Very recently I have been venturing into corporate social responsibility work in agricultural products. While this is somewhat outside my core expertise I am thoroughly enjoying the experience and it gives me a lot of thought about aid systems (and development without aid). I have now spent some time training young extension workers in a Southern African country on two occasions and just have to write about how optimistic this makes me for the future of this region. I have encountered extremely smart individuals that think so easily outside the box that it is mind-boggling. They have no hesitation to say what they think, and come up with all sorts of good ideas and insights and perspective that are just so important to drive change in their country. They are genuinely committed to improving lives, and while they work for a commercial company which some of the more purist of my peers would put up their nose at, they will be as much drivers of change as those working in development ‘proper’. And you know what, working in the private sector, they actually represent the power to just drive such change. Their impact will be across the country on hundreds of farms, they will over the years change attitudes and practices, bit by bit and in line with corporate policy, but change they will them. So as far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with that – this is as much development as is aid programmes – with the advantage that it is dynamic, responsive, and focused while never losing sight of the economic side of things – which the more purist development work sometimes does not so well. Because let’s face it – if a farmer can’t make good money from a harvest (s)he is unlikely to pay decent wages, unlikely to care about educating the worker’s children, and unlikely to invest in a healthy environment for workers and their families.
I had a chat with someone at a party the other day, about work and careers. During this conversation I mentioned that I tend to have my fingers both in development aid as well as in humanitarian aid, and seeing the person’s surprise got me thinking. We still like to tuck things nicely into drawers, and play in pretty separate leagues – the humanitarians in one, and the development workers in the other – are we not ? We eye each other – sometimes somewhat suspiciously – across an artificial divide (what divide?). Even those that give the money are often still divided (several bilaterals come to mind), as is the UN, really (with one or two notable exceptions of agencies that do both). And then we wonder why exciting stuff like Resilience is so difficult to grasp. Because it happens right on the divide.
The world in 2016 really brings it home. Europe is desperately clutching at straws to find solutions for the refugee crisis, everyone is (again) calling for ‘addressing the root causes’ and quickly money is pumped into ‘new’ programmes to do just that. At the same time we are staring helplessly at some of the worst humanitarian atrocities of our lifetime happening in Syria, and generally don’t know what else we can do other than pouring more aid into programmes – humanitarian or development (whatever?)
But we are still not connecting the dots, we pour money from separate pots into separate endeavours and wonder why there never seems to be much progress. So why don’t we team up for real and make this one aid system, no matter what happens ? Let’s face it, at the end we are trying to help people to a better life. There are many ways to do that, but the worst of options is to save their lifes, then go away (because the drawer system makes us) when we have achieved that, only to come back another day (when things are normal again) and start development programming. Or the other way round, when things go haywire we pull out the development funding, only to come back with humanitarian cash some time later when things have really gone bad.
If aid was a listed company it would have gone out of business a long time ago. The efficieny losses we incur by separating humanitarian and development aid are enormous, both in human and in real capital. I know, it has been tried (do I hear ‘early recovery’?) and of course now there is resilience programming. But deep down inside the divide remains, and we will continue to have conversations where we discover that people we meet in our line of work are either development workers or humanitarians, very rarely both. Unless that changes, and unless that changes also between institutions we are not going to improve people’s lives for real. Really.