Photo credit: Medecins Sans Frontieres

Peter van der Linde, co-founder of Akvo and projects officer at the Netherlands Water Partnership examines the tensions facing the development sector.

Last week we saw the Dutch parliamentarian Arend Jan Boekestijn clash with Jack van Ham, the director of development organization ICCO, during a working visit to Congo.

Arend Jan Boekestijn is known for his criticism of development cooperation, characterised in an article (Word file) in the Volkskrant on the 6th of November. According to Jan Boekestijn there are several reasons to criticise and re-evaluate current policies and practice. This is what he had to say:

‘Studies have shown that there is usually no relation between aid and economic growth. The living conditions of the poor are simply not improved structurally. Despite micro-projects, that reduce the suffering of many, they do simply not translate in growth on a macro level. Therefore a development policy change and critical review of development practice is needed.’

It was strong stuff. The Dutch development organization ICCO reacted by challenging Arend Jan to visit one of their development projects in eastern Congo, where a humanitarian disaster is unfolding.

During the working visit some locals mistook Arend Jan for a development worker and asked if he could arrange a school for their children. Jan took that as a symptom of development reliance, allegedly said something like ‘build it yourself’ and highlighted it as an example of the negative effects of current development practice to the camera team that was accompanying the trip. Jack van Ham stood nearby, aghast at what he just witnessed. It resulted in a verbal clash between the two that made national TV (in Dutch). Jack van Ham wrote a personal column about the working visit to Congo after his return.

How you interpret it depends on where you stand on a bunch of issues. But leaving aside the fact that it was clearly the first visit of Arend Jan to a developing country, it did raise the important question on how to measure the effects of current development practice.

As a twist of fate, it was actually Jack Ham’s ICCO that took the initiative in 2006, along with two other organisations, to install a commission, headed by former minister Hans Dijkstal, to answer that specific question.

By focusing on the issues of accountability, effectiveness, support basis and communication the commission Dijkstal concluded in April 2006 in a report ‘Trust in a vulnerable sector’ (PDF file):

‘The current methodology of measuring results is not a suitable instrument for accountability due to problems in the methodology itself and problems with the use of the collected information’

‘Support for development cooperation amongst the Dutch Public in general remains high. But permanent communication on policy and practice is needed. Special attention must be paid to the support of opinion leaders’.

In other words, the public wants to see the Netherlands active in development, but the process of measuring and sharing results doesn’t work well enough. According to the commission the methodologies that are being used are costly and complex. A culture of fear amongst development organisations prevents the sharing of failures, because of the risk of a direct impact they have on their funding. The result is a paper reality that does not do justice to what actually goes on on the ground.

It was exactly this complexity that Jack was trying to get across to ‘theorist’ Arend Jan.

It went on to say:

‘Development organizations need to be less inward looking in the way they communicate. They should make use of the most modern communication tools and media to communicate more openly, fair, and more often’

The report was cast aside at that time by the Ministry of Development, perhaps because its findings were serious but hard to tackle. Yet as the incident in Congo proved, it remains an open wound that will either heal or need some treatment.

Nobody should be in any doubt that the context in which development organizations function is changing rapidly. Development groups are under pressure to deal with the growing concerns of the general public, the politicians and the media about the impact of their work. In 2006 over 15,000 individuals and groups in the Netherlands bypassed traditional organisations to start development activities themselves.

Initiatives like Nabuur in the Netherlands and Kiva in the United States are booming as they create a different way for people to participate by supporting direct connection and interaction between individuals. These organisations are simply more exciting for donors to deal with, and manage to connect to people who feel disenfranchised from the process today.

Akvo’s role here is more complex. In one sense we challenge the very heart of how development is organised, by working to open source principles. This means the actual working processes are inherently more transparent as the DNA of the organisation is made available to all to scrutinise, use and improve. We also are pioneering new approaches to funding, monitoring and reporting, which right now absorb vast amounts of staff time in many NGOs.

At the same time the systems we will create and information we will host will cost money to compile and market, so we ourselves must prove we are a productive use of development capital on the market. Transparent communication, open development roadmaps and an evolving process of Really Simple Reporting are our trump cards here. But the improvements over existing approaches can begin from day one. Payback should occur within weeks, not years. I hope those who are critical will watch and be the first to acknowledge the results of new thinking.

Peter van der Linde is a co-founder of Akvo.