Opinion: The development sector is in crisis, and that's a good thing

We need more than opinions, anecdotes and personal experience to build a sector that can deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo by: Tim Gouw

The criticism of the development and aid sector isn’t as constructive as it could be. The debate about the structure, workings, and dynamics of the sector overall is mainly based upon prejudice, competing political agendas and a surprising absence of the facts.

Aid veterans and development professionals exchange (with considerable frustration) anecdotes and viewpoints about the workings of this nongovenmental organization, or that government ministry. Politicians take turns proclaiming new initiatives, often aiming to harmonize competing policy interests rather than building an industry that actually works better. As spectators to this disorder, disillusioned citizens shout out about the waste of precious tax money on one program and hold it over the entire sector. In many European countries, they even ask increasingly critical questions about the existence of government sponsored overseas development, and aid work at large.

But, when it comes down to practical matters — say how to best restructure an NGO, or how to design a new program in a pragmatic manner, or how to demonstrate value for money and change impact of the work — the debate is characterized by a paucity of fact and lack of information.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that the development and aid sector is in crisis.

Restructuring in government funding challenges the very existence of many NGOs, and others are forced to make significant cut backs. Development expert firms are being demonized as poverty barons, and their margins are squeezed to such a degree that important things such as innovation, research and quality assurance are left without adequate funding. This is already hurting the sector and, more importantly, the people we are trying to help.

Although almost everyone has an opinion about this, barely anyone agrees how to actually fix it. There are an abundance of viewpoints, but the crucially lacking ingredient is a cool-headed deference to the facts. Take, for example, the question of how an NGO can be more sustainably financed. Most oppose the increasing restrictions of government funding by holding up “income diversification” as a magic wand against it. From my work with all major NGOs in the sector over the past few years, I think that there is no such magical solution. There is only a diligent analysis of the funding available for the activities and countries where the organisation is involved, and a consequent strategy that takes into account the full breadth of development funding, including service contracts, managed services, private sector partnerships, commercial operations, and others.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of opinion, and the valuable contribution that intuitive knowledge can bring to the issue. The years of experience and anecdotes of sector veterans, coupled with the innovative power of newcomers, paint a striking portrait of the state of the development and aid sector. Much of the debate, stories, and perceptions are useful, and the lessons they contain are invaluable.

Indeed, the questions facing the sector are too fundamental, and the overall issue too important to leave purely to the cold analysis of consultants, academics and other experts. Everyone feels the need to change the sector and feels entitled to contribute to the debate, and that is a good thing.

However, the specific questions of how to build, change and adapt an ailing development and aid organization, be they an NGO, government authority, or practitioner firm, requires systematic study. So do all other vital and specific questions in the sector. Sources, experiences, lessons learned, funding trends, and program successes should be precisely defined, methodologically studied, and new, innovative ideas conceptualized, then tested. We need more than opinions, anecdotes and personal experience to build a sector that can deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.

Naturally, expert analytics can never put an end to the often passionate public debate concerning the use and workings of the sector. Such analytics will always be tentative and imperfect. But patiently looking for facts, spotting patterns, and analyzing lessons can uncover underlying truths, which usefully inform the restructuring of organizations, or of the sector as a whole.

It is only through this systematic and methodological approach that the debate becomes more cool-headed, referencing fact rather than feeling or individual experience. I believe that we need to put our individual feelings aside for this common good; we owe it to the millions of people living in poverty and lacking opportunity.

In my view, this is the role that consultants such as myself are able to play. While we are stakeholders in this sector, and need to be mindful of our own passion and interest, we do possess the privilege of having more time than others to devote ourselves to study what works, and what does not. We are lucky enough to learn much about the internal workings of NGOs and other development and aid organizations. Every year, we see many such organizations across a variety of different contexts in many different countries, allowing us to make useful comparisons and analyze the lessons we have learned, before transplanting them. Many of us even have the good fortune to be paid for it.

For example, this year alone, MzN International worked with government ministries, NGOs, and companies in over 22 countries. We learned a lot, but that knowledge would not have been useful if we hadn’t taken the time to come together once a quarter to share experience, analysis, and our respective viewpoints. We create graphs, write articles, and collate notes on lessons learned. We’re serious about this; contribution to this process is mandatory, and is an important element in our performance review. Though this creates more work, distilling our experience into documents and presentations that can then be shared, contrasted, peer reviewed and compared is what makes us experts. It costs money and time, but if we don’t do this, why should our partners place faith in our expertise? After all, anyone can hire a great individual — it’s the workings of the team that make the difference.

The sector is in crisis, and the debate is overly heated and misinformed. We should not waste this crisis, but help to bring information and a cool-headedness through analytics, systemic research, and a common sense based dialogue.

For me, as the managing director of MzN International, this goes well beyond managing and building a sustainable, professional service and consultancy provider to the sector; it is a duty held by any other citizen interested in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals in our generation.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Chris Meyer zu Natrup

    Chris Meyer zu Natrup is the founder and director of MzN International, a development consulting firm that provides innovative advice and business support to NGOs and international organizations. Together with his team, he researches how innovation and business principles can move the sector to become more sustainable, efficient and effective. He trained as a chartered accountant and holds a master’s degree in international relations. Chris regularly writes about innovations in global development and aid on his blog, www.mzn.ac