Change & continuity in global Development

A report published recently by the Brookings Institution entitled “Global development disrupted: Findings from a survey of 93 leaders” (by George Ingram and Kristin M. Lord, March 2019) “reveals a global development sector in transition and perhaps even turmoil.” This post will look at how the report uses three specific terms – culture, language, and localization – and draw some inferences from those.

Context

This is obviously a high-level report, but I approached it with an eye to some issues identified from years working on or close to the grassroots level – issues that I see as key underpinnings to successful work in support of development at all levels.

Philosophically, I also see “development” as fundamentally a process of “unfolding” and “revealing of potentialities” (its core meaning, related to its etymology),1 which the material and learning foci of development programs and projects ideally facilitate.

Over the years that I’ve moved in and out of international development work I have, of course, been cognizant of changes in the field. These changes, which are part of the background for Brookings’ report, include, among others: changing funding equations; new technologies; evolving socio-economic contexts; different actors on both the international level and within the countries where work is done; and a nexus of security issues and responses.

There are also constants in the field, of course. beyond the general mission.

In addition, there are deeper questions about what international development is and could or should be. The three terms that I key in on here – culture, language, and localization – could be doors to considering those.

Culture

My early years in development practice and study were during the period when the field both recognized the “cultural dimension of development,”2 and almost simultaneously critiqued that concept with the idea that maybe culture is so integral to development that it can’t be separated out.3

So it was somewhat surprising to me that In this report, culture refers mainly to the “organizational culture” of development organizations or the related “professional culture” in the field of international development (11/12 uses of “culture”; 3/3 of “cultures”; 0/1 of “cultural).

There is nothing inappropriate with those topics. As a sometimes student of organizational development, I also find them interesting and as relevant to international development as they are to any field. Indeed, a concern with internal processes (related to the focus on organizational culture) in development organizations has had positive aspects, in the form of efforts to evaluate efforts and improve practice.

However it seems strange – even allowing for the fact this is a high-level analysis – that the cultures of the places where international development works are relegated to two (of 16) mentions – an observation concerning how “cultural issues” may limit host country government attention to gender issues, and the following general statement:

Expatriate experts lack the depth of understanding of the local culture and how it works. Better solutions will be offered by local actors. 

The latter seems to imply that the whole topic of culture outside of the organizations (reduced to “local”4) is taken care of, having been filed under another term and theme in the report, “localization” (which theme is discussed below). If it’s simply that “better solutions” are local, then what is the role of the expatriate there anyway? Shepherding funds and filing reports?

While it is certainly true that someone from a “local” culture generally has greater depth in it than an outsider ever will,  it is also true that someone from outside any culture (whether that be ethnic, national, organizational) can see things and ask questions that those who know it best might not see or ask. Think forests, trees, and cross-cultural complementarity.

Could it be that the “best solutions” in development come from local actors interacting with expatriate development experts who, for their part, have developed more than a passing familiarity with the cultures of the places in which they work?

In fact, the field offices, at least, of development organizations generally include expats who have some level – sometimes considerable – of cultural knowledge about the places they are assigned to. And at some level the development organizations value this. Yet this important factor, and how it might be enhanced, doesn’t emerge in this document.

International development has become ever more of a business, and a very large one at that, such that a significant part of its attention is now necessarily devoted to its own functioning. And that includes, as reflected in the report, the culture or cultures of donor and development organizations – and how that works or how those interact. Judging by the preoccupations of leaders of development organizations, it seems the center of gravity, as pertains to the spectrum of cultures of all parties involved in development programs, has thus shifted away from focus on the cultures of the “beneficiaries”5 of those programs.

What is lost when the original “cultural dimension” of development is effectively relegated to the margins of the business of international development?

Language

The high water mark of discussion about the “cultural dimension” of development stopped short of encompassing its “linguistic dimension.”  This was an opportunity missed. In the context of the focus on organizational and professional cultures reflected in the “Global development disrupted” report, one gets the impression that language has receded even further from active consideration as a key factor in development.

The document includes a single mention of “language,” and that is in “natural language processing” (NLP), which appears in a list of technologies6 about which development leaders “express broad excitement.”

I’ve had a long interest in language and technology, and certainly believe that NLP could have potential in development – especially to the extent it can be used in first languages of beneficiaries. It’s not clear that development leaders are thinking in this direction, but the fact that languages get no other mention reflects what I’ve come to see as the usual disconnect between development (theory, practice) and language (as a factor fundamental to communication, learning, and indeed culture, in development).

