Development Frames

Great Achievements

Published on 1 December 2016

Second runner up

‘Why on earth did I agree to do this?’ Angela asked herself. She looked at the other people sitting with her on the podium. There were four other speakers – three men and a woman. She knew and respected them all. They were hard-working, committed people, who had made major contributions to the field of international development. But they were all white and well into their seventies. The Chair, a man, was not much younger and also white. They were all part of a rapidly disappearing post-colonial generation of white development professionals.

But then an even more frightening thought struck her. ‘I am no different from them. I am probably a bit younger than most of the other speakers, but I belong to the same generation. What role do we have in today’s very different world?’

She then looked down at the audience, who were taking their seats in the hall. They were a much more mixed group in terms of age, gender and ethnic origin. Many of them looked like students. The others were probably a mixture of academics, NGO representatives, consultants and, since the meeting was being held in Westminster, maybe one or two politicians or civil servants. She recognised a few faces.

At that point, the chairman, who was sitting next but one to her left, looked at his watch and then rapped his knuckles on the table to get the audience’s attention. The buzz of conversation in the hall gradually ceased and eyes were turned to the speakers on the podium.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this important occasion,’ the chairman began. ‘This is one of a series of events that we are holding to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of BIDEX – the British Institute of Development Experts. As most of you probably know, BIDEX is a professional organisation designed to promote excellence in British international development work. Our members come from the elite of the development profession. In order to become members, they have to prove that they have made a significant contribution to development.’ (And to pay a hefty fee, Angela thought to herself.)

‘For those who don’t know me,’ the chairman continued, ‘my name is Larry Goddard. I am the director of BIDEX. And sitting beside me here, I have five distinguished colleagues who have been involved in the development business for all or most of the last 50 years. We have invited them here today to share with us some of their long experience. We have asked each of them to tell us what they consider to be their greatest achievement – that is, the most important contribution they have made to international development.’ He paused, and the audience clapped.

‘I will start by asking each of the speakers to tell us very briefly what achievement they have chosen. I will then invite questions and comments to the speakers, both from their colleagues and from members of the audience. We will conclude the event by taking an informal vote to decide which achievement we consider has made the greatest contribution. Our first speaker will be Professor Michael Merry, who, as most of you probably know, is a distinguished development economist and one of the founding members of BIDEX.’

He turned to the man on his left. ‘Michael, please tell us what you consider to be your greatest achievement. Can I remind you to be brief – just a few sentences at this point. You will be able to elaborate further in the subsequent debate.’

Professor Merry was a well-built man, clean shaven and with sparse grey hair. He was smartly dressed in a grey suit and tie. He cleared his throat and then, in a strong but slightly tremulous voice, began to speak.

‘Thank you, Larry,’ he said. ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is a significant occasion and I am honoured to be one of the speakers. As Professor Goddard said, I have been a member of BIDEX from the start. Since I have been asked to be brief, I will not waste any more time on preliminaries. When I look back on my long career, I have no doubt about my most important contribution. It was the work I did when employed by the World Bank in the 1980s. I persuaded the Bank to acknowledge that the structural adjustment programmes they were imposing on many poorer countries were having terrible social impacts and to introduce social investment programmes to ameliorate these effects. I believe that this work has had a long term impact and helped to give subsequent economic development efforts ‘a human face’. Thank you.’

There was applause from the audience and the other speakers. ‘It’s true,’ Angela thought. ‘That was a major contribution. It brought about significant changes in many aspects of development thinking.’ She paused. ‘But, how much difference has it really made? Structural adjustment programmes were only one manifestation of a much wider neoliberal economic agenda and that agenda continues to dominate the world today. Moreover, similar reforms are still being imposed on countries. Take Greece, for example. It has been subjected to the most austere adjustment policies, without any consideration for the human impacts.’

Her thoughts were interrupted by the chairman. ‘Thank you, Professor Merry,’ he said. ‘Without further ado, I would like to introduce the next speaker.’ He turned to the man on his right, Angela’s neighbour. ‘Professor Jonathan Potts probably needs no introduction. He is another long-term member of BIDEX and widely known throughout the development world. Over to you, Jon.’

Angela knew Jon Potts well. Although originally from the United States, he had lived and worked in the UK for most of his career. He was tall and thin, with longish white hair and a beard, and was dressed more casually than Michael Merry – beige slacks, a polo neck jumper and brown corduroy jacket.

‘Thank you, Larry,’ he said. The combination of age and build gave him an almost fragile appearance, but his voice was powerful. ‘I am also honoured to be here and, like Michael, I have no doubt about my greatest achievement. It is my first book, ‘Listen to the People’. That book provided the basis for all my subsequent work on popular participation and participatory democracy, and I think I can honestly say that it has had a major impact on development thinking.’

There was much applause. Jonathan Potts’ work was known and respected throughout the world of development studies. Angela had herself been greatly influenced by it. ‘His contribution is just as significant as that of Michael Merry,’ she thought. ‘Thanks to him, the concept of participatory development is now universally recognised in both theory and practice.’ She reflected a moment. ‘But,’ she thought further, ‘I have to admit that since the recent EU referendum here in the UK, I have been rethinking some of my views on popular participation in general and participatory democracy in particular. Obviously we need to listen to the general public. But should we always do what they say? Do people always know what is best for them?’

