The Recipe for Sustainable Development

The only thing worse than the smell of a dead rat is not knowing where the dead rat is.  I can sadly say this with conviction, for I have been joined by a family of rats over the last week in my Nairobi flat.  Big, black, furry rodents with tails that double their size.  As I worked at the dining room table, I could see them stirring out of the corner of my eye, scurrying between the stove and refrigerator and back again.  They pitter-pattered across the linoleum floor throughout the night and left their waste wheresoever they pleased.  A day after they took stock in my flat, the maintenance crew arrived – good intentions in one hand, kryptonite in the other – and strategically placed poison throughout the house.  Brilliant idea, ingenious really.  Until the rats consumed the poison and died in undisclosed locations around the flat, leaving an increasingly deadly stench.  So back again the maintenance crew came, superbly eager and on a mission to solve the mysterious case of the missing rats.  They looked left, they looked right.  They looked up, they looked down.  They moved every kitchen appliance, but the intruders were nowhere to be found.  It was a Saturday evening and with reassuring faces, the crew recommended using air freshener to dissipate the smell while we wait for them to return next week during regular working hours.  They marched out of the front door leaving us with a floor full of dust from overturned appliances, a swarm of flies and an unbearably wretched stench.

The situation is less than desirable but it certainly sums up my experience with traditional approaches to development.  A far reach I know, but hear me out.

We approach communities in need – sometimes because we are called upon (as we called the maintenance men), sometimes without a request, and arrive on scene with the best of intentions.  There is no doubt in our minds that we are going to solve this, we are going to help those who need it, we are going ‘to save Africa’.  We design and implement an intervention – lay down our own poisons if you will – and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done as we walk confidently away.  The problem is every action has a consequence, which brings about a host of new challenges requiring its own set of solutions.  Dead rats because of a poison we planted – or in the case of community development, increased gender inequalities because of an irrigation system we installed that favours a traditionally male-dominated sector; or designing a water collection mechanism that no longer requires women to fetch water, thereby devaluing their role in the community without providing an alternative means to be engaged in society.  These are by-products of our initial inputs and yet, most times we fail to take accountability for the domino effect of issues and wipe our hands clean of the mess.

Sometimes we go back – like my well-intentioned maintenance crew – to finish what we had a hand in starting.  When we go back, the complexity of the problem necessitates turning to new tools, or re-defining the uses of the tools we generally use.  And when those don’t work, or we lack the funds to invest in new resources, we turn our attention to other matters with the promise of coming back.  And that’s our problem.  We don’t go back.  Too few organizations go back.  Instead, we write a report that highlights our successes and justifies our failures and move on to implement the same intervention in another area.  Something Einstein would deem as insanity.

This is what has happened to the state of Africa, according to Dambisa Moyo’s telling book “Dead Aid”.  We resolved to help those in need by providing financial assistance to Africa in the 1950s after seeing the success of the approach in re-building a ravaged European economy post-WWII.  In the 1970s with soaring prices of oil, we sought to help the poor by lending millions of dollars to the most un-creditworthy countries – and then provided poverty-related aid when these African countries found themselves in greater debt trying to pay back past loans.  Aid deceptively is not free.  The interest payments further pushed Africa into a downward spiral of poverty, which again we sought to fix by lending money to defaulting nations to help them repay what they owed through an IMF initiative called structural adjustment. This served to increase African countries’ aid-dependence and throw them into a larger pool of debt.  Our initial intervention created a domino effect of problems – and we repeatedly turned to the same approach to fix these problems.  We are now in a state of having spent $300 billion of development assistance in Africa over the last 40 years with many poverty indicators remaining stagnant (including life expectancy), and some even worse than when we first arrived – with good intentions of course.

And now that many African countries are suffering from high disease burden, low literacy rates and limited infrastructure, we supply free condoms and bed nets – good initiatives, but in isolation are  band-aid, ‘air freshener approaches’ – and promise to come back another time when it is more convenient to our schedules, to our interests.  We walk away, leaving behind a mass of problems for an ill-equipped, ill-resourced community to deal with.

To catch the rat, to solve the problems of ultra-poverty, it takes the perfect mix of ingredients and a precise recipe tailored towards the context.  I think development has failed to reach its potential because we have failed to achieve that perfect mix.  Sometimes we over-emphasize the importance of financial assistance and forget the merit of impact investment.  Sometimes we pay more attention to monitoring and evaluation plans rather than spending dedicated time in communities to observe the impact made.  What the perfect community development recipe dictates, I alone cannot answer.  You cannot answer.  Creating a thoughtful, innovative, effective recipe requires an equally important mix of chefs with different expertise; it requires a multi-sectoral input approach where the beneficiaries are just as equally seen and heard in the kitchen as the agency providing the money.  If we can do this, if brilliant minds from the private, NGO, educational, government sectors can collaborate with communities to develop locally-driven, context-based recipes with defined and measurable outcomes – and have the persistence and creativity to tweak the recipe when things don’t work out as planned – then I have hope that sustainable development is possible.  Sustainable development is within reach.  Sustainable development can happen in our lifetime.

Until then, I seek to develop a locally-driven, context-based recipe with defined and measurable outcomes to rid of my current rat friends.  Multi-sectoral and stakeholder input are welcomed and much appreciated.

Sabrina Natasha Premji

Sabrina Natasha Premji is the Project Manager of an Integrated Primary Health Care Start-Up Project with the Aga Khan University. She is currently living in Nairobi, Kenya.

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