An interesting post at Blood and Milk yesterday led a commenter to note that we shouldn’t use the terms “international development” and “aid” interchangeably – that the “real big story about development is exactly that it is NOT all about aid, but about domestic elites establishing pro-growth rules.”

For me, this raises two issues – the first is about the relationship between aid and development, and the second about the character of development itself.  Alanna Shaikh, who writes the Blood and Milk blog, added a new post today that addressed the first.  In this post, Shaikh argues “You can, and do, get development without aid. I’m pretty sure you don’t get it without economic growth.”  Well, sort of.  I currently work in one of the world’s largest development/aid organizations.  I am the climate change coordinator for the Bureau most directly responsible for our aid activities (as opposed to our development activities).  This puts me in something of an odd position – I am a development/environment person tasked with thinking and program-building for the long-term in an aid organization that is often reactive in its programming and its mandate.  Why, then, did I take this position?  Because of the need to better connect aid to development (and vice versa).  Right now, aid and development exist in very different worlds – even in the same building, there is little communication or coordination between these two missions.  This galls people on both sides of the divide, from leadership down the line.  The vision of an agency like mine is that aid should transition to development, ideally seamlessly (though at this point we would take any sort of transition).  Adaptation to climate change is one area where such transitions can be created out of existing programs – our aid teams work on hydrometeorological disaster risk reduction (DRR), and our development side works on adaptation to climate change.  These are very similar areas of work, differentiated largely by timeframe.  One of my jobs over the next few years will be to better connect our hydromet DRR and adaptation programming to build one connection between aid and development – a thread that we might use to close other aid/development gulfs (such as in food aid and agricultural development).

Aid may not be the same thing as development, but it should not be seen completely separately from development – my Bureau sees its constituency as that component of the population that is largely left behind by economic growth programming.  Nobody debates that a significant percentage of the population slips through the cracks of economic development programming – our job is to ensure that those who slip through the cracks do not remain there, but have an opportunity to recover and participate in society, politics and the economy.  So, when I hear someone argue that there can be development without aid, I strongly disagree – at least at the national scale (communities are a different issue).  At the national scale, you cannot have socially or environmentally sustainable development that abandons a significant portion of society to its fate.  Aid is critical to development – or it should be, if only we could better coordinate aid and development efforts.

Second, I am deeply concerned by the continued connection of development to economic growth.  The linkages between human well-being and economic growth are shaky at best (most correlations can be readily challenged and dismantled) – largely because development, globalization and growth do not really work the way people seem to think they do (my book is an exploration of this point).  Further, economic growth cannot be eternal.  3% growth per year for everyone forever is simply beyond the physical capacity of the planet.  I’m pretty sure that development is going to have to detach itself from economic growth (ironically, this would mostly entail simply acknowledging the reality of what’s been happening around the world for the last 60 years) if it is ever to accomplish its end goal – the improvement of the human condition in this world.

Finally, a thought on the two metastories of development that Shaikh raises at the end of her post.  I agree that development is neither all success or all failure – it plays out differently in different places, and we have better understandings of why in some areas (health, for example) than in others (transportation development, for example).  I would argue that this is a symptom of a larger problem – we really don’t understand what is happening in the Global South most of the time, and as a result we are often measuring and analyzing the wrong things when we do project scoping or evaluation work.  Our assumptions about how the world works shape the way we frame our questions about the world, and the data we gather to answer those questions.  The problem, simply put, is that we are often asking the wrong question.  Sure, every once in a while our assumptions align with events on the ground, and a project works.  But the rest of the time, our assumptions do not align with reality, and we run into difficulty understanding what is happening in particular places, and why particular projects fail.  The end result?  A seeming random set of project outcomes, where things work in one place but not another for reasons that seem hard to discern.  There are more fundamental metanarratives of development out there than success or failure – they are narratives about how globalization works and how development works that shape our very ability to assess success or failure.  And those narratives actually misinform many of our best efforts.