The 'butterfly effect' in international development

A group of gender-inclusive community volunteers in Bangladesh holds a session on human rights, gender equality, climate change and entrepreneurship. Photo by: Christian Aid

It is said that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.

Many people accept this as true because we recognize that the things we do — whether big or small — can have unintended consequences. The “butterfly effect” can easily be applied to international development, since setting up durable aid initiatives is a complex matter in which the best of intentions may not necessarily yield positive results.

Instead, a whole host of factors must be taken into account before embarking on any given project to avoid the key pitfalls of intervening in communities, and ensure that development is both appropriate and will not cause unintentional harm.

One of the most common mistakes made by international development agencies based in Europe or the United States is to write donor funding proposals from afar. They are designed to reflect the latest ideas, trends or research, but take little or no account of realities on the ground due to lack of meaningful consultation with affected communities.

Typically, an agency will sign a financial contract with a donor whereby the agency will commit to tackle specific issues in a set amount of time, and is accountable to the donor regarding exactly how funds are spent. There is always a huge pressure to deliver impressive end-of-project reports that may — due to fears over future funding — not always tell the full story.

In essence, this means that funding opportunities tendered by external governments, high-value donors or international bodies can actually dictate the type and context of a given development project, rather than the potential beneficiaries’ genuine and most pressing needs at the time.

On a practical level this approach can also fuel complications on the ground, because an agency immediately enters the chosen community as a powerful actor with a fixed agenda: to spend a large sum of aid money in a set amount of time to ensure that precise — and usually inflexible — target outcomes are met. In such situations, dominant community members will often try to commandeer control of the funds for their own benefit, which can result in financial mismanagement, delayed project implementation, and tensions over ultimate project ownership and long-term sustainability.

Listen to the communities

In the past, I have seen organizations working in conflict-affected areas such as the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that have spent a lot of time and money on agricultural training for displaced civilians, even though crops are highly vulnerable to looting. Later, community consultations found that offering vocational skills like carpentry or setting up functioning support groups to provide counselling and medical treatment for men and women who had been sexually attacked while farming their fields would actually have been far more useful in the face of long-term conflict.

Similarly, in Bangladesh a few years ago, I remember how many vulnerable households were given microfinance loans by numerous European agencies in order for them to set up small businesses like shops and market stalls in flood-prone areas. When the monsoon rains came, they wiped out businesses and left the micro-entrepreneurs in even greater debt than before. Again, later evaluations revealed that the target communities would have been far happier to receive disaster risk reduction training instead of small loans, but were anxious that refusing the agency’s “gifts” could mean that they were overlooked for future projects.

It is for these reasons that Christian Aid works through local partners from the beginning of project proposals, to ensure that their socio-cultural expertise and established relationships with vulnerable populations lead to projects that have real value. Wherever possible, we — as both project donor and implementer — encourage community participation, honesty and transparency from all those involved at each stage of the project process.

Of course it’s difficult to avoid raising expectations when carrying out assessments in any community, but that’s not a strong enough reason to ignore the value of including the community in the decisions reached. Interventions are always political, and we, as development agencies, must be more aware of that when planning new projects.

Another challenge is when an agency only works in a single sector, such as water or HIV prevention; or with one target group, such as women or farmers. This approach does not allow for integration of work, reinforces a “silo mentality” whereby information is not shared with other parts of the same organization, encourages duplication, and doesn’t look at the bigger picture in any given community.

For example, for many years in Afghanistan most women’s literacy programs funded by various different agencies were not effective because male community leaders — who had not been involved in initial consultations — feared they were being used to promulgate anti-Islamic values. Upon hearing these concerns, our partners set up “Reflect Circles” through which both men and women were trained in women’s rights, basic accounting, health, hygiene and HIV prevention, as well as reading and writing. The civic leaders soon began to notice improvements in the community as a whole, and were subsequently more supportive when they saw that this form of gender-inclusive education was beneficial for entire families.

Likewise, in Ugandan refugee camps supporting civilians fleeing from the conflict in the DRC, women’s rights agencies handed food vouchers exclusively to women, not realizing that this would lead directly to a spike in domestic violence for the very same women they were trying to help. When asked about this later down the line, the women reported that their husbands, who already felt disempowered and unable to provide for their families, felt that the women-only food voucher scheme reinforced their ideas that they could not be trusted. The women themselves admitted the initiative actually made their lives harder, and would have preferred that any family member could be allowed to collect the vouchers.

New approaches

Today, new intervention approaches such as the Participatory Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment, which we are currently using, stress the need to involve the entire community — especially the most marginalized — in developing and implementing any new project.

Such methods are fast becoming best practice in the medium- to long-term, as is the “do-no-harm approach,” traditionally used in emergency humanitarian interventions like in 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

These guidelines, coupled with a strong focus on information sharing and accountability toward the whole community, force practitioners, donors and partners alike to think more carefully about the roles they play, and the impact their actions could have on the people and places where they work.

Development is a constant learning curve and there is still some way to go, but we, along with other international agencies, are committed to ensuring that future intervention initiatives are as relevant to people’s real priorities — and therefore as sustainable and appropriate — as possible.

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

About the author

  • Simone di Vicenz

    Simone di Vicenz is program impact adviser for resilience at Christian Aid, and program manager and monitoring and evaluation coordinator at the Living Earth Foundation. Previously, he led various multi-sectoral rural and urban international development projects in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania and Vietnam.