Her thoughts were again interrupted by the chairman, who was introducing the next speaker.

‘I think it’s time we heard from a member of the fairer sex.’ He turned to the other woman on the podium, who was sitting next to Michael Merry. ‘It is my great pleasure to introduce Professor Joanna Williams, who has also been a member of BIDEX for many years. Joanna – what is your greatest achievement?’

Joanna Williams was of medium height and build. She had short grey hair, cut in a neat bob, and was wearing a smart but casual maroon trouser suit.

‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,’ she said. ‘Like the previous speakers, I am honoured to be here. But unlike them, I did not find this task easy. I have been involved in many practical development projects and written many books and articles, but none of these stand out in my mind as of particular significance. I eventually decided that my greatest contribution has been made through my postgraduate teaching. I have taught many international students who have gone on to hold important positions and achieve great things in their home countries and I would like to think that my teaching has contributed, albeit in a small and indirect way, to their success.’

‘I like that,’ Angela thought, as the audience again applauded. ‘I have also gained a great deal of satisfaction from teaching. But again,’ she thought, ‘it was more rewarding in the old days, when most overseas students were funded by international scholarships, many of them from the British government. Now that the majority are self-funding, we get a very different type of student. In fact, you could argue that we are merely reinforcing the development of an elite class in these countries. If, as Joanna suggests, teaching is one of the best ways of contributing to development, why does the present government spend so little of the aid budget on scholarships?’

‘Thank you, Joanna, That is an interesting contribution,’ the chairman was saying. ‘Our next speaker is Dr Christopher Cameron. Unlike our previous contributors, who are social scientists, Dr Cameron is a practical man – an engineer. I think I can guess what your greatest achievement is, Chris, but I won’t say any more now. Over to you!’

Chris Cameron was sitting at the other end of the podium, beyond Joanna. Angela looked at him with interest. She had worked with him many years ago in Zimbabwe. He had put on some weight since then and his shock of blond hair had grown thinner and turned grey. It was also the first time she had seen him in a suit and tie, rather than shorts and an open-necked shirt. He looked as if he was still much more comfortable in the latter.

‘Thank you, Larry,’ he began. ‘Yes, I’m sure you can guess what I am going to say. My only significant achievement is the invention of the Model DX hand pump – otherwise known, somewhat to my embarrassment, as the Cameron hand pump. It is light and easy to use but can draw water from much greater depths than any previous hand pump. It is also relatively simple to make and inexpensive to buy. I think I can honestly say that it has revolutionised life in many rural parts of Africa.’

‘That’s true,’ Angela thought. She had spent many years in Zimbabwe, where the Cameron hand pump had played as big a role as the Blair toilet in transforming rural life. ‘But,’ she thought further, ‘once again there’s another side to the story. How many of his pumps are still working a few years after they are installed? Even relatively simple pumps like these have to be maintained and it’s very difficult to establish effective, low-cost maintenance systems in rural areas. I dread to think how much aid money has been spent rehabilitating rural water supplies that have fallen into disrepair.’

This time her thoughts were interrupted by the realisation that she was the next speaker. She felt a sudden sense of panic. She had planned to talk about her local government support work in Zimbabwe but, having heard the other speakers and seen how easy it was to question their achievements, she was now having second thoughts. What, if anything, had she really achieved? She was confident that the pragmatic ‘learning by doing’ approach that she and her colleagues had promoted was the best way of improving local government capacity. But their efforts had been undermined by Zimbabwe’s political and economic collapse in the early 2000s and there was little if anything to see of their work now. In fact, she now realised, there was only thing she could honestly say about her contribution to international development – and that might not go down very well here today.

‘Thank you, Chris,’ the chairman was saying. ‘That was, of course, what I was expecting you to say. But that doesn’t lessen the significance of your achievement.’ Now we have only one speaker left.’ He turned to Angela. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Dr Angela Quince. Angela is a relatively new member of BIDEX, having only joined ten years ago.’ (I had no choice if I wanted that job at the School of International Development, Angela reflected.) ‘But, like the other speakers, she has been involved in development work for many, many years.’

Angela drew a deep breath. To hell with it, she decided. Let’s give them something to think about.

‘Thank you, Larry, and thank you for inviting me today,’ she began. ‘I hope you will not regret that invitation when you hear what I have to say. I have given much thought to your request. In fact, I have used it as an opportunity to review the successes and failures of my career. However, I have come to the conclusion that, although I have in many respects achieved a great deal, any contribution that I have made to development is insignificant when compared to the contribution that development has made to me. My work in international development has enabled me to travel the world and exposed me to a wealth of experiences. It has enabled me to meet a wide range of people, from whom I have learned a great deal. It has also influenced my personal life and character. It has led to lasting friendships, given me self-confidence and taught me understanding, respect and tolerance. In short, it has made me the person that I am. Thank you.’

About the author

Diana Conyers worked in the field of international development for 45 years. She was a member of IDS staff from 2005 to 2013. During the latter part of this time she was Convenor of the MA in Governance and Development. She is now retired and lives on the Isle of Wight

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