Development myth

Published October 29, 2019
The writer is a SOAS graduate and works in the development sector.
The writer is a SOAS graduate and works in the development sector.

THERE is a dire need to demystify the concept of development in Pakistan.

Loosely understood, Pakistan’s development sector is the configuration of educational institutions, research centres, think tanks, international bodies and donors that can lead to improvement in welfare indicators. These are community mobilisations with a focus on improving Pakistan’s well-being in social domains — income, gender, employment, health, politics, environment, etc.

Over the years, students and graduates have shown interest in pursuing development work. They have heard of names such as USAID, DFID, IMF, etc. and want to work towards improving living conditions in Pakistan through them. For these individuals, such work serves both as a stable career option and a socially responsible commitment. Additionally, there is international pressure on Pakistan to progress in global markets.

The misnomer ‘development sector’ implies that some or all these bodies work together to complete targets set by private circles or international agencies. In fact, development workers often work in silos, showing loyalty to their organisations and safeguarding company secrets. Having said that, the creation of silos can be partially offset by arranging seminars, conferences and networking events. A strong asset for most community organisations is the signing of MoUs with each other. Perhaps it was the advertisement of these events along with general awareness that created the ‘development club’.

However, the myth of development lies in strategic promotions that advertise results and on-ground social impact. Consider claims such as, ‘our government scheme changed the lives of a million homeless people’ or ‘our project launched a solar plant that powered an entire village.’ The knowledge of successful social experiments tempt the uninitiated to test the waters in Pakistan’s development scene. Here, they come across bureaucratic red tape, unregulated practices and unstable work cultures. The myth of development, therefore, is that while some projects and schemes are successful, this is not the norm. In fact, much development work is underfunded and struggles to stay on course, or even maintain its integrity in the form of a working organisation.

The ability to navigate a minefield of team politics is essential.

Development work, much like the start-up culture, has a low success rate. In Pakistan, one finds lack of clarity regarding objectives, budget constraints, and few experts that skilfully deal with regional issues. Development work is therefore fraught with inconsistencies, despite collegiate legacies associated with success in the field.

Regardless, the development market is an interesting one. It endorses competition on the personal and organisational fronts, often adhering to political structures of the time. Some view development work as a route to an international education; others see it as a path to easy personal success. Many bypass competition, working as part-time consultants, often having more experience than the entry-level officer. Competition creates productivity in any economy. In development, however, it can steer people away from the original goal of human welfare and well-being. Collaboration is the need for today’s development work — in ideas, practices and resources.

The most interesting aspect is the link between governance and development. This doesn’t just mean that development organisations have contacts in the civil service, it means there is actually close collaboration between the two, resulting in some development work gaining political and infrastructural legitimacy that may have the most impact.

Overall, it entails a variety of tasks such as project leadership, proposal writing, monitoring, data analysis, fieldwork. All this is built around achieving a set of time-bound goals, unfortunately often constrained by insufficient budgets. The other drawback is the politics that take a toll on one’s mental health and personal strength. Good intentions may be a prerequisite to entering the development sector, but the ability to manoeuvre in a minefield of team politics is necessary to produce notable results.

Although the term ‘development sector’ may sound as if the latter is the solely responsible for accelerating development, who is actually responsible for developing Pakistan? What does it mean to develop? Where does it show itself? The economy? Society? Urban space? Rural areas? What does this sector do exactly?

To illustrate the expanding, all-encompassing nature of development in Pakistan one could take the example of both an NGO launching a local clean-up initiative and a billion-dollar IMF restructuring aid package, as constituting development work. But what is clear in both cases is that without introducing better practices and processes that regulate their work, there will be no social, economic or political improvements for Pakistan. This would be true for the ‘development sector’ as a whole.

The writer is a SOAS graduate and works in the development sector.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019

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