The Trojan Horse of Development

August 2022

First Published by Humanists Australia on 26th, May 2022

By Tara Winkler

The Global North’s international development sector is a trillion-dollar industry (UNCTAD, 2014), yet it has yielded limited results in alleviating poverty in the Global South. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDG) first target is to eradicate all forms of poverty everywhere by 2030. The UN claims that great progress has been made towards this target, with the proportion of people living in extreme poverty halved at the global level (UN, n.d.).

The problem with this target is that recent research shows that the international poverty line, set by the World Bank in 2011 at $1.90 per day, is not sufficient for basic human health or even survival (Hickel, 2019). It is a very low bar when it comes to aspirational aims for a more just and equal world. Worse yet — we’re not even on track to reach the SDG’s $1.90 per day target by 2030 (UN, 2021). This lack of progress is even more apparent when looking at global poverty data as a headcount rather than a ratio. In 1981, when measurements first began, the number of people living in poverty was around one billion.

Today, there are still one billion people living in poverty. In simple terms, this means that there has been no improvement in over thirty-five years (Hickel, 2017).

This underwhelming progress is consistent with the realities I’ve seen on the ground in Cambodia over the last fifteen years, where three-quarters of the population hover just above the poverty line on less than $3 per day (ADB, 2014), the majority of families struggle to put food on the table, and many communities remain dependent on external aid.

My work as co-founder of a grassroots organisation called Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) has granted me front row seats to the confronting realities of the international development sector.

Downstream development

We are failing to move the needle on global poverty because development agencies perpetuate a system of dependency. They do this by preferencing a “downstream” approach that responds to symptoms of poverty but never the structural root causes.

Downstream development is designed to “save” people in the Global South by investing the lion’s share of philanthropic donations into end-stage crisis interventions. When people cannot access universal services, like health, education, housing and sanitation, they are plunged into a cycle of multidimensional poverty, and the slightest setback leads to intractable crises. This state of widespread vulnerability creates a huge demand for crisis services. These crises make headlines in the Global North, motivating an outpouring of donations to fund more crisis services. This causes a self-reinforcing dynamic where the ever-increasing investment in downstream development, and the neglect of investment in systemic improvements, leads to increasing numbers of people in crisis. More crises mean more fundraising for downstream development, and on the cycle goes.

A real-world example of the Global North’s over-investment in downstream development is the orphanage boom seen across the Global South (Lumos, 2017). In Cambodia, between 2005 and 2010, the number of orphanages increased by 75%, and the number of institutionalised children doubled (Government of Cambodia and UNICEF, 2011).

It’s no coincidence that the proliferation of orphanages matches the explosion of tourism in Cambodia; one hundred per cent of orphanages in Cambodia are funded by foreign donations (Government of Cambodia & UNICEF, 2011), and foreign arrivals increased by 250% in the same period (Hartley & Walker, 2013: n.p.).

The children in these orphanages were being labelled as orphans, even though 80 per cent had at least one living parent and the remainder mostly had other relatives still alive. It may appear as though families made a conscious choice to place their child in an orphanage, but an absence of prevention and early intervention support services meant that entrusting their children into the care of an orphanage became their only choice. Removing children from their families to access essential services in orphanages may solve one problem, but it creates another bigger one. No matter how high the standard of care, institutional environments are harmful to the development of children. One study has shown that young adults raised in institutions are 500 times more likely to commit suicide in their lifetime (Lumos, 2017b).

The orphanage boom is a phenomenon caused by the Global North that impacted many countries throughout the Global South (Lumos, 2017a). It could have been avoided altogether if the Global North had given sufficient funding to upstream development that addressed the root causes of family separation. Instead, we are left picking up the pieces, trying to reunite traumatised children with their families, which itself is downstream work. Unless development agencies address the root causes of child-family separation, the only possible outcome is the ongoing perpetuation of harm.

Why fund downstream?

It is not a mistake that the Global North is obsessed with funding downstream development. The system has been designed that way with neo-colonial aims.

