Adventures in Aidland: Insights from the 2016 Bond Conference

I spent two days earlier this week at the annual conference of Bond, the umbrella group for NGOs working on development issues in the UK.  This was a moment to take stock for this group of some 450 organizations, to think about how they were doing the work they are engaged in and what the future may hold.

The name of this blog post is drawn from the title of a 2011 book of ethnographic explorations of the ‘development professional’ (of which I am one).  I use it here, because the Bond conference wasn’t about poverty or development per se (though they featured prominently), but was rather about the aid industry itself, more specifically the robust UK-based INGO development community’s role.

The Bond conference was an opportunity to understand the key issues and themes, the challenges and opportunities, seen by development-oriented INGOs in the UK.  I was pleased to see some of my personal interests reflected in the sessions (impact and results, grassroots movements and citizen campaigns, how funders can best support work in this space), but first I’ll share some broader reflections based on my experience.

Having worked in and studied the aid and development sector for nearly a decade, I’m still convinced that there are deep tensions between a more political understanding of poverty and a more technocratic approach to development.  Tom Carothers and Diane de Gramont wrote a great book tracing the history of this situation a few years back, and earlier still, Ferguson coined the term the ‘anti-politics machine’.  Do these issues only apply to USAID or the World Bank?  At the Bond conference, the fact that INGOs were a part of civil society, with goals of empowerment and systems change, featured prominently.  So does this signal that these development actors have moved to an understanding of development as fundamentally about power relations?  I’m not sure.  There did seem to be a gap between those individuals and organizations really talking about changing systems – through supporting movements of marginalized groups, for example – and, well, everyone else.

Now this is not an indictment, but simply acknowledging that there are significant and continuing tensions within the development sector.  As I’ll note below, this is as much, or more, about donors, but most of the organizations represented at Bond have long ago accommodated themselves to that system, and weren’t raising an pitchforks in protest, even if they see room for improvement.  Below I’ll touch on two specific themes, first movements and systems change, then results and impact, before closing with a brief final reflection on aid and development going forward.

Movements and Systems Change

First off, kudos to Bond for having an opening plenary and two sessions that focused on citizen mobilization and organization tackling both specific issues as well as challenging the roots of structural poverty and injustice.  These sessions were also rightly set against a backdrop of closing civic space around the world, and in the UK.  As a gathering of civil society organizations, the discussion was often about real partnerships with (and resources for) southern-based organizations and movements, both to protect civic space and promote real change.  Yet, tensions emerged when presenters pointed out that INGOs are often complicit in ‘crowding out’ local actors in pursuit of brand recognition, and that if Bond members don’t push back on the idea that development is just about the science of delivering services, then it’s impossible to make an argument that civil society organizations have a special role compared with the private sector.  Of course, on the latter point, individuals and organizations would have to disagree with the idea that development is only about delivering services.  A fair share of Bond member organizations may actually believe that it is about delivering services to the poor, rhetoric about empowerment and social justice aside.

Tensions notwithstanding, I learned from several advocates and campaigners, and those supporting them with funding and other movement-building resources.  Most impressive was Mama Cash, which takes money from the likes of SIDA, Oak Foundation, and private donors, and channels it to women-led movements working to address fundamental issues of gender justice and inclusion.  Generally, there was little distinction between specific advocacy campaigns and building a civic infrastructure based on citizens organizations, with mobilizing and organizing sometimes conflated (which recent history shows us is a mistake).  But then Aya Chebbi, youth activist from Tunisia, made the point clear in her comments:

The sessions on movements and organizing were well attended, and participants engaged in the discussion.  Yet it seemed distant from many of the other conversations and focus points going on around the conference, particularly to the many sponsor booths with businesses catering to the modern-day development organization and professional.  So this strand of the conference to me brought home the conflicting understandings of poverty and development that underpin the aid industry.

Results and Impact

The first session I attended at the conference was on moving beyond the existing ‘results agenda’ to the next generation, an issue that was brought up throughout the conference.  Much of this discussion, including in the session itself, revolved around how DFID defines and deploys the concept of results.  DFID representatives noted that lessons have been learned about the consequences of the ‘results agenda’ – drowning organizations in data gathering and report writing while often distorting the kinds of efforts undertaken (in order to generate and evaluate the ‘right’ kinds of results) – but gave no indication of significant changes to this orientation in the near term.  This despite a common refrain about the need for learning and adaptation from funders and practitioners alike.  But will we move from a tyranny of results to a tyranny of learning?  Learning, real learning the shapes practice, is necessary, but it’s no silver bullet.

