive evidence on these indicators.

In analysing the drawbacks of DA it is useful to disaggregate donors from recipient countries. Nancy Birdsall illustrates the problems with donors by talking about their ‘seven deadly sins’ (Birdsall 2008). Donors are impatient with institution building, envious of other donor’s activities, ignorant of their own failures, too proud to recognise when exiting is appropriate, too sloth-like in pretending that participation alone is sufficient for recipient ownership of DA, greedy in providing unreliable and miserly transfers, and foolish in their lack of financing global and regional public goods – for example – investing in vaccines for malaria (Birdsall 2008:536).

Additionally, there are further drawbacks to DA; firstly, it is supply-driven in terms of volume, scope, design and intended use. Donors have doctrinal hegemony (Hanlon & Smart 2008:131) and exercise their power over recipient countries. For DA to achieve greater effectiveness, the onus needs to come from recipient countries. Moyo argues along similar lines, pointing out the dangers of victimising ‘Africa’ and how donors undermine country’s capacity for growth, stifling it instead with large flows of tied aid leading to volatility and aid-dependence (Moyo 2010). Secondly, donors’ declared motivations are significantly different to their actual motivations for providing DA (Degnbol-Martinussen & Engberg-Pedersen 2003:16); the commercial, strategic and political interests of donors significantly shape decisions of how to allocate aid. The larger donors particularly are motivated by these interests (Alesina & Dollar 2000); consider the United States for example, and its desire to spread liberal democracy and gain allies in the Middle East. The data below illustrates this by highlighting the poorest countries next to those countries that receive the most DA. It is clear that the poorest countries do not receive the most aid, indicating something other than moral obligation alone as the motivation of donors to provide aid.

Thirdly, many critics of DA have used conditional lending as a prime example of why aid doesn’t work and actually causes more harm to poor countries. Conditions attached to concessional loans to sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s did not promote growth as was supposed. Instead, growth faltered and recipient countries became dependent on aid; Mozambique in the 1990s, for example, saw DA contribute to 30% of GDP (Kanbur 2000:419). Post conditionality politics and attempts to reform have seen nothing more than a move from hard to soft conditionality (Mosse 2005:8) with donors now heavily involved in providing budget support, which in theory allocates funds to a government to spend as it wishes, but in reality sees donors take part in government budget discussions and adds administrative burden to recipients.

There are also arguments against DA that involve recipient countries directly, although these too can be linked back to the donors. Firstly, the business of aid has become increasingly complex and fragmented as donors continue to run multiple projects, in multiple sectors and in multiple countries. This leads to a strain on the administrative capabilities of recipient countries in meeting donor demands; in Tanzania, during the period 2000 – 2002, there were 1000 donor meetings each year and over 2,400 reports filed to donors quarterly. Tanzania announced a 4 month holiday from donors in response. This is indicative of the fragmentation of DA at the recipient country level (Birdsall 2008:523). Secondly, the problem of aid dependence prevents recipient countries from being accountable to their citizens with less cause for maintaining legitimacy. This therefore reduces the incentive to cultivate effective public institutions, indicating that increased aid flows in this sense, may be more damaging than anything else (Mosse, Pettersson & van de Walle 2005).

The picture is clearly far from perfect, but it’s not all bad. Recent attempts to reform DA have been made, with the Paris Declaration in 2005, increased efforts of harmonisation – through Sector Wide Approaches, SWAps – and more sincere attempts to give ownership to recipients. It is also important to take into consideration the role of factors external to aid in explaining some of aid’s failures, for example, the rise in violent conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa, state collapse, the oil crisis of the 70s and harsh tariff/subsidy systems from the industrialised world that serve only to weaken the trade and export potential of developing countries. Despite serious structural weaknesses in DA provision, much has been achieved and development has come a long way in fifty years.

Moving forward then, the real debate is not over whether to reduce, maintain or increase aid. It is about deeper, structural reform to a system that is entirely unregulated; one that lacks an overarching organising mechanism because donors give voluntarily and so they are free to give as little or as much as they like. This leads to the volatility of aid that affects so many poor countries. Scholars have suggested tangible reforms that should be pursued in order to maximise the positive impact that DA can have in developing countries. Pooling funds at the country level is one suggestion (Birdsall 2008, Easterly 2008) along with increasing investment into manufacturing and boosting agricultural productivity (Whitfield 2009:10), focusing on the quality rather than the quantity of aid (Whitfield 2009; Riddell 2007) and redefining the mechanisms used for aid delivery as depicted in figure 5 below. Perhaps the most significant of all reforms to be made, is to push control and ownership firmly on the recipient countries; pooling money at a country level could help achieve this as local governments submit their own proposals and strategies for fostering growth. This discussion is important in the context of this paper, since the ‘lazy thesis’ of some of aid’s critics is based on the shortcomings of DA that could be resolved through these reforms. Therefore, in implementing some of these recommendations, DA would become more efficient and achieve longer-lasting reductions in poverty therefore outweighing the arguments made against DA more powerfully.

Fig. 5 A new international aid structure

Source: Riddell, in IPC 2007.

4.0 Conclusion

The arguments against DA do not outweigh the case for aid in poor countries; they merely inform how we must change systems of DA. Despite significant structural constraints, DA still helps to lift a significant number of people out of poverty. However, the shortcomings of the aid business reduce ‘considerably the effective value of the aid that is transferred … and may even mean that … aid undermines longer term development prospects’ (Birdsall 2008:536). What has hopefully emerged from this discussion is the need to address those constraints endemic to the business of aid and recognise that it is not the quantity of DA provided that matters, rather the quality. In so doing, there is potential for DA that both meets the needs of recipient countries and makes more serious progress in poverty reduction.

This paper has sought to dig deeper than a simple discussion on the pros and cons of DA, in recognition of the complexity of aid today. The challenge lies in how to maximise aid delivery to the poorest people in the world. This means putting pressure on donors and scholars to decide whether or not the provision of DA is to reduce poverty in the short-term or to create growth more generally through longer-term interventions; the two are different priorities and won’t necessarily provide the same results. If the debate only focuses on a simple analysis of pros and cons, and not on how we improve aid in order to help those people that live in absolute poverty then the discussion ceases to be constructive.

There are no silver bullets and the arguments made against DA are at times quite compelling; this is a complex industry that has to weave its way through corruption, commercial/strategic/political interests of donors, deep levels of bureaucracy and red tape, and often-fragile recipient states. But we can improve aid, deliver it more effectively to meet the real needs of the poorest people as well as build up the ability of states to provide strong institutions and support growing economies, by pushing for the reforms mentioned here to be implemented. The case for aid is always going to be more compelling than opposing arguments when ‘lazy theses’ are provided and constructive critique remains limited. It would be far better to continue to achieve small successes through DA whilst trying to reform the broader, systemic failures of aid than to cut it completely and definitively.



Alesina A. and D. Dollar (2000) ‘Who Gives Foreign Aid to Whom and Why?’ Journal of Economic Growth 5, pp.33-62.

Banerjee A. V. et al. (2007). Making Aid Work. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Birdsall N. (2007). ‘Do No Harm: Aid, Weak Institutions and the Missing Middle in Africa’ Development Policy Review, 25 (5): 575-598.

Birdsall N. (2008). ‘Seven Deadly Sins: Reflections on Donor Failings’. In Easterly (ed.) Reinventing Foreign Aid, chapter 20. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Burnside C. And D. Dollar (2004) ‘Aid, Policies, and Growth: Revisiting the Evidence’ World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3251, March.

