Game on: It’s time to stop looking at development issues as a matter of emergency

    The short game: HIV and food security

    Community development in Sub-Sahara Africa has been clouded by the emergency response mentality, which was exhibited in the knee jerk reaction of many countries in the initial response to the HIV pandemic. This has resulted in governments and community leaders concentrating all their efforts on combating the disease’s impact rather than designing strategic interventions that will close the tap of new infections.

    Efforts to combat the spread of HIV have proved very difficult because of this ‘emergency response’ mentality. Behavior change interventions, such as the reduction of multiple concurrent sexual partners, zero grazing, and safe sex practices, have failed because they were not informed by the recipients; instead the service providers used the top-down approach to dealing with individuals, communities and organizations. The common practice is that these interventions are designed for communities and communities end up just being consumers. Yet we all know that if communities don’t participate in creating change, then we might as well forget about changing their behavior.

    HIV programming is just one example, but we have seen this type of response also evident in our development agenda, where donors and governments have a tendency of responding to development issues as a matter of emergency. I am not against emergency response because during disasters, emergency response can save a lot of lives that would otherwise be lost if there would not be any type of assistance in place. In Swaziland, for example, we suffered drought in the nineties, in 2001, and in 2005.  Yet through research I’ve found that there are still some pockets of the country that continue to receive food aid in 2012. Our response to food security is still an emergency response, in spite of the number of times the country has gone around the same mountain. The question I ask myself is what would happen if we could invest in disaster preparedness, which will require governments to leverage development partners’ technical support to develop strategies that will prepare communities and countries to be ready?

    A good example would be the case of cereal yields in Sub-Sahara Africa that have stagnated for almost five decades between the period of 1961 to 2010 (AHDR, 2011). During this same time, Asia and South America have experienced an increase. This doesn’t correspond to the poverty levels in this region and the food aid we are receiving from development partners. This is where the question arises—if we have had continued high levels of poverty, unemployment, HIV prevalence rates, why do we continue to treat these issues as emergency response issues? 

    From where I stand, I believe Sub-Sahara Africa needs a strategic response to development. I have heard some of my colleagues argue that Africa doesn’t have the same technical skills as compared to the other continents. But five decades is too long for Africa to still be struggling with such, considering the amounts invested in education. Why haven’t we learned from these calamitous experiences?

     The long game: People-driven development

    One reason may be that a people-driven strategic response to development remains a low priority among governments and donors. While communities may not have the technical expertise in economic development, they make it up in social capital. This is the extent to which members of a community can work together effectively to develop and sustain strong relationships; solve problems; make group decisions; and collaborate effectively to plan, set goals and get things done. Unlike other forms of community capital, social capital does not get used up, and in fact, the more it is used, the more of it is generated. That is the reason communities—whether dealing with HIV, poverty, unemployment or marginalization—have the power to become what they have always dreamed. 

    A people-driven approach that leverages social capital, however, requires “meaningful” participation. Developing a program in my office and then sending it down to the community for endorsement and approval doesn’t qualify. What we continue to see is a form of tokenism and or manipulation, where community consultation is disguised in two forms. The first is through a community elected “representative” who holds no real power and has no input except being present. The second is where incentives are given as a means to foster “participation,” usually involving tasks being assigned and outsiders have the power of decision and direction of processes. In both cases, there is no devolution of power, nor transparency and clarity of processes for the people. In these cases, it’s not development, nor is it people-driven.

    In my years as a development practitioner I have seen that a participatory rural approach has a higher likelihood of sustainability than any top-down driven initiative. Once development becomes an imported concept that is externally driven, then it will never be sustainable since it will not be owned nor driven by the people.

    Less game, more teamwork

    Without sounding ungrateful, one wonders if aid agencies or donors can be effective in Sub-Saharan Africa’s course towards sustainable development. Some international NGOs have initiated water projects, cooperative schemes, and other forms of income generating activities responding to community needs as they perceive them, and have not made their lives better off. How does this occur?

    What started in Swaziland as emergency relief food aid has become an annual event. Communities, even if they have received good rains and farm inputs, etc., still will not plough their fields nor even make an attempt to food production. The aid has created such a dependency syndrome that Swaziland will be left to address, not the donors when they inevitably leave.

    One doesn’t want to believe the “myth” that donor agencies have another agenda besides helping those who are poor and living in the margins of society. But I can understand how people wonder if the aid we see is not pegged to vested interests. Any aid approach that doesn’t integrate the voices of those who are beneficiaries of the aid is suspect because from where I sit, it is unsustainable and keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty.

    There are better approaches that can be employed to make sure that our development approach is strategic.  But if we continue to force on communities ideologies born out of top down approaches, we are not going to see the impact and change we desire. There is need for donors to work together with government, NGOs, and communities to forge a cohesive development strategy, so we can see where aid will be most effective and useful.

    Does people-driven development require long-term, more complex, more costly investments? Maybe.

    Is it worth it? Definitely.


    UNDP. (2011). Africa Human Development Report, New York.