International development, broadly, means improving the quality of life for everyone. Development practice, however, is a diverse and unwieldy field. There is no clear idea of what effective development strategies look like, nor are there implemented standards to hold development workers―state governments, inter-governmental organizations, non-profits, high school service learning programs, etc.―accountable to the researched approaches and lessons learned that do exist.
Think of it this way: addressing the health, economic, social, and political needs of a country, population, or community is at least as difficult as treating ailments in the human body. The systems are no less complex, the causes are no less sophisticated, and the symptoms are no less diverse. As it is, though, doctors must complete more than eight years of advanced, specialized training before being qualified to offer medical care to patients, and then must adhere to strict protocols and standards in offering that care. Development volunteers, however, are often just well-intended individuals that design and implement ‘solutions’ in communities without any specialized training or education. They can easily default to ‘common sense’ approaches or trial-and-error attempts at development. These approaches are often competing, making them inefficient, and can have a damaging and lasting impact on the people they try to help.
I experienced one of these scenarios firsthand when I was living in India. Western veterinarians neutered stray dogs to reduce the stray dog population—which seemed like the most logical approach based on their own experiences. Local villagers, however, then stoned all of the neutered dogs to death because neutered animals were seen as an abhorrent perversion of nature in Hindu religion. While examples like this are an obvious instance of development gone awry, development work can result in more obscure unintended consequences that pose a greater long-term threat to the field. The harm being done may never be apparent to the development workers themselves, allowing ineffective strategies to carry on unquestioned.
For example, an NGO in a rural Nicaraguan community where I later worked wanted to build a well to improve the community’s water access. They called a community meeting and asked local residents to determine the best locations for the well and to develop strategies for collectively contributing money for well maintenance and for regulating well use. Unbeknownst to the NGO, the ‘community’ meeting they called involved only the biggest players in the community—the people who were used to benefiting from outside programs and were already in control of the greatest share of existing resources.
As a result, the well was placed closest to the meeting attendees and farther from some of the community members who needed the water more. The ‘regulatory’ system was ill-defined, and in some ways simply restricted the well’s use to that select group within the community. Instead of building the community’s capacity to collaboratively and inclusively take ownership of a development opportunity, the NGO had created a point of enduring contention, and allowed existing power inequalities to grow and persist. To top it off, the well-water was contaminated with fecal coliforms because the NGO wasn’t familiar with livestock grazing practices, the locations of dug latrines, and the subsequent risk each posed to downhill ground water quality.
While we cannot predict all of the consequences that well-intentioned development projects may have, continued research into state- and community-level development can aid our understanding and help craft strategies that more effectively shift ownership of the project into the community’s own hands. Though comprehensive agreement about development strategies is far from being realized, identifying and studying the research that does exist (which is extensive) is a crucial first step to any development effort.