Tiina Kontinen wrote a paper on Producing a 'project' -power relations in negotiating a shared object in NGO development cooperation. I read it sometime ago, but blogging and summarizing it will help me to draw my own lessons.
The paper is informed by postcolonial theory on continuous asymmetric relationships between North, South, East and West analyses a practical micro-level process within development cooperation. The micro-level process is a project formulation as a joint effort of Finnish and Tanzanian NGOs for improving the difficult economic siutation of retired professionals in Morogoro, Tanzania. She (is Tiina a she?) takes Foucault's methodological notion of intertwining of the relations of production, communication and power as a starting point.
Since 1980s NGOs in development cooperation have been regarded as representatives of partnerships that include more equal relationships, refering to a relationship of 2 parties that collaborate to meet each others' needs and that includes trust, respect and equality. Another key word in development cooperation has been 'participation'. Projects should be planned and implemented in a participatory manner to ensure 'local ownership' of the project. She argues that authentic and more ethical encountres presuppose the acknowledgement of these historical asymmetries. The whole debate calls for analysis of power and specifically how systemic power is produced and reproduced in the local practices of development cooperation. Hoes does this 'inherent contradiction' in aid (to aim at equality and partnerships in conditions of unequal distribution of resources) emerge in actual development encounters? A constuctive combination of the analysis of constructing a project and power relations will give new insights in the encounters which are both places of dialogue and sites of struggle in project definition.
The project described was an effort to improve the economic situation of retired professionals in Morogoro in Tanzania. A Finnish NGO with over 50 years experience in welfare of aged people in Finland (but not in development cooperation!) worked with a Tanzanian NGO established by a small group of retired professionals, organising group counselling sessions amongst other activities. In 1999, both organisations came together to discuss the planning of a project, through 7 planning meetings with 2 representatives from the Finnish NGO and 5 from the Tanzanian NGO. A draft agreement was produced, and some kind of consensus reached, but interviews raised the question how authentic the consensus was. Both parties had different planning agendas, with the main tension arising between the concept of the project as a training-only project versus a training project with micro-credit facility. Rather than solving the tension, the Finish representatives added a used computer to the project. The question was transformed into : "should we stop the project if a training-only project is not sufficient"?
Even small and trivial acts like discussions on advancing cash or not held importance in constructing the power relationship. The projet budget was not shared and Northern representatives controlled the use of the project money. Furthermore, the processes of divisions, exclusion and inclusion were also going on between the southern actors who might use the project to serve interests in local power struggles.
The conclusion is that the Northern agenda became shared and that the sharedness of the project was contested by continuous manifestations of tensions in the project - even though the project may be beneficial to the retired professionals. The practical difficulty of NGO partnership and participation calls for more macro and structural interpretation of emergent asymmetry. Acknowledgement of historically emerged features might help practitioners in understanding the problems in development cooperation.
Pff. (I'm now budgetholder for a small budget, which makes me feel like a donor for the first time in my life ;)). So what may help is to be clear on roles- and limits like budgets. And don't go for participation where the donor's mind is already set, only go for participation with open ears where you honestly want to listen. And maybe being clear on decision-making procedures, who decides on what? What are the joint decisions? Like in the described case, in fact the Tanzanian NGO's participation was restricted to defining the content of the training and the eligible training participants.