So while there was a pushback against a narrow understanding of results, and how donor requirements constrained organizational practice, there was little connection between this discussion and the strand about challenging and reshaping systems and structures of poverty and injustice.  In other words, yes organizations wanted more flexibility and to have space to reflect on their efforts, but did they see how projectization and professionalization (not to mention NGOization) of development remains unchallenged (and mostly unacknowledged)?  Similarly funders (except DFID) often expressed an interest in being more agile and (including DFID) supporting more adaptive projects.  But there was little indication that they would move away from relatively short-term, relatively isolated projects led by northern-based organizations.

Some funders mentioned not wanting to fund projects in a vacuum, but to encourage connections and partnerships.  This sounded like music to my ears, as we have been championing approaches that ‘connect the dots’ and acknowledge/address ecosystems of actors and processes.  Yet it wasn’t clear what kind of partnerships were envisioned.  Was this just ‘everybody work together (within your 3-4 year projects with individually defined results and impacts)’?  Or ‘everyone work more with southern partners’ without acknowledging the tensions of power dynamics, conflicting ways of working, and appropriation of successes?

There seems to be an understanding that the sector is still not always generating real, sustainable, structural impacts, thus there is still a (healthy) bit of thinking about how to improve.  This reflection isn’t superficial, but I’m not sure that it is proportionate to the scale of the challenges, such as the rapid constraints on civic space, the shrinking leverage of aid flows in poor countries, and the sheer magnitude of the challenges of climate change and fragility, not to mention entrenched poverty.

The Future

I heard more things that I liked at the Bond conference than that I didn’t like.  Of course, I self-selected into a very specific set of conversations, which were in the minority.  I wish I had been able to attend the session on the future if INGOs in development, particularly the contribution by Ben Ramalingam.  I think it might have encapsulated many of the issues I’ve noted above, including the tension between business as usual – or indeed, business growth for INGOs – and  addressing the roots of poverty and injustice.

My overall takeaways from two days in Aidland were the following:

  1. There is still a lot of inertia in the sector towards projectized and NGOized development approaches
  2. There are varying degrees of acknowledgement that this exists and is a problem, but there is fairly strong momentum to do *something* differently
  3. Much of this seems to be channeled into “innovation” (generally undefined, but accepted as a good thing) and adaptive/flexible funding and programing
  4. This is positive, but insufficient (and quite possibly a distraction, especially on innovation, which is too often fetishized)
  5. On the positive side it allows other visions/approaches to development to exist along-side mainstream practice without getting subsumed
  6. But it would still be great to ‘peel off’ about 10-15% of resources/support for more strategic types of approaches.
  7. My vantage point is very limited (and rather biased) so I may be getting this very wrong

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Aidland: Insights from the 2016 Bond Conference

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful overview Brendan. I think there’s definitely a recognition and desire on the part of CSOs to get more strategic (or less restricted/ projectised) finance which is perfect for movements, long-term change, working on systems… But there’s a sense that the political tide has turned against the sort of “strategic grant” funding that used to be much more popular among official donors (austerity, need for demonstrable value and attribution of results for domestic audiences, etc.). Is it inertia or just exhaustion at having failed to win the argument?

    I think as a result there’s a certain flailing around in the dark for alternative business models that can generate unrestricted funding at scale. Some have figured it out (there was another session at the Conference on “sweating our assets”), but those who have figured it out are definitely exceptions.

    As Jessica Horn of AWDF said in one session, it would be great if more foundations and trusts – who in theory should have greater freedom/ independence of decision-making – stepped up to service those funding needs.

    By the way, no need to worry about missing Ben Ramalingam’s input; he has blogged about it too!

    (from Bond!)

    • Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. You don’t appreciate what you have (less restricted funding) until you lose it!

      But I do think that the elements of a counter argument are coming together, including Ben’s work on complexity, Matt Andrews and others on PDIA, Duncan Green and others on Thinking and Working Politically. And it’s having some impact, both on practitioners and donors. Yes, it will likely have to be some of the non-governmental funders who will have to lead the way, as it will take a while to shift anything at DFID (though there are obviously some positive currents there as well). But I think there needs to be a more carefully articulated case, with evidence, and practical steps to move in this directly given institutional constraints (procurement, predetermined results targets, etc.). The current ‘flailing about’ doesn’t quite get there yet.

      To be continued!


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