Notes on Strategy

Development Practitioners Need Critical Self-Reflection

Before starting a development action, it is important to honestly question one’s own motivations. This is true for individuals as well as organizations…

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Development Practitioners Need Critical Self-Reflection

By: V Santhakumar 


Before starting a development action, it is important to honestly question one’s own motivations. This is true for individuals as well as organizations. It is not uncommon to see charitable actions, which are designed and implemented, not to meet the real needs of the beneficiaries, but so they may provide benefits to the benefactors themselves. For example, we have seen cases where projects are designed to suit the requirements of funding agencies or to merely get funding from specific sources. Such a practice is widespread among Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in India. Some people who attempt to `do-good’ may have other intentions – to become famous, to acquire power or to be in the company of those who have these. Their actions are driven more by these considerations, and the ultimate welfare of the beneficiaries is often overlooked.

So, whereas the hope is that the majority of the development practitioners have overcome such a narrow self-interest; it is not enough. Some practitioners may genuinely believe that certain people should be helped even if such help is not useful for the people and/or the society as a whole. Or they may attempt to help in ways that are not effective. The efforts to rehabilitate those who make a living through begging in urban areas; or the move to ‘save’ sex-workers are examples. I don’t argue that such interventions are not warranted but reflection and detailed analysis are required before carrying out such efforts. Then, there is the complex problem in doing ‘good’ – what is good? Is it `generally’ good or is it good based on the perspective of those who want to do it. Are these people willing to consider what is generally good or are they determined to act based on their own notions of `goodness’ even if it is contradictory with the general view?

Some practitioners may have strong views on how to help others even if these may not be the best ways from the perspective of the beneficiaries or as seen by an independent, informed observer. Like people may have notions of what good education is or what the approach to healthcare should be, even if these are not shared by the potential recipients or the society as a whole. In some cases, sticking to their own notions may prevent development practitioners from taking steps which are needed to make significant impacts in terms of the intended social purpose. On seeing that many children are illiterate or out of school, some philanthropists may be prompted to start one or more alternative schools catering to a small set of children. This effort may be inadequate considering the problems of illiteracy, and under-achievement in education in a country like India. Therefore, there is a need for a critical self-reflection for well-meaning people who want to do good. But such reflection is possible only in the case of those who want to do good for its own sake, and not for those who do it for other selfish reasons mentioned at the beginning of this section.

We need to understand whether the problem that we want to address is a problem for us or for those whom we want to help. I have mentioned the case of sex-workers and beggars. It is not that we should give up the intention to help if those who `suffer’ do not see it as a problem. It is here that the normative position of the actor comes in. For example, an intervention against begging or sex-work can be driven by one’s moral or religious outlook. One viewpoint may consider sex-work immoral, which may motivate a person to plan an intervention1. The role of rational thinking in such a context is limited. There can be various moral standpoints on sex-work. So, there is the need to explicitly articulate one’s moral standpoint, which will enable others to critically evaluate the intentions and strategies.

What if someone considers sex-work morally reprehensible, and is willing to spend any amount of resources to eliminate it? What if sex-work does not disappear even after spending a substantial amount of efforts and resources? So, there is the concern about the effectiveness of the objective. The actor may not want to spend resources on something that cannot be achieved. Or they may encounter a choice – to prioritize different actions based on the valuation of their benefits in terms of creating a morally acceptable world (according to him/her). The role of rational thinking in this regard is limited.

The Three I’s

There are the three `I’s that may influence the actions of individuals, development practitioners and altruists; these are Ideology, Ignorance, and Incentives2. We believe that most people who are interested in doing good have the incentive to do so. The incentives can be intrinsic or self-motivational. Let us now consider ideology and ignorance. Open-mindedness in planning actions is a primary requirement. Interventions need to be free from the influences of ideology and ignorance.

By ideology, I mean a worldview on a desirable ordering of social life. Ideology can colour our judgment of the need for, and the type of action. ‘X religion’s vision of a desirable society is good’, ‘Marxism is the only desirable way to understand society’, `markets can solve all the problems’, are examples of such ideologies.