Degnbol –Martinussen J. and P. Engberg-Pedersen (2003) Aid: Understanding International Development Cooperation. London: Zed Books

Easterly W. (ed.) (2008). Reinventing Foreign Aid. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Easterly W., R. Levine and D. Roodman (2003) ‘New Data, New Doubts: A Comment on Burnside and Dollar’s ‘Aids, Policies and Growth(2000)’‘ Development Research Institute (DRI) Working Paper No. 4.

Fischer, A. (2009), ‘Putting Aid in Its Place: Insights from Early Structuralists on Aid and Balance of Payments and Lessons for Contemporary Aid Debates’ Journal of International Development, 21: 856–867

Hanlon, J. and T. Smart (2008). Do Bicycles Equal Development in Mozambique? London: James Currey. Chapter 11.

Heller P.S. (2005). ‘“Pity the Finance Minister”: Issues in Managing a Substantial Scaling Up of Aid Flows’, IMF Working Paper WP/05/180

International Poverty Centre (2007). ‘Does Aid Work? – for the MDGs’, Poverty in Focus, pp. 1-28, October.

Kanbur, R. (2000). ‘Aid, conditionality and debt in Africa’. In Foreign Aid and Development: Lessons Learnt and Directions for the Future, edited by Finn Tarp, London: Routledge. Chapter 18: 409-422.

Lensink R. and H. White (2000) ‘Assessing Aid: A Manifesto for Aid in the 21st Century’, Oxford Development Studies 28 (1), pp.5-17.

McGillivray et al. (2006), ‘Controversies over the Impact of Aid: It Works; It Doesn’t; It Can but That Depends…’, Journal of International Development, 18, 1031–1050

Mosse D. (2005). ‘Global Governance and the Ethnography of International Aid’, in The Aid Effect, D. Mosse and D. Lewis (eds.), chapter 1. London: Pluto Press.

Moss T., G. Pettersson and N. van de Walle (2005). ‘An Aid-Institutions Paradox? A Review on Aid Dependency and State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Mario Einaudi Centre for International Studies, Working Paper n. 11-05.

Moyo, D. 2008. Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Arica, Penguin Publishing.

Pritchett, L. 2008. ‘A Simple Political Economy of Rigorous Program Evaluation’, in Easterly (ed.) Reinventing Foreign Aid, chapter 20. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Reddy S.G. and C. Miniou (2006). ‘Development Aid and Economic Growth: A Positive Long-Run Relation’, UN DESA Working paper n. 29, September

Riddell R. (2007). Does Foreign Aid Really Work? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitfield, L., 2009. Reframing the aid debate: why aid isn’t working and how it should be changed, DIIS Working Paper 2009:34. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Institute for International Studies.

Whitfield, L. And A. Fraser (2010), ‘Negotiating Aid: The Structural Conditions Shaping the Negotiating Strategies of African Governments’, International Negotiation 15, pp. 341–366.

World Bank (1998) Assessing Aid – What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why (Overview)


[1] However, it is important to recognise firstly, the growing linkages between development and emergency aid and secondly, the increasing recognition from scholars that trade and debt relief are two crucial links in the chain to systematically reducing poverty.

[2] Given the plethora of evidence used by scholars to support their arguments for and against aid, it would be ineffective here to select one case study that embodies this debate, since such a study does not exist.

Understanding the links between agricultural productivity and poverty, and the extent to which small-scale agriculture can remain a ladder out of poverty

Ok so here’s a recent paper I wrote on rural livelihoods and agricultural productivity. Let me know what you think and please comment!


1.0 Introduction

The question of how best to alleviate poverty in the twenty-first century is an increasingly complex and central question in development today. Traditionally, agricultural productivity has provided a good route out of poverty for a lot of industrialising countries and as such, the focus on reducing poverty through agricultural reforms has become, to some, an obvious assumption (Timmer 2006). But, with world-wide processes of agricultural transformation, development experts can no longer afford to ignore dynamics of agrarian change. The viability of small-scale agriculture is placed under increasing pressure in this context, but this is not to say that it is now defunct at providing a ladder out of poverty (Lipton 2006). Small-scale farming remains central to agriculture and rural livelihoods in the global South[1]; however, over the last two decades there has been a significant movement of people away from subsistence farming into wage labour on large farms, and non-farm activities in rural, peri-urban and urban areas. The logic of small-scale farming, labour markets (see Cramer, Oya & Sender 2008) and class relations (Bernstein 2010) are vital in understanding the dynamics of poverty reduction but due to time and space constraints these issues won’t be given their due analysis here.

The world food market is a complex system that sees the very poorest often marginalised while elites benefit from land reforms and subsidies (Borras, Kay & Lahiff 2007:1431). Many have argued that the system is unfair and that poor farmers in developing countries stand no chance against the strong and heavily subsidised agricultural sectors of Western economies. However, small-scale agriculture continues to be resilient – to change, to globalization and the risks of seasonality. Small-scale agriculture continues to contribute (admittedly less and less) heavily to the incomes of the rural poor. Therefore, on the one hand, poverty reduction attempts that look solely at agriculture will potentially, in the long-run, neglect the huge numbers of migrant, informal sector workers and landless labourers who are increasingly disconnected from agriculture. But on the other hand, small-scale agriculture is resilient, often very efficient, and lifts people out of poverty; in that way, this paper will argue that small-scale agriculture is not redundant or waning in the 21st century, and will continue to remain a ladder out of poverty for the millions of rural poor, for years to come. Indeed, research shows that in spite of the logic pointing towards large farms, there are growing increases in smallholdings and small-scale farmers (Lipton 2006).

I wish to illustrate the strength of the small-scale agriculture debate whilst also showing that it does not have to be an ‘either-or’ conflict between large and small-scale agriculture; there are other ladders out of poverty and small-scale agriculture needs to be located in a broader policy package in order for effective and sustainable reductions in poverty to take place, in the short and long term. This paper will first look at what the debated links are between productivity and poverty and then look at how, through globalization and neoliberalism, these links have changed over time. The main analysis of this paper will focus on the debate around small-scale agriculture and poverty reduction, concluding that small-sale agriculture still remains a ladder out of poverty in developing countries with large populations of rural poor. This paper reiterates the importance of the classic debate in agrarian studies and even though a radically different context exists today than the one of when Chayanov wrote, his questions on agriculture are still widely applicable in today’s world (Bernstein 2009). Keeping this in mind, this paper will look at the role of small-scale agriculture in poverty reduction and how this has changed, whilst drawing from and reflecting on the classic arguments put forward by agrarian political economists and neo-populists in the 20th Century.

Processes of de-peasantization (Bryceson 2000) ,de-agrarianization, and changing rural-urban relationships, mean that development experts need to recognize the diversity and heterogeneity found in the rural South, and conceptualise policies aimed at reducing poverty that aren’t necessarily based on boosting agricultural productivity alone – it is no ‘silver bullet’. After all, some states successfully boosted their agricultural productivity but saw no reduction in poverty because the productivity was targeted at large mechanised and technical farms that did not employ local labour, and profits were not reinvested in the local rural economy (Lipton 2006). Any scholar of development studies and agrarian political economy will acknowledge that policy makers and academics are often too hasty in searching for a single ‘silver bullet’ to solve world hunger and poverty. As desirable as this may be, reality shows us how complex these situations are and that no one single fix will lead to radical and sustainable reductions in poverty. Furthermore, globalization and capitalism are thriving and are unlikely to be replaced in our lifetimes. Therefore, it is more useful to invest our energy in seeking pro-poor agricultural growth within the capitalist system than to look for alternatives.

