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The move to ‘Southernise’ International development and the capacity/corruption challenge – surprise solution!

Every time I come across writing like: lack of authentic market principles; revenue-vulnerability, the tendency to appease the powerful in the industry sector and not always defending what is correct; ongoing mid-life and identity crisisfailure of the very good effort thus far at poverty eradication and the need to do things different, I know the discussion is about ‘international development’ and likely, the INGO and its trials and tribulations South of the globe.

Challenged to re-incarnate, the INGO, never short of intellectual and thinking power, has a line of options for change. Amongst the magic bullets for re-incarnation is the drive to ‘Southernise’ development. Apparently the South, long accompanied by its Northern master, is coming of age and able to stand on its own. The Northern master has to wean the Southern child. The protagonists in this so-called weaning-game is the Southern Civil Society organisation (CSO), like the East African Civil Society Organisation (EACSO) and if I may add, the ‘new’ INGO. The DNA and configuration of the ’new’ INGO is not defined yet – i hope that when defined, the new INGO is not a non-entity

As ever, change in the international development industry emerges and passes with tornado-like speed, characteristically lacking deep analysis and the implications out of that. I want to make it clear that I am a big supporter of the push to Southernise. As a Southern-bred international development leader, I understand the value-addition and effectiveness of deploying leaders like myself. I, therefore, want to see the current trend to wean the South from Northern direct support continue. However, the native Southern CSO and operation, and I can talk to the EACSO and East-Africa labour market  reality here, have capacity challenges that we cannot just disregard in the guise of what is politically correct. Therefore, as the development gods and those of us in development implement this change of guard in Southern development operations, I hope that we all keep a keen eye on the pitfalls of the move.

The above reminds me of the push for independence in some African colonies and what followed post-independence period. I hope that all of us that are facilitating ‘tornado-speed’ change in development can learn from mistakes of the past. I call upon all change harbingers to make sure ‘seasonal-changes’ in ideology do not drive decision-making, but instead a sense of realism that takes into consideration all factors in a given context. I would want to see, proper risk analysis of all that we want done in the current wave of ‘seasonal-change’ re.: what-works-for-development and how industry players plan to mitigate the same.

Even with me cautious about the above change and naming it: unreal, seasonal, and tornado-speed like, I am acutely aware that the current change momentum in international development is unstoppable. As responsible and accountable international development leaders, we have to embrace this change but take care to address contextual challenges, especially the native Southern-cadre capacity and integrity challenge.

Lessons at getting the best out of the Average: Sir Alex Ferguson Source:
Lessons at getting the best out of the Average: Sir Alex Ferguson

So, what about the Southern-cadre capacity and integrity challenge?

As this blog enters into the realm of international development Southern-operational challenges, one that immediately comes to mind is the low capacity of many Southern bred development cadres. I also know from experience and comments to some of my blogs that this is an extremely contentious subject.  Many of my ilk believe that enormous development leadership capacities litter the South and that talking about a capacity-gap is ‘blasphemy’ against the South.

Well, I always prefer realism and honesty on these matters. I think that while we have many able leaders in development that are Southern natives, we still have room to improve especially on the numbers. The latter is partly a tactical failure, created by long-term dependence by the Southern development industry on expatriate staff ‘imported’ from the North. Unfortunately, until recently the typical expatriate staff was not briefed to develop local capacity per se, but to maintain excellence in programme delivery. The latter is what made the INGO a brand with power. It is only in the last decade that attention has shifted, albeit slowly, towards the expatriate having an understudy in the native Southern-cadre. Some INGO’s have paid more attention to this critical matter than others. Perhaps the latter is not surprising given the fact that there are different motivations for the shift towards Southern-cadre development, amongst them: the urge to save money, pressure from donors, political correctness, and Southern governments tightening work permit acquisition protocols for the Northern citizen.

Of particular concern, with this ‘correct’ and deserving strategy to wean Southern-cadres from Northern tutelage, is that it appears accidental and driven by circumstance. The strategy to pass the tools of power to the Southern-cadre should be deliberate, well thought through, and have in place a step process for its implementation including a resourcing strategy. Organisations cannot wake up one morning, discover they are short of money, and Southernise all of a sudden – that is, believe me, a recipe for disaster.

