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The art of the possible: listening to the real experts
Several years ago I was taking part in a conference on the roots of the conflict in Darfur, and potential ways out of it. After many of us so-called experts had presented our varied research findings and our different ideas, a representative from the Darfur pastoralists stood up and asked a simple question: what they were supposed to do, as many of us had contradicted each other with our suggestions. This gave us pause for thought. After several convoluted answers, a wise man told him: ‘The best thing you can do is stop listening to the experts and outsiders’.
I witnessed that advice being used to good effect a few years later. I was in Belize at a consultation meeting with stakeholders to support the Government in the roll-out of the MDG Acceleration Framework on water and sanitation. As a group of international experts on the subject and a local consultant, we thought we had a pretty good idea of what the problems, and potential solutions, would be.
All the relevant stakeholders were in the room: from the water company, to the different ministries in charge of water and sanitation aspects, to the representatives of water councils and villagers associations, most of them Mayans. As is so often the case with the UN System, we had done an excellent job of convening all the partners.
Then the show started. First, one of the village heads asked ‘if we provide water to everybody, then, what will the women do all the time?’
I was armed with my best responses about women’s time poverty, and the synergistic benefits of having better sanitation, cleaner water, cleaner food, more time for school and more time to go to health checkups, etc. But I didn’t have time to answer.
The village women there responded, forcefully, but respectfully, on all the different ways that their lives, and the lives of their households, would improve if they had better access to water and, as a result, more time.
It was far more convincing than any argument I could ever have made.
Our usual assumptions on lack of funding and capacity were the next to be demolished: the villagers were quick to show us that there was indeed the capacity to deliver water and sanitation services and that funds were available to do so. The problems lay elsewhere.
The villagers were clear: the source of the problems was the way in which the Water User Associations were being staffed, through political appointments rather than technical criteria.
Then it was time to discuss sanitation. The first standard assumption of us experts was that interventions were needed to promote demand for sanitation and hygiene in rural areas. The second assumption was that there were no funds for sanitation projects. Again, the villagers leapt in to stress that there was demand, while the government representatives showed us that funding was available. But with so many different players responsible for sanitation, the problem was that nobody (government or non-government) was taking the necessary action.
When it comes to MDG Acceleration, the views of those most directly affected are important in dispelling some myths. Countries have not developed new strategies or plans to speed up progress towards the MDGs. What they’ve done is identify the solutions to the bottlenecks that hamper existing plans and strategies, and prioritise cost-effective and proven solutions. So, what you have is a methodology for countries to improve performance in the implementation of their short- and medium-term plans and strategies, which are extracted, typically, from their long-term visions.
The countries that have applied this approach successfully have understood the value of unlocking the bottlenecks in their existing strategies, and have stopped listening to the experts and their current ‘flavour of the month’ proposals.
A final thought. It is clear that the post-2015 development agenda debate will focus on the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). That is good news. Progress towards the MDGs, their achievement in some cases, and the recent acceleration efforts have united the development community, focused resources, encouraged scrutiny of the results of investment in social programmes and identified synergies. The MDG journey has also helped countries to localise a global agenda while, at the same time, providing a yardstick against which to compare progress.
In the sometimes acrimonious debates in New York, it’s good to remember where development happens each and every day: in the countries, in the municipalities and villages. And we should also remember that development didn’t start in 2000, and it won’t stop in 2015. Our collective responsibility is to keep moving it along, guided by the real experts on the ground.