2.0 Agricultural Productivity – Poverty linkages

Classic political economy and agrarian political economy links short-term, agricultural productivity with mass reductions in poverty in the world’s least developed countries. “No country has been able to sustain a rapid transition out of poverty without raising productivity in the agricultural sector” (Timmer 2007:5). Empirically it is proven that those countries most successful at reducing poverty have done so through targeting policies at, and improving, agricultural productivity and growth in the short term. Long term poverty reduction is associated more with economic transformation, and this is followed by a decline in agriculture after initial growth. Efforts to boost agricultural productivity historically resulted in more income and wealth and, through the provision of surplus labour and raw materials, the rapid development of industry and manufacturing (Bernstein 2010, Timmer 2007, Lipton 2006).

The literature largely points towards a positive correlation between increases in agricultural productivity and decreases in poverty reduction (Goswami &Chatterjee 2010). Some might argue that the inverse relationship between agricultural productivity and rates of poverty is consigned to historical case studies; what’s to say that currently industrialising countries will necessarily enjoy or pursue the same linkages? Indeed there are some cases of high growth and returns, with few exits from poverty (Prowse & Chimhowu 2007). Furthermore, some countries did not see immediate reductions in poverty in line with increases in productivity, the best example of this being in India whereby poverty wasn’t decreased significantly until the 1970s, a good decade after the boosts in productivity experienced through the ‘Green Revolution’ took place (Sen and Gosh 1993). Productivity increases alone are not necessarily enough to reduce poverty, and a role for the state emerges in boosting education for example, and providing better extension services to [small-scale] farmers.

The role of the state in providing agricultural services and protecting small-scale farmers has been furiously debated over the years. Historically, the newly independent states of the 1960s, particularly in parts of Africa, pursued the establishment of state marketing boards and layers of protection for small-scale farmers by providing cheaper and better access to inputs and the market (Bernstein 1992). By the 1980s this was viewed as a deeply inefficient system and the way was paved for the rounds of liberalization known as the Washington Consensus. Small-scale agriculture was exposed to the shocks and instability of the market and many were forced to diversify their livelihoods in response (Bernstein 1992). Since then, there has been a resurgence of ideas on the role of the state but in the mainstream it is still viewed as redundant, especially where agricultural policy is concerned. The reality is, though, that the state has a pivotal role to play in determining levels of growth and prosperity. Ha-Joon Chang talks about this and of protecting infant industries; the state is not redundant and development experts need to reassess their understanding of this (Chang 1996).

3.0 Changing contexts

The rapid success of some areas of agriculture and the decreasing returns from agricultural commodities, along with the rapid diversification of rural livelihoods indicate that in the 21st century, rural spaces look different and operate differently to how people understood them to, previously (Rigg 2006:194). Processes of neoliberal globalization have been rapid since the 1980s and this has led to a number of potential threats and opportunities for small-scale agriculture. Firstly, migration to urban centres has increased greatly in line with the industrialisation of countries and cities in rural African states.  More and more labour is drawn away from rural and towards urban areas, where people search for a more prosperous livelihood. Secondly, globalization has facilitated the generation of a new consumer-driven environment, with more quality and time regulations forced on growers, and supermarkets exerting high levels of buyer-led control over their value chains (Barrientos et al 2005, Daviron & Gibbon 2002). The increasing pressures on trade and competitive global markets make it harder for small-scale farmers to compete; this is especially true of export crops coming from sub-Saharan Africa. This has led to a rich and growing body of literature over which crops are ‘best’ for small-scale farmers to grow in terms of poverty reduction, for example crops for export or crops for domestic consumption. Thirdly, and related to the second point, the compression of time and space means that global demand for global goods has soared.

Fourthly, land, labour and food have become increasingly commoditised in the last few decades; processes of capitalism have forced a very rigid perception of all goods as commodities and this has seen an increasing informal sector of temporary workers with insecure employment, for example. Finally, we can see that in recent times our conceptualisation of poverty and the rural economy have changed and continue to do so. For example, a small, self-sufficient farming community in the South Sudan during the 1950s (before they had really been exposed to modern markets), did not experience high levels of what is today defined as ‘poverty’ (Carr 2004). But the degradation of the environment and the introduction of these farming families to the market have made them much more vulnerable to external shocks. Now, there is a re-emergence of agriculture as a fashionable item on the development agenda (Lipton 2006:61). This, along with diversification of livelihoods and processes of de-peasantization, shows how the backdrop for understanding small-scale agriculture has changed and is today more complex than it was even 30 years ago. Despite this however, small-scale agriculture can still remain a successful strategy for lifting people out of poverty and the original Chayanovian debate proves itself to be resilient, just as small-scale farmers are resilient to the ever changing pressures and vulnerabilities pushed onto them.

4.0 The merit of small-scale farming in relation to poverty reduction                                                                            

In discussing small-scale agriculture it is crucial to define what is meant by such a catch-all term. Definitions are problematic, and locating ‘small’ and ‘large’ farmers varies between specific contexts (Rigg 2006, Bernstein 2010). For the purpose of this discussion I am taking small-scale agriculture to refer to petty commodity producers (Barbara Harriss-White 2010), smallholders and outgrowers with access to land of roughly 0.1 hectare. I am not arguing in line with neo-populism and defending the peasantries. Small farm logic is strong and yet there is not much evidence for or against it (Lipton 2006:66), nevertheless, what follows is a [brief] analysis on small-scale agriculture. The main arguments given in support of small-scale agriculture are firstly, that small-scale farmers are more likely to self-exploit and use family labour to get the highest returns on crops; secondly, that small-scale farming is better for the environment due to vested interests in looking after the land; thirdly, that there is an inverse relationship between farm size and yield per hectare; and finally, given the large amount of surplus labour in rural developing countries it is important to realise that small-scale agriculture is much more labour intensive than the more mechanised operations of large-scale farming. That small-scale agriculture uses more labour is not in itself an argument in favour of efficiency, rather one in support of small-scale agriculture providing a ladder out of poverty.

Scholars have argued that despite the increasing costs and difficulties that small-scale farmers face in accessing inputs and markets, the ‘case for smallholder development as one of the main ways to reduce poverty … remains compelling’ (Dorward et al 2010:1358). Lipton, the well-known neo-populist, argues that since farmland is the main major asset type for many of the poor, then it is credible that poverty reduction can be achieved through raising returns to farmland (Lipton 2006:62). Lipton and Dorward present consistently compelling arguments in favour of small-scale agriculture whilst recognising the erosion of rural, smallholder livelihoods and taking into account the mounting challenges posed to the rural poor by processes of globalization and liberalization (of trade and markets) .

The case for agricultural-led poverty reduction rests heavily on the ‘productive efficiency of small farms’ (Ashley & Maxwell 2001:403). So if small-scale agriculture continues to experience declining terms of trade and marginalisation by large-scale agriculture, and government policy which no longer considers agriculture a ‘fashionable’ agenda, then the scope for poverty reduction is limited. This highlights therefore, the importance of government intervention in supporting small-scale agriculture. This is, after all, how the EU and America managed to protect their farming industries; it is not unreasonable that other governments might seek to do the same.

