19 October 2010

The Impatient Optimists

It was a bit like being at a rock concert, except that the one bona fide rocker, Bono, was in the audience. The occasion was Bill and Melinda Gates speaking at the Science Museum in London about their collaboration with ONE.org, called Living Proof.

Living Proof is about documenting and celebrating the successes of international aid. The Gates' certainly have convening power. There were about 400 people from the UK development community in attendance plus a sprinkling of altogether more glamorous folks lending their support.

Bill and Melinda, self declared impatient optimists about the role of aid, talked for over an hour. Their presentations were interspersed with short films about childbirth, farming and vaccines. The presentations were not quite at the right level for the knowledgeable audience, nevertheless they were very well done. These are people who can make a pitch.

What about the content? Melinda started off by acknowledging how complicated development is. This was followed, somewhat incongruously, by a long section on vaccines. This is where a foundation like theirs really hits what Americans like to call "the sweet spot" - something that really plays to their comparative advantage and which is important. We then moved to agriculture, which is a lot more complicated than vaccines, and then to maternal care - pre, during and post pregnancy - which is perhaps the most complicated challenge of all in terms of behaviour change, systems change and power balances. There was not the barrage of interesting new numbers and findings about aid effectiveness that I was expecting, but that will probably come later with the launch of the full Living Proof report. Unfortunately there was no Q and A although the Gates' did spend time during the reception talking to the audience.

Living Proof is about unearthing, highlighting and communicating the good things that aid can do. I was left wondering if Living Proof would help to communicate on aid. I really hope it does. But as Melinda herself said, it's only through visiting, listening and talking with people living in tough conditions do you connect with their reality and do you see the possibilities for supporting and working with them as well as the complexity of doing so. Helping citizens of rich countries understand the situations of those living in deprivation without depriving either of their dignity remains a difficult challenge.


Duncan said...

We must go to different kinds of rock concert, Lawrence. It felt more like a corporate product launch to me. You know, iphone, ipad. Errm, maybe not

Peter Clarke said...

"Helping citizens of rich countries understand the situations of those living in deprivation without depriving either of their dignity remains a difficult challenge. "... Over the last two years more than 6000 young people have been funded by the German government to spend around a year as non-expert volunteers in developing countries (ueber weltwaerts). There is some nonsense in the documentation about "helping" but my experience is that it is a massive learning opportunity, through which everybody's dignity (among other things) is enhanced. And if funding is maintained for a few years this could really transform the sensibility for development of a generation of German citizens.

Lawrence said...

Duncan, is there really that much difference between the 2 these days? I did like the intro music from Arcade Fire, unfortunately called Rebellion (Lies).

PeterC, thanks. I think the UK Gov and VSO are trying something similar..

Unknown said...

I agree "Helping citizens of rich countries understand the situations of those living in deprivation without depriving either of their dignity remains a difficult challenge." It's also a common chalenge in my country, Japan. I've worked in Asian countries and am now working in Liberia. Being deprived of dignity... I always try to just imagine what if I'd been born in their country and was living like a guy I usually see and if I was deprived of my dignity even in my own country.

Jennifer Lentfer said...

I don't think we need to help "citizens of rich countries understand the situations of those living in deprivation." Rather, our roles at outsiders, whether we are working for a multilateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams at our boring office job in a European capitol, must be about getting community leaders the resources that they need to address their own priorities. When that transformation occurs, depriving people of their dignity will no longer be a challenge.

I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in Africa in my career. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. A UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). WiserEarth.org has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

The biggest thing that well-intentioned do-gooders (and well-resourced in the case of the Gates') must recognize is that in Africa and elsewhere, local people are already organized and addressing these issues, though their initiatives are often ignored and under-resourced. Something, unfortunately, big aid continues to miss.