Hello everyone. My name is Jeremy Danz, one of the co-founders of The ADMEL Lab, a collaborative focusing on embedding inclusive accountability in M&E frameworks.
Currently, discourse within the international development community has included a drive to decolonize aid, remaking global power dynamics and including stakeholders from outside of the Global North as leaders in international processes and experts in their own communities. Organizations such as Peace Direct have contributed to a global dialogue on how to incorporate local civil society’s “context-specific knowledge, innovativeness, and strong local networks.”
When evaluating democracy promotion or anti-corruption programming, we must remember that we are often operating in states where the programming is at least indirectly, and possibly directly, targeted at an oppressive host country government or ruling party. In these situations, it is important to consider how the programming would appear from the perspective of the host country government, and how individual interactions between implementing agency staff and government counterparts could shape that larger perception. This relationship management may not be specifically included in the job descriptions for national staff, but its management plays a critical part in facilitating democracy promotion and anti-corruption programming and should not be overlooked during the evaluation of said programming. However, managing relationships with oppressive host country governments can be an inherently risky activity.
Ask organizations how they have considered operational risks for their national staff, as opposed to their international staff. Often, international staff members are provided with generous relocation, housing, and educational subsidies, many of which are unavailable to national staff members, while the consequences for engaging in democracy promotion work may be less severe for international staff.
Ask implementing organizations to see their contingency plans in case staff are detained, or worse. Do they maintain a roster of potential legal representatives, should the need arise? Have risks and potential responses been discussed with diplomatic staff from donor governments or other partners?
While working in an extremely oppressive Southeast Asian country, my colleagues and I were once asked to consider a major international organization’s efforts to connect with “next generation” leaders within the ruling party. The organization planned to collect information about candidates for local offices in upcoming elections. The country does hold regular elections, with biographies of candidates published at village offices and theoretically publicly available, but my colleagues were emphatic that asking for and collecting these biographies systematically would raise undue suspicion and present a serious risk for national staff at the international organization and our firm. Ultimately, we recommended that the organization not ask national staff to pursue such a data collection exercise, as the threat of arrest and lengthy detainment for national staff was too large.
Ultimately, the core aspects of international development work must move away from current modalities that provide platforms of undue influence for international experts, often at the expense of national staff, in terms of compensation, recognition, and ownership. While evaluating programs aimed at democracy promotion or anti-corruption, evaluators should consider the degree to which organizations have used the inherent privileges held by international experts to mitigate risks for national staff members, rather than exposing national staff to excessive risk, as national staff often receive far fewer perks than their international colleagues. Evaluators should also consider whether otherwise apparently successful aid decolonization efforts, which may have reduced the number of international experts involved, have inadvertently forced national staff to absorb all of the risks associated with democracy promotion and anti-corruption programming, without providing appropriate compensation or protection.
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