I am also concerned that as other industry sectors and organisations become ever more global plus beef up global-competences and capacities, the development industry is going the opposite direction. International development is pushing an agenda to localise, and that has a tendency to ‘box’ and at times risk excluding the global. Apparently, trying to understand the dynamics of an industry eco-system that is ‘self-decimating’ needs studying by organisational experts of better skill than mine. Professors of strategy and organisational evolution should consider this subject, and not for purposes of stopping the self-decimation, as indeed good development workers should see themselves out of work, but how to do so safely. Let us be honest friends, how many of you are planning to kill themselves sooner than your GOD would want? Plus, if you want death engineered by yourself, don’t you need help doing so? The INGO, if it were to choose euthanasia, should seek help from the professionals in order to do it well. Anything less than the latter will leave lasting and damaging effect on many, including a long list of organisational-orphans in the South.

Southern leaders in development and corruption are twins that are never far from each other. As a Southern international development leader, I live with the burden that many in the North and the ‘honest’ in the South (and yes you will find some that are), want me to first prove that I am not corrupt, before they consider me a good leader. In other words, I am deemed fraudulent at first sight, until I approve myself otherwise. My feelings aside, It is also true that Southern natives working in International development plus other sectors are at times easily corruptible. Without mincing words, we need to ask why some Southerners are corrupt and how to resolve the same. I suppose, and I am talking about my native Uganda more than any other country, the fact is that institutionalised-corruption forces corruption on many. For example, in Uganda some people are compelled to pay the police money (bribe) to avoid going to corrupt courts for a traffic offence, which in itself may land you in a corrupt prison system, where the risk of rape and infection with HIV/AIDS is high. Tough reality, is it not? But even then, is that reason enough for partaking in corruption? How should we deal with the scourge of corruption? Is it okay to be corrupt outside your office i.e. bribing a traffic policeman in order to avoid a dangerous prison environment? Can we separate the two i.e. can you act corruptly outside the gates of your organization especially on matters that ‘endanger’ your life, but become ‘clean’ as soon you are inside the gate? Can society force corruption on you? What is the threshold for a corrupt individual vs. one that is not? Clearly, those of you that live and work in the South would understand how conversations about the corrupt are not that straight forward. Nevertheless, the latter is not reason enough for us Southern cadres perpetuating corruption, especially corruption that involves stealing organisational resources.

If the twin challenge of capacity (skills) and corruption is not dealt with, the international development leadership/power shift to the South will be undermined and with disastrous consequences. Southern leaders, especially those in International development, owe getting this right to the poor.

What should be done to avoid derailing International development leadership/power-shift to the Southern-cadre/CSO?

Given the above situation, the natural temptation is to think that the Southern-cadre and, in general, operational context, cannot be weaned from direct Northern support and accompaniment. Yet at the same time, I am positive that with the right strategy to address the capacity and operational challenges, specifically corruption, the development industry can get the best out of the ongoing leadership/power shift to the South.

International development entities that will continue to be effective in the South, post the current Southern-leadership/power shift will:

1. Invest in organisational leaders that can get the best out of people that are of average capacity. The natural instinct of a leader is to deliver conditionally, under what I call the Rolls-Royce effect, i.e. give me the very best staff and skills, in a well-facilitated environment, and I will provide super productivity. However, those leaders that will succeed in complex Southern-environments will have the knack for getting the very best out of the average, and moreover in contexts that are near to impossible working in. Tell you what, this is not a typical leadership skill. You are looking for a particular rear leadership profile to get this
2. Invest in bottom-up monitoring systems that will ensure beneficiaries of development aid are directly made aware of their entitlements plus provide simple digital technology channels to feedback up. This is amongst the major tools in the fight against corruption in international development programming.

Taking the cue from Sir Alex Ferguson – Manchester United manager to 2013:

What we see happening today in international development, is not very different from what the current owners of Manchester United football club the Glazer family, have done to that great club. The Glazers bought the club against a background of heavy gearing, invested little over the years in world-class players as they tried to pay back the massive debt they took to buy the club. Despite displeasure from the fans and other industry watchers, the Glazers gamble paid off. The owners benefited from the pedigree of a manager, that was able to achieve so much, with average quality players. Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to turn the average into extraordinary has lessons for us in international development. Moreover, lessons applicable to both people and systems.

