5 May 1988
issue 183 - May 1988
Hurdles to Development
Illustrations by ALAN HUGHES
For popular organizations the development path is full of obstacles.
The economy may go into crisis. A sympathetic government may be
replaced by a hostile one. A foreign development agency may suddenly
withdraw funding. An organization's leaders may feel threatened by new
blood and try to hold on to their position at all costs. Local community
groups the world over confront these hurdles. But as each hurdle is
overcome, the organization stands stronger and better prepared
to confront the challenges of development.
Strong and dynamic leaders are essential to move an organization forward. Indeed, without their direction, energy and commitment, an organization might never get off the ground. But there is a danger of becoming too dependent on one or two people. A cult of personality can develop around those who always speak for the group, paving the way for an imbalance of power. The 'mothers' and 'fathers' of the organization must make room for new leaders and let the organization evolve with the aspirations of a new generation.
The women's development decade brought new attention to the role and rights of poor women. But international lipservice to women's rights does not necessarily mean more say for women at the grassroots. Groups may boast of women's participation while real participation is restricted to serving coffee to guests and cooking meals for male leaders. Others begrudgingly form women's divisions to become eligible for international funding, but make little attempt to address the issues which really concern poor women. A superficial commitment to equality is often worse for women than no commitment at all.
Hostage to Foreign Aid
Poor people's groups are chronically short of funds. Many organizations must turn to outside donors to keep their projects afloat. But such help has real costs: endless hours writing reports and proposals, valuable time lost 'networking' at international conferences and maintaining a public profile that will keep those dollars rolling in. It is easy for an organization to be driven off course by the demands of its donors or to get into endless squabbles about how the money is spent. No matter how hard they try to please, organizations always face the danger of having their funding pulled out from under them with no warning or recourse.
'Success' has been the downfall of many good organizations. Donor agencies will flock to development 'successes' like bees to honey. These organizations run she risk of being turned into models' which leads to a waste of valuable resources on entertaining foreign observers, producing fancy promotional brochures and hosting the latest 'pilot projects' of the development establishment. Success can distort the original objectives of she organization and lead to rapid and uncontrolled growth. The illusion of success can lead groups to overestimate their own strength and promise more than they can realistically achieve. Leaders who become celebrities tend to replace people rather than represent them. Members drift away once the leadership appears more concerned with its own image than with concrete gains for the community.
Broad-based participation is both the means and the ultimate goal of grassroots development. But participation must be accompanied by a clear sense of direction and self-discipline. Otherwise, there will be a breakdown in the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization. When a group grows dramatically in membership, unstructured participation can lead to endless meetings, internal squabbling and lack of clearly defined goals. As the membership grows and people rally to the cause, an organization must learn how to maintain the delicate balance between broad-based participation and efficiency in getting things done.
Where the poor organize for a greater share of resources, they will inevitably meet with resistance from those with power. They may lose the little they have - jobs, land, markets for their goods or access to bank loans. The attacks may be more severe: forced exile, arrest, imprisonment and torture, or even a late-night visit by the death squad. Self-satisfied politicians and landlords inevitably see poor people demanding their rights as a subversive threat to 'national security'. The organized poor must carefully build alliances nationally and internationally to discourage human rights abuses.
As an organization gathers support and credibility among the poor, it also attracts the interest of economic and political powerbrokers. All of a sudden old enemies want to become friends. Influential and lucrative jobs may be offered to the group's leaders. In exchange for more influence in the corridors of power, the group may be asked to be more 'responsible' and to compromise its stand on certain issues. What at first may seem an appealing trade-off can turn into an irreversible sell-out. As the wise conservative well knows - everything must appear to change if everything is to remain the same.
This article is from
the May 1988 issue
of New Internationalist.
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