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With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever

Written by Elizabeth Stuart

Aid, bilateral development agencies, and the very concept of people in one country trying to support those in another, are under attack.

Many see such spending as a zero-sum game, with the priority being to fix the crisis at home. There is also the public perception – held relatively widely – that such efforts are wasted, that nothing in developing countries is getting better, and that much aid is good money thrown after bad.

People need stories of progress – but it’s still a rare thing to research

But paradoxically, there’s also demand for learning about the progress being made to improve people’s lives around the world. Back in 2012 (so not yet in Brexit/Trump times, but firmly into the age of austerity) research showed a clear appetite among the general public for more stories of how advances in development happen.

Providing these kinds of stories should counter the misconception that most aid is wasted – all the more necessary at a time when there is a media onslaught against development cooperation.

But surprisingly few in international development are studying progress rather than problems.

Other than NGO evaluations, which typically explore the narrow impacts of a project or programme, and which should of course be looking under the bonnet of failures just as much as improvements , little literature takes progress as its starting point. (Indeed, asking ‘what works’ has been rightly critiqued – though that’s the subject of the next blog in this series, which discusses some of the challenges of researching progress and how we got around them.)

There are rare exceptions: Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder, which looks at the circumstances in which industrial policy has been successful; Augustin Fosu’s Achieving Development Success; the World Bank’s 2011 study Yes Africa Can; Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies; and the International Food Policy and Research Institute’s Millions Fed project.

Then of course there’s Development Progress, our contribution to the field of examining positive deviance. It has had a non-orthodox, mixed-method research approach, and many of its findings have been somewhat technical in nature – yet it has been one of the ODI projects with the widest reach in media and other public channels.

Some of this is of course attributable to the fact that it’s also one of the projects that has invested most in communications and outreach – but it helps to back up the point that there is a public demand for accessible positive stories of development progress, particularly in those countries where the momentum is happening.

Policy-makers need stories of development progress

Examining progress isn’t just important for public perceptions of aid and development. A better understanding of the myriad ways positive change happens is just as important for policy-makers. And again, we’ve found there is a strong appetite for it.

For instance, we published a case study (the sonorously-named Greener Burkina) on how Burkinabe communities managed to bring 200,000-300,000 hectares of once-degraded land into productive use, which got a lot of public attention as well as good engagement from government and others. Senior government representatives, civil society activists and local agronomists joined a roundtable in Ouagadougou to discuss how that progress could be sustained.

The pragmatic approach of identifying lessons – as well as the affirmative tone – has meant that policy-makers have willingly and publicly engaged with the findings, and have been open to engage on how to maintain that progress in the face of future threats or limitations.

The 50th and final DP case study, currently underway, promises to be the most useful and engaging one yet for policy-makers. Set in a fantasy country called ‘Progressia’, it looks at how they can successfully handle difficult development trade-offs to deliver win-win outcomes.

I would urge other researchers to take up the baton of progress carried not just by Development Progress, but so powerfully by Hans Rosling, who sadly passed away last week. Continuing with this affirming research agenda will help shore up support for development assistance, and more broadly to counter the narrative of nihilism that ‘nothing is getting better’ in poor countries.

This is the first of a three-part blog series on the Development Progress project. Next in the series Susan Nicolai describes the challenges of researching progress and how we got around them, and Kate Bird draws on 50 case studies to distil some of the key lessons for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.