Who is 'the development industry'?

The short answer: Most of the time 'we' are the development industry - not just 'them' (those with Landcruisers and daily allowances)...

Mina, a volunteer with
Engineers Without Borders in Ghana shared some interesting reflections on how he perceives 'the industry' in the country. And he posted a few pictures to prove it: Fancy cars, fancy offices, fancy daily allowances – an often shared impression of how people (including local NGOs with cars, offices and allowances) perceive one of the key ills of development: It has become an 'industry', a market-place for transnational professional, knowledge and their 'wares' from dubious consultancy reports to endless workshops.
But I also think that this analysis is short-sighted and ignores some of the essential global dynamics behind said industry. I usually don't turn my posts into heavily academic contemplations, but please allow me two short quotes to illustrate my point theoretically. First, there's Appadurai and his fairly unspectacular analysis of our world-in-flux (he wrote this 20 years ago, though):

The landscapes of group identity – the ethnoscapes – around the world are no longer familiar anthropological objects, insofar as groups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically self-conscious, or culturally homogeneous … what is the nature of locality, as a lived experience, in a globalized, deterritorialized world? (Appadurai 1991: 191, 196)

My point is that understanding development means understanding it in a context of a global space and new transnational identities - not just as a project 'over there'. The moment one enters this space, e.g. in Ghana you are part of the global development space whether or not you like it.

The second quote by Crang aims at the notion that this global space is a space of power relations and hierarchies and very often we pass through the 'enclaves' without noticing it, or, more precisely, noticing the 'others' enclaves more readily than our own. Air-conditioned offices, airports, studying for a PhD are all part of these connections and we often tend to overestimate the power we as individuals have to cross cultural boundaries:

These enclaves [VIP lounges, the virtual office, computing on the run, standardized international hotels] of the global elite are places where people do not cross cultural boundaries or experience alterity in interaction. Far from being spaces of mixture or openness these are heavily hierarchical spaces’ (Crang 2002: 572).

So what do I mean in practical terms?

I would like to focus on two shortcomings of the understanding of a 'development industry' purely driven by white Landcruisers and stories about airports.
First, the moment a volunteer or any other expat aid enthusiast enters a country like Ghana, s/he is already part of the 'industry' s/he so despises. The volunteering/voluntourism industry, the graduate-student-goes-to-Africa industry and the higher-education-boom-in-development-studies industry are all contributing to 'the aid industry'. Motives, remuneration and sometimes impact differ, but in a complex world the capillary system of development comes in many shapes and sizes, but it's almost impossible to escape the dynamics of the industry. The UN person may have a fancy car, blue vest and R&R every six week, but the volunteer has a Western passport, return flight and a diploma from a renowned university in their baggage. The spaces of mobile, global elites are marked by power relations and hierarchies and the only way of not becoming a part of that industry is essentially staying home. It does not mean that you can't or shouldn't get involved at all and even make a small difference, but it happens within the rules of the industry.

The second aspect of the industry is that an important and powerful part of it is often hidden from the view. Those pictures of signs of completed projects, UN offices and white Landcruisers look familiar – but they are also easy targets. The pictures I am missing are those of the KPMG or PwC headquarters in London or of FHI-AED. A quick look at the DevEx website is an important reminder of how comprehensive and pervasive the 'development industry' really is. Behind a simple headline like 'After the Deal: How Staff Reacted to FHI-AED Purchase Agreement' is a long and complex story of how the industry works, changes and has become a small part of a much bigger global aid economy. Many of those consultancy firms do not show up on the radar of blog posts and after-work story-telling, but they are powerful – especially if they are involved in, say, USAID-funded projects, particularly in Afghanistan.

