International development: Murder, one log frame at a time


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

The international development system is dying, and the Ebola crisis is its gruesome graveyard.

But let’s hold off on that for a moment, and pause to consider the development buzzword “log frame”? If you, like me, have attended countless talk shops and conferences and development community love-ins, you’ve heard the term so often that it has almost become meaningless. It is nonetheless uttered so often that it has become something of a metaphor for the ailing development industrial complex. Deep within the term is a warning of where we are going, and a hint at what we can become if we don’t take immediate measures to change our own behaviour.

Logical Framework, shortened tidily to “log frame”, is a system of planning, monitoring and evaluating projects. The methodology is cheerful, visual and full of buzzwords that have propelled and sustained the development industry for decades: place “goals”, “purpose”, “project outputs” and “activities” on a 4×4 table, and start inputting the your project’s relevant information. The system was designed to flatten and regulate the work of development agencies, so that they could be scientifically evaluated, and those that funded them could receive handy tables in their email inboxes at the end of every fiscal year.

It makes us all look like paid professionals.

But there’s a problem with the use of terms like “log frame”. It’s an example of the technical jargon that has distanced the development community from its constituency—it is specialized language. All specialized language—whether in the financial, medical or aviation sectors—is designed to be used by insiders, and thus alienate outsiders. That’s one thing with pilots, but it’s completely another thing with development workers, who claim to be working for the greater good.

Aren’t we supposed to be engaging with our constituents, inviting them into the fold, bringing them to the table and allowing them a say in defining their own futures? If so, why is there one set of terms for the street, and one set language for the halls of power? By its very nature, “log frame” puts the development industrial complex at arm’s length from those we are meant to be partnering with. It places us in the category of “Them”. It renders us “experts”. It kills the spirit of our work. Ebola has shown us just how preposterous our specialized lexicon can be.

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Where, I can’t help wondering, was our Ebola log frame?

Yes, the outbreak is unprecedented in its virulence. But the notable thing about the virus is how difficult it is to spread. If it were an effective killer, given the weakness of the global response, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, would be afflicted by now. Instead, three countries struggle with death and illness, some 5,000 have died, and what’s lost along with those lives is any sense of perspective.

In truth, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are not battling Ebola, but poverty and terrible governance.

How many billions have been spent in Africa by the development industry? The continent is littered with the remains of white elephant projects driven by their misguided development efforts. The shocking reality is that the development industrial complex—including the UN system, the African Union and NGOs aplenty—waited months before reacting to the Ebola outbreak with any precision, or determination. Meanwhile, there was the shocking and misguided decision by many African governments to close borders, cancel flights and isolate the countries facing the crisis.

After a few years of “Africa Rising” guff, we’re back to the same old narrative of racism and Afro- pessimism, all of which leads to poor decisions, overblown virus-mapping “models”, and 5,000 poor people dying in shacks while the rest of the world submits to hysteria, albeit with racial undertones.

When the disease broke, where were the powerful voices putting their noble intentions into practice? Outside a few fearless NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières, there was a shocking breach of faith and solidarity. Why did the first coordinated global response take so long, and why did it not insist that we face a natural emergency of an immediate danger, like a tsunami, earthquake or hurricane? And why is Africa treated like a single country when it is comprised of 55 states, and those affected—Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia—are equidistant closer to London than Johannesburg? Yet international conferences are cancelled across Africa, while Europeans lunch in ignorant happiness.

All of our log frames have done nothing to ward of this unacceptable outcome. How could it have turned out so badly?

Here’s one reason: the splurging of development dollars in order to meet MDG targets has improved a range of health statistics—like infant or maternal mortality, for instance—but severely underfunded the strengthening of health care systems. Meanwhile fragile societies in post-conflict scenarios remain exposed and unable to handle epidemics of any proportions.

Building health care systems isn’t sexy. It doesn’t allow us to meet “goals” that can be measured in any short-term way. It means working with often recalcitrant governments to create systems that work. It means listening to people on the ground, and not imposing matrixes from above. It means engaging with our constituency.

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Ebola is an example of how far we’ve drifted. The outbreak is less a disease than the dreaded work of poverty and a failed development system. In this, we need to challenge the so-called “good story” development narrative, and we need to scrutinize claims that we have halved poverty in the world. The data itself hides a growing social and economic inequality, which has risen dramatically across the globe. We need to go beyond measuring progress as a set of narrow input and output indicators.

Development bureaucrats claim victory in many of the discussions I have attended. But poverty has been defined as an income of less than $1.25 a day, and because figures are not broken down, the fact that China accounts for the bulk of this success is conveniently ignored.

Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is not on track with poverty reduction and will fall short of nearly all our goals. But more importantly, can we answer the question that many pose to me: “Name one minister or bureaucrat in any global institution who can support a family on $1.25 a day. In fact there are only a few that go into power in government and come out poor.”

I recall that infamous outburst from a struggle hero “I did not struggle to be poor.”

So can we declare no more log frames? We need a bold new framework that addresses the politics of development. We need to build peoples’ power for citizen action; we need to help local communities fight their own battles for development. We need to reject the top-down paternalistic development model that has systematically failed to meet the needs of our people. We want development impact but measured by the poor and grassroots community movements.

We must build our power to demand this in the global negotiations processes around the post MDG framework, climate negotiations and the world trade system.

We need to reject the conservatism of our leaders who argue that we need to be realistic and pragmatic. We stand at the edge of precipice of the interconnected crises of climate change, joblessness, conflict, poverty and inequality.

This is no time for patience.

In fact the next generation has to become impatient and defiant. As an old Native American proverb goes: “We do not inherit the world from our ancestors. We borrow it from you, our children.”

Right now, there are children in three poor countries dying from a disease that is inextricably linked to poverty and bad governance. Complicit in all of this is the development industrial complex, safe and dry and well fed in the comfort of our log frames. DM