The state of Manchester United football club in the Glazer conglomerate era, has striking similarities with the status-quo in the International development industry, specifically the INGO:

• The club was bought against a background of heavy-gearing and left with not enough funds to invest in players; the INGO without access to stock markets, lacks sustainable means to deepen its working capital. Lacking capital of its own = under-investment in strategic functions like knowledge management, research, etc
• Other clubs in the English premier league like Manchester City and Chelsea with deep capital pockets invested in core business and started challenging for honors, territory dominated by Manchester United for years; the INGO has seen new players enter the industry (smaller social-enterprise DNA) that are proving to be serious competition with their new development paradigm
• Manchester United while with foreign players, has a history of developing native English players through their youth academy; the INGO is of late investing heavily in native Southern-cadres and reducing its expat staff
• Manchester united under Alex Ferguson was able to compete and get honors in a very competitive league, despite the lack of investment in top-end players; the INGO is phasing out layers of expatriate staff and having to do with native Southern-cadres at its disposal + have to keep the same level of programming excellence
• Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson used a systems-approach to get the very best out of average players; INGO’s will also have to invest in systems including technology, new ways to organise, results delivery and monitoring models suited to the compound operations in the South including monitoring corruption

So, what did Sir Alex Ferguson bring to the table that the development industry and INGO can model?

• Tenacity re.: getting the very best out of whatever resources you have, even if average
• Use systems to augment any capacity gaps in people
• Individual Man/Woman management at the top of the agenda since under such a system – you cannot afford to lose sight of that
• TRUST in what you have and getting the very best out of them; that calls for risk-taking on the side of leaders – demanding the very highest of standards but allowing space and time for mistakes and learning. Leaders will know how delicate achieving this balance is, even for Ferguson the master of the game
• Tough on accountability, even in this paradigm built around average human resources
• Build a system that fits and delivers to your organisations value proposition. For example, the INGO may opt to invest in systems that provide bottom-up value-for-money management information systems, especially as a tool to fight corruption

Of course, there is one downside to this giant of a leader model and others that will want to model his ways. He built a cult and that without the man himself, Manchester United came down a rank. It is up to organisations, and INGO’s should be listening to this, to ensure that succession planning addresses this danger and that selection of successors is deliberate about looking for similar, if not better, pedigree.

Have International development operations in the South, specifically the INGO, invested enough in leaders that can get the very best out of what is obviously average, in both systems and people? If yes, is it genuine or simply tokenism?


6 responses to “The move to ‘Southernise’ International development and the capacity/corruption challenge – surprise solution!”

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  2. Gilbert Muyumbu Avatar
    Gilbert Muyumbu

    Interesting points you have raised in this insightful article, Apollo. Just as a brief beginning in reading your write up, I would pick on one of the issues you have hinted at – the motivation to ‘southernize.’ My problem is not so much the capacity in the South when the Northern ‘leader’ leaves, but rather the nature of the relationship that emerges out of ‘southernization.’ If the motivation is to save on resources as hinted to by one of the commentators, then we are still operating within the framework of southernizing which is still heavily defined by the relationship of Northern domination of development knowledge and framing. I suppose transformational southernization should be about shifting relationships of power between the North and South to make them more progressive, rather than replacement of the North by South, the way for instance a Northern company would move from the North to the South because of the labour-cost implications. We should be pitching for a framework of Southernization that frames southernization as a shift in relationships of power between North and South. Obviously, the Northern CS sits in a position of privilege over the Southern CS, which is of course a reflection of the larger societal domination of the South by the North. It is the one that largely analyses, frames and represents reality. It is the one that deploys the power of resources to shape reality in the way it deems fit. Whereas this may work to attain certain positive developmental outcomes, it does not help deal with the larger, entrenched problems of continued domination. If we framed southernization as a unique moment to shift power relations between North and South, the Northern CS would appreciate its role and work to turn it into a positive factor in fighting poverty, which in itself is a symptom of domination. Not only would it help the Southern CS to build knowledge and capabilities around working on longstanding domination, but it would also help the Southern CS deal with other aspects of domination that the Southern CS battles – the domination emerging from local sources such as politics, economy and culture. In other words, let’s expand the scope of southernization beyond resources and cutting costs. It should be about framing the relationship between the Northern and Southern CS as that of allies in the fight against domination, whatever the source. The Northern CS should then avail some of its privileges to its Southern counterpart (these may of course include resources and technical capacities, but more importantly for me, spaces and platform for the South to shape its own reality) to battle domination and target the root causes of poverty. But is the Northern CS prepared for this? is it prepared for a Southern voice that questions its continued dominance -would it deploy its resources to support such a southern CS? That is the question.


    1. Dear Gilbert – thanks for taking time to read the blog and raising critical issues in this Southernisation discourse. I don’t know if we should be asking if the North is ready for the power shift as opposed to IF THE SOUTH HAS WHAT IT TAKES TO EMBRACE THE POWER that may be!

