Learning to listen – and other ways that ‘nations succeed’

Of course, I want to hear from black women who benefit from development assistance, but I also want to hear from those who are leading it; from the ministers, the academics, the journalists, the health professionals and the CEOs.”

This line is taken from Lorriann Robinson’s brilliant tour-de-force on race and development – and it really struck a chord.

How often in the development sector do we genuinely seek out Southern voices? And when we do, why do we often overlook the countless experts driving transformative, local change?

How nations succeed

With these questions at the front of my mind, it was very welcome to arrive at the launch of the Legatum Institute’s new research programme on development: How Nations Succeed. The panel included Lord Boateng, former High Commissioner to South Africa and one of the UK’s most formidable anti-racism campaigners. He was joined by Tsitsi Masiyiwa, the Zimbabwean Chief Executive of Higherlife, one of the largest scholarship programmes in Africa.

Lord Boateng, Tsitsi and others were asked to give their view on some of the Legatum Institute’s initial hypothesis on why nations succeed. These include: a premium on positive leadership; meaningful national identity that corresponds with national borders; and relative peace and stability.

The discussion was incredibly interesting – with plenty of support for the Legatum Institute’s approach, alongside an equal dose of constructive challenge.

Much of this challenge was focused on the African ‘success stories’ Botswana and Mauritius, both of whom benefit from a much clearer national identity than many African nations.

Good leadership

This led to a lively debate on the importance of leadership. With so many African nations made up of different ethnic groups and identities, a premium was placed on genuinely inclusive and participatory leadership; that which can build consensus across competing views and experiences around a clear and inclusive vision of prosperity.

Linked to this, was the importance of ensuring change is genuinely locally-led. The Legatum Institute found that to be truly transformative, change had to be driven by national actors. There was strong agreement from panellists that less direct foreign interference in national affairs was desperately needed.

This point took me back to the questions at the beginning.

Local action

Is it because we feel compelled to justify aid spending to UK decision makers that we focus on recipients at the expense of local leaders? And in doing so, do we mask the truth of development – that transformative and sustainable change must be locally led? And if this is the case, is there still a role for global systems, such as overseas development assistance (ODA); the sustainable development goals; and the rules and norms of war?

The answer to all three questions is: yes.

Development must be local. But for ‘developed’ and developing nations alike, global rules and norms are necessary to protect minority rights and set global standards. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. To be upheld, these rights must exist beyond the nation-state.

The same is true of aid. ODA alone will not deliver prosperity – but by responding in times of crisis; keeping children alive; and acting as a catalyst for national change, it can be transformative. However, both local ownership of how this aid is spent, and national rules to ensure rich countries cannot simply use it to advance their own agenda, are equally important.

As a sector, we should be utterly confident in making this case. This is something Save the Children are trying to do much more regularly – putting the voices of young people first.

It is incumbent on us to listen to “the ministers, the academics, the journalists, the health professionals and the CEOs” from the Global South – ensuring these voices both challenge donors to spend aid better and lead by example.

Let us listen to Lorriann, and take a leaf out the Legatum Institute’s book, and encourage fewer ‘thank yous’ and far more challenging debates.

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