Kisumu-boatOne idea in vogue in some development circles is the idea that development projects should be run like financial investments. After all, if the invisible hand keeps factories producing things that people actually want to consume, couldn’t a similar model also keep development funds going to projects that actually produce benefits? For example, if a workshop benefits its participants, shouldn’t they be willing to pay to participate? If so, then this payment can be used to provide access to others for the same workshop. And to oppose this view, by contrast, would seem to entail throwing money at projects that don’t have tangible benefits.

But that’s the side I want to come down on. I think the comparison with the private sector can be fruitful, yet I think it is flawed as a model for all development work.

The reasoning behind this became a bit clearer to me last week at a meeting of the Quaker Peace Network for Central Africa, which brought together peacemakers from Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo (perhaps more about that later!). À propos of this post, I was presenting on monitoring and evaluating projects, and after the meeting was over, there was an additional workshop on development projects and income-generating activities.

Kenya-landscape The leader of this latter workshop helped me understand why such projects cannot be simply self-sustaining and supporting on a simple economic investment model. As he put it, work aimed at socio-economic improvement necessarily involves sensitization and awareness raising. The example he gave is that if you go to a village to start a school, but the community believes that the proper role for children is to help raise cows, not to be in a classroom, you cannot simply expect to ask them to pay for the construction of the school and pay school fees, even if it is in their economic (and social, and cultural) interest to do so. That suggests that outside funding must play a role.

Or at least, I might clarify, it suggests that outside funding must play a role until the point that one can use the testimonies from one community to convince their neighbors of the value of a program (though this in turn presumes that one works methodically within an area over an extended period of time building up relationships…not a bad idea anyway).

kakamega-forest Even so, there could be a tricky role to play between the newcomers, who are expected to pay for a program that their neighbors got for free. And then of course there is all the programs whose benefit is not so tangible, so that the information problem persists even after others have successfully completed the program. And finally add to this that even good programs may have instances of failure, making the whole evaluative process even more murky.

So for all these reasons, participants/recipients will be unable to judge the value of the project, making them unable to pay for it, and the whole model can’t get off the ground.

Perhaps this all strikes you as obvious, but to me it’s an important caveat in response to the mantra that projects should be self-sustaining. It suggests why a program may be both useful and effective and yet require outside funding, even in cases where the benefits are calculable in monetary terms. That is not, of course, to say, that programs that are able to take advantage of a self-sustaining model are bad, in fact I think they’re quite neat, but we should also realize their limitations (just as the invisible hand theory is only applicable in so far as its premises are valid in a given real-world context).