It stems from a subconscious belief in the immorality and incompetence of people in the Global South. This belief justifies the white saviour complex in the Global North, where ‘well intentioned’ white people step in to save people in the Global South from their circumstances by building their houses, digging their wells and saving their children.

The Global North encourages white saviourism by offering valuable reputational rewards, or even just by fuelling individual altruistic feelings, for white people who try to save people from the Global South. White saviours are (erroneously) viewed as morally superior to other white people or view themselves as morally superior.

Gaining white saviour status does not require any specific knowledge, expertise or even any success in helping people in the Global South. All that matters is the superficial intention to help.

It is, of course, an illusion that white people from the Global North are suited to lead the development of the Global South. As foreigners, they lack an adequate grasp of local culture and overlook the unique strengths that exist within local communities.

We also need to address the concept of ‘empowerment’. Charities have so overused this buzzword that it has lost its true meaning. It’s often used to describe activities that ‘build capacity,’ i.e. the adage of ‘teaching a man to fish’. This focus on capacity building feeds into the white saviour narrative as it infers an inherent lack of capacity in populations in the Global South.

Empowerment should not be a conversation about skill sets and training. Empowerment must be a conversation about power. To empower means to give power. If the Global North is to assist with the empowerment of the Global South, a radical rebalancing of power is required to decolonise the sector of international development.

After learning my lessons the hard way, my role has now shifted from one of leadership to allyship. In 2012, CCT became the first orphanage in Cambodia to push back against the status quo and transform the orphanage into a family empowerment model. In 2022, CCT is now led by a 100% Cambodian team and is once again pushing back against the status quo. Everything CCT does today is working toward one vision; dismantling neo-colonial systems of development to ignite local wisdom and eradicate poverty. We have set sail towards this vision with an audacious pilot called the Village Hive.

Upstream Development

CCT’s Village Hive pilot involves integrating prevention and early intervention services — such as health, education, nutrition, sanitation, housing, social work and financial coaching — into public systems and facilities where it will be delivered sustainably by the local community in Battambang District, creating a tangible exit pathway for CCT. After all, exit strategies should be the logical end goal of every charity; we should be in the business of solving problems, not capitalising on them. Once the pilot is complete, 120,000 people across Battambang District will have a community-run and owned social protection system ready for national scale.

The pilot has been underway since 2020 and is already delivering results that far exceed expectations. In 2020 and 2021, the COVID19 pandemic caused an increase in the number of families requiring crisis services across the globe. In Australia, there was a 20% increase in demand for child protection services (SVA, 2020). Domestic violence incidents reportedly increased by 30% in some countries due to the pandemic (UNWomen). UNICEF has called COVID-19 the biggest global crisis for children in recent history, with a staggering 100 million more children plunged into poverty. However, we saw an anomalous effect in the 62 villages with access to the Village Hive. In a survey of 243 families across these villages, we found that, while they did lose income and had increased stress in 2020 and 2021, access to Village Hive services meant there was less domestic violence, stronger family relationships, and better decision making. No children dropped out of school despite the extended school closures, and overall there were fewer referrals and less demand for crisis services. The fact that communities in northwest Cambodia fared better than much of the world demonstrates the effectiveness of the Village Hive, even in changing and unpredictable environments. Partnerships with Australian universities are helping us to build an evidence base for the Village Hive to prove that an upstream approach effectively builds community resilience that is robust enough to withstand a global catastrophe.

The one challenge we face with the Village Hive pilot is that donors in the Global North are reluctant to fund upstream work due to concerns over the lack of control when local stakeholders lead development work. This lack of trust is corrosive to sustainable development as it traps the Global South in the cycle of colonial dependency and blocks the best pathway that we know of to eradicate poverty.

I hope that with greater awareness of the harms of downstream development, the Global North will redirect philanthropic donations towards upstream development. We can then begin the critical work of transferring power to dismantle the neo-colonial systems of development and ignite the inherent wisdom that lives within local communities, allowing them to transform their world in ways they determine.