What now follows are some (but by no means a comprehensive list) of the arguments offered to counter the ‘smallholder efficiency paradigm’. Firstly, is the argument that processes of de-argarianization and de-peasantization have meant that many rural people are now far less connected to agriculture than they used to be (Rigg 2006, Bryceson 2000 & 2004), thus eroding the idea that big reductions in poverty can be achieved through agriculture and specifically through small-scale farmers. The rural poor are increasingly landless, wage labourers, employed in the Non-Farm Rural Economy (NFRE). To look primarily at small-scale farming is to implement policies that will in fact, only benefit a minority; reductions in poverty will be minimal. Knowing that roughly 60% of rural household incomes are derived from the NFRE (Rigg 2006:184), it is reasonable to argue that, poverty reduction strategies will not work for the poor who are disconnected from agriculture. In addition, there has been a widely accepted assumption that simply because most of the world’s poor are located in rural areas, then their livelihoods are necessarily rooted in agriculture. It is important to remember that whilst almost all small-scale farmers suffering from chronic poverty are found in rural areas, that is not to say that those who live in rural areas are necessarily small-scale farmers suffering from chronic poverty (Bernstein 1992, Rigg 2006). This is important because the discussion on reducing poverty focusing on agriculture often neglects to make this crucial distinction. Whilst there is merit in these discussions, these arguments do not put enough emphasis on the role of small-scale farming in reducing poverty for the millions of people still employed in rural agricultural sectors throughout the developing world. Chronic poverty is greatest in remote rural areas and in 2002 the rural share of the ‘poor’ was greater than 70% in some parts of the developing world (Prowse & Chimhowu 2007). By Rigg’s own admission, livelihoods in the ‘rural south do in many cases depend on smallholder agricultural production’ (Rigg 2006:181). So whilst the argument in favour of the growing NFRE is relevant and important to understand, it neglects the case of the many small-scale farmers in the world today who do rely on agriculture and would escape from poverty through improved agricultural growth and productivity.

Secondly, lays the argument in favour of the efficacy of medium and large-scale commercial farms in reducing poverty. This argument shows that in the right conditions, wage labour can be a good ladder out of poverty in providing stable employment. Selwyn argues this in the context of the export grape industry in Brazil (Selwyn 2012), and others argue along similar lines; large commercial farms in Kenya dominate exports and the larger firms such as Unilever, pursue vigorous CSR strategies such as providing workers with housing and schooling for employee’s children (Barrientos et al 2005, CBI 2005). In Mozambique, a study found that those employed by large, foreign-owned commercial farms had improved job security (Cramer, Oya & Sender 2008:379). In my own work for a Malawian commercial farming enterprise, there was great emphasis on the role of larger farms in providing stable wage employment to local farmers (but also working together with smallholders and outgrowers) who would otherwise be exposed to the risks of seasonality and unstable prices (see appendix 1). However, processes of globalization have facilitated the radical shake-up of global food markets allowing large Trans-National Corporations to dominate. Historically, investment into agriculture was directed at large-scale rather than peasant agriculture and this has led to the release of cheap labour and de-peasantization (Bryceson 2000:306). The most important flaw in these arguments favouring large-scale agriculture is that the stability and security of the livelihoods of wage labourers, is heavily hinged upon the existence of government regulation, tighter labour laws and the presence of unions to represent the weak bargaining power of wage workers (Cramer, Oya & Sender 2008:386). Wage labour on large farms represents a significant means of survival for many of the poorest people and yet this is not ’supported by any coherent policy package… poverty reduction policy needs to actively support the wages and conditions of labour of those who work on such farms’ (Cramer & Pontara 1998:138).

Thirdly, and most convincingly, is the argument that agriculture alone is not enough to reduce poverty regardless of who the beneficiary is; farmer, migrant worker, landless peasant. Instead, poverty reduction needs to be holistic in its approach and take into account different factors like the importance of education, economic infrastructure, information provision and so on (Prowse & Chimhowu 2007). Even those academics who acknowledge the importance of small-scale agriculture in poverty reduction will admit that ‘whilst agriculture plays a vital role in poverty exits, agriculture growth in itself is not sufficient to reduce chronic poverty’ (Ibid.:2).  In an increasingly interlinked and commoditized environment dominated by large TNC retailers, it is important for government policy trying to reduce poverty to look beyond focusing only on agriculture, be it large or small-scale. ‘Policies promoting education, health, governance, communications infrastructure and macroeconomic stability, all have an important part to play, and should help to provide necessary conditions for pro-poor agricultural growth’ (Dorward et al 2004:83).

6.0 Conclusion

That more and more people are becoming disconnected from agriculture, along with the effects of rapid out-migration from rural to urban areas, is cause for looking beyond agrarian reform in reducing poverty. This does not and should not mean an abandonment of agriculture in poverty reduction strategies as it is still relevant in the context of small-scale farming, but it will become increasingly less so as processes of de-agrarianization and de-peasantization continue to rapidly progress.

This debate then, is the same debate that Chayanov and Lenin facilitated in the 20th century regarding peasant farming and broader economic growth, particularly with regard to the role of the state in supporting small farm development. Of course, the context is very different today and Chayanov could not possibly have predicted the ways in which peasantries have had their livelihoods eroded (Bernstein 1992, Lipton 2006, Bryceson 2000), or the ways in which global agriculture has become dominated by a few large corporates. Small-scale agriculture can still remain a successful strategy for lifting people out of poverty and the original Chayanovian debate proves itself to be resilient, just as small-scale farmers are resilient to the ever changing pressures and vulnerabilities pushed onto them. Small-scale agriculture still matters because it still exists, despite the erosion of peasantries (Bryceson 2000). Empirical evidence varies greatly according to context so as Rigg has done, I have not ‘cherry picked’ specific case studies and chosen instead to focus on a more general analysis.

Following on from this paper are some general questions going forward. What is the future for agriculture in poverty reduction? Will the current trend of globalization continue or will the ‘just in time’ buyer-driven value chains give way for an alternative system that values producers as much as processors and consumers? How can small farmers respond adequately to growing agricultural commercialization? Only time and further empirical evidence will provide answers to this, but in the meantime, policy makers and development experts could do worse than to start targeting more efficient policies at small-scale agriculture, policies that take into account holistic livelihoods and wellbeing, not just levels of productivity as a yard stick for poverty reduction.


Ashley, C.  and Maxwell, S. 2001, ‘Rethinking Rural Development’, Development Policy Review, 19(4):395-425.

Ahluwalia, M. 1985. Rural Poverty, Agricultural Production and Prices: A Re-examination, in Mellor, J. and Desai, G. (eds), Agricultural Change and Rural Poverty: Variations on a Theme by Dharm Narain, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Barrientos, S. , Kritzinger, A., Opondo, M. and Smith, S. 2005.  ‘Gender, Work and Vulnerability in African Horticulture’. IDS Bulletin, 36 (2): 74-9.

Bernstein, H. et al, eds. 1992. Rural Livelihoods: Crises and Responses, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bernstein, H. 2007. Agrarian Questions of Capital and Labour: Some Theory about Land Reform (and a Periodisation) In: Ntsebeza, L. and R. Hall (Eds) The Land Question in South Africa. The Challenge of Transformation and Redistribution. Cape Town: HSRC Press, pp.27-59

Bernstein, H. 2009. V.I. Lenin and A.V. Chayanov: looking back, looking forward, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 36 (1): pp. 55-81

Bernstein, H. 2010. Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change, Fenwood Publishing.

Borras, S., Kay, C. and Lahiff, E. 2007. Market-Led Agrarian Reform: Policies, Performance and Prospects, Third World Quarterly, 28(8). 

Bryceson, D.  2000. ‘Disappearing Peasantries? Rural Labour Redundancy in the Neo-liberal Era and Beyond’ in Bryceson, D., Kay, C., Mooj J. (eds), 2000. ‘Dissapearing Peasantries? Rural Labour in Africa, Asia and Latin America’, London : Intermediate Technology Publications

Bryceson, D. 2004. ‘Agrarian Vista or Vortex: African Rural Livelihood Policies’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol 102: pp. 617-629.

Byres, T.J. (n.d.) ‘Unit 6: Poverty’, mimeo.

Carr, S. 2004. Surprised By Laughter; some good news out of Africa, Memoir Club.

