Let us imagine some snapshots of a developing country: a healthy infant with a wide smile sitting in his mother's lap, a group of lively young girls going to school, a content elderly woman standing by her cow or a disabled man sitting in his grocery shop with a bright smile. Each of these tells us a story – a story of positive change. However are these glossy images of 'visible' change, showing us how well development is working, concealing the realities and complexities of what is really going on?
Concerning ourselves primarily with the short-term, visible and tangible successes of development projects may cause us to overlook potential problems and neglect whether or not any change is permanent.
The other day I was having a conversation with a project team based in Bangladesh. This team of thirty people had been trying to pull more than a hundred thousand people out of acute poverty. A tough job indeed, especially when you consider they only have a couple of years to do it in. But encouraging enough, the project started receiving some positive feedback from its financers, evaluators and other visitors traveling on the ground.
The team began celebrating what they had achieved; notable, visible, change within a short period of time. Spoiling their moment of celebration, I asked the project team, what is the negative side of having such 'visible' success? The team shared with me some thought-provoking points.
First, they noted that simply appreciating the short-term, visible impact of a project only looks at superficial aspects of a programme. As a result, in-depth analyses of events, causes, concerns and outcomes might be overlooked.
Secondly, they felt that by over-emphasizing immediate success, expectations of what projects can achieve, in a short time period, may be exaggerated. Accordingly, donors and funders might raise their thresholds and expectations of success to unachievable standards.
Finally, the team expressed their most alarming as well as overarching concern. By emphasizing immediate, positive, visible results, we often may undermine the issue of long-term sustainability. To get results in a short time, a project often has to push the knowledge, technologies or options that it is able to offer. Therefore those benefiting from projects may comply with instructions and accept what is on offer but they may not really believe in or support the project. This jeopardizes the potential long-term impact of the project.
This quick feedback from a field team may seem rather random but it has touched upon some basic limitations, concerns and dilemmas. Striving simply for strong, visible change in poverty alleviation could divert us from asking some odd, but basic questions – How real is this change? Who owns this change? Has enough been done to save this change?
It may be popular and useful to show the immediate and visible impacts of a particular project but it can also be detrimental. Focusing on immediate results can hide any underlying issues or problems with approaches and cause people to neglect the long-term and lasting consequences of the project. Therefore it is vital we encourage and support organisations or communities who are working with the people they are targeting, on projects that have a long-term outlook, in order to deliver sustainable change.
Despite the negative sides of 'visible success' in community development, we cannot ignore its importance or attraction. In this era of 'branding and visibility', we may need to balance between 'visible' change and 'real positive sustainable' change in the lives of the poor.
But, is such a balance really possible?
Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah has been leading the Reducing Vulnerability and Natural Resource Management Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh.