Amelia Yeo: The development sector’s big problem

05 Feb 2019 Voices

Amelia Yeo, head of programmes at Restless Development, says international aid charities must rebalance the power dynamics between large agencies and those on the ground, and explains how Restless Development is going about it.

The international development sector has a big problem. 

While there are plenty of examples of development programmes that have a positive impact on people’s lives around the world, this problem threatens to undermine everything we hope to achieve.

It’s a problem that can be reduced to one word: Power. 

The way development currently works - how it’s funded; how it’s organised; and how it’s managed - sucks power from the people, communities and local organisations at its heart. 

Development is funded, organised and managed far from the people closest to the issues the sector is trying to address. Accountability is an issue too - communities are frequently treated as the subjects of evaluations rather than the examiners and judges of development programmes. All this adds up to a missed opportunity to build real, sustainable change at the heart of all of countries and communities.

Most of us working in the sector have been aware of our power problem for decades. Talk of communities leading change or being ‘empowered’ is nothing new.

But facing up to this problem and challenging ourselves to overcome it has been difficult. 

It’s understandable as to why the sector has shied away from it: there is constant pressure to show quick wins and pre-defined impact, and impact that is tangible and understandable.

What’s more, it’s hard to change the structures and systems of a lifetime in a sector that has grown up addressing some of the most complex social issues on earth, in many of the most challenging environments imaginable.

Power to define

So, how can we rebalance power? How can we expect to truly create change that lasts long after the international development agencies have left? 

There are two answers. First, communities must have the power to define, design and lead development programmes, and second, young people must play a leading role in making this a reality. 

Nine out of ten of the world’s young people live in developing countries. They are present in every community, and yet the power they hold to end our biggest problems is being overlooked.

The world has countless examples of young people making change, from the thousands of young people who used their trust and foundation in communities in Sierra Leone to end Ebola, to young women identifying issues facing their communities in Delhi slums and coming up with programmes to address them.


So, how can we get practical about this? If a lot of the problem lies within the international development sector, what can we change?

Naturally, the first thing we have to do when searching for solutions is to listen and collaborate with communities, young people and organisations working in the global south. 

Money and resources are needed too. At the moment, people and organisations who can create true change, usually based in the global south, are the ones with least access to money and resources. Funding is frequently channelled via larger INGOs and programmes are often managed through prime-subcontractor agreements between the large INGOs and smaller organisations in the global south.

This way of working can again reinforce power dynamics that means those organisation closest to the issues have very little ownership of the scoping and design of the programme, as well as the allocation of the resources they need to do it.

Our partners report that this is going a step further with smaller civil society organisations being absorbed into larger ones in order to respond to donors’ preferences, who see bigger organisations as a safer pair of hands.

There is a role here for innovative donors to encourage new ways of working that favour solutions developed and led by organisations in the global south.

The problems with this dynamic do not stop at funding. The management of consortiums that include INGOs and local organisations needs to be carefully considered so these partnerships are operating on an equal pegging.

To help this, INGOs can spend more time using their influence to change the way donors and programme designers build contracts and programmes, and do what they can to help carve out more ownership for local organisations.

An alternative

However, I’ll take us back to the need to listen for a moment: it would be wrong to assume those of us working in international development have the answers to these problems. Those answers must come from people, communities and organisations in the global south.

Restless Development is part of a new consortium - The Development Alternative - that hopes to facilitate this and kick start a process that will co-design approaches to development - approaches that mean young people and communities are truly able to define and lead programmes. 

The potential of this is difficult to quantify. Consider the huge, looming challenge of youth unemployment in Africa. Traditional job creation and work schemes won’t fix this alone - we simply can’t create enough jobs.

Instead, the world needs to better understand the context for young people facing this challenge and support them to define their own solutions, as well as informing the investment and policy decisions of donors and governments to ensure that they are well-targeted and lead to true economic growth and prosperity for the one million young people entering the job market every month.

I’m painfully aware that The Development Alternative consortium is formed largely by international development agencies working out of London, but we have to start somewhere. As much as we’re part of the problem, we have to be part of the solution.

That’s the nature of the system we are operating in but hopefully by facilitating rather than leading, by co-designing rather than directing, the system will change. You can’t radically shift an entire sector overnight. This will be a gradual process.

In the next 18 months, the consortium will support young people and their communities, and youth-led and focused organisations to start building evidence and approaches that can be tested and rolled out.

We want the learnings and approaches to be shared far and wide within the international development sector. If these new approaches work, they will be a step change in development that we can embrace as a collective - from individuals to local organisations, from INGOs to donors - so that together we rebalance power.


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