Something to write about

It’s been a busy few months, but I’m excited by the variety of stuff I get to learn (and write) about. Recently I’ve spoken to economists in Washington and Nairobi about grain storage and irrigation; to community leaders from Cameroon and India about child marriage and female genital mutilation; and to researchers about the growing intrusion of business onto the territory of humanitarian aid groups. (The latter also involved a demonstration of ‘Peepoo‘, a single-use ‘personal toilet’ – a sort of bucket liner that can be sealed and then rapidly sanitises excrement. Incredible, but true: more people in Africa have access to the internet than to decent sanitation.)

As the first regular contributor to Devex based in the UK, I’ve also been doing a lot of explaining to people here about who we are – and who we write for. Devex is fairly well-known among development folk in the US, continental Europe, Asia and in some developing regions, but less so in the UK (which already has the excellent Guardian Development site giving a British perspective of global issues).

We, on the other hand, come across as a bit American – not least as we write in American English (have to grit my teeth with every typing of ‘labor’ or ‘program’), but we do cater for a more global audience – e.g., not assuming that they understand the ins and outs of European institutions or British lawmaking. Devex aims, above all, to be a useful resource to those working day in, day out on development, by answering questions like: what will a certain donor’s new focus on, say, gender or fragile states mean for their daily work? How have events in one region affected funding for other regions? How do some of the major contractors recruit staff, and what will they be looking for in the near future? Where is aid worker safety an issue, and how have their employers responded?

The detail differs each time, but all the questions, in a way, point towards the bigger question: where is the international development sector going? Will aid experts work themselves out of a job – and do they want to?

It’s a beast of an industry whose course will not be redirected quickly. But there are some really significant factors that are changing the way things are done: the rise of emerging and middle-income economies who don’t necessarily want foreign aid; the growing involvement of the private sector – both international and domestic – in ‘development’ issues (witness the boom of mobile tech in Africa); increasing needs for rapidly deployed emergency assistance alongside ever more pressure to prove the results of long-term development aid; and of course, the BRICs and other new donors who are doing things their way.

Amidst all of that there are calls by some to scrap the whole industry – and some propose practical alternatives. I’m intrigued by the idea of unmediated aid – skipping out the middleman and delivering expertise directly from, say, the health ministry in the UK to its equivalent in Malawi. Hoping to find out more about what that would look like – in the meantime, still plenty to write about.

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