What’s wrong with development agencies

by | May 14, 2014


Here’s John Kay, writing about the corporate cultures of Oxford University and the Co-operative Bank in the UK – but his description also applies 100% to more than a few development agencies (especially, perhaps, some of those in the UN system)…

Multiple layers of authority overlap both horizontally (different people and committees engage with the same issue) and vertically (many decisions are liable to review by some other body). The lack of focus in decision making results in an absence of executive authority; while professional management is subject to random amateur interference. In consequence, able people are not easily attracted to management roles; and so the amateurs view the professionals with often justified and frequently reciprocated contempt.

With no defined power structure, the vacuum is filled by people who turn non-executive roles into a near full-time occupation. Many are well intentioned though some are obsessed with a single issue: fair trade, say, or diversity or equality. Others promote a sectional interest, which may simply be their own. Petty politicians enjoy the feeling of being at the centre and jostle for power; the power they seek is not the ability to get things done but the negative power that comes from “no decision without me”. Secrecy about matters of no significance bolsters their sense of self-importance.

When non-executives enjoy power without responsibility, the corollary is that executives suffer responsibility without power. The organisation cannot pursue a consistent or coherent strategy, and may find it difficult to take any decisions at all.

The chaotic process is vigorously defended by claims of democratic legitimacy, and by reference to the traditions and distinctive values of the organisation. But the democracy is a sham, and the values and traditions – admirable if different in the Co-op and Oxford – encourage a tendency to self-congratulation immune to deficiencies in current performance. The proud history also leads people mistakenly to blame organisational incapacity to adapt on current individuals rather than inherited systems and structures.

Author

  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.


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