On Development I: Relationships and the Long View Keys to Success

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 7, 2014   

July 7, 2014 Brian E. Frydenborg- LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (you can follow me there at @bfry1981)


As more and more nations demand and attempt to enjoy the benefits of today’s globalized economy and community, international development is a field that will only grow larger and become more difficult to understand. Integral to the success of any international development project are growing good relationships and a deep understanding of how all-encompassing development and its effects can be. While the term “international development” and its field as currently constituted are only incarnations of a very recent nature, international development is central to many other fields, and the concepts and practices behind it date back to the ancient world. Even in the year 2014, few entities can match the record of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire when it comes to international development. The Romans could (not that they always did) bring peace, stability, excellent roads, (mainly) free trade, running water, sanitation, and voluntary and enthusiastic cultural meshing and assimilation faster than even the United States of America was able to in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan (not that the U.S. incapable of this, but in many ways its execution fell far short of this or many would say it virtually did not even happen at all regarding some of these issues).

While both our technology and our own understanding of the field itself have changed greatly since the days of ancient Rome, and while the international development field is today changing as rapidly as almost any other field, the same basic keys to success that existed in the days of Julius Caesar are the same basic keys to success today. One of these is that development always works better when implemented as part of a broader security, political, economic, and social strategy. Another is that both top-down and bottom-up approaches are generally required, and this is quite similar to another point: that the more integrated local elites and locals in general become in the entire international development process, and the more they take ownership of it, the more likely long-term success will be achieved. Rather than a foreign imposition, then, or a simple dumping of resources, international development is all about partnerships—foreign and local, elite and grassroots, private and public—and bringing people into a system as more or less equals and empowering them in the process, rather than simply dominating them. Unlike many other empires, this approach is why Rome, unique among major empires until the U.S. in its inclusiveness, succeeded for so long where so many others either failed or only achieved short-term success. Rome’s success was so remarkable that former enemies often became willing allies and eventually even Romans themselves, often adopting Roman culture voluntarily while still retaining aspects of their own cultural identities concurrently and for long after they fell under Roman jurisdiction.

Today, those same ingredients are just as important and remain the core foundations of most successful international development projects. Currently, international development is increasingly not largesse handed out by big government programs, but partnerships among governments, among international and local actors, among private and public and non-profit institutions, and among different swaths of all the societies involved. And all these types of actors will also further interact with the other types. International development is increasingly led by governments but carried out by non-government actors; budgetary resources go less to governmental aid agencies, and are increasingly directly awarded by these government agencies to contractors and local actors of all sorts. The field is almost unrecognizable compared to a decade ago, and though there is more unpredictability today in it because of this, it is more collaborative and inclusive than ever before, with a larger number of partners and actors providing input and shaping the outcome than in years past. This more organic and local approach is already leading to better results, both in terms of outputs and outcomes, and even how success is measured is rapidly changing. All this means that it can be harder than ever to understand what was already a complex field as it becomes even more complicated, and the margins for error, in turn, become ever smaller.

Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear that international development is an essential component of and/or a complementary item to a whole host of other activities. Today, few military operations can achieve long-term success without a competent development component. Today’s globalized world means that if an area falls into poverty, violence, and chaos after a largely successful military operation, those gains become quickly undermined as the instability spreads to other regions, including, potentially, whichever region carried out the “successful” operation. Hard won battles can become a victory in vain almost overnight, then. The same is true with political aims and public policy, which can easily become stymied if populations are not themselves empowered and become stakeholders in stability, order, and prosperity in a region. Economic success on paper can easily be undermined, too, if that success leaves out the local base of society and ends up sustaining or increasing inequality instead. So in terms of the developing world, without successful international development operations it is hard to see how any kind of major international operation, partnership, or relationship can succeed at all in the long run. A simple look at the perpetual and increasing headaches the underdeveloped parts of the world create for themselves and the whole planet—no matter how many strong but narrow, non-comprehensive operations take place there—should make this obvious. This is why today the U.S. Government stresses the “Whole-of-Government” approach and the United Nations stresses its “integrated missions.”

Thus, in the end, neglecting relationships or failing to understand how incredibly interdisciplinary development as a field truly is dooms a project from the start. Successful development is about establishing deep, genuine, and steadfast relationships with an enormous variety of actors and embracing an approach that takes into account how everything involved in and surrounding development projects can affect those projects and how those projects, in turn, will effect everything they touch and surround, and all over time. Those who understand this can emerge as successful development professionals as we progress into the twenty-first century, while those who do not will experience only failed projects, wasted resources, and dashed hopes.