      We in the South Gilbert, need to put our house in order to achieve the good you outline above in your comment – the North may indeed not be ready as you say to let go, but are we ready to take on the mandate? We at times appear dysfunctional and that worries me – perhaps you, me, and others should be investing time to explore this a little more

      Thanks sir!


  3. Yes Apollo, we need to handle these hot potatoes and you are doing a great job of serving them here! Let us dig in – the time is ripe!


  4. Apollo, again a very interesting and thought-provoking article there – kudos!

    Just some random thoughts the article has excited in me as I read through:

    1. ‘Southernising development’ – this is very interesting – are we Southernising the ‘concept of development’ or the ‘agency of development’? I believe both ought to be Southernised because linked to the capacity gap is the important lack of appreciation for development as a concept among local / national staff and the attendant lack of commitment to improving the lives of the people that INGOs and Local NGOs have erstwhile strived to serve. As long as the appreciation of the concept of development is lacking, we are open to abuse of the power we hold as development agents as well as to corrupt practices all for our own vested interests as Southern development actors. You have quite exhaustively addressed the need to Southernise the agency of development, that is, the INGO. You have discussed the pros and cons and explored the risks that exist contextually. However, the question I would like to pose at this juncture is, should this apparent knee-jerk reaction to Southernise the development agency proceed without due attention to Southernising the development context? And, should we agree that they both need attention, what is the logical process and which precedes the other?

    2. The parallel with soccer – this serves well to explain what ought to happen to secure the future of the Southernised INGO (I am not an ardent soccer fan but I could relate to the parallels!). What got me thinking is that in football there are clear-cut rules and roles of all players on the pitch are quite clear. The coach has to focus his (yet to see a ‘she’ but I know she will be here soon enough!) efforts on ensuring that each players efforts are well coordinated with others on the pitch so as to land the ball in the opponent’s net. However, in the development arena as it stands today, there are no clear rules and the players are very diverse in their roles and abilities and skills. Development agencies focus on different sectors and projects and each has its own set of success / change indicators. The efforts to popularize the sphere standards and Rights Based Approaches as a possible means to standardize the measure of outcomes and progress doesn’t, unfortunately, seem to have caught on with many agencies yet (I stand to be corrected on this). But my thought is, in the absence of clear rules and a diversely trained and skilled work force, how are we able to say that the ‘baby is ready to be weaned’? What are the indicators that if this baby is weaned at the moment it will actually survive and blossom? I have in mind examples of INGOs that nationalized (no names!) and, within a year, they were unrecognizable insofar as their areas of focus, program approach, and program delivery are concerned. I have these as my living examples of what may be the consequence of Southernising development, and I am genuinely concerned as to whether this is the time to go full-speed in with Southernisation.

    3. The motivation for Southernisation – I agree with your observation above that this move should not be spurred and driven by the dearth of resources being experienced in the development sector presently. It has to be well-thought out and a multi-faceted approach developed to address the multi-pronged issues you have surfaced in the various articles you have put together on these issues. I am tuned-in. . .

    Again, these are random thoughts bouncing around my head after reading the article and I am not even sure that they have any order to them or entirely make sense, but there they are for you and others to mull on!


    1. Dear AA – again, excellent insight from you, all the way from Afghanistan – thank you very much!

      – on the Southernising Agency vs. Context, you touch another hot-potato in development, and one we don’t always want to talk about in the open. Do the local staff in the South join development agencies b’se they are seeking bread & butter, or b’se the context and needs of the poor, have won over their hearts and minds? A number simply are looking for bread and butter and haven’t yet CONNECTED/BOUGHT INTO the the context at hand which is to work so hard to eradicate poverty. Perhaps the fact that these staff are born in poverty, witness poverty amongst their kin daily, makes them some what immune re.: wanting to fight the evils of poverty – I would rather think that the opposite is actually true!! Yes, how do we endure commitment to cause?

      – on the parallel with soccer and Sir Alex Ferguson, my cry is that we should be looking for leaders with the pedigree, & they are not in abundance, to get the best out of the average..Aswani, you know the tenacity, skill, and patience required to have the average deliver excellence at work!! That is what Ferguson & Manchester United did. Development is full of ‘Rolls-Royce’ conditioned leaders & those won’t cut it

      Hmmmmm – that is development for us AA!

      Liked by 1 person

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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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