Turning Development Upside Down
A book about reforming relief and development

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Chapter 250 Root Causes

Root causes of development failure being ignored

When I first started working in the emergency and humanitarian assistance environment in the 1980s, I was impressed with the way people put themselves in harm's way in order to relieve human suffering. It was impressive. Some of the work that was done was not much short of being miraculous. But there was something missing. The job was to do relief work well. Nobody seemed to be working with the same energy and commitment on the question of why we had the crisis in the first place. Nobody seemed interested in "root causes".

But there have been over the years a lot of people who have given me insights into the many issues that are contributing to the problem. A lot of what I know comes from listening to local people in their communities. And a lot from wotking with local consultants and professionals.

For many assignments I worked with an Ethiopian female colleague who brought a very different insight into the workings of community than my own male Caucasian Euro-American NORTH perspective. And I also had the good fortune to work alongside a lot of people who have been top experts in their respective fields, that helped me to understand something about a lot of different development elements.

But there have been few of my colleagues that have had much interest in the management dimension and the idea that development performance could be improved enormously by optimizing the way development linkages were developed and initiatives coordinated. My work on development dynamics and the linkages in development convinced me a long time ago that development performance could be managed better, and that we could do better at eliminating root causes of development crisis.

I wrote the following in November 2000 in connection with the World Bank's dialog about “comprehensive development”. It summarizes some elements of this problem.

Root causes .... that create the need for humanitarian intervention

I am an Englishman who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. I started a consulting firm specializing in international business and socio-economic development in 1978 and over the years have worked in more than 50 countries. Previously I had been a corporate financial manager with something of a reputation for problem solving and profit improvement.

I have done work with the World Bank, various units of the UN system and other institutions of the official development assistance (ODA) community. For reasons that need to be understood, in a lot of places development has been superseded by the need for humanitarian intervention. The sad reality is that the last fifty years has been one of the most killing periods in all of history.

My current focus is on Africa. Africa has been the location for many sorts of violence and the results has been death and injury to combatants and civilians and an enormous number of refugees and internally displaced people. The scale of the disruption in Africa in the last fifty years is difficult to comprehend.

The horror of the disaster is numbing. One needs to remember that everyone who dies is a son or daughter, a brother or a sister, a mother or a father. These are human beings who have died by the million and who have been turned into refugees and displaced people dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian intervention in its civilian form through UNHCR and the various specialist international NGOs and WFP do important work to mitigate the impact of the crisis. Humanitarian military interventions to make peace and provide security serve to stop killing and the escalation of fighting and the abuse of power. But these interventions do very little to address the root causes that created and the insecurity and the chaos and killing in the first place.

The question then is what is the root cause? The quick answer is that nobody knows.
I have seen humanitarian operations in progress and I admire the dedication of the people involved. They have focused on doing these operations better. They have not focused much on what should have happened years before so that the situation would not have required humanitarian intervention. There is no organization of stature engaged in the analysis of this problem. In most cases the focus in on shopping the fighting and making a peace with rather little attention to the root causes.

The hypothesis that I want to describe is my own best attempt to understand the problem.
Africa has a long history. It is a different history from Europe. There has been an evolution over time of the characteristics of society. African Empires have come and gone. All the time a body of traditional law was evolving. During the last 200 years ... some places longer, some places shorter ... there has been a disruption and discontinuity in the application of traditional law .... and new laws were introduced from the outside ... enforced by outsiders .... often in collaboration with part of the local community. The first area of stress, as I see it, was the introduction of law from outside that was never a part of the evolving traditional law.
As outsiders become engaged in Africa, there was, of course the slave trade. This has great historic importance but slave trade was in decline by the early 1800's and ended in the first half of the 9th century. But other exploitation and trade has continued. The extraction of raw materials in Africa for export and consumption in the NORTH has been a continuing aspect of the African economy through the of the 20th century. The nature of this investment, the flows of investment funds and profits and dividends and the repatriation of liquid assets have created wealth, but very little of it in the communities where the natural resources originated. Diamonds and bauxite and gold and copper and oil are all extractive industries that have made wealth for many, but rarely for the people who have a traditional claim on these resources. The law hat is he law of the land in most places in Africa has little or no respect for the justice that indigenous rules would deliver, but is more a framework of law that makes the rules of contract and property to suit the perception of justice needed to satisfy investors and traders with no interest in community impact or human rights or environmental considerations.

The definition of country borders at the Treaty of Berlin in the 1880s aimed at making peace between competing nations in Europe and had nothing to do with how Africans should define border in Africa for the benefit of Africa. The OAU specifically took the border issue off the table immediately after it was established, and it has remained off the agenda until now. But the issue is deeper than mere borders. The issue goes to the heart of the relationship that should exist between the government of the nation and the peoples that comprise the nations.
Africa has a strong family structure. Around the family is the extended family and around that the clan or tribe. In spite generations of attempting to devalue the importance of this structure, it remains a critical element in the African society. There will never be peace and harmony unless the role of the family is given the respect it deserves and both political and economic institutions are reorganized so that the family is given the power and dignity it deserves.

I keep reminding myself that the United States was able to declare independence quickly, and fighting the was of independence was clear, but defining a way to govern the new country took years. It was 11 years before the Constitution was drafted and another two years before it was ratified and became the law of the land. No country in Africa has gone through that process. Defining hos countries are going to be governed has been done quickly and without anything like the research needed into the underlying ethnic issues within the country and in neighboring areas.

And virtually nothing has been done to address the issues of rights to natural resources – mineral, animal and vegetable – that ought to be contributing to the economic value of the people, communities and nations of Africa., but is not. Almost every adviser or consultant has the mindset of law in the NORTH and is predisposed to the idea that foreign direct investment (FDI) is good for Africa. Advisers usually have an agenda that is to strengthen contract law and property rights of owners in due course at the expense of local people and communities. They are often support5ed in this by the central national government and the political leadership that has a lot in common with the foreigners.

Africans fight over scarce resources. They fight over injustice. They fight because it is the only job available.

While Africans fight - the NORTH prospers. Guns and ammunition for the soldiers and fancy aeroplanes and other military hardware for the senior officers and country leaders. These items are expensive but can be paid for with gold or diamonds or oil concessions.

How can it be that Angola is going to get the biggest flow of foreign direct investment in a situation where the people of the country are at war and the socioeconomic status of the country is about as bad as it can be. The answer is the abuse of oil power.

How can the DCR wage a civil war and show no signs of quitting. The answer is the diamonds and the NORTH's preoccupation with making profit no matter what the collateral damage

And then there is the question of water. While oil and diamonds and gold are important to the NORTH, within Africa the issue of water and who is going to use it is a critical question

And then there is the question of religion

And then there is the question of food, and starvation, and population growth, and desertification, and HIV-AIDS, and life expectancy

Root causes are wrong laws, wrong government structures, wrong borders and a whole range of NORTH policy elements and development practices that have resulted in failed socio-economic progress

Solutions are not easy, quick fixes will not worked. Laws and structures and borders will take a long time to change.

hOWEVER, development policy and practice can be changed quickly. Sadly the existing major institutions in the NORTH will not change much, it at all in the short run, but new and small initiatives with a different business model for development can succeed and make an enormous difference very quickly.

Because Africa is a family based society, investment that supports family and community and clan will succeed unless the big government structure and international special interests intervene to make it fail.

Democracy that is simply giving people he opportunity to vote for people who are going to use government against the people does nobody a favor. But democracy that includes the concept that everyone should have an opportunity to live the dream of a better life .... and puts resources in play to make it happen is doing everyone a favor

Peter Burgess


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