Leaders in the development industry & the temptation to ‘appease’

Leaders in the development industry face leadership-compromising situations based on the fact that the market in the development industry is not always run on rational demand/supply principles. I have blogged before about the fallacy of the development market. A market where the ‘purse-holders’ i.e. donors and not the ‘authentic client’ i.e. the poor people, mostly determine demand. Of course, the ‘purse-holders’ at times take trouble to understand the wishes of the poor via some research – one hopes the research is fully representative of the destitute. With many development organisations lacking a sustainable means to acquire ‘working-capital’, they become vulnerable to following the likes/dislikes of the ‘purse-holders’. The latter is where I derive my assertion that development leaders, bold or not, are susceptible to the tendency to ‘appease’ purse-holders, lest their entities die.

It takes many guts to challenge the purse and consequently power holders in the development market. Unfortunately, in certain instances a ‘purse-holder’ adopts a particular position, contrary to what the seasoned development leader knows should serve better. However, desperate to survive another day, the development practitioner accepts a slightly compromised proposition. In effect, the development leader ‘appeases’ and sacrifices ‘effectiveness’ and many other things.

Values can upside down or straight

Values can be upside down or straight – its the leaders choice!

When we talk about ‘purse-holders’ in development, many think it is only donors like DfID, USAID, The EU, etc. However, even within the eco-system of INGO ‘A’ is an internal fund acquisition and distribution system. There is a complete internal business value chain within INGO ‘A’ and other international civil society, focused on acquiring money and distributing it, to a closed organisational eco-system. For example, at the headquarters of INGO ‘A’, funds will be solicited and got from donors like USAID, DfID, etc. This is supplemented by internal fundraising mechanisms that bring in other income. The latter in effect puts INGO ‘A’ in the category of a ‘purse-holder’, albeit of an intra-company nature. So, depending on the day of the week, INGO ‘A’ can complain of the ‘other’ donor power and the imbalance thereof. However, at the same time, perhaps less of full conscience, INGO ‘A’ replicates the same system in-house, moreover with the very power/culture-accompaniments that we see with external ‘purse-holders’ like USAID. The latter may be of interest to those studying the culture of nations, organisations, and how they use power.

It is easy to apportion blame and summarily condemn leaders in development as ‘appeasers’. However, what choices do leaders in development have, why do they choose as they do, and what alternatives do they have? I assume that leaders in development, bold or weak, are constantly exposed to situations where they have to address one choice, the want to SURVIVE. It is like, ‘you will do what I want to have my money, or I will take it somewhere else’. Not having the flexibility to run to the stock-exchange, which can avail a number of capital deepening options, leaders choose survival – they do not want their organisations to die, after all.

I at this moment put a question to you all: ‘why do leaders in development end up in a position of ‘appeasement’? A situation that results in many leaders accepting what may not be the best solution to deal with a particular poverty eradication challenge. Now, no one is saying that development is doing wrong things every other day. As a development worker, together with my colleagues, we do many things that are splendid for development, but I want us to do better even. This blog is meant to push the boundaries of what I call ‘blind-spots’ in development. Blind spots that if not addressed, have the potential to undermine the good work so far.

Reasons to appease:

  • Development does not function like a private company that has own capital to work with and means to sustain the capital acquisition mechanisms
  • Development does not operate for profit and rarely saves for a rainy day, if they do, its simply for a few months
  • The development market is a fallacy, where the ‘authentic-client’ doesn’t determine demand. It is the ‘purse-holder’ that fulfils the ‘authentic-client’ mandate and determines demand
  • With a botched demand proposition, the supply proposition naturally gets compromised too.

Having reflected on some of the reasons why development leaders opt to appease, and I know there are many more, I have to assume that if ‘current-demand’ were replaced by ‘authentic-demand’, ‘appeasement’ would become a thing of the past or of a neutral nature. As a matter of fact, if we all cultured in the DNA of the development industry an authentic demand/supply proposition, the result would be a much more effective development industry. Development leaders shall resist attempts to supply what is not right and demanded by the authentic market.

How can development leaders ensure that supply is addressing ‘authentic-demand’ & not ‘appeasing’?