CBI. 2005. CSR case studies: Unilever, establishment of a sustainable agriculture initiative: Article 13, accessed online


Chang, H J. 1996.  The Role of the State in Economic Change. Oxford University Press.

Cramer, C., Oya, O., and Sender, J. 2008. Rural Labour Markets in Sub-Saharan Africa: A New View of Poverty, Power and Policy, Centre for Development Policy and Research Policy Brief #1.  Available from

Cramer C. and Pontara, N. 1998. “Rural Poverty and Poverty Alleviation in Rural Mozambique: What’s Missing from the Debate?” Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol 36 (1): pp. 101-138.

Daviron, B. and Gibbon, P. 2002. Global Commodity Chains and African Export Agriculture, Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 2 (2)

Desai, B. and Namboodiri, V. 1998. Policy Strategy and Instruments for Alleviating Rural Poverty, Economic and Political Weekly, October

DFID. 2004. Agriculture, Growth and Poverty Reduction, Working Paper.  Available from:

Dorward, A., Kydd, J., Morrison, J and Urey, I. 2004. A Policy Agenda for Pro-Poor Agricultural Growth, World Development, 32 (1) : 73-89

Goswami, K. and Chatterjee, B. 2010. Linkage Between Rural Poverty and Agricultural Productivity Across the Districts of Uttar Pradesh in India, Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, Vol 2 (2) pp.26-40

Harriss-White, B. 2010. Capitalism and the Common Man – Four Decades of Development in Africa and South Asia. Oxford University: working paper.

IFAD. 2001. Rural Poverty Report 2001, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Accessed via:

Lipton, M. 2006. Can Small Farmers Survive, Prosper, or be the Key Channel to Cut Mass Poverty? Journal of Agriculture and Development Economics, Vol. 3 (1) pp. 58-85

Prowse, M. and Chimhowu, A. 2007.  Making Agriculture Work for the Poor, Overseas Development Institute, Natural Resource Perspectives 111.

Ravallion, M. 2001. Growth, Inequality & Poverty: Looking Beyond Averages, World Development, 29 (11): pp. 1803-1815.

Rigg, J. 2006. Land, Farming, Livelihoods, and Poverty: Rethinking the Links in the Rural South, World Development, 34 (1): pp. 180-202.

Saito, K. A. 1994. Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa’ World Bank Discussion Papers, Africa Technical Department Series, Washington

ScoonesI. 1998. Sustainable rural livelihoods: A framework for analysis IDS Working Paper 72.

Selwyn, B. 2012. Workers, state and development in Brazil: Powers of labour, chains of value. Manchester University Press.

Sen, A. and Ghosh, J. 1993. Trends in Rural Employment and the Poverty Employment Linkage, ILO ARTEP Working Papers,

Sender, J. 2003. Rural Poverty and Gender: Analytical Frameworks and Policy Proposals, in:  Ha-Joon Chang (Ed) Rethinking Development Economics, pp. 401-420 (London, Anthem Press).

Timmer, P. 2007. Agricultural Growth, in, Clark, D. (ed). 2007. The Elgar Companion to Development Studies.  Edward Elgar Publishing.

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[1] 70% of the ‘dollar poor’ are rural, 2/3 of that workforce has its main income source in Agriculture despite the rise of the non-farm rural economy (Ravallion 2001, IFAD 2001).

Why I don’t support the Kony2012 campaign

I’ve been struggling to know whether/how to respond to this on my blog. For starters, so many others have done so more eloquently here, here and here. I want to just outline my own personal disagreements though with the campaign (many of which have been identified by others, written about elsewhere etc) but for the sake of clarity, here are the reasons I will not support the Kony2012 campaign by invisible children:

1. It is a branded campaign by an organisation. Invisible Children is making their brand known and shifting the focus AWAY from the real issues it is trying to ‘represent’. That, in my book, is deeply unethical.

2. Invisible children are directly profiteering from said branded campaign, again deeply unethical in encouraging people to think that they can save a piece of Uganda by purchasing a $30 ‘action kit’ . So clearly, making money is a goal of Invisible children, not in a way to sustain valid advocacy work of theirs but to sustain their funding of Ugandan military and future movies in high definition….

3. Invisible Children themselves (as discussed in the many different posts posted online, some of which I have linked here) are up there with some of the most awful charities in existence… to me, the best way this is summed up is by the photograph taken by Glenna Gorden of the three founders of Invisible Children posing holding weapons with the SPLA. The founders responded to this saying they were making a joke because they were so obviously ‘anti weapons’ (and don’t forget, they spend much of their time proclaiming the rights of child soldiers)…. go figure. Ahh I feel so sick just looking at the picture again!!

The next two points to me, are the biggest problems with this campaign:

4. BAD ADVOCACY is worse than NO advocacy (I believe Alanna Shaikh said this first correct me if i’m wrong?) And in this case, there are lots of supporters of the campaign getting in touch with me saying ‘yeh but look, people know about Kony today that had never heard of him before’  Unfortunately though, the issues presented in the film are NOT accurate, and as many people have more eloquently written than I, the war in northern Uganda and Congo is/was so much more complex and cannot be boiled down to a ‘stop Kony’ soundbite. He is but just one man…and though it might seem to be a good place to start, one could argue that efforts would be so much better spent investing in helping people who have suffered from the war rather than trying to vindictively persecute and ultimately kill one man.

5. Ugandan solutions to Ugandan problems (to coin a phrase). Look, it just astounds me that it is still OK to think that we have any right to decide the fate of foreign nations. The ‘white mans burden’ syndrome is almost certainly at play here and unfortunately, it is out-dated and not okay. Watch this video check out this piece in the independent and read Teddy Ruge’s blog response – both very moving, and eloquently put responses.

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What can we take away from all this? Well, obviously, we should recognise  the power of social media (for it can be as good as it can be bad) and advocacy is an incredible tool.. I worked for a human trafficking campaign that, along with other organisations, pressured the big chocolate companies in the UK to go fairtrade and eliminate child trafficking in its supply chain… this was consumer power and this was GREAT advocacy… it is an incredible tool and absolutely, people should give a damn and be active in social justice issues. I.e. people shouldn’t react to this and be like ‘oh well i’m going to slit my wrists now, the world is crap’ (I am quoting a colleague here…)  Most of us (with the exception of this man) are rational and intelligent human beings, so use that and research your issues! In 30 minutes online research (the time it takes to watch the Kony2012 video) we can learn substantively MORE about the situation and history of conflict in northern Uganda…. What has surprised me most about this campaign is the number of people who have blindly endorsed the campaign (sometimes without even watching the film…) and not really looked into the issue anymore. That is dead advocacy, it is pointless and it achieves nothing. Liking something on facebook is not a way of bringing about sustained positive change in a complex political situation in northern Uganda (or anywhere in the world).

We should care, and we should feel passionate about the injustices that have taken place (throughout the world… throughout history) but we mustn’t be so blinded by such an emotive diatribe and let our judgment be clouded. Our heart strings are tugged and rightly so, but our heads should be reminding us to read more widely and respect the wisdom/knowledge of people with actual expertise and experience in this area. Many of the people (myself included) who have been criticising the campaign, have been labelled as Kony supporters and pro-LRA… The reason we question this campaign is not because we seek to defend the actions of some particularly evil individuals but because we want to hold to account the actions of some slightly dodgy characters, who seek to manipulate the good intentions of many.

It is much simpler to sit back and argue that advocacy is better than no advocacy, that even if its done in the wrong way it is still good to get people to listen. It is much harder to actually examine these sorts of campaigns on a deeper level and start to ask more philosophical questions like : why does it matter? why do people think it’s important? is advocacy useful? how does this campaign impact the people it is talking about/claiming to work with? so before you comment defending the Kony2012 brand, have a think: am I really criticising the fact that people are learning about an issue they didn’t know about before? No. Am I critical of the actions of a particular NGO and the way they have manipulated and branded a campaign on the back of making more ‘victims’ of Africa? Absolutely.

