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Forum for the Future of Aid

Southern Voices for Change in the International Aid System Project

The Forum on the Future of Aid is an online community dedicated to research and opinions about how the international aid system currently works and where it should go next

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Bas Bijlsma
Limitations to the focus on local initiative and paticipation
Submitted by Bas Bijlsma (not verified) on Tue, 2008-03-04 12:03.

Dear Norman Girvan,

With great interest I have been reading your reflection on power, knowledge and home grown solutions in relation to the lack of truly effective development aid. I agree with your argument that both recipients and donors alike must be accountable. Furthermore, I share your thoughts and concerns on the dominance of western originated development theory and responses resulting in 'development theory dependency', as you call it. Yet, I wish to put forward some remarks:

First, although vital, a totally bottom-up approach to development in which knowledge, practice and financing are locally designed and generated has strong limitations. Namely: What to do when areas remain where local effort and initiative to spur development are low? Poor people are continuously busy designing strategies to sustain their own livelihoods, to improve the household's access, claims and entitlements to multiple assets and often their first priority is to avoid the poverty trap and to provide a worthy future to their children. Placing the responsibility of showing the ‘will to develop' and initiate their own development on the shoulders of the poor can dangerously lead to the shift of responsibility of being poor from the North to the South. Thus, although holistic, participatory approaches that depart from local needs and are fine-tuned to the local context and actors are crucial for effective development, the North must live up to its own responsibility and must continue to foster poverty eradication.

Second, I want to stress the need of poor people to be flexible. By imposing the need to be included in every stage of the process of development their flexibility which often proves to be crucial for designing the right livelihood strategy at the right moment will be negatively affected. In various occasions I found that people do not want to participate in organisations and don't want to be affected by institutional arrangements that are of potential benefit to them just for the sake of remaining flexible. When participation is deemed as crucial for supporting development initiatives non-participation or non-initiative resulting from the need to be flexible might be interpreted by donors or governments as a lack of the necessity of support.

Third, I find the term 'indigenous' a remnant of old top-down ways of looking at 'good' development where ‘indigenous’ people are developed to become 'normal' or non-indigenous persons. Additionally, in the South, for example in Argentina or Bolivia, 'indigenous' tends to point at certain groups within society. Therefore, I would like to propose to change the discourse of 'supporting indigenous development' or 'indigenous knowledge centres' to a more general and inclusive formulation such as 'local institution building' or ‘supporting the poor’ by emphasising the knowledge and capabilities of poor people.

In sum, we must keep in mind that within a dominant 'local-initiative-as-precondition-for-development-paradigm' a lack of local initiative can result in the neglect of donors and governments. As a result, ill-being would increase for those groups that lack the capabilities to show initiative which often are the same that need support the most.

I hope you will find my contribution of any value.


Bas Bijlsma
MSc International Development (student)
University of Amsterdam



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