I touched on this gap in an earlier posting on this blog – “Visualizing language, development, education & ICT connections” – in which the language↔development connections are portrayed as “largely ignored.”

The language↔ICT (information and communication technology) links mentioned in that post are also relatively undeveloped in places receiving international development interventions. If this assertion is accurate, one could assume that interest in NLP is not thought of in multilingual applications.

It is important to remember that development organizations function in a limited number of globally dominant languages, and in some cases “local” languages of certain wealthy countries, while many development interventions happen in places where an entirely different set of languages, and often many languages in a given location, are widely if not predominately used. This linguistic juxtaposition should be at least as apparent as the cultural one. And because it involves relative neglect of the less “powerful” languages, it has important implications for the outcomes of development interventions.

However, this “linguistic dimension” is absent from the concerns expressed through this report. In that respect, unfortunately, international development doesn’t seem to have changed that much at all.

Localization

“Localization” has a number of meanings across different contexts (from medicine to geography). Over the years I’ve used it mainly in connection with translating software and content (per “L10n,” and in this context basically the same as the language↔ICT connections mentioned above). 

“Global development disrupted” uses this term frequently (16 times), but always in a different sense: that of shifting responsibilities and initiative closer to the beneficiaries. i.e., national and local institutions and leaders. This is a logical and positive direction in which to move, but not a new idea.7 It is interesting, however, to note the prominence of this concept in the responses by development leaders.

What does the emphasis on localization in this sense mean ultimately? That’s an interesting question that gives rise to others:

  • If localization in this sense were pursued to its logical conclusion, where would that leave international development organizations?
  • How would roles of international donors and local/national authorities change?
  • What might be the result of localizing development programs also in cultural and linguistic terms? 

Conclusion

The report itself offers useful insights into the thinking of those in high positions in development organizations. The content of that thought, however, along with what I see as a persistent gap, has helped give new form to an evolving set of impressions I have about the current state of the field of international development.

The way “culture” is discussed implies a subtle but fundamental change in preoccupations. The way “language” is not discussed reflects a constancy in priorities (specifically what’s not there). And the way “localization” is treated points to an ongoing shift, potentially major, in terms of the structure of the field (e.g., who the actors will be, where the initiative resides).

In general, the report confirms a sense that a large part of what originally attracted me to this field – being outside a corporate structure and focusing on efforts and processes that assisted people and their communities – exists less than it may ever have. (The old format of the donor agency having bureaucratic approach

In general, the report confirms a sense that the field has become:

  • more corporate,  which in turn is related to demands of the system of development contracting, involving competition for bids and reporting requirements of donors, and
  • less concerned with cultures, not to mention languages, of places they work, and that under the cover of localization.

Where is international development headed? Part of the answer would be in the localization piece. Another part probably in factors not directly related to the field as we have known it.


Notes:

1. “Development” in this field is usually defined in terms of economic growth and improvement of standards of living. These are of obvious importance to materially less well-off communities. And they are measurable via quantifiable metrics, which is important to donors.

2. For those unfamiliar with this topic, the first two (free) pages of this article give an intro:  Pierre Pascallon and Clermont-Ferrand. 1986. “The Cultural Dimension of Development.” Intereconomics 21(1):38–45. A longer treatment, with focus on environmental knowledge is offered in: D. Michael Warren, L. Jan Slikkerveer, David Brokensha, and Wim H.J.C. Dechering, eds. 1995. The Cultural Dimension of Development. IT Studies in Indigenous Knowledge and Development.

3. My first encounter with the notion of a centrality of culture in the development process was a statement in a 1981 interview of then former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella that the problems of development are first of all cultural problems (Jeune Afrique #1072, 22 July 1981). That view never intersected, as far as I’m aware, with academic discussions of the period about culture and development, but it could have.

4. I find the use of “local” to be tricky. On the one hand, it is a normal descriptive, but on the other hand it may imply a minimization of the “other.” I’ve noted this particularly in the are of languages, per “local language.” One way to disarm that impression is to couple it with something broader, like “national” or “regional.” That way you acknowledge the range of cultural contexts.

5. “Beneficiary” is the term long used in international development for people its interventions are intended to help in one or another way. Its use is also criticized as implying a passive or inferior status. See for example Wayan Vota’s “Please Stop Using the Term ‘Beneficiaries’ in ICT4D” (2013) and Pete Vowles’ “Why I Hate The Word ‘Beneficiaries.’ But I don’t know what to replace it with” (2018). I use the term here without endorsing it.