I guess my point is two-fold: First, I would be careful judging the 'industry' as an outsider without carefully considering how much of an 'insider' 'we' really are. Buying Fair Trade chocolate is great, but buying it at Wal-Mart, Tesco etc. will not make the retail industry more sustainable. It is difficult to avoid the pitfalls of the industry once one chose to engage with it. Being open, critical, writing about and discussing it is important and a step towards a reflective engagement with the complexities of development. Sometimes, it’s all we can do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these reflections are vain or useless. Is it better to go out on a Friday night injecting money in the local economy by going out for dinner, drinks and dancing or is it better to stay in front of the laptop and write a blog post using electricity and Internet capacity? It depends, it’s a choice and they are not mutually exclusive.
Second, even if there cannot be trade-offs (a bad project is a bad project), I would be more careful to look beyond obvious symbols at the surface. How outrageous is the new project vehicle really (given the road conditions, health and safety requirements or the fact that it consumes less petrol) and how ridiculous are those $300/day consultancy rates for an experienced professional? They may seem or even be over the top – but they also need to put into perspective of global transnationalism and professionalism even if they do have an impact on the local economy. I’d rather have money 'wasted' on a consultancy report that a good-hearted colleague writes and nobody ends up reading than another corporate bubble bursting in Afghanistan when a new school is built for staggering amounts of dollars.

P.S.: Just to be absolutely clear: This is no personal criticism on Mina and his post. Quite the opposite: I enjoyed his stimulating post and wish more members of the industry would actually question its value outside the relatively small circle of the 'blogosphere'...

1) Appadurai, A. 1991. Global ethnoscapes: notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In Recapturing anthropology: working in the present (ed.) R.G. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

2) Crang, M. 2002. Between places. Producing hubs, flows, and networks. Environment and Planning A 34.4.


  1. Great post Tobias. This makes me think of something I have said a few times in this context, the privilege of choice. You capture that well by illustrating how all actors, no matter their affiliation, engage in the industry in one way or another the moment they enter the international space.

    Also, I think you are right to point out that some of the spending decisions are made for good reason. I would also add the matter of competition. When private sector pays so well to do the same work, incentives need to be as competitive as possible to get the best of the best. It would be great to imagine that desire to 'do good' is enough, but supporting a family is also very important and being compensated for traveling away from said family should happen.

    There is definitely a line where pay and perks go too far. For example there is no need to fly first class. What is ironic, is that many in the 'industry' want to do away with decisions based on anecdotes. Yet they are applied to the industry. It is not perfect, it might even be terrible, but doing international work that is aimed at some sort of poverty alleviation effort falls under the industry.

  2. As Mina's colleague, I can assure you that he is well aware he is part of this system - his post wasn't intended to be a holier-than-thou proclamation about the aid industry. Rather, it asserts the view that even though this is the way things are, things don't have to be this way.

    While I'm a proponent of paying people what they're worth and providing adequate resources to do the job, the fact is that most projects that show up in Ghana get the Hilux/office space/allowance based on precedent, not a genuine needs assessment. What are other ways that we could deliver good development projects? Maybe there aren't any, but I think it's a good conversation to start - self-criticism is the key to making improvements, small small.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  3. Hey Tobias,
    First of all thanks for reading my blog! And secondly, I think it's amazing that you put up this post in response.

    I think many of your insights are very interesting, particularly that about thinking of the development industry in a global context. There is no doubt that in today's world there is no "us" and "them." In fact, we'd be foolish to think that decisions made in the West don't affect development projects, and programs, and developing country policies.

    I, somewhat disagree with your comments on the needs for high allowances, the nice offices, and the land cruisers. I think Erin makes a very valid point that these things are now standard. Rarely will you see a development project do a legitimate needs assessment. It's always assumed that you need that vehicle, or that office, or daily allowances. From my observations as an insider in this industry, these perceived "needs" and not true needs.

    I think what bothers me most about the industry is that it hides behind the masks of non-profit, social good. It misleads the majority of people to believe that the practitioners of this industry are selfless, sacrificing, do-gooders who’s primary concern is poverty reduction. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. In fact, the industry's primary focus is to hide it's ugly side. The multi-million dollar contracts to for-profit western consultants (like you mention), the bureaucracy that wastes so much resources, the excess shown in the form of those land cruisers and daily allowances, and the lack of efficiency in operations. People in the West who sponsor the functioning of this industry don't see this other side - that would lead to disaster!

