Why you shouldn’t fall for ‘development’…

People are often, excited and tremendously, when they find out I work in what we like to call the ‘development sector’. Words like wow, passion, doing-your-bit and such get thrown about a lot. The more I hear stuff like this, the more disconcerted I feel.

The ‘development sector’ in India is one of the poorest performing sectors ever. I can make this statement because, the size of the development sector in India has never been accurately measured, there are no meta-analytical studies that estimate its size or ROI and there are only some arbitrary anecdotal pieces of evidence that constitute ‘impact’.

Most of these pieces of evidence aren’t based on a standard framework or analysis and so there is no meaningful way to measure improvement. I can also make this statement because – in all my years (which are not those many!) I have met very few people (none actually, but I keep hearing about such people) who are uniquely qualified to work with development.

The vast majority of non-profit CEOs are either MBAs or investment bankers. Most mid-management are either engineers, doctors, journalists who decided that it was now ‘time’ to work with development. I’m a staunch supporter of transferable skills. An MBA can bring valuable information about organisational effectiveness (in theory only :P) to an NGO, for example.

However, here is my problem. To practice medicine, you need to have had a degree in medicine, to become an advocate you need to demonstrate knowledge of the law. To become an educator or a non-profit professional; you only need to have ‘smarts’ and ‘passion’. Is this the best rigour we can bring to something we consider so important?

The point is, the ‘development’ sector is a myth. There really isn’t such a thing. If there were – it wouldn’t be so under-evolved. To see what I mean, consider project management. Project management is an IT curse. It’s a great tool that has been studied and dissected and forced-upon generations of coders for years. Its documented and you can even be a certified professional at it. Anything even remotely close or institutionalised for development? No.

Interestingly, nothing has ever been developed in-house. Instead, we know, that the social-sector side of the TATAs likes logic frameworks/models (borrowed from the military), DFID has its own propriety project framework and the rest of us try desperately to capture learning achievement and gender empowerment through PERT charts and Work Breakdown Structures.

The truth about the ‘development sector’ in India (and yes I work in it) is that none of us really know what we are doing. Nobody understands what ‘development’ means, what we should measure, how we should measure, what tools we should use and if there is any point at all to doing all that we – in a coherent clear-headed manner. The arrogance is sometimes astounding. And it kills the beauty of making an effort, the process of discovery and the opportunity that those of us who work in this sector have – which is to learn first.