6. That this list was generated by a question on “the most exciting new initiatives or new directions in their own organization or international development more generally” – in other words blurring any distinction between those presumably intended more for an organization’s operation, and those more directly affecting beneficiaries – is itself telling.

7. When I first joined the Peace Corps almost four decades ago, an early take on this was the slogan, “working yourself out of a job.” Over the years, greater emphasis in development has been given to partnering with local organizations. All that seems to have resulted in changes in types of jobs on the international side.

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Updated Renewables & Burnables Venn diagram

In a post last year entitled “Reframing ‘renewable energy’ & ‘bioenergy’” I introduced several diagrams, including a simple Venn depiction of how various forms of bioenergy are found in the overlap of “renewables” and what is burned or combusted to release energy. I’ve made a few minor changes to that diagram (detailed at the end of this post), and present the updated version below.

Why this Venn?

As I contended in my post last year, “renewable energy” is a problematic concept in that it is kind of a catch-all for several forms of non-fossil fuels, and definitions of it vary. A particular problem is the common opposition of “renewable” and “fossil,” which obscures the “double life” of bioenergy sources (both “renewable” in most definitions, and burned or combusted like fossil fuels but unlike other renewables, dubbed here “clean energy”).

The two operant categories at this level of analysis would then be “renewable” and “burnable/combustible” (the latter recognizing that some bioenergy forms like wood are burned with minimal processing, while others such as biofuels are processed for combustion). These are simply and appropriately representable in a Venn diagram.

Ideally this diagram, or a more professional image conveying the same information, can help encourage more clarity in reports on or discussions of energy sources. In particular, it is important to move beyond the simple opposition between “renewable” and “fossil,” and to be more specific at all times about the kind(s) of renewable energy being referred to.

Deeper analysis

In my post last year I explored other ways of categorizing energy sources, including without use of the “renewable” or “combustible/burnable” categories. One of several aspects I hope to return to is the inclusion of another relatively minor subcategory of forms of bioenergy that are not burned.

An academic article published by Atte Harjanne and Janne M. Korhonen in Energy Policy this past April – “Abandoning the concept of renewable energy” – looks at how “renewable” is used and potentially misused, and suggests that an alternative framework for categorizing forms of energy could inform better policy. I hope to return to this as well.

This space is complex, contested, and vitally important for understanding and dealing with the energy and environmental challenges ahead. 

Changes

The original Venn diagram had “Pure renewables” as the heading above geothermal, solar, etc., which I changed to “Clean energy” pursuant to a discussion on Twitter with some nuclear energy proponents.

I added the header “Bioenergy” to the brown overlap, to make clear that this represents a group separate from “Clean energy.”

Also in the interests of clarity, I underlined the titles of the two circles, “Renewable” and “Combustible / Burnable” in colors corresponding to the circles they represent.

Finally, I added “peat” to the list of fossil fuels, but in parentheses. From what I read, categorization of peat in this regard is not clear.

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International Year of Millets, 2023

Early last year I noted India’s proposal to make 2018 the International Year of Millets (IYOM) and its subsequent rolling out of its own National Year of Millets in the same year. Apparently that IYOM proposal, submitted to FAO too late in 2017 to realistically have a chance, has been working its way through the system to where 2023 has been identified as the target year.

Samples of several millets (source: indiankhana.net)

In December 2018, the FAO Council decided to support India’s proposal for an IYOM, in 2023. The proposal, in the form of a draft resolution (see Appendix F in the Report of the Council of FAO, 160th Session) was supported by the Africa and Asia regional groups, European Union, Russian Federation, China, Sudan, Kenya, Cuba, Austria, Afghanistan, Thailand, Egypt, Senegal, and Mali.

2018, 2019, 2023

When its initial proposal did not go through, India subsequently (in mid-2018) advocated having the IYOM in  2019. That again might not have left enough time to organize such an observation. Also, the 2019 calendar was already pretty crowded with three international years (on indigenous languages, the periodical table, and moderation).

It is not clear what the process was of deciding on 2023, although that will certainly leave adequate time. The next step is getting a formal United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring IYOM 2023 and its objectives.

