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A Kiap’s Chronicle: 32 - A prime ministerial intervention

Understanding the role of developmental leaders

Gibert top
Green shoots nurtured by a hand (Anna Gibert)


VILA - From the early 2000s, the established approaches of international aid programs with their externally-led technical solutions have been increasingly called into question by progressive development practitioners and think tanks.

Voices like the Overseas Development Institute, the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice, and the Centre for International Development at Harvard University have consistently underscored other approaches.

These include the centrality of local leadership, local politics, and the ‘rules of the game’ of local institutions as deciding drivers in whether constructive nation-building occurs or whether dysfunctional governance and poor social, economic, and environmental indicators persist.

There is also growing evidence that it is the influence of local leaders and coalitions that can either maintain or disrupt injustice and non-reform within sovereign states.

But despite these understandings, donors continue to invest in development modes based on false technical capacity rather than give priority to the lack of developmental leadership and the lack of inclusive power structures.

The progressive argument is that it is not a lack of technical expertise and financial resources that are the main factors behind poor development outcomes.

The main factors behind poor outcomes are insufficient recognition of both local leadership and local internal power dynamics.

Approaches that lack such recognition are counterproductive to Western donors’ stated objectives of inclusive prosperity within a rules-based order.

There is a pressing need for aid programs to acknowledge that these objectives will remain largely unobtainable under the governance systems of recipient aid countries where elitist cronyism and non-representational institutions and leadership prevail.

While there may be broad-based agreement that what is needed is better leadership and better governance, conventional aid programs address these within the prevailing workings of power.

There are, however, examples of development practice funded by external donors that deviate from convention.

These use alternative strategies to support reformist leadership, and this leadership contests the hidden networks of negative power and incentives in order to attain national development goals.

It is these examples, three of which I list here, that provide valuable insights and lessons for broader application.

Strategy 1: Differentiate between status quo leaders and reformist leaders.

While there may be broad consensus that better leadership and better governance are needed, aid programs conventionally address these within the prevailing workings of power.

The standard aid response is to ‘capacity build’ existing leaders, many of whom are part of the systems of elitism and corruption and who have a deeply vested interest in things remaining exactly as they are.

These representatives of the status quo are frequently the recipients of training and leadership programs funded by well-meaning donors.

It is they who appear on the ‘lists of people consulted’ on program design documents.

And it is they who are the prime mediators in high-level meetings between aid donors and governments that reach important development cooperation decisions.

In this way, external assistance can inadvertently perpetuate that which it is seeking to change.

It is therefore important to understand that, in countries with poor governance and development outcomes, the reformist drivers of change (who care deeply about the well-being of their communities and who seek social justice) rarely hold formal authority and are rarely in positions of power in contexts of endemic corruption.

Development programs consequently need to be informed by an understanding of the vast difference that can exist between overt, legitimised leaders and covert, often embryonic, developmental leaders, whose status is not necessarily reflected in their formal positions.

The qualities that define developmental leaders who are motivated to serve and deliver sustainable outcomes are not necessarily seen in the confidence, dominance, and performance charisma that donors associate with good leadership.

Identifying reformist leaders takes much more care and energy.

Strategy 2: Go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in positions of authority to seek out the green shoots of reformist leadership.

This is not an easy task. As organisational psychologist Chamarro-Premuzic notes in his book, ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men become Leaders’, aid donors are biased to equate confidence, dominance and performance charisma with good leadership.

But the qualities that define developmental or reformist leaders – humility, sensitivity, altruism and collaboration – do not correlate with these characteristics.

Such leaders are not easily spotted. They are not skilled in self-serving promotion, but instead are often hidden in communities, churches, schools, and civil society organisations that are focused on the empowerment and elevation of others.

These leaders are often reluctant to be associated with the negative models of formal and institutional leadership prevalent around them.

Because of this, their acceptance of any formal position of power can require a high degree of persuasion and support.

This is where the external development intervention can play a useful role – to encourage and assist these budding developmental leaders to exercise their potential in a sphere of increased impact.

Strategy 3: Build the symbolic capital of developmental leaders who lack access to power sources within the dominant political system.

‘Symbolic capital’ is the authority available to individuals based on recognition of their prestige, achievements or influence and it can be mobilised and adapted for use in institutional and political spheres.

There are ways to assist developmental leaders to amass symbolic capital, including supporting them to come together as coalitions for change and providing them with public platforms to demonstrate alternative models of what ethical governance and effective service delivery look like.

Aid programs have enormous amounts of symbolic capital at their disposal: they can build roads, provide grants, train teachers and deliver vaccines.

If aid programs stepped back from their own desire to claim ‘we built the capacity’ and instead put developmental leaders at the forefront of such activities, they could help these leaders accrue symbolic capital.

If aid programs intentionally shift to working in the shadows, in a role more resembling that of a campaign manager than a star player, they can increase the status and influence of reformists in challenging the dominant norms and practices of power.

Anna Gibert - "The main factors behind poor development outcomes are insufficient recognition of both local leadership and local internal power dynamics"

Developmental leaders who build influential coalitions of reform are the essential factor in strong governance and positive social change.

Aid programs need to choose whether they will help or hinder their progress.

Anna Gibert is an independent development consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the Indo-Pacific region. She is currently the Australian government’s strategic adviser for the Vanuatu Skills Partnership and the Balance of Power Initiative


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