Ideological actions may not be effective in realizing the objective that the actor himself/herself is seeking. For example, if someone genuinely thinks that children in a location are unhealthy but `believes’ strongly that they can be treated by one or other form of traditional medicine, the actions leading to the enhanced use of such medicine may not improve the health of children. Ideology can also increase the resources needed for an action. If someone believes that all public goods (like a rural road) have to be created through community action, this may be expensive or unviable in many contexts. (‘Construct public goods through community action wherever it is beneficial and through other means where these are not’ could be a non-ideological position in this context.)

An ideological action is appropriate for the society if it is seen as an experiment; correct lessons are learnt from it, and; is replicated only if it is proven to be efficient and effective in attaining a social goal. There is some usefulness in having a diversity of ideas and ideologies rather than being dominated by one or the other of these. There can be a contestation between different ideologues with regard to social goals and the means to achieve these. But there can also be the evolutionary mechanism that leads to the acceptance of workable ideas and the rejection of others. But if one ideology leads to the annihilation of others, it may prevent the working of such an evolutionary mechanism, and hence an overpowering ideology may have to be restrained or moderated. One way to overcome this problem is to have a clear and transparent articulation of one’s ideological position. This will entail asking oneself questions such as: What kind of world do I desire for myself and others? How do my actions contribute to such a world? (here the assumption is that those who do good will be truthful and not hide their real ideological intentions). Such open articulation may help others to critically evaluate the intentions and strategies.

Ignorance or the lack of adequate information may influence the interventions of development practitioners and lead to ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Though the avoidance of ignorance is desirable, it does not mean all information should be collected and assimilated at any cost. It may be rational to act on the basis of limited knowledge if the cost of getting more is relatively costlier in comparison to the potential benefits of such additional information.

However, it is very common to see people neglecting relevant knowledge even when such information is not costly to acquire. There can be a number of reasons for this. The incentive and ideological issues may prevent the acquisition/use of relevant information. This is partly intentional if it is driven by the incentive. Even those individuals who are self-motivated may derive joy in acting on the basis of their own knowledge (rather than depending on others’). Or the joy in the altruistic act is derived not merely from helping others but in doing it in a manner which one considers the most appropriate. It is not easy for people to recognize what they know and what they don’t. Many-a-times their ego prevents them from seeking and/or accepting relevant information and knowledge from others. It may also depend on the costs to be borne by the actor if the action fails due to lack of enough information. If a person has a serious disease, he/she has an incentive to seek the advice from one or more expert doctors. That kind of incentive to seek expert advice may not exist if a development practitioner wants to improve the education in a village. The cost of not seeking expert advice is much higher for the diseased person.

Ideology too has an impact on the information that is assimilated. It filters the available information, and only that which conforms to one’s own ideological views get assimilated. When there is a perceived increase in the number of rapes in a society, it is common for people to argue that this could be due to the way the girls dress, stay out late, go out with men. Everybody sees the same reality, fact or information but conclusions based on the reading of reality may vary significantly based on people’s ideological moorings.

Ideology and the level of information assimilated could also be limited by ones’ professional expertise. The limitations of specific professional knowledge in understanding any social phenomenon in its complexity are well known. Doctors and medical professionals may believe that illnesses are best treated through drugs and other forms of medical treatment. However, there can be many other socio-economic and psychological factors affecting the health status of an individual or a set of people. These may include nutritional status, food intake, access to safe drinking water, hygiene and sanitation and also personal behaviour (say sedentary living, smoking, drinking). So, the improvement in the health status of a person or a set of people may require more than just medical treatment. Therefore, an intervention that neglects the wider set of factors may be ineffective.

Such a narrow approach is seen in the domain of education too. Educationists in general, tend to relate the problems of schooling to classroom processes. For them, curriculum, pedagogy and the facilities to administer these are the most important. Even when children don’t attend classes regularly or drop out, they are likely to attribute these to the `inadequacies’ in teaching. Though researchers have noted the impact of socio-economic and family characteristics on the attendance and achievement of children in schools, educationists tend to neglect these wider set of factors. Though their interventions would be helpful in achieving `better schooling for some’, these may be less effective if the objective is `schooling for all’.

