November 5, 2020
Development and Power

The events of the past few months in the United States have been the impetus for a lot of conversations about race, inclusion and diversity in all sorts of contexts. It’s been a time of soul searching and often difficult personal conversations, as well as a long stream of organizational statements and promises. When you pull back from the domestic conversation in the United States to the international development space, these questions take on a slightly different perspective, but there are many important questions to ask ourselves — particularly those of us who sit on the advantageous side of a power dynamic.

Anyone working in international development should be very aware of how power impacts our work — from programmatic decisions to the very composition of development organizations. In the context of our work at ANDE, we always strive to listen to and elevate the underrepresented voices of small and growing business (SGB) entrepreneurs in emerging markets who are often overlooked by the international development sector and the tech- and venture capital-driven startup ecosystem. Here I am hoping not to speak for them, but to highlight the ways in which power dynamics often push their needs and perspectives to the side.

In an industry where huge sums of money are given by wealthy donor countries to poor recipients, often delivered via Western, affluent intermediaries, the question of power always looms large, whether explicitly acknowledged or not. Whose ideas get priority? What cultural norms get adopted? Who are the decision makers? Without reflection and intentionality, the answer to these questions will almost always default to the side with the money. There is a long history of international development projects that floundered because they tried to impose external solutions that ignore local contexts, or that simply disappeared the moment the funding went away because there was no local ownership.

Beyond the interventions themselves, power and privilege also affect the very demographic composition of the organizations involved. Powerful roles within donor agencies and intermediaries are often dominated by a very narrow demographic, overwhelmingly white and affluent. In hiring processes, “international experience” is often a first screen for consideration for even entry level jobs, and the most common ways of obtaining it — serving in the Peace Corps or other international volunteer experience, or participating in unpaid internships with development organizations — skew the playing field in favor of wealthy Westerners with the resources, connections, and spare time to acquire these resume items. Pursuing greater diversity in this sector through reevaluating job requirements, being careful about language in job descriptions, and considering where the positions are publicized would go a long way towards increasing diversity within development organizations.

Diversity is valuable in its own right, for the broader range of ideas and perspectives it brings to the table. However, a lack of diversity can be explicitly harmful as well. For instance, one harmful dynamic that can be seen in the way international development is structured is attitudes about poverty. Affluent Westerners with limited exposure to poverty in their own countries can too easily fall prey to the cognitive tendency to frame development work through the lens of victim and savior. If poverty is seen as an academic problem, expertise is the solution; if the aid recipients would just read our policy brief and adopt our recommendations, their problems could be overcome. Without any lived experience of poverty and the deep experiential knowledge of it, it can be easy to forget that the poor are some of the most resourceful and innovative people in any society. When failure can result in unmet basic needs for you and your family, you will find a way. I believe this dissonance is at the center of why some approaches to international development are paternalistic and condescending, rather than empowering. Because the life experiences of some decision makers lead them to subconsciously view the poor as naïve, ignorant or misguided, rather than seeing the under-resourced potential they embody.

The power that lies in harnessing this resourcefulness is why I believe in entrepreneurship as a better model for international development. It is, at its core, a set of tools that the recipient can use to build something of their own creation. The recipient has the autonomy to decide what sort of work they value, and what kind of business they want to build; the economy and society that coalesces from these decisions is not imposed by an outside donor but is the collective embodiment of its citizenry and their values. This is development with human dignity and autonomy at its center, which sustains itself and creates true prosperity.

This is not to say that the small and growing business sector is not without its challenges. There is still disproportionate bias against emerging market-based businesses, particularly those whose founders didn’t get a top-tier. Western education. This bias often goes by the euphemism of a “high risk” investment. Perception of risk is very heavily influenced by the perceived competence of the founding team, and implicit bias uses racial, gender, and cultural distance to skew the judgement of investors. This leads them to demand unfairly high return expectations on their investments or simply refuse to invest in solid businesses without dramatic growth prospects.

There is also the issue that in some parts of the world Western expats and the organizations they found dominate the landscape of intermediary support services. Many of these organizations do an excellent job at recruiting and developing local talent and in that way contribute to the health of the local ecosystem, but there is a balancing act that should be acknowledged.

At ANDE, our objective is to build thriving local entrepreneurial ecosystems. That work requires that the owners of that ecosystem are locals with a vested interest in the long-term health of that country. A permanent, self sustaining ecosystem cannot depend primarily on the contributions of expats, even those who have permanently relocated, because some key elements of that work (government policy, advocacy, and building a local entrepreneurial culture for example) require an engaged citizenry and the cultural competency of native residents. Acknowledging this reality demands that ANDE and other platforms provide accessible opportunities to highlight the work of indigenous organizations in this sector, provide opportunities for strategic leadership, and cultivate a sense of local ownership to the ecosystem as a whole.

This is one of the key motivations behind the fact that virtually all of ANDE’s international staff are native to the regions where they work. Their ability to put in context the conversations that take place in our sector, to effectively engage other locals, and to speak frankly about the power dynamics at play is absolutely essential to our mission. We also appreciate that working at ANDE is a great training ground for future leaders in our sector and we value the opportunity to grow the pool of local talent by investing in our staff.

All of us in international development should be reflecting intentionally on how to build a more diverse development sector that empowers recipients on their own terms. It will require not just organizational statements and better policies, but also personal reflection and examination of our own biases and intentionality in how we use our decision-making power to include perspectives that are different from our own. If we can bring more diverse experiences to the table and learn to engage with residents of emerging markets collaboratively and to let them lead in the development of the future of their countries, we can build vibrant, inclusive and self-sustaining prosperity.

In this series:

  • Elevating Underrepresented Voices at ANDE
  • Our Lived Experiences as Women Navigating Equity and Equality in India