Are we doomed to repeat every North-South development mistake globally like #SWEDOW?

It is maybe a bit unfair to single out one bad idea like donating used bras to ‘underprivileged women’, an initiative from Malaysia that has been shared in my social networks.
From a research and teaching perspective the short post about the campaign is, shall we say, interesting to read and includes a reference to ‘the late Nelson Mandela’ and a cringe-worthy quote that ‘the problem of (...), however complicated it may seem, is actually really simple’.

My concern is that this will definitely not be the last well-intentioned project that originates in the global South and that is criticized extensively (just as another ‘charitable hero’ is challenged right now for very different reasons, though).

As ‘South-South cooperation’ increases, the BRIC countries continue to grow and a bigger global middle class emerges in more countries the finger-pointing at your local church group’s shoe donation, North American college graduate gone social entrepreneur or European voluntourist gone to an
‘orphanage’ may no longer be enough.

The small story from Malaysia or the recent NGO industry mockumentary from Kenya are probably signs of a bigger trend: Are we doomed to repeat development’s mistakes in a changing global landscape of development, charity or professionalism?

My brief reflection focuses on three areas: First, the globalization of studying (for) development in changing higher education market; second, increasing challenges of defining ‘local’ (staff) and the globalization of market-based, capitalistic ideas around ‘ending poverty’.

The global education market
Even if a traditional Development Studies degree or a related critical social science degree do not guarantee good development outcomes I generally wonder about the space for critical approaches to development as ‘modernization’ in many higher education systems. I also know that it is impossible to generalize. I have friends who teach in Brazil, Colombia, India and many other places in the global South and critical reflections around ‘development’ are definitely part of their curriculum. I am a bit more worried about less open systems like China or Malaysia and the very different cultural context of learning that persists in many education systems. How does a growing globally educated elite with access to global discourses, colleges etc. fit into the aid industry? And as, say Sussex University for example, become neoliberal education shells, where are the political and politicized places and spaces, the anti-Apartheid Sussex University of the 1960s and 1970s that can build transformative capacity?

A truly global aid industry

For a long time, engaging with the concept of ‘local staff’ was easy for international aid organizations of all shapes and colors-well, at least in theory (see also Who is the development industry?)
But what does that mean in a context of global education, increasing rural-urban inequalities and an often market-driven understanding of modernization and growth (see also my next point)? At the same time, new forms and structures in the ‘third sector’ are emerging rapidly. We will certainly witness interesting local social innovations, but at the same time probably a plethora of bad ideas that did not work elsewhere. Well, that’s development, isn’t it? Maybe, but how can we strive for inclusive and positive social change that does not focus on growth alone? Finding and creating jobs that fit the Generation Y’s aspirations will be a challenge in Kuala Lumpur as much as in Jakarta, Nairobi, Istanbul or London and I am worried that we will see quite a few well-intentioned, but poorly-implemented development ideas that veterans of the industry will shake their heads over.

The C-word

Going back to the example from Malaysia there is a bigger question far beyond the scope of a short blog post: As we are right in the middle of repeating most other Western/Northern development mistakes (and yes, this is a complicated economic, philosophical, moral and environmental debate!) the question is how non-traditional and non-Western approaches towards economic under-privilege, aspirations and social transformation can and will look like. As the consumer base is expanding fast in many countries we are likely to see more local versions of #SWEDOW-at least in the short term.

But will capitalism be the only and dominant driving force for ‘development’? In the medium term the answer is very likely ‘yes’ and that probably means that we will see quite a few repetitions of mistakes ranging from mega-projects, to rent-seeking natural resources states and short-sighted governance.

So how can we ensure that well-educated, well-meaning youth find a space for different, sustainable social transformation initiatives? Can ‘we’ development folk help in this quest? Should we wait for local responses and rely on local innovations? Should we try to go out ‘there’ and talk to high school and business students or corporate leaders? Would they listen? Should they be listening to ‘us’?

I do not have handy answers, but I know that no matter how you define ‘we’, ‘they’ most likely do not want and need your old stuff…


  1. Definitely not. It is ridiculous how we see development countries as needy and at the same time they are our trash bin (the perversion of human self-deceit - we discard unwanted items which we 'see' as gifts...). And 'they' are supposed to be grateful..

  2. I think the development sector may be one arena where "thinking outside of the box" often plagues an effort. If you can call providing used bras to "under-privileged women" outside of the box. I surely hope it's not inside of the box. In an effort to fulfill a need (or supposed need) that's been ignored or to do something that's never been done, we completely loose sight of the beneficiary.
    I don't have answered to all of the questions you pose. But, I do believe one of the answers is local-- finding ways to make local communities, organizations, and people self-sustainable. And not by giving them our old stuff or brand new stuff, either. How are people anywhere in the world self-sustainable? They have jobs, skills, talents, etc. that provides them with money to buy food, clothes, shelter, health care etc. I think that's where our focus should be. How can we facilitate job creation, training programs, better school infrastructure in a way that lasts beyond our comparatively brief time in the community/country?

  3. What is it about us in the developed world that elevates “stuff” to this level, to becoming a solution to poverty or disaster?

    Earthquake? Let’s send shoes. Orphanage? Let’s send underwear. Tsunami? Let’s send dolls and coloring books. All I can do is picture ship containers full of “stuff”—new and used, begged, borrowed and hopefully not stolen on behalf of poor people—being sailed across our oceans every day.

    I know people here in the U.S. that spend an awful, awful lot of their time and energy accumulating, managing, and maintaining their “stuff,” and presumably rarely enjoying it. Not hoarders, but average people, fulfilling every capitalist’s dream.

    It leaves me wondering what these possessions, these things, mean to them, and to the rest of us living at similar socio-economic levels?

    Does our “stuff” give us a sense of security? Have our emotional and social lives become so vacuous that “stuff” fills these gaps? Does “stuff” provide a sense of worthiness or power? Does “stuff” allow us to live superficially, preventing us from going deeper?

    I suspect that our relationship to the “stuff” in our own lives may be directly correlated to how much “stuff” we believe to be necessary to send to “those in need.”


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Links & Contents I Liked 500

The visible lessons of Invisible Children- #globaldev critique in the viral age (in response to Paul Currion)

Happy retirement Duncan Green!

Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

Dear white middle class British women: Please don't send used bras (or anything, really) to Africa