The development community needs to stop talking down to people: Alaa Murabit

Alaa Murabit talks to Devex about the benefits of locally-driven development projects

The global development community needs to be “less arrogant” and start prioritizing local voices in order to be more effective, senior United Nations official Alaa Murabit has said, suggesting this would “completely change” development priorities.

The founder of Voice of Libyan Women, and a U.N.-appointed advocate of the Sustainable Development Goals, said that development organizations too often take a top-down approach that fails to properly consider local perspectives. They should also de-emphasize the distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries, recognizing that challenges affect both.

“When it comes to the SDGs, this is non-prescriptive,” she said in a conversation with Devex at the European Development Days, a major summit, last week. Europe faces challenges in terms of gender equality, and equality more broadly, as much as any other region, Murabit suggested, so “this has to be much more a conversation with others, rather than ‘we’re going to tell you what to do.’ I think that’s been a challenge for the development community in the past.”

A U.N. high level commissioner on health employment and economic growth, Murabit was selected as an official advocate of the SDGs alongside figures such as Muhammad Yunus and Leymah Gbowee.

She pointed to the Millennium Development Goals — the predecessor of the SDGs — as part of the problem, claiming they perpetuated an attitude of “we’re going to come [to your country] and we’re going to tell you what needs to be done.”

“They were beneficial in many ways but they’ve created a development infrastructure that really does omit local leadership and local voices, and I think that has to be step number one” in order to advance causes now, she said. “If we’re going into a community, it’s not that we’re going to create the project in New York or London and we’re going to tell you how it must look; it’s that we’re going to go into the community and say ‘What can we do? How can we best serve you? How can we facilitate?’”

She added that: “At the end of day, the most necessary person in that conversation is not the development community — it’s the local population. I think we have to be a lot less arrogant in assuming that the development community is really the be all and end all — and it’s not only the development community [that takes this attitude] but also different embassies around the world and governments and really foreign policy priorities. But unless we really start talking locally and saying ‘what do you need us to do,’ instead of trying to fill in a quota of ‘educate a thousand women — checkmark’ ... I don’t think we’re going to get very far.”

Murabit, a medical doctor, was educated in Canada before moving to Libya for university, where she founded Voice of Libyan Women at the age of 21. The organization works to improve the political participation and economic empowerment of women in Libya.

We need “to really prioritize and amplify local voices, local experiences, not in a token way but making sure that they are the architects of the projects that you’re doing in that community,” she said. This “not only changes the nature of the project, it’ll completely change the priorities.”

As an example, she said: “A lot of the development community goes based on what they can get funding for. So if you’re an international NGO and you can get funding for girls’ education, what you’ve told your funder is that you’re going to educate, say, 2000 girls.” However, when you go into the community you might discover that the problem isn’t social attitudes to girls’ education but an absence of school infrastructure or a safe environment for female students.

Examples such as this have happened with projects in many countries, she claimed, and “it completely transforms the approach you’re going to have to the project. Now it’s not about advocacy and awareness but about — how do we actually create the infrastructure, a safe environment for these girls to go to school? It changes, probably, who you’re going to get funding from, who’s going to support that project — so it really changes everything and it starts with going and actually asking people: ‘What’s the problem?’”

Several high-level speakers at the EDD summit, which took place in Brussels June 7-8, echoed Murabit’s comments.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, talked about the shared challenges faced around the world: “We're all in the same boat — it cannot be between developed and developing countries,” he said in a speech. “There cannot be differences made between those who give and those who receive, between Europe and Africa ... This is a partnership of equals.”

Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, added that one of the “transformational” aspects of the SDGs is the recognition that “we are all developing countries.” It is clear “that all countries of the world, rich and poor alike, have work to do at their own national level, whether you are Norway or Nigeria,” she said.

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About the author

  • Jessica abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Associate Editor for Europe. Based in London, she was previously an editor at Prospect magazine and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, Bloomberg News, and Germany's taz.die tageszeitung with a focus on global women's rights and social affairs. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.