There are positive stories, there is SO MUCH AWESOMENESS coming out of the beautiful and diverse continent of Africa and yes terrible things happen, just like they happen the world over, but all this campaign is doing is confirming people’s attitudes that Africa continues to be a dark continent full of poor helpless victims and evil injustices. To those people working hard to dispel these images and shine a light on everything good and positive, this campaign is like taking 10 steps backwards.

So no, I will not support the campaign.

Censoring just makes me mad!

Ok so whether or not you actually agree/support/endorse this Kony 2012 campaign ( ) you should be able to accept that if it is ok to plaster facebook and twitter with this video, emotively declaring your whole support and love for this campaign, you should also be able to recognise how ridiculous facebook are for blocking a response blog from another organisation, for being ‘spammy’ (I quote). This has annoyed me, since I think that the points made in the response blog make some pretty astute observations about these mass social media campaigns… so much so, I have recopied the text of the blog into my own because I believe people should be reading all that they can during this ‘campaign’….

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I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for a second that Joseph Kony is a very evil man. But despite this, I’m strongly opposed to the KONY 2012 campaign.

KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit. They’ve released 11 films, most with an accompanying bracelet colour (KONY 2012 is fittingly red), all of which focus on Joseph Kony. When we buy merch from them, when we link to their video, when we put up posters linking to their website, we support the organization. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I’m notalone.

Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that.

The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money funds the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations ofrape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission.

Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on funding African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.

As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”

Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.

Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.

Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s somethingSomething isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.

If you want to write to your Member of Parliament or your Senator or the President or the Prime Minister, by all means, go ahead. If you want to post about Joseph Kony’s crimes on Facebook, go ahead. But let’s keep it about Joseph Kony, not KONY 2012.

~ Grant Oyston,

Grant Oyston is a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. You can help spread the word about this by linking to his blog at visiblechildren.tumblr[dot]com anywhere you see posts about KONY 2012

That warm fuzzy feeling…

A while ago, I wrote about the precarious situation of volunteers and how, in quite a few cases, they do nothing more than fulfil a sense of self-worth and provide a good stock of stories of that time you were ‘living in the bush’ *insert trivial anecdote here*.

BUT, today I bumped into a couple of the girls who I led on a trip to Malawi in the summer of 2011. And, in keeping with wanting to look at positive stories and messages relating to Africa, I want to follow up on my previous post about volunteers with a positive tone! Our team was about 10 strong and we spent 3 weeks in two different parts of Malawi. The trip was a success in my eyes because the team spent time with projects that I was working with long term in my work as a development-do-er (!) and we were only adding to/supporting existing projects rather than trying to start anything new. It was a Christian mission trip, and we therefore spent time with missionaries and their projects (there’s another post in the pipeline looking at the work of missionaries in Malawi). The team were very carefully selected and after previous experience with NOT vetting thoroughly the volunteers ahead of time, I put in place a vigorous process by which we could select volunteers based on their motivations, skills and maturity and also prepare them before the trip by briefing them properly and dispelling any romantic ‘save Africa’ visions they might have (which they didn’t).

Despite all the hard work, when it came down to it the trip was incredible on a lot of levels but particularly because of the maturity and depth of character showed by many of the team. For most, this was the furthest out of their comfort zone they had ever been and yet they acted with more maturity than a lot of people I know (the average team age was 17). Getting to know each individual, and to be a part of their experience in Malawi – for me to share the place I lived, worked, loved with them – well, it was such a privilege and only motivates me to want to lead more volunteering trips in the future. Seeing them now as they prepare to go off to university, and seeing how the trip changed them – well it’s pretty special to be honest. I worked a lot around Malawi and it was obvious to me where the benefits were of what the team did, I could see that we had a positive impact on local communities quite easily, but being away from the UK had distanced me from seeing the change in the team members themselves.

It’s easy to bash volunteers, and it’s easy to get caught up in the expertise that we all have (varying levels of) with regard to development, moaning about how a particular discourse is damaging. It’s good to strive for better, and indeed my experiences helped me to shape the team’s trip to Malawi in a way that I felt was positive for all BUT, sometimes it’s cool to celebrate the small and simple things. Sometimes it’s good to recognise the importance of nurturing a growing plant and watching it become something bigger and more beautiful! In that way then, I dedicate this post to the volunteers that took part in Mission Malawi 2011, for their ‘can-d0’ attitude and their futures that await them. I celebrate the fact that they even GAVE  a damn, for wanting to go somewhere like Malawi (no where near as glamorous or ‘fun’ as Bali or inter-railing round Europe all summer like others that age do in the summer…) and that they have not returned full of arrogance about their experiences, but that they have returned with a better understanding about the world out ‘there’ and a desire to help make it better one day. We can talk about smart aid and have intellectual discussions about how to improve things in the here and now, but how important is it to encourage the younger generation about smart aid and good development practice, to prepare them for a future where they are leading and making decisions? Very, if you ask me…

Green beans and Agriculture : who benefits from Africa’s exports?

A few months back, I went to a debate in a committee room deep in the Houses of Parliament hosted by the Royal African Society jointly with the London International Development Centre. Richard Dowden, director of the RAS, moderated discussions with a panel including Christie Peacock (former CEO of FARM-Africa, now chair of Sidai Africa Ltd), Mark Thomas (Director of Food Retail Industry Challenge Fund DFID and manager of rural development at Nathan Associates) and Karima Ola (managing director of the African Development Corporation). I’m revisiting my original thoughts on this, since I am starting research on a new paper that will look at how agricultural growth can have a positive impact on development in sub Saharan Africa… 


The key question was framed as ‘who benefits from Kenya’s exports of green beans and flowers to the UK?’ which throws up some interesting ideas about Africa’s export industry. Lots of people have argued that Africa needs to stop focusing on exports, and strengthen its own internal, domestic markets before looking to trade with the world market. Without wanting to identify too strongly with neoliberals out there, I think that the strengthening of exports and trade between Africa and the world can be a good thing – it can and does lead to growth. Countries like Zambia are pretty switched on at the moment and getting their balance right. Likewise, Ghana is arguably doing very well also. It’s hard to comment on all the successes though given my limited knowledge and understanding of every African country’s agricultural industry….


So, we’re looking at agricultural exports from Sub Saharan Africa to other countries (note that this can mean exports within the continent), the potential problems with standards such as fairtrade, and the positive potential that there is for African agriculture.


The facts (with some help from the RAS)

Africa’s main agriculture export products are well known; tea, cotton, tobacco, cocoa and flowers. Cotton production in the region has multiplied by five since the early 1970s; about 95% of the regions cotton is exported. Kenyan horticulture exports have grown at over 6% a year for the past 30 years reaching 13.6% of export revenues in 2003. (Although for a balanced argument’s sake, the state of burley tobacco in Malawi continues to cripple smallholders as prices crash, auction floors close etc)


The problem is though, mono cropping is potentially dangerous for economies and makes African economies vulnerable. 8 countries in Africa incurred 65% of the $300 million loss in potential revenue in all of sub-Saharan Africa in 2001 due to the poor cotton prices. Diversification is recognised by many leading agronomists as the key to a successful agricultural industry, particularly in Africa where instability of weather, prices and technology put crops at higher risk of failing than in European agriculture where these factors are slightly more stable/manageable. This is significant for both large scale commercial farms as well as the smallholder farmers that make up the back bone of African agriculture. SIMPLY PUT, if farmer X is growing only maize on his 0.25ha plot, and there is poor rain fall, he will get a very low yield on his crop or it will fail altogether. However, if farmer X was growing a combination of maize along with a sturdier crop such as chillies, then at the end of the growing season he would not be quite as bad off.