This narrow outlook can be seen among other professionals like economists and sociologists too. The way professional disciplines have evolved has encouraged them to focus on a narrower or on a single dimension of social life, which is useful for the development of the discipline but understanding a social issue and arriving at the remedial measures only from the perspective of one discipline may be ineffective. Social change requires inputs from different disciplinary perspectives, synthesized systematically. The example of education mentioned earlier is relevant here. Improving schooling in a specific setup may require changes in curriculum and pedagogy, investments in schools, accountability of teachers, reducing poverty and vulnerability of parents, changing the norms (say, regarding gender) of parents, and enhancing their aspirations with regard to their children’s education, to name a few. Each of these may have to be based on the insights from one or the other discipline. Therefore, interventions prescribed by any one professional may lead to the disregard of other important aspects of the problem.

It is also not correct to assume that only one type of relevant information is crucial for development action, especially with regard to social and development issues. There can be multiple perspectives, and knowing which one to depend on, is not easy. There can be issues of information asymmetry – how does the seeker of information know which of the experts is more reliable for the requirements? People may depend on signalling and screening devices, for example, educational and professional qualifications, recommendation by friends and relatives, or personal contact. Though these are useful in addressing the issue of information asymmetry, none of these may be adequate to address the problem completely.

This issue of knowledge or information may be addressed in different ways by different development actors. They should be willing to question the adequacy of their own knowledge and not underestimate the importance of gathering relevant or optimal information. Being open-minded and aware of one’s inmost prejudices (including ideologies) may help assimilation of correct information. Information-gathering is needed to identify the problem, assess its magnitude and outline feasible ways of addressing it. Conducting a systematic research, though desirable, may neither be feasible nor economical in all contexts. But systematic ways of collecting (qualitative) information from the context wherever possible and its interpretation is imperative. Reading relevant literature including the writings on the same or similar issues in other contexts is important too.

The Problem of Scale

An area where ideology and/or incentive affect development actions is in its scale. Considering the issues of underdevelopment in India, sometimes small-scale actions may become counter-productive or ineffective. For example, vaccinations or certain other healthcare interventions have to cover a whole target group, since infections in some people may continue to cause the spread of the disease. In a country like India, where 50% of children of relevant age group are yet to get secondary schooling, interventions in school education have to be of large scale in nature, if these are to make a significant impact. However, many development actors are comfortable with only small-scale actions, (like the running of one or a few schools); also, sometimes financial resources are adequate only for such small-scale actions.

The discussion here is about those who may limit their actions despite the availability of resources to scale up their operations. A small-scale action gives higher control to the development actor; it can be managed in a manner which reflects the ideologies and idiosyncrasies of the proponent; and, may give greater joy or happiness to certain people. On the other hand, larger-scale actions may lead to the loss of this control. External factors may have a greater influence on the large-scale actions and these may have to be modulated to make them work well in different social contexts. They may also not reflect truly or fully the ideas of the development practitioner. Therefore, some practitioners are reluctant to pursue large-scale actions, like focusing on the quality of education. As mentioned earlier, the quality of education depends not only on what is provided in schools but also on the socio-economic and household conditions of the students3. The educational achievement of a large number of children is highly variable due to the inevitable differences in their socio-economic and family backgrounds. The impact of some interventions in providing quality education, say, through improvement of schools – teaching, curriculum and pedagogy – could be low or insignificant for sections of children who come from difficult backgrounds. Given this uncertainty of outcomes, those who intervene may limit their actions within a homogenous or known territory. Though the impact of such a limited action in that specific context may be significant, its overall social impact could be minimal.

In certain cases, enhancing scale especially for certain activities like education requires expanded mechanisms and also greater autonomy to sub-units enabling them to adapt the intervention to suit local conditions. This may work against the adoption of a single strategy (preferred by the key altruist). It may also require greater strategic freedom for the local units. This would necessitate measures to monitor and evaluate the differential efforts made by these sub-units. These could be difficult if the final outcome is not tangible and measurable. This factor too may discourage an altruist to scale up operations beyond his/her own comfort and the intervention may not eventually be the socially optimal one.

There is also a counter tendency – the urge to expand operations (intervene in different contexts) based on the experience in a particular situation. The success of a social intervention depends not only on what the interventionist has done but also the contextual factors. The actions will be successful in other contexts only if those too have similar factors. If the expansion of operations is attempted without assessing the presence of such enabling factors, there is a greater probability of failure.

Therefore, an informed decision needs to be taken regarding the scale. It should not be restricted for the personal comfort of the development practitioner (if he/she really wants to create a significant positive impact in the society) nor should it be expended without assessing what enabled its success in one or few contexts.

Questioning One’s Norms

Most people act or behave in specific circumstances based on what can be called `norms’. These are what we consider desirable actions or behaviour in a given context. The other way is to act on the basis of rational thinking (or cost-benefit calculations). However, the latter rarely happens because it requires a lot more effort on the part of a decision-maker. Hence, we follow norms. There could be notions of a desirable behaviour derived from the general experience of people over time, in a specific socio-economic context. If a person consumes only vegetarian food or does not consume alcohol, these are not based on instantaneous calculations; these are norms internalized by them.

Norms shape our aptitude for and also ideas of development actions. If someone wants to provide toilets (as part of creating better sanitation) to those who do not have these, it may be influenced by their norm that the use of toilets is desirable; along with the scientific knowledge that the absence of toilets can be harmful for the people. On the other hand, there may be others who do not consider the use of toilets, a desirable norm. This can be the reason for a conflict of norms. Same is the case with the effort to provide education. Norms shape not only the desire to provide education but also the type of education. Gandhi, Tagore, J. Krishnamurti and many others have attempted not only to provide education but what they considered the ideal (normatively appropriate) education. There could be others who may have a different view on the desirable nature of education. For example, there were strong disagreements between Gandhi and Tagore, and Gandhi and Nehru on the desirable nature of education suitable for the Indian society. Hence, there can be a conflict of norms in a development action; that between different people in the development practice; and that between the proponents and the beneficiaries of the development action.

It is desirable for development practitioners to have a critical self-reflection of their own norms. Norms held by a person are a reflection of their own endowments (which include social and economic circumstances in which they have grown up, cultural background, psychological attributes, and many such person-specific or context-specific factors). Hence, it is not unusual that different people have different norms. Parents of a married girl may not like to stay with the daughter and son-in-law in North India, whereas, this is common among some groups of people in Kerala where parents aspire to spend their old age with daughters. Some sections of parents send their children to JEE4 coaching centres, while some sections of well-educated and affluent parents may consider it harmful to subject children to such drilling exercises in the name of education. These two views represent two norms – each shaped by the circumstances and endowments of the people concerned.

There are two mistakes usually associated with the use of norms, which may make development actions ineffective. The first one is to work towards changing the norm of the other without considering that it is the endowments/circumstances which shapes it. This is a common problem seen in the field of education. There are millions of poor and lower-middle-class Indians for whom the utility of education is to get a job (however monotonous it is). Many people of this background think that their children should speak `some’ English like the well-off people that they have seen. On the other hand, many educationists believe that the focus of education on getting jobs or speaking in English is undesirable. Efforts to provide education without considering what parents perceive as good education, may not help in attracting their children. Hence, a norm-based advocacy or effort to do- good without understanding the basis of the norms of the beneficiaries may not be effective.

There is another equally harmful mistake. Those who are sensitive to the shaping of norms by the living conditions of people may take a non-interventionist approach for the preservation of certain norms (based on the differences in the living conditions). The spread of post-modernism at the international level also legitimizes such a cultural-relativist approach in countries like India. This may make some people reluctant to act even if sections of parents do not send their children (girls) to schools; practice open defecation; do not use hospitals for childbirth, and so on. This may lead to the persistence of underdevelopment.

These cases inform us that a desirable sensitivity towards the social conditioning of norms should not encourage us to conserve or not change certain norms which are universally recognized as harmful even by those who hold such norms. Lack of education (especially of girls) may lead to the persistence of higher fertility and infant mortality rates; and the adoption of unhealthy, unhygienic practices (like open defecation, child delivery without medical care, etc.,). All these may increase the vulnerability of certain people across generations. Even if they do not see these as serious problems in their current lives, they may not view these in the same way when their lives become more vulnerable. Hence, there is a need to change these norms which work against the attainment of basic human development of the people, even if a non-interventionist attitude towards certain other norms may sustain the cultural diversity in the world. Hence, it is important to avoid these two mistakes while being normative in development practice. A clearer articulation of one’s own norm is useful in this regard.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University.


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