Why is International Development So Difficult?

You know the theory. It’s common sense. There’s plenty of money in the world, and there is probably enough available to banish poverty for good. So why is there still so much poverty?!

Child against a dirty wall

Some of the brightest minds of the world have struggled and failed to crack the core of the problem. There have been a lot of false dawns, when people have thought the solution within their grasp. After the success of the post-World War II Marshall plan, it was logical to think that a solution to poverty could be bought. If only it were so simple.

The short answer to why development is so complicated is: people. If there was ever a complicating factor, this is it. Although it has been tried many times, people have never been modeled particularly accurately. On a macro scale, human behavior is more predictable, but still beyond the capabilities of today’s soothsayers: economists struggle to predict global markets, companies go bust as consumer predictions mislead.

In a development context, there have been plenty of successful development models. The achievements of the Grameen bank is one of the most celebrated examples. Of course each of these successful models has been exported and tried in different locations – sometimes geographically distant, and sometimes close – but always the results are mixed. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach.

While there are many factors that add complexity to the problems faced in developing countries, the biggest factor is the human one. No two people are alike, and so no development problem is ever alike. Not only are the people living in poverty different, but the people applying the “solution” are also different. Something as simple as a clash of personalities can result in the abject failure of a tried and tested development model. When a key staff member moves on, projects can run aground.

So where does this leave us? It doesn’t mean that the problem of poverty is intractable, but it does highlight the problems faced in trying to alleviate poverty. Pumping money into the problem is not the solution; careful thought and planning are essential to success. The process is painstaking, the context is ever changing, and so it’s very hard to get right. And that is why it is taking so long…

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