This in effect is attempting a ‘coup’ against the ‘purse-holders’. I am also confident that the peace and harmony in the development industry do not call for a coup de-tat to resolve this dysfunction, but instead critical dialogue.

At the risk of making this sound very simplistic, development leaders can address the supply/demand dysfunction in the industry, and the resulting appeasement culture, if they lead more through a ‘values’-driven-leadership approach. Values-driven-leadership has the latent power, to deploy as and when the appeasement challenge above appears.

Of course, development leaders should not expect the application of a values-driven-leadership approach to the external donor-market and not in the intra-INGO-donor market. How can INGO ‘A’ caution USAID or DfID against a tendency to facilitate ‘appeasement’, when it exactly does the same, when put in a position of power?

Unfortunately, the diversity of the intra-INGO-donor market, rich and rewarding for those of us that work in it, also brings incredible challenges with it. Moreover, challenges soft in nature that, depending on the orientation of the parties involved, may bring opportunity or bottlenecks in the INGO ‘A’ eco-system. A typical INGO ‘A’ eco-system is populated by multiple nation cultures and ways of working. Getting to a win-win situation in the latter environment is an incredible ask, and one that is sometimes answered via a ‘shorter’ more convenient route i.e. ‘going-appeasement’ – come on, just keep the peace!  In the intra-INGO-donor market, nation-state culture is a significant factor in the latter dynamic, with the naturally dominant nation-state likely to be the ‘appeasee’ + ‘judge’ and the less dominant the ‘appeaser’. Interacting every day of my life in this eco-system, I have come to learn a few things, at times the hard way. The latter in my opinion is the fun about the diversity of INGO ‘A’ and the cultures therein. However, at the same time, it is an approach that can result in entrenching ‘appeasement’.

My suggestion is that sensitivities like below should drive leaders in development:

Intra-INGO-Donor market:

  • Avoid the temptation to repeat mistakes and power-games we see come from the external market i.e. ‘intra-company-donors’ dictating solutions to ‘intra-company-clients’, even when the latter explicitly profess concerns
  • Understanding the diversity of culture especially in an increasingly ‘global-entity’. It amazes me how i personally miss social realities like: ‘what may be slow to me, may indeed be quick to others’; ‘I may not need what you bring to me, but in my culture, i won’t say so – so it is up to you to decipher what i communicate non-verbally’. Should you miss the signs, then you are on typical ‘appeasement’ territory. You can imagine how the emergence of Skype-like technology complicates the signal reading game in this situation. It is even more complicated for leaders in this situation, as they may not be ready to appease, but those below them may, and see nothing wrong with it.

External donor market:

  • Only poverty eradication models that are believed to be sustainable should be brought to scale and not what you like
  • Don’t use power to create demand that is non-authentic to poverty eradication
  • Avoid the temptation always to link nations state fiscal regimes to development project timelines
  • Avoid implementing for the sake of achieving financial burn-rates
  • Take the time to understand local context and respect it

In my opinion values-driven leadership is about:

  • Clear articulation of our values and rationale for the same
  • Being authentic and defending the truth
  • Living your values and making sure you defend them while explaining to others why you do so
  • Being able to take the heat that comes from defending your values including losing favour with others in the eco-system
  • Knowing that when we make choices as leaders, we have to suffer the consequences of those choices
  • Choices made may expose development entities to death, as they may cost revenue – this is scary in development, and a path we try to avoid. But I have seen entities that have declined big-money for the sake of their values – and every time, I have seen them attain more respect and sustainability for the brand. This is indeed true for both humans and organisations.

My proposition is that if development leaders want to address a botched demand/supply situation, mostly external but in some cases internal, they will have to make values-driven choices more intentionally. Mind you, values-driven choice or leadership is not an excuse for RESISTANCE to change and feedback

In an industry sector where operation and power of the market is mostly compromised, i believe that its is those leaders that stand by their values (assuming their values are good and we all agree to a definition of good) that will be effective and will effectively contribute to changing the fortunes of the poor. There is no doubt that ‘appeasement’ and its power dynamics can bring to the table bread and butter for us all, but shall never be good enough to end the scourge of poverty!

Do leaders in development at times have to ‘appease’? Is there a place for ‘appeasement’ in a values-driven-leadership approach?

Categories: You, the Leader!


3 replies


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