Introducing: Repairing Development by Isabelle Clérié

A new column for Proximate on community philanthropy and asset-based community development

July 2024
March 2024
July 3, 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

Development, it’s time to fess up. You screwed the pooch. Made a mess. Really missed the mark.

You said you would alleviate hunger, but ended up destroying entire value chains and causing irreparable damage to national economies. You tried to bring renewable energy to communities but ended up threatening their entire way of life. Let’s not forget your miracle solution to poverty: microfinance. You remember the Einstein quote about the definition of insanity? 

We called you out over and over and over again. We hit you with sweeping and accurate descriptors like neocolonialism. We asked you to do things differently; and still you pressed on with business as usual.

Were your intentions good? Sometimes. Did you aggravate cycles of racism and inequity? Oh – yeah. Did you keep countries in vicious cycles of dependency that made it impossible to turn away from your pipelines, funding cycles and six-figure grants? Also, yes.

It’s clearer every year that international development is just the solution to the harm caused by Western civilization's insatiable need for more – more power, more control, more things. At the same time, it’s hard to argue that development dollars are not necessary given the state of the world, and the myriad unfolding crises.

So, we acknowledge harm caused; now let’s talk repair. 

Welcome to Repairing Development, a new column for Proximate where I will provoke a conversation about international aid. I'll write about the development community's historic overconfidence about what it takes to make change, and share how I've seen actual change come to pass and how donors can be part of it. I’ll center around solutions – I'll lift up models of community philanthropy and asset-based community development, and try to demystify some of the nuances around this kind of work.   

I’ll draw from my experiences as a chameleon in development. From my home in Haiti, I’ve worked in and around the development sector for fifteen years. With a background in anthropology, I’ve worked across a wide range of sectors, from food justice to agri-business, conservation to education, human rights to transitional justice. I’ve also worked with every type of organization imaginable, from informal community groups to bilateral agencies and billion-dollar corporations.

I’ll dive into some less considered causes of harm in development such as the operationalization of projects (who is the check made out to?), how funders show up in communities, and how and why impact is measured.

I’ll also offer up solutions and examples of how Global North funders can still play a key role. I will explore funder models that are less prescriptive and allow communities to spend money for their own purposes, without back-breaking reporting requirements, and with very different expectations about outcomes.

Finally, I’ll draw on my experience as a cultural broker to explore the shift in narrative about what communities are actually capable of and how funders can learn from communities and grow as a source of resources for self-determination and liberation, not pre-packaged program offerings that need to be constantly validated by neocolonialist systems.

Underlying all of this will be this idea: Western standards of living are not the aspiration of all Global South countries. A community is not less than because it doesn’t have internet; and electricity, while great, is not the thing that will push people out of poverty. There was a time when none of this existed and people thrived.

There, I said it. Deep breaths all… now let’s dig in.

Isabelle is a Haitian anthropologist whose work is focused on claiming local narratives by leveraging the power and assets of communities in Haiti. From 2017 to 2019, she worked with the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights to lead a civil society-led process to design Haiti’s first national strategy for confronting past crimes and impunity.

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