By Kyle Navis
We came across an article generally outlining and summarizing two forms of aid by Jennifer Lentfer at the How Matters blog from a couple years ago, describing what she called “Old School” Development and Development Aid 2.0.
We thought this would be a great discussion starter, so we took her table and made a few changes so that it made sense to the context here in Bolivia and then went through each of them one-by-one with our workers. (Unfortunately, our one Guatemalan worker had to return early, so she was unable to participate this time—it would have been very interesting to hear her feedback and perspective on these.) The questions we used to guide our reflection were:
- What do you think of the list? Do you agree with the movement from “old school” to “2.0”? Should a “2.0” approach be our goal? Are there any shifts you do not agree with? Why or why not?
- Think about the relationship between our organization and your partner organization. In what ways are we maintaining this relationship well and in what ways is it not?
- Think about yourself. In what ways are you abiding by the principles of “2.0” and in what ways are you falling into the “old school” approach? What can you do to move yourself towards a “2.0” approach?
- Looking towards the future: We’ve noticed that often friends and family do not really understand the nature of our work. They think that service is just doing things (physical actions) for others. That said, how can you help them understand that the HOW of your work is just as, if not more important that the WHAT?
The feedback and reflection was quite interesting, and generally we found that most everyone agreed with the principles of “2.0” and that their and our work should be guided accordingly. However, there were a number of points of agreement and disagreement that I think are worth outlining.
- Generally speaking, the “Old School” Development side is a bit too much of a negative caricature. That is, it’s almost like taking pot-shots at something that was a product of its time instead of assuming that people were doing the best anyone knew how to do at the time. Thus there are categories that are too obviously “duh”-inducing.
- If you want to generalize, you could almost call “Old School” Development a purely Western cultural framework for organizational management, while Development Aid 2.0 recognizes the nuances required by a cross-cultural situation and adapts accordingly.
Looking at some of the entries specifically, here are some of the comments and critiques offered:
“Old School” Development
Development Aid 2.0
|Overshadowing needs of institutions||Community groups as “clients always right”||This goes too far—there needs to be a 3rd point of view that’s able to approach issues more dispassionately. Perhaps the ideal ought to be phrased in terms ofpartnership between institution and community groups. Although taking into account the need to respect host communities, the community groups should have veto power.|
|Band-aid||Inoculation||There’s a time and a place for “band-aid” solutions, but keeping in mind this is about development (versus, say, relief), perhaps a less forceful suggestion than inoculation could be prevention.|
|Deficit thinking, problem-solving, “those poor people” cannot cope||People without cash resources can and do cope (and even thrive at times)||We very much liked the use of the word “cope,” but there was still pushback on the need to recognize the value of efforts like problem-solving, at least done in partnership.|
|Progress is externally catalyzed||Social change is internal, organic||The critique here was that “catalyzed” is a positive word, and a better characterization might end up being “Social change is externally driven.”|
|Pedantic, condescending, adversarial, “othering”||Supportive, encouraging, nurturing, respectful, allies||We thought about this in the context of media. One of the things people really loved about our employer’s policies is its insistence that media must portray people with dignity. That is, poverty porn is not ever acceptable. The question it then raises is, is it ever acceptable to portray people in situations of need for the purposes of eliciting help or aid? We personally tend towards never, but there was not a group consensus.|
|Oblivious to or dismissive of power dynamics, resulting in overt or unintended expressions of control||Grounded in compassion and empathy||We felt it was necessary to add the words “relationship, understanding, and [physical] presence,” to the 2.0 category.|
|I know||You know, let me help you discover it||This one made us a bit nervous. It can come across as a bit snide. We thought perhaps either “We’ll figure it out together” or “Let’s hash it out together and you get the last call” would do better.|
|Presumption of knowing what the future should be||Faith in social outcomes||Perhaps we were not fully understanding the gist of the “2.0” entry, but this came across as too naïve and not accounting for the role of planning and outlining objectives.|
If you read the comments on Lentfer’s original post, influential aid blogger “J” makes the following comment referring to It’s about me “helping” moving towards I “show up” and my presence helps let potential out:
I flat disagree with “I ‘show up’ and my presence helps let potential out.” Seeing my primary contribution as simply showing up, seems about the worst example of the “Savior Complex” possible. We had better have specific contributions to make or stay out of the field.
The reason I highlight this is because that entry was probably the most appreciated one in our group of workers who are all seconded to Bolivian partner organizations, working in jobs that fill needs and requests that have been expressed by our partners. They are fit into the organizational structure in places that are not leadership roles and where they are under the authority of Bolivian administrators.
In other words, we seek out positions that do not let foreigners occupy a place of power in relation to the organizations they work with (at least, any more power than is sometimes /inevitably yielded to foreigners—and I’d note that those dynamics of power can eventually work themselves into equilibrium through long-term relationships and critical self-reflection).
I understand J’s disagreement, but I think we have different contexts in mind. My impression is that J is talking about development in general, and it makes sense that if the only goal is to simply “show up” and see what happens, that’s purely a self-interested and self-glorifying motivation, not one to justify the load of money it took to get you there in the first place.
However, I’d argue that in our context, this does make more sense, because one of our driving goals is intercultural exchange within the context of development work. That is, a huge thrust of our work is to build bridges through meaningful and long-term intercultural interactions and relationships. To do that, you have to spend a long time in community with people.
And when your job description involves working as a teacher’s aid in a Bolivian daycare classroom, it will feel often like the best you can hope for the day-to-day is to just show and hope that your presence is helping let potential out. Of course all that is done in the context of year-long plans that each worker writes for themselves and we revisit and/or update at least three times throughout the year.
Personally, at first KTB (Kyle's wife) and myself thought Lentfer's version of "2.0" was generally a little too open-ended and “dialogue/conversation”-focused in a way that seems to lower the role data and PME play, although that suspicion comes out of our personal experiences with certain NGOs. However, if you take into account that de facto you're going to have to meet reporting requirements anyway in a functional development organization (granted, that's definitely not always de facto), than as a description of a shift in general approach and mindset, this is a good table.
We found it to be a really helpful guide for reflection and wanted to share it with people who might find it useful.