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View the documentStrategies for development organizations

Strategies for development organizations

The Children and the Nations: The Story of UNICEF, by Maggie Black, UNICEF, Sidney, 1986, 502 p.

This is a heavy book, but the author lays the fascinating detail of UNICEF's history before the reader with crisp skill. What makes the book so gripping is the juxtaposition of the aims of those who direct the organization and the reality of the world in which it must operate. We read of strong-willed autocrats pushing their id fixes through the corridors of power to gain funds for the organization's programmes and the authority to act among the group targeted as its beneficiaries. We are carried along by their visions of the good that can be achieved. We are thrilled by the tactics with which they gain the money and status they seek. We see their evasions, the careful "laundering" of words, the alliances with disliked rivals forged by the need to retain a foothold in the institutional empire that aid had become by the end of the Second World War. We see the courting of politicians (divided into camps of those who were compliant and therefore "good" and those who were not, and therefore "bad" or "not able to understand"), and most difficult of all, the ruses and discretions necessary to avoid being tarred by one ideological warring leader or feathered by another.

First-rate accounts of internecine warfare are provided by the strategies to ensure that UNICEF first achieved legitimacy and autonomy as an organization, and then that it achieved status among all the other organizations that jostle for the international dollar; the satisfaction, in 1972, of a "formal recognition by the system that UNICEF was primarily a development rather than a humanitarian organisation"; and the tussle between Sweden and the United States for the leadership of UNICEF when long-time director Henry Labouisse retired.

The other side of the story. By revealing the environment within which the directors and planners of UNICEF's programmes work, the imperatives that drive them, the world they must woo for their organization's daily bread, and the criteria by which they judge the success or failure of programmes in the field, the author has provided the reader with an intelligible context in which to place the other side of the story: the partial successes and the many failures of development programmes, and in this particular case, those of UNICEF with its charter of aid to the poorest of the poor - mothers and their children.

The repetition of failure that is the fate of so many programmes planned to distribute a technical aid and that rely on the replication of an observed response for their success is a commonly observed phenomenon that flourishes in international aid programmes. One too often observes it in anger, and as the years pass and it continues to flourish, one wonders at the ignorance and stupidity of authorities who continue to approve and finance programmes that are obviously going to fail once they come face to face with the reality of the resources of poverty, village community mores, or climate.

Yet the author, by placing in such close propinquity the account of the imperatives of the organization per se and the operation of its programmes in the field, enables us to see how logical it must seem to those who give authoritative approval to seek solutions to difficulties by escaping from the local to the global and, these days, the galactic. Time and again a programme that begins by showing promise but then slows down is seized upon and dramatized into a "global approach". The dizzy delights of "projection" take over and the pencils fly - if vaccine X or a cup of milk for every poor child in country Y makes an advance in the war against poverty, then 1 million vaccines X and cups of milk galore in developing countries all over the world will perform miracles. Not content with merely providing the original product, the planners launch out into vast schemes - dairy plants where cows never were ("civilization follows the cow" was the rallying cry) and health schemes to support the vaccine supplies. Inevitably, given the scale envisaged - the global enormity of it all - discouragement follows. A scapegoat is sought and is found in a lack of infrastructure in the countries concerned, in ignorance, and, most baffling of all, in the idiosyncratic nature of humanity that defeats the well-meant ambitions and scrupulously planned programmes of those autocratic, strong-minded men who, fighting for the life of their organization and squeezing funds out of important and powerful people, seem never to understand that the small successes in matching need and service may in fact be their triumphs.

But drama is their life's blood, so the next chapter finds them judiciously describing the failure, developing strategies for change from it, holding conferences of experts to pool ideas, commissioning an exhaustive report to record the "mea culpas" and the fervently expressed new directions that must be taken to avoid past mistakes. The new policy is launched from the top and off we go again.

By 1986 a "planetary" approach had superseded the global goal and the newest hope, PHC (Primary Health Care), had begun the process of moving from rhetoric and lip service to becoming the recipient of actual funds to support its operation.

This flair for drama may well be a problem in long-term development, but when the "loud emergency" of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, or the horror of the Nigerian civil war, or the terrifying earthquake of Agadir strikes, it produces a response from UNICEF that is awesome in its efficiency and its practised expertise. The "loud" emergency of starving and misplaced children at the end of the Second World War provided the genesis of UNICEF. This account of its struggle to accommodate its expertise to the complex and, to Western minds, awkward and often incomprehensible lives of the women and children who suffer what many believe to be avoidable povery, bids fair to become something of a classic in the study of development organizations.

Lynne Chatterton