HELVETAS chief: It's time to abandon the 'misery discourse'

Melchior Lengsfeld, executive director of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation. Photo by: HELVETAS

Global crises — from Syria to Afghanistan to the Sahel — require international attention. But mainstream media reports often underestimate these threats, which, months later, erupt into emergencies.

It can be very tempting, then, for the aid community to hold up the most extreme cases of suffering as a call to action and an antidote to public indifference. The problem with this dialogue is that it sacrifices conversation on underlying problems or long-term solutions for a short-term spot in public discourse.

“We need to go out of the misery discourse,” said Melchior Lengsfeld, executive director of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, the largest Swiss development organization. “Misery is a reality in the world, but that discourse is not contributing to the solution.”

The “misery discourse,” he said, pits crisis response against long-term development in the fight for public attention, and the result can cause a shift in public finance away from long-term priorities toward short-term emergencies, in place of a coordinated effort to deal with both.

Devex spoke with the young NGO chief at the Paris climate change conference last month about climate change adaptation, private sector cooperation, and how he’ll use his leadership role to help HELVETAS shape a global conversation about what development looks like to those who endeavor to achieve it, how it happens and what it has accomplished.

Here are the highlights of the conversation:

There is so much ambition tied to the Sustainable Development Goals, but some of that’s been lost in a shift toward crisis response. It’s difficult to fund preparedness. It’s easier to fund disaster relief.  What can an NGO leader do to make the case for those longer term, more forward-looking conceptions of development?

First to say, the SDGs are not yet in the cupboard … We need to stay attentive that it stays at the level of attention that it was months back … I think we have a challenge with public attention, that we need to show that development works. We have been communicating always on crisis, disaster and poverty, on misery, to raise funds, and we have not been working hard enough on communicating success.

When you look at the progress that’s been made over the last 25 years, over the last 15 years, there’s a lot of success. Just putting out in very simple statements what has been achieved and what it means, then people see easier. For instance, when girls go to schools this decreases in a statistically significant way child marriage. It’s plausible, but it’s also happening. When you build your campaign around such messages, it’s a different way to look at why do we do development cooperation. It’s not only to relieve misery, but it’s also to progress toward dignified lives. That is something that we are trying to do, and also in our discourse trying to promote, to show also how it’s working and how different actors need to contribute to it.

We are worried around the whole discussion of the Paris agenda, Accra Agenda for Action, the Busan [Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation], that now … it’s only government-government, it’s only tools like general budget support, which often does not reach the marginalized poor people. It must be multi-stakeholder approach. Let’s work together — government, private sector, small and middle scale national private sector and civil society to make it work.

Do you worry that some of these global agendas are falling susceptible to a rosier picture of what the private sector can do than might be realistic?

Of course we have seen as soon as there was a small economic crisis in Germany a few years back … immediately the development minister looked very closely that more money is flowing back to German companies. We see that in France, and we have seen it also in the U.K. Tied aid was totally out, and now it’s sneaking back in. We have seen the Chinese doing it very openly. We know we shouldn’t do it, but there’s lot of political pressure to do it, so there are contradictions which are around. We need to be very careful that if we fund private sector actors that this is not done as export promotion, economic subsidy logic.

It’s also interesting to see that over the MDG period, the middle classes in developing countries tripled. That is also an engine of development and growth. It’s not only getting out of poverty, but then you need to be somewhere and that needs to continue. To see those middle classes growing and developing that’s actually something really interesting, because then these are the ones who sustain the economic life where the others can link in.

You described a gap between climate change adaptation expertise and NGO programming that you’re trying to help narrow. From your leadership perspective, how do you make space within your program areas for that adaptation lens?

The term “climate-smart agriculture” has been a little bit taken over by the larger commercial interests. But what we find is it’s very important to educate our teams, but mainly also our partners at different levels in the field … to bring the knowledge … to those people who make local decisions, regional decisions, national decisions … sharing knowledge and sharing concrete experiences. I find it really surprising how little concrete experiences of adaptation work are really around, are being well-publicized. This is one of the areas where we all together need to progress.

We have abstract dreams that we are discussing. These are large policy commitments. Now what do they mean? How do we translate that back? There’s a huge interest in saying, ‘We have examples. Let’s share those examples in those policy spaces and let’s also test them.’ When we translate policies into practice, what would that look like very concretely? It’s important that all organizations that have that capacity make that bridge, because policymakers alone don’t have those insights and don’t have that capacity. So we need to see that as a multistakeholder partnership.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.