Today I wanted to write a bit about other actors in development. I should caviat this with my belief that NGOs do some great work; in short term relief (humanitarian assistance) where they can often mobilise quickly and get funds/resources to places that need them and also in longer term development interventions. This in itself deserves an entire blog, as I also feel that the development community has a tendency to spend too much time bitching and whining, and not enough time to sit back and say 'hey, look, a paradigm/project that is actually working, let's celebrate that'.
You can't avoid though, the growing dissatisfaction in the aid + development community, with the way that some NGOs and donors operate - often inefficiently, corruptly, and ignorantly. So it has become pretty fashionable in development discourse to start talking about 'philanthrocapitalism', Faith Based Organisations, Diaspora groups and so on. Big donors are moving towards working more with these kinds of actors in the hope that they might bring something substantial to the table that others have not. Be it DfID investing in dairy farms being set up in Malawi to the rise and rise of the Gates Foundation et al, we cannot escape from the fact that there are other players in the system who have something to say.
Private sector interventions
I was involved with a private farming enterprise in Malawi for 3 years, it was a small scale but grassroots and hands on example of the private sector actively seeking to improve the lives of the people they employ and the surrounding communities. This, to me, is the way forward in terms of private sector development interventions; small scale industries that offer improved livelihoods through employment alone but with the potential to work with communities, communities that are familiar with the 'company' etc. Higher profile examples include companies like Unilever, who have for example built schools and housing in Kericho, so that their employees can send their children to a local school. Exagris, the company I was involved with, has far less resources and access to funds to be in a position to provide this level of infrastructure (indeed this is the case for a lot of small scale industries working in developing countries).
Exagris' development work could be roughly divided into two; the social side of development and more agricultural based development activities. On 9 different farms, throughout Malawi, youth groups were set up, feeding programme's established (but later phased out and soon to be reformed into community resource centres), family planning and HIV/AIDS workshops established through local partners and Community Based Organisations. On the agri side of things, the firm worked with smallholder farmers and an increasingly large community of outgrowers, training farmers to grow better, depend less on inputs like fertiliser, and of course the company provided communities with a 'secure' market - a place for farmers to sell their crop and receive a fair price (prices determined according to local standards, not inflated or deflated prices). The work was slow, progress was slow, and results were not always tangible and positive. But hey, welcome to the real world of development. It made any real achievement so much more rewarding, knowing that it was a long term positive development for communities (that rarely had anything to do with the 3/4 European staff and everything to do with the leadership and drive from community leaders).
Of course, we experienced all the usual frustrations (and then some) particularly as some NGOs still haven't cottoned on to the fact that working with the private sector has huge potential, but we kept on and knew that we were on to a winning formula. I hope the company continues in its successes, and that donors will further recognise the role that the PS has to play.
In a classroom last week, I spent a heated hour defending the private sector, amidst wild accusations and criticisms of the PS talking only about how corrupt it all is, big bad evil companies, they exploit, they are only driven by a need to make profit. Yes yes yes... but what is beyond that? NGOs are subject to the exact same criticisms and arguably don't want to reach their goal of 'emancipation' or 'total sustainable development' as we'll all be out of a job, but somehow on the private sector these accusations seem so much worse...
It's easy to generalise; they're not all the same (just like NGOs aren't all the same, neither wholly good nor wholly irrelevant) and when done properly, the private sector has a lot to bring to the table of development, in conjunction with states and other non state actors. People who work in the private sector can be driven by a motivation to do good and help people just as much as people in the public sector, come on, who really buys all this realist/neoclassical bullsh*t? IBM, Exxon Mobil, BP, Pampers, GSK, Unilever. Massive corporations, massive revenues, big commitments to CSR type policies and sustainability.
The anti - corporation argument is old and no longer relevant in a predominantly capitalist driven global community, one in which the NGO sector (one that is meant to offer an alternative to government) is FAILING to provide results on any level with regard to long term, sustainable development.
Essentially, what I'm saying is that I understand the need to critique and hold people and organisations accountable to their actions. This is a vital role that the online community, through the advent of twitter and blogging etc, is excellently placed to do. My problem is that people appear to spend far too much time complaining and talking about how awful development can be, and yet there are actually so many good stories out there. Perhaps I am missing the point, what do you think? I am but just another speck in the ocean of aid bloggers, but I am determined to remain optimistic; optimistic that the private sector can and WILL help the project of development without being solely focused on self-interest, optimistic that most of the people working in most organisations started out like any of us - with a genuine desire and passion to 'do good' and optimistic that one day we will find answers to the great problems of development that don't involve huge dependency on aid flows from North to South and the iron fist of the West banging on about liberal democracy.
But hey, what do I know, seriously - I find it pretty overwhelming that even with the variety of experience that I do have - I still feel like I know nothing about this industry. The more I learn the less things make sense, and the harder I find it to comment.... go figure.