Alan Gibson

Originally featured on The Guardian, December 2009

A dewy-eyed view of charity work in Katine may just end in debilitating dependency

Patrick Barkham’s overview of the Katine experience covers the familiar mixed pattern seen throughout the Guardian’s two-year African initiative (One step forward…, 6 November). The glimpses of village life offer genuine insight into an African reality. But the development response to this – an African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) project that is typical of many NGO endeavours – risks giving a misleading impression of the nature of the challenge.

The “integrated form of rural development” approach which the project preaches is not new – it was pursued widely 30 years ago and is regarded as having been a failure. While the relatively intense direct delivery of inputs – schools, seeds, water, health services, storage facilities – obviously has an immediate impact, this intensity of input can easily slide into a debilitating dependence.

On sustainability, the project emphasises voluntarism to keep things going – built on prodigious amounts of training (the “software” that is apparently a key strength). But it doesn’t foster structures or mechanisms grounded in people’s incentives and capacities – or appear to consider how and why things should work beyond the end of the project.

The causes of Katine’s woes probably lie in the world outside – in national systems of financial services, input supply, information and services. As Barkham notes, “the fact is that eight new boreholes in a sub-county of 66 villages is not many. But even this has inhibited government investment in the area”, and that charities “may find their good deeds a convenient excuse for the authorities to do nothing”. The project has to engage with underlying causes. In this context, the mantra “it starts with a village” – at best a dewy eyed view of the world – in practice is likely to mean “and ends with very little”.

Joshua Kyallo, Amref’s Uganda director, says: “The challenge for [Katine] is resources,” as if to say more aid combined with noble intentions is inherently good and will succeed. There is simply no evidence to support the view that more is always better – either in Katine or in Africa as a whole.

The causes of poverty lie in the systems in which poor people – as producers, labourers, consumers and citizens – exist. Understanding and addressing these “systemic constraints” (to use the jargon) is what development should be about.

Programmes that do so, some of which my centre advises, have generated large-scale and sustainable change. Millions more people’s lives have been improved, – with access to financial services, using better information to improve their farm output – and they are now earning higher incomes. All are different experiences, but with a common starting point – that the agencies’ role is to bring about systemic change. With anything less we fool ourselves that the changes we see are significant and lasting. More seriously, we lead the people with whom we work down a similarly deluded path.

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