    In a legitimate industry, like say mobile communications, transparency is paramount to success. In the development industry, it's often not. Failures are not openly recognized, financial details are hard to come across, and "investors" in the west often don't demand results.

    As a result the global aid economy often misses the mark in terms of achieving meaningful results – people lifted out of poverty, children receiving good quality education etc. Global aid work is approached with blockers to reality. The fact that western ideals of project design and implementation are meaningless in Ghana for example. The industry often refuses to do things differently based on past experiences. They refuse to accept failure and learn from it. And their accountability structures are skewed. No other industry is NOT accountable to their end-users, their customers. But in development it's ok to not be accountable to the Zambian living in poverty.

    I hope that my post allows people to be critical of the development industry in order to make it a more effective agent for positive change.

    Thanks for the great post, and sorry for my lengthy comments!

  4. Thanks for your great replies, Tom, Erin and Mina! I am glad that it seemed to be clear that this was no criticism of Mina or any project and I really have to stress the 'we' that obviously extends into academia. I am not sure whether I don't agree with Mina's comments with regards to 'legitimate' industries. I don't think particularly multinational companies, whether they are in the food, pharmaceutical, banking or finance industry have a track record of transparency and they have the potential to cause great damage. But very often their management models are accepted as 'best practice' and are incorporated into aid management and then, surprise, surprise!, they don't really work-especially 'on the ground'.
    On a slightly different note: My partner just returned from a conference here in Canada where quite a few Canadian NGOs attended and EWB was mentioned more than once as kind of a 'rising star' in the 'industry'-based on what people perceived as excellent work in the field. Erin's and Mina's blogs are just one example how reflective work and writing can go hand in hand and have an impact in 'the industry'!

  5. Hi Tobias,

    Very interesting response to Mina's post, and I'm really enjoying this continued discussion.

    As an employee of EWB as well, and graduate of post-secondary studies in "development", I too have a difficult time deciding where my opinions land on these debates around the "system", which I critique yet am fully a part of.

    I think one thing, it seems, that could agreed upon here is that there is a need for greater transparency in decision-making throughout the 'industry' - among NGOs, governments and for-profit ventures. It is difficult to suss-out whether the land rover is integral to project success because of road quality, or whether it was purchased because the last project had a land rover. A more transparent process of publicizing these assessments should bring about shifts so that resources allocated reflect actual, not perceived, needs, as decisions can be held to account.

    How we actually create such a shift in the industry toward greater transparency and better accountability structures is the key question I see.

    If you're interested Tobias, I'd encourage you to have a look at a TedX talk done by Dave Damberger, a past-EWBer discussing aid failures and accountability: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGiHU-agsGY

    Around 5:50min in, he talks about how EWB perceives accountability structures in private, public and aid sectors. I agree with you that large companies with significant market power may not perfectly fit into the framework as always providing the highest value to customers, but I believe the accountability structure in the 'aid industry' is even more skewed, and needs to be addressed.

    Thanks for the invigorating read!

  6. Hi Tobias,

    Very interesting! You don't know me I don't think but I got the URL of your blog post from being IDS alumni.

    During my PhD fieldwork/NGO work in Senegal, and that of my friends also embarking on similar careers and experiences, I am also considering similar questions.

    What I find interesting is people's identity negotiations and boundary maintenance, how we pick on certain characteristics like 4 by 4s as distinguising the 'bad them' aid workers from the 'good us' aidworkers! No one wants to be classified as 'them' so the lines are drawn wherever possible, in conversation, through blogging, through making a big deal about eating street food en route to the site (while in said 4 by 4!). I'm not even so interested in who is right or wrong, what is bad or good at this point (not saying that isn't important obviously), but rather on where and how we draw the lines and position ourselves, so that we can justify what we do and live with ourselves afterwards...

  7. Though I am rather late to this thread, I just wanted to commend Tobias et al; for your thoughtful and articulate commentary. I agree with Tobias about the vital importance of "Being open, critical, writing about and discussing...[the] complexities of development," and to that end, I am glad to have found this blog.


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