Africa, Aid and Outliers

I recently read a very provocative article by Kurt Gerhardt on rethinking the principles of development aid for Africa, first paragraph here:

Development aid to Africa has been flowing for decades, but the results have been paltry. Instead, recipients have merely become dependent and initiative has been snuffed out. It is time to reform the system.

Money plays a lucrative role, of course, for all sides, but in addition it can cultivate a predominantly ‘numbers’ approach to the issue:

The urge of foreign aid workers to quickly produce results promotes quantitative thinking and gives short shrift to efforts aimed at helping locals learn how to develop themselves. One example of this erroneous notion is the goal among donor companies, adopted 40 years ago, to donate 0.7 percent of GDP in the form of development aid.

It makes no sense to establish amounts before discussing the projects that should be funded with that money. The worst thing about this discussion is that it, once again, is purely quantitative. It feeds the disastrous attitude that more money necessarily means more development. In this way, lessons learned over the past decades are completely ignored.

Instead, people like Bono and Bob Geldof are allowed open access to our governments, where they propagate the “more money” idea — and where they become stumbling blocks to African development.

To be fair, I’ve heard this argument many times before but it seems that now the situation is becoming critical and perhaps everyone is actually prepared to try out some very different and perhaps more politically radical approaches.

In this light, there’s been quite a lot of publicity on Positive Deviance recently (see eg here) as an alternative ‘bottom-up’ approach to some of these sorts of problems.

Positive deviance? It is an awkward, oxymoronic term, but the concept is simple: look for outliers who succeed against all odds. Such individuals are outliers in the statistical sense – exceptions, people whose outcomes deviate in a positive way from the norm.

But it is also important that those in authority (e.g., village chiefs, funding NGOs, CEOs, etc.) be committed to giving the process a try. It is a bottom-up approach that entails a leap of faith that, first, those in the ranks below include some with winning strategies and practices and, second, that when the community (not the experts or those in authority) discovers this wisdom in their midst they will adapt it without the usual exceptionalism that thwarts top-down “best practices” initiatives.

Very thought provoking and challenging stuff!

There’s a Basic Field Guide to the Positive Deviance Approach here. The approach is not limited to aid work of course and can be applied to many organisations.

Picture credit here.

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