In some ways, development studies could learn a lot from the medical sciences, believes the author. “Medicine packages always contain leaflets that tell you about the possible side effects. In development cooperation, it is often the case that if you convince others of your idea to solve a problem, you can just go ahead with it. Once the development goals of the plan are achieved, the programme is seen as ‘successful’, while there may also be effects that are not addressed at all.”
Programmes for development support will receive concrete recommendations in the book Foreign aid and its unintended consequences, written by Dirk-Jan Koch, endowed professor in International Trade and Development Cooperation, to be published on 27 September. Koch combines his research work at Radboud University with his job as a knowledge envoy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Evaluation reports sometimes suffer from tunnel vision,” claims the researcher. “They only address the goals of the development programme and not what else has happened. In this book, we wanted to make a sort of checklist to address all possible effects.” He gives the example of programmes for furthering LGBTQ+ rights, which sometimes lead to greater discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community; whereby local authorities assert that local LGBTQ+ rights activists are puppets of foreign powers and must be combatted. If the authorities manage to successfully incite the local population against the local activists, then a backlash effect occurs.
There are also empowerment programmes in which women receive microcredit to start their own business. “But programmes like this sometimes also lead to increased domestic violence,” says Koch. “Because men then feel disadvantaged. By measuring these sorts of negative effects too, you can tackle them as an organisation. For instance, in addition to offering the microcredit for women, you could also provide training for men.”
Tell the whole story
Development cooperation also has positive unforeseen side effects. Koch: “Some programmes have a flywheel effect. For instance, a scheme for deworming treatments results in fewer ill children and thus also ensures that these children can go to school more, get their diplomas faster and then find a good job later on more easily. But it would be a shame if the evaluation report only addressed how many healthy children the programme resulted in and left out the rest.”
His new book can help organisations to research all these effects. Koch emphasises that it is also important to involve local researchers. “People who live in the region themselves are better able to estimate the effects of development cooperation.” NGOs and other organisations must also dare to look more critically at their own work in development cooperation. “As many organisations depend on donations, they always tend to tell a positive story about their projects. It would be good to actually involve donors, as well as politicians, for instance, in the challenges you are facing. Then they will remain committed for longer and won’t think that their prior projects were of no use when the next drought or famine hits.”
On 27 September, the book Foreign aid and its unintended consequences will be published by Routledge. Koch will go on a book tour, including visits to Washington, New York and Paris, to present his findings to the World Bank, the UN and the OECD. Radboud Reflects is holding a public meeting with Koch on 7 December at 8 p.m.