African agricultural production is struggling, and a key question that I am interested on getting answers to is how do you increase productivity in African agriculture? It’s well known that most farmers in Africa farm for subsistence and on very small plots (between .25 and 3ha). Africa produces less food per capita now than in 1960 (interesting correlation here with the rise of development and aid flows to the region?) About 16% of Africa’s soils are classed as ‘low nutrient’ compared with Asia’s 4% (poor soil quality is a common but not impassable problem), yields generally are lower than the rest of the world and similarly fertilizer input is substantially lower but hectare than the global standard.  (9kg in Africa vs 100kg in Asia and 206kg in industrialised countries).


But the story isn’t entirely negative! Agriculture in Africa is buzzing with potential at the moment, and it’s important to bring this to the fore in the debate on aid and development (which I find immensely frustrating in its continuous bashing and bitching and lack of constructive suggestions of how to improve things). Of the fastest growing agricultural economies 17 are in sub Saharan Africa (thanks in large part to exports of cash crops like tea, coffee, cashews etc). 60% of the arable land available in the world is in Africa. Long gone are the days of stereotypes of Africa consisting of cracked earth in Ethiopia, Africa is a rich and diverse place with some amazing land that is more fertile than you could imagine. Anecdotally, I remember the most delicious and biggest carrots I have ever eaten, coming from Molo in South Eastern Kenya, where the soil is rich in nutrients and the idea of ‘organic’ is laughable when both the quality and quantity of produce is so exceptional!


SO what of this debate, on exports in agriculture? I see them as being vital for several reasons:

1.       Exports such as green beans typically come from larger commercial farms which have the ability to provide better job security to farmers than subsistence farming, and they also have the ability to connect growers to markets (big issue which I’m very interested in having worked for a commercial farm in Malawi doing precisely that). In that sense, the money we spend on green beans in Kenya is doing more for ‘development’ in Kenya than donating to some WFP sponsored agricultural programme, because it is directly supporting agricultural industry in Africa. That’s not to say that large agribusiness is faultless though, and there is a serious amount of work that needs to be done to protect informal worker’s rights and to regulate/implement labour laws.


2.       Markets like China are increasingly feeling the pressure to find new sources of food to import (given the poor quantity of arable land in China and the growing population, China is having to look overseas for its food). Brazil and other countries in the America’s are not always going to be able to provide the quantity and quality of food, and this is one part of why China has invested so heavily in Africa. So from the perspective of the Chinese, African agricultural exports are definitely a good thing.


Problems with fairtrade


Christie Peacock brought up a controversial problem; that farmers are increasingly dissatisfied with ‘Fairtrade’ and its standards. One tea factory in Kenya, we were told, was refused fairtrade status since its drinking water tap was not correctly labelled as drinking water despite all workers knowing that that was its purpose. I have been aware of this for some time, and was surprised that so many people were shocked to hear this. Fairtrade is not the be-all-and-end-all, in addition to the difficult and rigorous standards that they set, there is also the problem with Fairtrade’s main ethos – how much of the extra cost is being passed down the supply chain to the farmer? Isnt this the whole point of fairtrade, I can remember being told about the break up of profits in a regular banana vs a fairtrade one back in Fairtrade’s heyday, but now retailers are increasingly absorbing more of the increased charge on fairtrade goods, whilst the farmer is advertised as receiving a better price for his/her crop. Fairtrade is a great principle, but these problems question how accountable fairtrade is and if their standards are perhaps too rigorous and unflexible given the flexible, informal nature of the agricultural industry.


Duncan Green says “Ethiopian women sorting through the coffee beans will have to work for 8 years to earn what I get from Oxfam in one day”. Interesting point, but what about like for like costs? Producing a pound of cotton in Burkino Faso costs 21 cents compared to 73 cents in the US itself. The value of the fairtrade market in the UK reached £493 million in 2007, a staggering sum of money I think.


Of course there is also the issue of subsidies, and though I don’t want to spend too long writing about it here, it is a question that comes up time and time again; why do we in the West expect Africa’s agricultural markets to be liberalised and unprotected, when we have such strong systems of subsidies in place in the EU and the US? One counter argument offered by Mark Thomas last night was that we give our politicians a mandate to decide to implement subsidies in our country, and that it’s up to African governments to do the same.


Let’s also think about the distortions in infrastructure that are geared more to the export market in African agriculture (e.g. great asphalt connecting unilever tea farm to markets vs the bumpy mud and rock road linking smallholders to their trading centre), perhaps this can be utilised and highlighted as being a great tool for development. The Chinese again have invested (rightly or wrongly) a lot into developing Africa’s infrastructure and filled a vacuum left by Western donors who became more interested in softer development issues in the last 20 years.


What next?


I would like to see the redevelopment of Government Marketing Boards in African agriculture; they were mostly done away with after independence which is a shame since they provided great opportunity and potential (in theory). Extension services and marketing boards are key in the successful development of an agricultural industry.


I would also like to see a stronger promotion of ‘zero tillage’ to smallholder farmers, that they need not work so hard on getting the land perfect in order to gain a good yield. It is integral to the future success of agriculture in Africa to transfer knowledge on zero tillage to the many smallholder farmers throughout sub Saharan Africa – this is a particular role that commercial farms can fulfil in providing systems that better the value chain…


Again, anecdotally, I can draw on my own experience working for a commercial farm in Malawi. The company promoted crop diversification; they grow chillies, maize, soya, groundnuts as well as some livestock like poultry and lambs. The company exports chillies internationally as well as supporting domestic consumption by stocking local supermarkets with vegetables and poultry. It is not a huge operation, but is indicative of many small commercial farming operations throughout southern and eastern Africa – the potential is there and tremendous results can be achieved using these commercial farms to connect growers to markets. The company I was working with worked extensively on training smallholder farmers and connecting an ever growing community of outgrowers (we would provide the training and extension services to farmers and also provide the secure market to buy their crop and sell it at a good price, this served the business interests’ as there wasn’t the capacity to grow everything ourselves). Commercial farms can also support subsistence agriculture in Africa by working to provide better storage solutions (wasted and spoiled crops is a big problem in many communities). Some donors like USAID and DFID have been working with commercial farms on storage solutions and developing ‘credit’ or ‘voucher’ style schemes for small farmers to use in storing their product in a central warehouse managed and maintained by a larger farm. The idea being that a voucher is issued to a farmer before he has actually sold his crop (say he harvests in April, but the best price he is likely to receive won’t be around until September, then farmer is issued with voucher which he can cash in at bank/use for credit/collateral and the farm then has the responsibility to sell the crop on and make sure it is properly stored).


Coming back to the idea of exports to countries within Africa, I’m very interested in this area and the idea of bringing manufacturing and processing into Africa rather than the model that has existed thus far of shipping primary commodities from Africa to the East/West to be processed and then shipped somewhere else. Plumpynut is the biggest example, the peanut paste RUTF that is used in treating clinical malnutrition – the peanuts are mostly grown in Africa and exported to France where they are manufactured into the paste, then shipped back to Africa to support the WFP and UN’s malnutrition programmes…. Why not cut down costs and boost a local economy by exporting the peanuts within Africa and setting up a processing plant? (Check out AfriNut and Valid Nutrition; as I left Malawi this argument of mine was being put into practice with a local processing plant).


