When the music changes, so does the dance

Ballyn, John studied Industrial Design at the Central School of Art and Design in London. In the 1960s and early 1970s he worked as an industrial designer for major consumer electronic brands and public transport vehicles in the UK. Since 1973 he has worked providing product design, production technology, packaging and management processes to crafts producers and SMEs in more than 40 countries around the world. He has contributed to training manuals about product design and market development for cultural enterprises. His clients include agencies EU, UN (UNIDO, ILO, ITC), UK and Swiss governments.

March - April 2011, Craft Revival Trust

When the music changes, so does the dance1
After fifteen years absence it was wonderful to return to India, meeting friends and colleagues from the past and encountering new people working in the crafts and other development sub-sectors. The visit provided opportunities for new understanding of this hugely energetic nation shifting and evolving at a tremendous pace in urban areas, while rural communities seem to have changed little in comparison with the 1980s.

Most fascinating was learning that most of the new generation of workers in projects were suffering identical or similar challenges in obtaining support for their work as those endured by myself and colleagues working during the 1970s and 1980s. Having worked during the intervening years in other countries in the Far East, Africa and Latin America, it is clear that these challenges are not just Indian or even sub-continental in nature. The impression gained from people of many nations is that a generic state of near dysfunction has existed in the development sector for a very long time, particularly in the support provided to workers in the artisan and other creative sub-sectors.

Over many years, development agencies at international, national, provincial, and even NGO levels have used intensely hierarchical, usually internal, and top down procedures for:

  • identification of potential projects and "target groups",

  • project proposal preparation;

  • scheduling and regulating;

  • implementation; monitoring and management,

  • evaluation of outcomes, during and at the end of the programme.

Communal or organisational participation at any stage in these processes is negligible. It is rare to find transparency and accountability to the taxpayers who pay for their work or to the people they are supposed to be assisting.

Yet these disadvantaged people are identified in development terminology as "beneficiaries". If they are really to be beneficiaries, should they not be the major contributors in determining what is to be provided to whom, how, where and when it is to be done? Would they then not own the project, instead of being forced to "own" project ideas about which they know little and probably care even less?

Official attitudes for non-inclusion of beneficiaries in development processes vary from:

  • "Too high a risk of mismanagement";

  • "No knowledge of development priorities";

  • "Inadequate education";

  • "Low capacity among beneficiaries for responsible participation".

Yet on an almost daily basis, in almost any country around the world, press reports tell of gross mismanagement of publicly funded projects undertaken by the very same agencies who claim that the poorest people cannot manage to improve their lives without the intervention and support of agencies who clearly suffer from almost the same failings apparently possessed by these "beneficiaries".

The same rigid and hierarchical procedures are applied by funding agencies or banks, which use similar arguments to refuse loans or grants to small organisations or enterprises applying for financial support to improve a business or community activity. Yet these same financial institutions have senior executives who receive huge bonuses for presiding over financial practices which, in some cases, have decimated economies around the globe. Nor are these executives penalised in any way for their failure, while small enterprises are hounded to extinction for failing to repay much smaller sums on which they are defaulting.

Other very well known and enormously wealthy funding agencies carry notices on their web sites in effect saying "Ordinary people from foreign countries need not bother to apply because we only work with officially certified organisations in our own countries which conform to the norms and principles we control."

Applications for project proposals and project funding are demanded using up to 15 pages of digital applications only, to be completed in 45 minutes, usually in languages not known by most persons wishing to become "beneficiaries".

As another aspect concerning suitability for receiving funding, the majority of the world's poorest have survived centuries of abuse, corruption, exploitation and manipulation from rulers varying from total tyranny to incompetence. The disadvantaged mainly live in conditions that would make many development agency personnel extremely sick mentally and physically. The poor are highly adaptable, stubbornly persistent and hard working, because if they were not they would be dead. They possess lifetimes of knowledge about their locality and environment, its social and political nature, advantages and challenges; usually far more than most "highly qualified" experts who appear with clipboards in communities to "assess potential for a project.", without actually spending sufficient time to listen to members of the communities

If the same experts were simply to go into communities and enquire what the people there wanted to do for their futures, agencies might have more projects which are truly embedded in the community and therefore have better chances of survival.

Finally, events beyond India also have a bearing on the global development and governance activity. Tunisia and Egypt's peoples have had enough of being ignored and treated like dirt. The sheer mass of human energies, coupled with modern technology, have given ordinary people the capability to show governments that they wish life to be different and better, if not for themselves, then for their children. It is merely a matter of time before these inequities in development and funding protocols are changed by popular demand.

So should we not now do as Mahatma Gandhi said "Be the change you want to see in the world".

Footnote reference:
  1. African proverb

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