Millets (not simply “millet”) are several related grains that have been discussed at some length on this blog (see tag millets, plus an archived version of a post from another site). One question is whether the whole millet spectrum will be covered by IYOM 2023 – from sorghum at the large end to fonio and teff at the small end, via all the grains in between that are surnamed “millet” in English (pearl millet, proso millet, finger millet, foxtail millet, and others).

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International Year of Moderation, 2019

The International Year of Moderation 2019 (IYM2019) was declared in a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2017. It is one of three UN international years being observed in 2019 – the other two concerning Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) and the Periodic Table (IYPT2019) – but so far the one getting the least attention.

IYM2019 was an initiative proposed by Malaysia, and was framed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in terms of an effort to “combat the spread of extremism and radicalism by adopting moderation.”

The UNGA resolution cast the Year’s purpose formally as “an effort to amplify the voices of moderation through the promotion of dialogue, tolerance, understanding and cooperation.”

However, the IYM2019 observance does yet not appear to have as well-developed a public (social media) presence as the other two international years. The UN Alliance of Civilizations, which was “invited” in the UNGA resolution to “facilitate the observance” of IYM2019 “in collaboration with other relevant organizations” has nothing on its website. I found only, on Facebook, a page entitled “2019 as the International Year of Moderation,” and an associated event from the beginning of the year (from which I found the image above).

The slow start may be related to former PM Najib’s political and legal problems, and to the closure of the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation in mid-2018. Presumably these would have been prominent in organizing the IYM2019 observance.

Another factor could be the UNGA resolution’s stipulation that “the cost of all activities” in connection with the Year “should be met from voluntary contributions.” Should we conclude that IYM2019 has not (yet) generated sufficient donor interest?

A personal comment: It seems that a year devoted to “moderation” might also, beyond the aims stated above, encourage discussion of moderation as a virtue in other ways. It is for example discussed in philosophy and religious teachings. But it also has very practical benefits, such as in resource use or habits relating to health. If observance of IYM for the rest of 2019 is too narrow in its conceptualization, an opportunity for wider learning would be missed.

(Further edits were made to this post on 30 June 2019)

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International Year of the Periodic Table, 2019

Another of the three United Nations (UN) year-long observances for 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT2019), which has its opening ceremony today at UNESCO in Paris.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev‘s discovery of the periodic system and publication of the first periodic table (1869). It was on this basis that in 2017 the UN General Assembly and UNESCO designated 2019 as the IYPT.

The tagline for IYPT2019 is “a common language for science.” The official website explains:

The Periodic Table of Chemical Elements is one of the most significant achievements in science, capturing the essence not only of chemistry, but also of physics and biology.

UNESCO’s webpage on IYPT2019 pitches it as: “A yearlong initiative to raise awareness of chemistry and its applications for sustainable development.”

The National Informal Stem Education Network in the US has a short page with links to some resources related to IYPT2019.

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International Year of Indigenous Languages, 2019

Earlier today, the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) was officially launched at UNESCO in Paris. There will also be an event on February 1 at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York

The theme of the year, “Indigenous languages matter for sustainable development, peace building and reconciliation,” echoes the “Languages matter” theme of the 2008 International Year of Languages. It also seems to highlight connections with the Sustainable Development Goals and even the concurrent International Year of Moderation (which will be the subject of a separate post).

IYIL2019 was declared in the 2016 UNGA resolution on the Rights of indigenous peoples., based on a resolution of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

A general statement of the purpose of the Year from the official webpage sets the theme:

Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory. But despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate.

With this in mind, the United Nations declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) in order to raise awareness of them, not only to benefit the people who speak these languages, but also for others to appreciate the important contribution they make to our world’s rich cultural diversity.

The IYIL2019 has five (5) “overarching” objectives (taken from the CFP, below; the website has a slightly different set of 5 action areas):

  1. Informing about the importance of indigenous languages for social development
  2. Creating greater awareness about the critical status of indigenous languages around the world
  3. Stimulating intercultural debate around indigenous languages
  4. Imparting new knowledge on the importance of indigenous languages
  5. Shaping attitudes of relevant stakeholders about indigenous languages.

CFP within the context of IYIL2019

As part of the Year, there is a call for research papers (deadline 1 March 2019) addressing one or more of seven key areas of intervention:

  1. Humanitarian affairs, peace-building and national development plans
  2. Indigenous education and life-long learning
  3. Indigenous knowledge in science and health
  4. Gender equality
  5. Social inclusion and urbanization, ethics and civic engagement
  6. Cultural heritage and diplomacy
  7. Technology, digital activism, and artificial intelligence

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