These issues aren’t without problems though, and certainly the company I worked for enjoyed its fair share of difficulties. Smaller commercial farms are the world over known as having to work very hard compared to the money they make, this is no different in Africa and the difficulty to turn over a decent profit potentially impacts the level of assistance commercial farms can provide to smallholder farmers. This is where donors need to step in and bridge the gap between what we all say that commercial farms can do and what they are actually doing on the ground. Don’t underestimate the difficulties of working in an environment that is not stable – the fuel crisis in Malawi for example has crippled many businesses and limits your ability to export…this in turn puts off importers abroad as they want to be buying produce from a more stable source and quite often they will look to the East. I’m not sure what the solution is…


So basically, with better investment and renewed interest in strengthening extension services and marketing boards, African agricultural exports could increase and benefit everybody – the rural farmer as well as the consumers, at the same time boosting productivity in Africa and potentially helping economic growth on a sustainable and longer term trajectory than previous methods employed…


In the broader argument of connecting farmers to markets, the debate concluded by arguing that buying beans from Kenya et al is a good thing.


If you are interested in this topic I strongly recommend you get a book by a chap called Stephen Carr, ‘surprised by laughter’, I got to know him in Malawi and he is incredibly clued up on agriculture in Africa after a long spanning career working throughout the continent… If, like me, you enjoy the positive tales of African growth from someone who truly believes in the continents potential…. Read it!


I’m quite sure I’ve missed out a lot here, but hopefully these musings are in some way indicative of the need to put agriculture firmly back on the agenda for development (properly, not just rhetorically) and the relevance of African agricultural exports in a broader global debate on climate change and food sourcing (much criticism in the UK recently on the fuel used to get beans from Kenya to UK etc although it has been proven that more fuel is used to grow roses in Dutch green houses and freight them to UK than for the flowers to be grown naturally in Kenya and flown over….)


What’s wrong with volunteers?

Another post recycled from my blogspot site, on volunteering.


It might seem completely contradictory that I am about to lay into volunteers, given that I a) spent a lot of time being one and b) lead trips of young adults to Malawi. But volunteerism has just exploded in the last few years, and whilst on one level it infuriates me having to listen to people explain how they’ve built a classroom in a really remote and rural village school in Tanzania, it also has some very serious implications for development.

We need to pay attention to it, because ‘volunteering’ can be as much of a hindrance as a help to development efforts. We also need to address the growing number of young people seeking to volunteer abroad, and try and harness their enthusiasm into positive energy; doing something that does more than bring them back home buzzing about their new found love for Africa.

True, civil society relies on volunteers and in our home context – in the West – volunteering can and is a fantastic way for charities to reach out to people and do great work. Those volunteers however, tend to be long term older professionals (think care givers, social workers etc). The kind of volunteering that I am critical of though, is of the ‘i’m 16 years old, I can change the world and I am GOING to Africa’. True, we all have to start somewhere, and in many cases these volunteering experiences are a springboard to a hopefully more enlightened career in various sectors. (And it’s great that young people give a damn). True also that there are some fabulous organisations out there that have years of experience on the ground in the country they work in; organisations that recognise the needs of both projects and volunteers and who place people accordingly with thought and consideration. Say what you will about VSO but they are (or have been) one such organisation.

Different Types of Volunteering

1. Short term tangible volunteering.

Volunteers that go from their home country (in the West somewhere) to a developing country (in the South somewhere) to work on a specific project such as building toilets, classrooms, painting. Sometimes they raise the money to pay for the project, sometimes they just pay for their own expenses.

Why is this detrimental to development? Well, what happens when the volunteer has left? You would think it is widely understood that teaching a man to fish is a better, more sustainable investment than giving him one. But organisations continue to operate along the one fish line! Why does a volunteer need to go and build a school when local communities and labour can be used (and even trained), not only creating a sense of ownership for the local community but also providing a job for someone.

Construction/tangible projects are also problematic because all too often clinics/schools etc will be built with large injections of cash from NGO, but with no set up or training for local people to manage and continue the running of such facilities. I have seen several clinics in remote Mozambique and Malawi that are shiny new thanks to the hard work of pioneering volunteers…. gathering dust because they didn’t bother to build relations with anyone on the ground and leave the project in their hands.

Many people have written much more coherently on this than I, but the point is fairly obvious I think…

Can it work? Yes! If the community is on board with the project (actively involved not just ‘consenting’) then there is less risk of projects occurring and then being left with no support. If teams fund the project, this can arguable be good too as a source of funding for core needs.

2. Short term intangible volunteering.

Short term volunteers going away to say, teach English in a primary school in Tanzania, or solve the HIV/AIDs cultural impasse in Malawi through football (yes it really does exist…. GREAT example….)

Often detrimental when constant change occurs and young kids are exposed to volunteers who aren’t committed to improving the child’s welfare. Lack of consistency does nothing to build trust. Time is wasted continually briefing new volunteers rather than retaining existing volunteers for longer thus maximising their impact. As with the construction argument, why teach kids English? If you are a qualified teacher or you have your TEFL (i.e. a tangible and useful skill to offer other than just an A level in English literature….), for goodness sake go and work with a parent teacher association, or teacher group and HELP THEM in their own English skills, lesson planning etc. Your impact will be sustained once you have left, operating this way. It infuriates me that more of these kinds of placements don’t exist with the big volunteering schemes.

Can it work? Yes; when done through a smaller organisation that has local knowledge and solid relationships, it can often serve as encouragement to local communities who often feel forgotten about. I know this because I have asked plenty of farmers/youth workers/village chiefs who I have taken volunteers to. It also works when people go off the beaten track and search for volunteering opportunities in schools for example that aren’t supported by a massive i-to-i style organisation. I did this with an old link school in Kenya. It doesn’t always work out but you have a better chance of having an impact and building relationships because chances are, if you’re willing to go off the beaten track you’re probably the kind of person interested in genuinely helping without the frills and hand holding that other organisation’s provide…

3. Long term skill sharing volunteering

Bloody brilliant. I have no bad experience of these types of volunteers bar the occasional peace corps fruit loop that slips through the net. The simple concept of someone with a developed career, and a tangible set of skills, taking them to a context where it is beneficial to share these skills and educate. Typically taken up by nurses, doctors, teachers, physiotherapists and so on. I have a lot of respect for people willing to give up their time to train local people in difficult professions in difficult contexts, and not get paid for it.

4. and many combinations of the above….

What future for volunteering?

The passion is clearly there; so many people feel deeply convicted to help put an end to global poverty and limit human suffering in its many forms. Which is great and deserves recognition in a world with plenty of people who are more preoccupied with typically ‘rich’ problems. Where it all falls apart is that efforts to coordinate and channel this passion into something productive, are not good enough. Perhaps there needs to be a coordinated effort to guide and advise young adults in how to effectively volunteer, helping them to avoid volunteer tourism….

Volunteering in your home context? Great. Reflects so much better on your commitment to your own community and helping out on your back yard. Volunteering to build something someone else could do in half the time, for less money and with a longer lasting sense of ownership and care? Not so great.

As with much of aid and development, too much focus is disproportionately placed on accountability, and funding. At the end of the day, there aren’t THAT many people who are interested in going to India with an organisation to simply ‘learn’ about development, soak up the culture with great humility and become enlightened as to how they might individually be equipped to make a difference in the future. What people really want is to play with cute children (it’s hard to resist!) and come back knowing that they can tick off the ‘build a school for poor kids in Africa’ box on their CV. You pay your £2000, and you get in return a very tangible end product without ever looking back. And the result? A continued cycle of dependence on aid in those countries receiving volunteers, whilst organisations continue to send cart after cart of volunteers encouraging them in their bid to rescue people that neither need or want to be rescued.

comment and let me know what you think…. am I being fair? Or am I being unreasonably critical of volunteerism?