10+1 Lessons learned in development cooperation
Various organisations have been engaged in development cooperation for decades; Finn Church Aid for as long as 75 years. While global efforts to reduce child mortality and to increase girls’ access to education have been successful, mistakes have also been made. We listed 10+1 lessons learned in development cooperation over the years.
1. From selfish beginnings.
The 1950s and 1960s were the early days of development cooperation. Back then, Finland’s eagerness to participate stemmed partly from the need to distance ourselves from the Soviet Union and instead be identified as a Western country and as part of the Nordic countries. Over time, development cooperation adopted traits from export promotion: Finland used money intended for development aid to export Finnish machinery and workforce to developing countries, hoping to increase trade in equipment such as forest machines. Many other countries had similar projects.
2. Lack of results necessitated a different approach.
It soon became painfully clear that the modernisation-driven development cooperation model failed miserably, and a new approach was needed. This was when the needs-based approach emerged. But although local beneficiaries were consulted for needs assessment purposes, donors failed to understand the structures and systems that perpetuate poverty and simply saw beneficiaries as passive victims of circumstances.
3. Material assistance is not the way to address inequality.
Today, development cooperation is no longer about addressing poverty as a material need but rather as a human rights issue. Political advocacy can also contribute towards eradicating structural inequality in developing countries, with the objective of creating an effective and informed civil society and an accountable state. Unlike in the early days, the focus is not on supporting industry; instead, social development, health and education are now in the forefront.
4. Strong communities will not depend on external aid.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we have learned is that there is no point in giving man a fish; you need to teach him how to fish. In other words, our work must be aimed at building on and strengthening local capacities. It is extremely important to discard any forms of aid that create a risk of dependency instead of forging stronger local communities. Paradoxically, however, financing decisions are still made somewhere else. It is funding providers in the western countries who decide how much money will be given to which projects.
5. Giving a voice to the local community.
In some cases, the aid we provide is not what people really need. Sometimes people affected by a crisis may feel that they have not been consulted on what kind of assistance they need, or what would be the best way to channel it. In the worst cases, relief supplies have been unsuitable for the local culture. Modern development cooperation recognises the key importance of local engagement and ownership.
6. Better control and accountability.
Organisations in the development cooperation sector are accountable to their beneficiaries as well as to their funding providers and donors. Recently, there has been much talk about transparency. In the humanitarian sector, the concept of the accountability of aid organisations to their beneficiaries emerged in the 1990s, and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) was published in 2015. Similarly, technical standards for aid work are being developed and monitored more closely.
7. Climate must be a key consideration in development cooperation.
Environmental work has been a part of development cooperation since the 1970s, but more recently climate has begun to dominate public discussion. The loss of biodiversity is now also on the agenda but while the importance of climate work is recognised, so far policymakers have failed to put their money where their mouth is. Another contradiction that characterises climate work is the reluctance of western countries to compromise on their standard of living while they expect climate action from developing countries.
8. Public opinion supports development cooperation.
In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War made Finns realise that we are not an island. Other subsequent events such as the 1990s recession have shaped the opinions and attitudes of citizens, including their support for development cooperation. According to a recent survey by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, two thirds of Finns consider development cooperation very important or fairly important. For Finns, the most important reason for supporting development cooperation is that it offers Finland a way to strengthen global stability.
9. New partners, new tools.
Today, development cooperation cuts across multiple sectors, with more traditional actors working with research and educational institutions to improve effectiveness and outcomes. Another, more recent development is cooperation with the private sector. Corporate social responsibility provides opportunities for employment and education in developing countries.
10. Change must be constant.
We have learned many lessons, but there is still room for improvement. Sometimes organisational and funding silos can negatively affect efficiency, and putting documented commitments and declarations into practice may take years. Staying relevant is another challenge for western development cooperation, as there is no shortage of competitors. China, for instance, provides funding to many developing countries without making any demands on human rights and environmental protection.
+1: CHS certification a compass for FCA’s work.
In 2017, Finn Church Aid received the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) certification, which emphasises our human rights-based approach and the quality, transparency, and effectiveness of our programme work. It also proves our commitment to the humanitarian sector’s quality and accountability standards. In addition to CHS certification, FCA undergoes an extensive external audit annually. CHS provides us an opportunity and a tool for critically assessing our operations and improving our practices and procedures.
Sources: Anna Muinonen, Senior Quality and Accountability Adviser at Finn Church Aid; Juhani Koponen, Professor Emeritus from the University of Helsinki; development cooperation surveys commissioned by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Corehumanitarianstandard.org
Text: Anne Salomäki
Illustration: Carla Ladau