Editorial (22.7)

The human tendency to continuously sub-divide and reclassify the way we look at our own experience is one of the signs of our creativity. In the world of development this is as true as any other field of human endeavour, perhaps even more so. The negative side to this search for definitions, and the drive to subdivide our experiences into areas we can understand and engage with, is that we create ‘silos’ – areas of study, for example, which are isolated from each other by the use of exclusive language and terms that come from different disciplines. In the endless permutations of concepts and professional vocabularies we often merely create parallel discourses – if we sat and reduced them to their essence or to first principles we would see that are often merely repetitions of ideas recast under slightly different terms.

It seems that there is a proliferation of new development approaches. New terms appear faster than most of us can cope with, but underlying them we often find the same basic issues. For example we hear a great deal about social enterprises, governance, or accountability, which if we unpack them relate closely to discussions which have been taking place for many years on how to ensure development work genuinely enshrines the views of our clients or beneficiaries. After all, one of the reasons participation is important is precisely because it created a feedback loop from end users to development workers and planners. However whole new schools of thought are emerging as though the issue of accountability is new, or that socially driven values are unique to social enterprises. Perhaps people need to read more outside of their ‘silos’ and also go back more than a few months into the literature which already exists, if they are to contribute something new, rather than assume that because they have come up with a new name for an old issue there is nothing to be learnt from the past.

At a time when so much development seems to be increasingly constrained by rules, procedures and top-down agenda setting, the article by Guilherme Azevedo and Henry Mintzberg is refreshing. It argues that global issues such as poverty, climate change and recession will not be resolved by the state or corporations, but through social initiatives allowing communities to resolve problems of a global origin. They take the Brazilian attitude of ‘can do’ or ‘why not?’ and trace several social initiatives which have had global impact (budget monitoring in Brazil, wind power in Denmark); calling for the ‘why not?’ attitude to be a rallying call for further socially based initiatives.

Another side to the failure of top-down planning can be found in the article by Jesus Gastelum Lage who looks at whether social policy design actually addresses social problems. He concludes that social policy contributes less than it should to poverty reduction and linked goals, in part because it tends to work more with the interests of local politicians than along lines which could make real changes. Social policy instead tends to focus on small, incremental changes which are politically possible or expedient.

One solution to improving development practice is given by Rinus van Klinken, who describes experiences of immersion programmes in Tanzania, whereby the immersion process is linked to overall organisational learning rather than just informing the individual being immersed in village life. This experience seemed to lead to a situation whereby staff recognised that business as usual was not going to resolve longer term issues around rural poverty, and it helped them come up with new ideas for their work related to their experiences in the villages.

The apparent contradictions within development agencies are discussed by Payal Arora, using the example of micro-finance in a study of differences within an INGO. Arora highlights major differences in approaches of the individuals interviewed, and how they sit within a common organisation. The tension between individual perceptions and understandings and organisational ones is important in a context of changing development fashions. Thomas Davis, Kate Macdonald and Scott Brenton take this further by looking at the differences and conflicts regarding attitudes to accountability within an organisation; noting that field-based staff were on the whole more positive about existing accountability systems than head office staff.

Several of our contributors focus on livelihoods and income-generating schemes including trade and micro-finance. Sangeeta Arora sets out to evaluate the role of state banks in India and their engagement with micro-finance in the Punjab. Noting that although many state development banks do now engage directly with small lenders/savers, they are still only a small percentage of the bank's portfolio and there are fewer women in the client base than we are used to seeing in NGO-run micro-finance initiatives.

There are two articles looking at trade; the first by Kizito Mazvimavi et al. compares local seed fairs to direct relief distribution in Zimbabwe, noting that local distribution through fairs seems to be more economical and encouraged local seed production and sales, as opposed to the direct distribution of imported seed in the face of the economic crisis. In contrast, Abdoul Murekezi and Songqing Jin concluded that it seems to make little difference to producers in Rwanda whether they sell their coffee through cooperatives rather than to private merchants.

Fedes van Rijn, Kees Burger, and Eefje den Belder have taken a common set of assumptions used to assess sustainable livelihood programmes and developed a multiple methodology approach to impact assessment which tries to encompass a range of needs, from ‘proving impact’ to ‘improving practices’, with reference to a case of coffee production in Peru. The methodological theme is carried forward by Syed Ahmed, who looks at how research was taken into practice within BRAC for two projects supporting the ‘ultra-poor’ and oral therapy. This experience is of particular relevance at a time when people talk a great deal about linking research to practice but are less able to show concrete examples.

We also have another example of the importance of a holistic approach to capacity development from Cambodia, by Phum Thol et al., which stresses the importance of capacity development in encouraging organisational learning for development.

The article by Luke Fletcher and Adele Webb covers several important global issues by focussing on debt-for-development exchanges, but going further into the politics of such exchanges. They focus on Australia and its relationships with near neighbours such as Indonesia in the context of earlier and sometimes doubtful export guarantee loans. This study also gives an insight into the movement in Australia to reduce or write off the government's loans under HIPC and other initiatives.

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