A new model of development cooperation

The time has come for international agencies, donors and NGOs to adapt their corporate cultures and operating models to a new era of international development cooperation. The converging transformative forces of the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement to ‘decolonize development’ have created new options for development partnerships to move away from the traditional use of expatriates in managerial and technical roles .

The first force of transformation was the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-March 2020, international travel had ceased and organizations were scrambling to switch to remote work. While the ability to virtual collaboration and work remotely via videoconferencing had been available for at least 10 years and there had been some movement in this direction, the forced shift to a remote posture shattered them. perceived cultural and operational barriers to remote work overnight. By May 2020, surprisingly few programs that relied on external surveillance and technical assistance on the ground had closed, and development organizations of all types (donors, multilateral development banks, NGOs) were expressing pride in the speed. with which they had adapted to the collaboration. and provide management and technical services virtually.

The converging transformative forces of the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement to ‘decolonize development’ have created new options for development partnerships to move away from the traditional use of expatriates in managerial and technical roles .

The second transformative force that emerged in 2020 was the rise of a powerful movement around the need to “decolonize development”. While the critique of decolonization is not new and echoes the 1970s outcry against “neo-colonialism”, the current protest has ignited the passions of a new generation of development professionals caught up in racial and social calculations. that are shaking the United States and Western Europe. In the context of international development, this translates into demands to address power imbalances between organizations and professionals in donor and developing countries. Concretely, this means greater transparency and local participation in the way development aid is programmed, greater local control over spending decisions, greater use of local institutions and expertise, and achievement of pay equity between international and national employees.

These two converging forces have fundamentally changed the operating environment of international development organizations and paved the way for more sustainable and cost-effective approaches to collaboration between international and local organizations, including the headquarters and national operations of large organizations. international.

A new model of development cooperation

New approaches to project supervision and technical assistance are already embedded in the operations of development organizations, but it would be helpful if the development community articulated these emerging practices as a preferred operating model guided by two simple principles. :

First of all, as soon as possible resident management and technical staff should be hired locally. The advantages here are well known: local professionals have the language and cultural skills and community networks essential for effective development work. In addition, with the notable exception of most conflict-affected states, the excuse that local professionals are not available is no longer valid. A common and legitimate criticism of international organizations is that the higher wages and benefits they offer expatriates are inherently inequitable, reinforce old imbalances of colonial power, and can distort national labor markets. This first principle addresses these problems by eliminating differences in treatment and employing all resident staff under a single set of service conditions consistent with the local labor market.

The second principle is it when external management and technical expertise are needed, they should be provided virtually to the extent possible. This recognizes that international collaboration is essential to address today’s development challenges, that complex efforts often require highly specialized experience and skills, and that it is useful to be part of professional networks and initiatives. larger international organizations.

Here it is worth digressing to address a weakness in the current decolonization narrative: the implication that donors only have to provide the funding and let recipient countries take care of the rest. This ignores the value of international collaboration in promoting innovation and technology transfer and in capacity building. All countries, rich and poor, fare better when they maintain economic, scientific, social and institutional links with their neighbors and the wider international community. Going it alone is neither politically feasible nor practically desirable.

That said, the old argument that international organizations require expatriate presence on the ground to achieve results no longer holds, thanks to virtual work experience over the past two years. However, embracing new practices requires a change in organizational culture, as the appeal of international travel and in-person collaboration are major motivations for many development professionals. While the approach proposed here does not eliminate all travel – some in-person interactions are certainly of value (for example, for building relationships, understanding context, and conducting certain types of research), the amount of international travel will decrease. considerably. On the positive side, this will help international organizations reduce their carbon footprint, but as the new model takes hold, expect many U.S. and European development professionals to retire or change careers, and many more. counterparts in developing countries lament the reduction in opportunities to travel abroad.

So what does this new model look like in practice?

It’s simple. All positions in the country are treated as local national positions with pay and terms of service tailored to the local labor market. This does not prevent an expat from competing for a position, but it does remove the financial incentives to hire expats.

At the same time, short-term expatriate missions, with rare exceptions, are virtual. This is much more economical, more environmentally friendly and tilts power relations in favor of finding local employees while avoiding distortions in local labor markets.

Forty-five years ago, Ross Coggins’ satirical poem “The Development Set” summed up the contradictions and weaknesses inherent in the classic model of international development. In 2020, the forced shift to remote working and a renewed and urgent concern about the inequalities embedded in the traditional ways of functioning of the development community created the conditions to replace “development tourism” with a new approach to cooperation. Development. Now it is up to donors, multilateral institutions and NGOs to act.

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About Gail Mena

Gail Mena

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