Join the Discussion: The Unintended Consequences of Development

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Global Brigades is now one of the largest student-led movements for international development on the planet. We represent a growing number of youth getting involved in development issues and dedicating themselves to the improvement of the quality of life world-wide. To increase the power of youth in the field of development, we need to hear your voices, your ideas and your stories. For this reason, and for the success of Global Brigades and for the direction of our future, I ask YOU, whether you are a student, a professional, Global Brigades staff or just an interested reader, to enter the ongoing conversation about development.

To get this conversation started, I pose a single question that hits at the core of what we do. The question is: What are some of the unintended consequences of the work that Global Brigades does as well as aid work and development projects in general? What are we affecting (both positively and negatively) that we may not always be aware of?

I will begin the dialogue by giving two examples. First, clothing aid is a program with a history of unintended consequences. Millions of dollars of clothes are donated directly to African countries each year by Goodwill and other used clothing collectors. This service helps people who previously could not afford clothes access new clothing and improve their lives. One positive side effect of this aid is that now some Africans that used to spend money on clothing have more money for other services that lead to increased quality of life, such as medicine, food and shelter. Unfortunately, another much more negative side effect makes clothing aid a controversial program. With access to free clothing around Africa, the demand for and purchase of any locally manufactured clothing, no matter how affordable, becomes insignificant. This is a primary reason, many argue, for the failure of the African textile and clothing manufacturing industries to develop. People lose their jobs, the economy weakens and the overall impact is to set Africa back in development. An unintended consequence that may be making African growth even more difficult to achieve.

A second example comes from my own work on water projects in rural Honduras. While developing a project in San Juan Guaimaca, I worked very closely with the local leaders to create a long term plan for a water project that the community could run self-sufficiently without the need for outside aid. A Global Water Brigades group with students from around the U.S. helped to make some very important infrastructural repairs that would jumpstart the success of this project and serve immediate needs of over 5,000 people. In addition to the infrastructural issues, the community also suffered from poor water quality because the water council did not have the funds to purchase chlorine for their project. The price charged to families for water was too low to support a plumber and some members did not pay at all. This was a primary reason that the community could never provide itself with clean water. After some investigation into the socio-economic standing of the community members, and in collaboration with the local leaders, we found that almost all community members could afford to pay more and we decided to support a small price increase for water that would go towards purchasing chlorine and paying a plumber to monitor water quality. After we left, the leaders implemented this increase. In response to the increase, many community members simply refused to pay, the amount of money collected actually dropped and San Juan Guaimaca became more dependent on aid to operate its system. Another unintended and unforseen consequence of development work.

With this introduction, I ask you all to start asking this question, both to Brigades and to the rest of the world. What are the unintended consequences, both positive and negative, of the aid and development work that we do? And please add, if you can, how can we begin to forsee these consequences and ensure that our work leaves lasting positive change rather than unintended negative impacts?

Let the conversation begin..



2 thoughts on “Join the Discussion: The Unintended Consequences of Development

  1. Orion,

    Thanks for getting this conversation going. In my opinion one of the unintended consequence of the work we do with medical brigades is that we have been drawn into providing primary care to rural communities on a large scale. From my experience medical brigades began as a way of meeting the emergent needs of Honduran’s related to destruction and chaos caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. After this there was a influx of NGOs and other humanitarian groups who offered assistance or “help”. This in turn helped relieve the burden on the Honduran government which became a classic case of shifting the burden from the government to the NGOs who are now responsible for the care of thousands of Honduran’s. As NGOs continue to provide care to rural Honduran’s the government and Honduran physicians have less incentive to try to provide care or compete with the free care provided by NGOs, which in my mind has led to further dependency.

    I think Public Health Brigades and Water Brigades were created in response to this realization. Trying to intervene up stream of the problem by creating sustainable solutions which are not merely a band-aid for a broken limb, to use an old cliché. In my opinion the only way to break this cycle of dependency is to really work to involved communities along with multiple levels of government. Sharing information and expertise while working developing education and local leadership are integral to mitigating these unintended negative impacts.

  2. It’s easy for us to draw a line between “Non-Governmental Organization” and a “Governmental Organization” not only in the nomenclature, but also because most NGOs tend to be foreign organizations providing aid to “lesser developed” countries. Paul, I agree that the involvement of NGOs does take responsibility out of the government’s hands to a certain extent, but I also find that depending on the level of involvement on the part of the NGO with the government can also have a positive effect. We have found that Public Health Brigades’ involvement with the local and national government has benefitted us greatly, from increased communication between governmental entities and laypeople, to more effective use of resources and close collaboration. While Honduran physicians might find NGO involvement a good excuse to avoid going into rural areas and treating patients, I’d like to think the existence of those NGOs already doing that type of work gives those physicians a means. Medical and Dental Brigades for example employ many Honduran health professionals, increasing awareness among their health professional circles and giving them opportunities to be involved in the rural part of their country.

    I’d like to hear other’s opinions on the relationships NGOs and GOs should have, and what the degree of separation should be.

    To address Orion’s comment about the consequences of development work, I find that development that I’ve seen has always been accompanied by dependency. Ultimately, it is the goal of Brigades to break the cycle of dependency and instead encourage empowerment of the communities in which we work. However there are many roadblocks to what we consider “empowerment” in a country like Honduras. Social oppression of women, traditional religious beliefs, defined gender roles, and economic disparities are only a few. For example, working in Pajarillos, one of the poorest communities in the area, an ideology runs ramped that God is responsible for the work that has been done, and it is only a blessing that we worked in their community. When this sort of mindset exists, how can advancement happen? When one’s livelihood depends on the decision making power of a higher being instead of one’s own reason, what will encourage them to recognize that the power is indeed in their own hands?

    It is a challenge in my work, to the agent of change, and not the means. What will cut the umbilical cord of dependency?

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