What aid agencies can learn from missionaries

From Blood & Milk (Examining international

10 ways to make development work better:

1. Evidence-based development
2. Fund people, not concepts
3. More, smaller programs, more flexibility to change.
4. Longer funding cycles.
5. Focus on self-interest in international development.
6. Get real about donor coordination; it occurs primarily through individual relationships.
7. Recognize not all governments have the best interests of their populations at heart. You can’t have general policies for host country collaboration.
8. Tags, not categories.
9. Forget the private sector; learn from missionaries. Cultivate regional and technical expertise.
10. Kill off the development studies programs.

What we can learn from the missionaries:

I’m going to start with #9, because a lot of you asked about it. And I don’t want people thinking I was suggesting we convert people to, well, anything. No pith helmets, bibles, Korans, or books of Mormon here.

But missionaries do have a model we can learn from, at least the ones that I have met. They come into a country with a long-term commitment. They don’t just want immediate results; they want souls. Missionaries bring their families and children with them, and those children go to local schools. They live in houses that are nice by local standards, but not in the expat palaces your average foreigner lives in. They bring their stuff with them in suitcases, not container ships. [I’m not too sure about some of the details in the last two sentences–local schools and containers.]

Missionaries don’t try to do any soul-saving at first, spending a minimum of six months learning local language and culture. Mormons are renowned for their language skills. And once they have learned it, they stick around, spending years or even decades in country [Mormons??]. They devote themselves to work in one particular place.

Compare that to your average expatriate working in development, for a donor or implementing a project. The expat lives in a little bubble of fake-home, cushioned by consumable shipments, huge shipping allowances, and hardship pay. With air conditioning and heating to ensure they’re even in a different climate. And they stay in once place for approximately 35 seconds.

. . . I’ve seen USAID country directors come in and kill programs that they thought weren’t working. And they were, but they were also hard to understand. Too hard to figure out in a couple weeks of reading reports.

Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries. . .

. . . More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. . .

Read the  Whole post: What we can learn from the missionaries

HT: Texas in Africa who says in the comments of the above post:

You can’t learn local context on a two-year contract, so bad decision after bad decision after bad decision gets made. If you look at the work missionaries do, it tends to have a lasting impact. I study Congolese hospital systems that are still around after 70+ years (lasting through the collapse of colonialism, the euphoric post-independence years, nationalization, the collapse of commodities prices, the end of Cold War financial support, several wars, and a full-on state collapse), whereas the average NGO-supported water management/microfinance/whatever project tends to fall apart not long after the grant runs out.

A couple of other thoughts:
1. Part of this is possible because missionaries aren’t dependent on fickle trends in development and government funding; . . .

2. Missionaries often try to work themselves out of a job. The best ones look to turn over the management of programs and institutions to local leaders who’ve had the opportunity to get good training. And a lot of them leave when they know that locals can handle the institutional management on their own, with that consistent financial support from outside. The reason those hospitals I mentioned above are still around is that they’re run by locals who know what to do when horrible things happen.

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