Does society have unrealistic expectations of development and philanthropic agencies?

On September 3, Paul Smith, Director of the British Council in the USA and Cultural Counselor at the British Embassy in Washington, DC came to the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus, thanks to the efforts of the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute (LCI). During an afternoon discussion hosted by the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, I had the privilege of listening to him discuss his work and outline the goals and experiences of his organization as well as the difficulties it faces in a simultaneously globalizing and localizing world. I was particularly struck by his description of the relationships involved in the work of the Council and the many accountability claims that the organization must balance to maintain and nurture those ties. His description of the Council’s strategic environment reminded me of an August 23rd National Public Radio Planet Money broadcast segment on development aid (Cash, Cows and the Rise of Nerd Philanthropy). In both discussions, I was left thinking of the many and unrealistically high expectations that our society places on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such that these entities are left discussing their goals and work in rather convoluted, seemingly idealistic ways.

The British Council is a national charity in the United Kingdom (UK) governed by a Royal Charter and charged with promoting British culture and education oversees. The Council engages in “cultural relations,” which, as described by Paul Smith, differ from public relations in that they rely less on soft power and emphasize instead the quality and equality of relationships among cultural partners. Similar to institutions such as the United States Peace Corps, the British Council works only in countries from which it has received a formal invitation. The organization has adopted this stance to avoid imposing ideas and practices on residents of other countries. The British Council website describes the institution’s work this way:

By teaching English, changing the way we see each other through the Arts, offering international education opportunities and sharing the UK’s ways of living and organising our society we create opportunity, trust, prosperity and security for the people of the UK and the many other countries we work in around the world (The British Council,

In response to participant questions following his remarks, Smith agreed that the Council’s work was less about bringing British culture to other countries ultimately, and more about opening space for dialogue among groups and nations. Yet, he also emphasized that his organization is charged with disseminating and supporting certain Western cultural ideas, including the central significance of basic human rights.

The Council’s work seems to exemplify a growing understanding that development and/or international work should be concerned less about transforming the lives of participants than about sharing values and knowledge, including democratic norms and applicable skills. The British organization’s efforts offer opportunities for residents of the nations in which it operates to engage in cultural exchange, build trust and develop certain skills, including, particularly, the English language. Nothing is guaranteed, however. In creating opportunities or opening space for dialogue, the Council does not and cannot ordain specific learning outcomes for participants. Instead, it offers possibilities and must accept such outcomes as may arise as residents engage as they wish.

Meanwhile, and paradoxically, the Planet Money broadcast highlighted the growing pressures being placed on international development organizations by funders and individuals alike to define their objectives and evaluate their outcomes in clear, quantifiable terms. A new NGO called GiveDirectly is requesting that long standing NGOs such as Heifer International be more forthcoming and evaluate their work more openly for the public. GiveDirectly argues that in taking such steps these organizations would become more transparent and accountable to their stakeholders. In this view, purportedly more precise and stringent evaluation will permit the international community to determine “best approaches” and thereby invest in ways that garner the most impact.

While stringent evaluations and clearly defined goals (particularly ones that include spreading cultural beliefs of some sort, e.g., democracy) may sound like positive steps, these sorts of efforts can just as readily complicate or hamper NGOs’ work as assist them. This is so because such claims often oversimplify the contexts confronting organizations as they go about their work. Success and failure in the world of community and international development are highly contingent on time and circumstances, which are often not adequately accounted for in evaluative processes constructed on the basis of technical measures. An emphasis on already determined specialized criteria of evaluation also limits the ability of NGOs to approach other cultures and nations openly without specific immediate expectations concerning the outcomes of their activities. Technical evaluative criteria inevitably restrict what is possible amidst a stipulated need for “right results.” Consequently, certain power dynamics may unavoidably exist, contrary to Paul Smith’s emphasis on ensuring equal standing within Council partnerships. Power imbalances, whatever their origins, are not conducive to trust and relationship building. If the British Council, for instance, embraces its role as promoter of the United Kingdom’s culture, particularly say, its democratic and human rights beliefs, those that have felt persecuted or judged by others holding those views in the past will be less likely to form relationships with the Council. In these scenarios the British cultural organization and such groups will likely continue to view each other as “others.”

Moreover, the limited resources and access that various cultural institutions possess may hinder their abilities to reach out to different groups. Much of the work Smith described seemed to involve working with an elite minority within nations and then crossing one’s fingers that what is learned or discussed with that group percolates or is disseminated to a larger population. Of course, this aspiration is not what stakeholders want to hear when they demand “program evaluation” strategies. They want definitive claims that this approach or that program they support not only touches, but also transforms the lives of many different people throughout the targeted community and beyond.

According to Smith, several groups within his home nation view the Council’s work as simply political posturing designed to illustrate how “nice” British culture can be. Others see it as promoting democratic or Western political beliefs. Still others understand it as a form of capacity building for other country nationals. In fact, Paul Smith points out that the British Council’s work is about building relationships. I would agree that this goal makes sense and argue that if most development or cultural exchange programs are to succeed, they should concern themselves foremost with relationship building. That said, constructing enduring ties is far more complex than the tasks society generally envisions for such organizations. While clearly understanding one’s goals and evaluating one’s work is important, creating and nurturing an appropriate relational foundation for future activities and interaction is also essential.  I came away from Paul Smith’s remarks pondering how societies engaged in these sorts of programs might most effectively balance these twin imperatives. How might practitioners further explore and experiment with relationship building without being weighed down by unrealistic and inapt expectations of their work and its outcomes?

Sarah Lyon-HillSarah Lyon-Hill is a second year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. Her interests lie in studying alternative approaches to international and community development. Most recently she has been researching the potential of arts-based civil society organizations (CSOs) in helping communities deal with trauma and conflict so that they can then develop the collaborative capacity to actively engage in their own development. Sarah works as a graduate assistant in the VT Office of Economic Development. She received her bachelor’s degree in French and International Relations from Beloit College and her Master in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.

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