Shifting the power, decolonizing development, localization... suddenly it is all over the place. And part of me is very happy with this development. Finally we are recognizing the power differentials that exist in international cooperation. Still it is important that we recognize it is a mixed bag with many interests playing up. Localization is not value free. Power differentials are also present at the local level.
When I arrived in Ethiopia in 2001 the country was still dealing with the trauma of a non-resolved bloody war with its Northern neighbour Eritrea. Many Ethiopian port labourers, who had been deported out of Eritrea, had to reintegrate back home in Northern parts of Ethiopia, most of them in Wollo, a region infamous for its hunger crises of the seventies and eighties. To support this process my organization had lobbied the European Union to make funds available for this reintegration programme and I was hired as IDP program manager. Upon my arrival I was told the position was just successfully filled by a quite senior Ethiopian with an esteemed academic career. Subsequently I was asked to be his advisor.
Obviously there was not much advise needed. I felt a bit like the boy in this painting of Ethiopian artist Josphe, taking a cold shower. In the end it turned out that there were serious concerns about misconduct and abuse of power, and I have played my part to address these concerns. But I can tell, it was an up-hill battle. In fact, being a foreigner, being still quite young, and having no prior experience working in Ethiopia gave me a 0-3 disadvantage right from the start. And to be honest, what weight did I bring to the job really? Still my earlier experience as a junior UN official serving a top-level bureaucrat in India, gave me the perfect preparation as also at that time it was made very clear to me, by this senior official, that I had very little to contribute and should be happy with having the chance to learn. This again was not far from the truth.
Why I am telling you this story in an article about localization? First of all, the people involved have either passed away or are no longer in office. The reason for sharing this experience is to illustrate that a term like localization can be received differently by different people. It is our personal experience that colors the way we see things. When I hear people speak about the need for localization I have my concerns, especially when it comes to humanitarian work in conflict settings. While I recognize the importance of support via first responders who are in and from the community, I also realize that there are also local power dynamics that at times may compromise the humanitarian imperative. Hence, there are roles to play for international NGOs to ensure aid is provided in a fair and equitable manner.
Proliferation of development NGOs
At the same time I have witnessed the extreme proliferation of development NGOs replacing fundamental societal functions of home grown civil society organizations. I am therefore also very happy with researchers (also in Europe) who are increasingly calling into question the contributions NGOs make to democratization processes. To some extend they may also help erode democratic dividend as citizens may turn to NGOs for their rescue instead of turning to their governing bodies. It was shocking to realize that for people in rural Ethiopia there was basically only one word for any official visiting their area. It did not really matter whether it was a government official, a UN official or an NGO employee. They would all arrive in a four-wheel drive, talk to you briefly (often through an interpreter), and depart again and if you are lucky enough you would see them again with some resources to improve your situation al least for a while.
So whose agenda is at work when we talk localization or decolonization of development. I belief still both represent very much the agenda of Western countries, with Kings and Presidents keen to admit wrongdoings of their predecessors while saying sorry. Dialogues start to emerge, different from the 'development briefings' of the past explaining certain agenda's. However, given the past, I wonder how much of a real dialogue is possible in the present. I wonder what the priorities of people really are if we are willing to be a fly on the wall. Not noticed and therefore the speakers not influenced by the presence of potential resource providers. We could be surprised what options they could think of.
Development cooperation 3.0
I think it is high time for development assistance to mature into proper international development cooperation. This new type of cooperation would not focus on 'solving the poverty problem' in 'target countries' but it would aim to address inequalities around the world in the proper use of its scarce resources. It would be based on a respectful exchange of values, characterized by reciprocity with everyone willing to learn. This could lead to doing away with bad practice, improving on current practice while discovering novel practice that might help us making global and local development processes work for the benefit of all people and the planet.
Back to Ethiopia, where currently the international community has difficulty reading the situation and struggled to take a position in the renewed conflict between people groups of which the scenery became the region of Tigray. On July 13, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for an immediate end to the violence and human rights violations in Tigray and ensure humanitarian access to vulnerable communities, as loosing out on two consecutive production seasons is likely to result in wide spread famine. Apart from this external pressure, crucial pressure is to be made domestically*. There is a silent majority of Ethiopians who want to see this conflict and many other tensions and conflicts in the country resolved and live peacefully together. They can organize themselves and use their civic space to voice their opinion and influence those in their direct surrounding or through social media (which are so often used counterproductively for spreading disinformation, stirring up the masses). They may be able to help society at micro, meso and macro levels to reconcile the present with the past. They have the ability and spiritual assets to shape new identities that are sufficiently anchored in the past, address systemic injustices, and are geared towards a shared future. If the international community is to play a role, whether mobilized by the diaspora or officially requested, it has to respect local ownership over the change process while upholding and defending universal human rights.
* Local ownership is one of the principles embraced in the new OESO-DAC recommendation on enabling civil society, as adopted with unanimous vote during the recent Civil Society Days of the OESO-DAC.
My name is Reinier van Hoffen.
Click here for a summary.
Also find the text of a lecture Dr. Achterhuis held at the 2012 Bilderberg conference.