Development Issues

Critical Thinking about the World’s Development

A Critical Approach to International Development

São Paulo, 01/Oct/2007 | By Rui Mesquita Cordeiro |

A Critical Approach to International Development: Downsizing the Aid Chain for Alternative Strategies of North/South Cooperation


By Rui Mesquita Cordeiro*

São Paulo, Brazil, 01 October 2007


Especially written for the occasion of the Dutch Experts Meeting on International Development Cooperation; an event organized by The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with the Nijmegen Centre for International Development Issues, held in The Hague, The Netherlands, between 22-23 October 2007


Have international donors (multilateral, bilateral, nongovernmental/CSO[1] and private philanthropy) been doing successful aid for development in regions like Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific in the last decades? Since the end of Cold War and the end of the 20th century, Majid Rahnema and others are voicing that development, as proposed in its early days of the 1940s and the 1950s, has achieved its end (Rahnema, 1997:378). As he argues, development was an ideology that was born and refined in the “north”, mainly to meet the needs of “northern” interests; moreover, it was “imposed on its target populations”, being “the wrong answer to their true needs and aspirations” (ibid.:379). “Northern” thinkers of the 1990s, like David C. Korten (Korten, 1992:54), highlights that 650 million people lived in absolute poverty in 1970, and twenty years latter this number almost doubled to something in between 1 and 1.2 billion people. Consequently, how can we attribute any success at all to development policies throughout the second half of the 20th century? In addition, Rahnema points that the new millennium is the beginning of a “post-development era”, that “does not imply in the end of a search for new possibilities of change”; on the contrary, it is a time to shift the focus, giving “birth to new forms of solidarity and friendship” among countries (Rahnema, 1997:391). In the end, the central point in post-development ideas is the possibility to unmake development, as it was once planed, and give it many brand new faces, where people can be in the centre of the action.

Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. This “post-development era” so begun with two main contradictory development agendas coming from the “north”: the MDG[2] and the international security crises. On the one hand, domestic budgets of many “developing” countries and multilateral agencies were oriented to aim towards the millennium goals; on the other hand, bilateral and ODA[3] budgets of many OECD[4] countries were turned towards security and international boarders issues, against the fear of international terrorism. Furthermore, “northern” nongovernmental/CSO seemed to be highly divided in between following MDG or ODA trends and diversifying fundraising sources in order to pursue more autonomous development strategies, especially those based in Europe. “Northern” private philanthropists, on their side, have been more autonomous from such trends; however, private philanthropy has been realizing rapidly about the domestic problems of their countries of origin, especially those based in the USA[5], and therefore they are starting to see ways on how to act more domestically than internationally. In sum, this new “northern” scenario is the one crucially shaping the new relationships around development matters in the 21st century. However, one important question remains: are these efforts enough to address the social challenges of the planet? I am afraid that the most realistic answer here is no!

In the “south” the scenario differs a lot from the above one. From astonishing poverty in Africa to deplorable inequalities in Latin America; from overcrowding survival in Asia to endless struggles for identity and autonomy in the Middle East; we still face the same old problems of long ago. Perhaps, the only thing new in common that some of us start to share in the “south” (apart of a persistent and mixed feeling of suffering and hope) is the new brand identity of being from the “south”. At first, at least in Latin America realities, the main goal pursued by many “southern” governments was to “become” an Europe/USA like country, what arose to a significant share of the population a feeling of not to be proud of our own countries and culture. The dreamed leap from the old fashioned “third world” to the called “first world” club seems to be aborted right now, due to the multi-folded realities of our “post-development era”. Instead, movements of political empowerment from within are starting to take place.

Latin America, being the region with the longest independency processes within the colonised “south”, is a good case study about that new era. There, the phenomena of popular movements (and sometimes populist as well) achieving political power by direct and democratic means is a clear sign of something new happening. On the other hand, certain segments of civil society are each day more and more achieving new organisation standards. I say certain segments, because others (more dependent of foreign aid) are finding space for crises, as a consequence of the change of aid flown caused by the MDG and the changes on ODA policies. Local philanthropy, for instance, is creating brand new “southern” assets to promote development from within, although still lacking a lot of expertise on how to do the proposed development work. Social movements are organising international meetings and social forums all over the continent and the world, enhancing and promoting new south-south conversations. Such movements are actually giving birth to new development agendas. Issues like participatory democracy, grassroots empowerment, renewable fuels, international fair trade, south-south aid and tech cooperation, social justice, inter-culturalism, micro-credit, direct downwards money transfers, the Doha round, international democracy, and more effective participation in international and multilateral organisations, among many others, are populating this “southern” development agenda in the 21st century. Although, and naturally, the MDG and new ODA agendas still have the largest piece of the international development cake, the cake seems to be no longer made of “northern” ingredients only.

In addition, south-south ties have been strengthened: economic blocks in Latin America, Africa and Asia are trying to find their pathway in the international economic system; the called BRIC[6] countries, although still far from being considered a block or even politically aligned, have been rapidly beginning to behave as empowered actors in the international arena; the number of multinational companies with headquarters in the “south” seems to be quickly increasing; civil society’s world social forums are spreading all over the “southern” world (right now in a phase of going grassroots, with local social forums taking place everywhere), and even in the “north” as well.

Another relevant aspect is the fact that our boundaries are disappearing. Yes, even though we are trying to re-establish them, especially because of the given security crises and the migration problems, our boundaries are actually blurring. In today’s complex world, single categorisation of relationships in East/West, North/South (as we are doing in here), intra-state or inter-state is no longer enough. Ideology, governance, ethnicity, environment and identity play today a much stronger role than in the near past. “Northern” elements and actors are easily found in the “south”, just as the opposite is also true. The notion of local and global is another idea under mutation. The catchphrase “think globally act locally” is each day more confused with the idea of “think locally act globally”. Development blueprints were basically fitting within this second idea, rather than the first one. As Rahnema suggests, they were, and sometimes still are, just “northern” thinking applied worldwide, including those “northern” like thinking that are raised within “southern” regions and vice-versa.

Development, in sum, is no longer a single sided recipe predicted by actors that are already considered “developed” and therefore should have enough knowledge about how to help others to get there too. Different countries and realities require different approaches and different strategies. The unity of analysis usually used in development studies, the country, is also under doubt. Both macro and micro analysis are also needed. How developed is our planet as a whole, as if it was considered as a single country?

But it is not enough. Neither the “south” nor the “north” can be charged of solving the development problems of the planet alone. Partnerships are strongly needed, especially what I call the “north-south/south-north” ones; otherwise, unwanted conflicts may emerge, again. On the one hand, “north-south/south-north” partnerships have been by far more proposed by “northern” actors, according to their own agenda, usually aiming the development of the “south”. On the other hand, conflicts become an unwanted outcome of this relationship, when there is little space for “southern” actors to carry on their own agenda aiming not only their own development, but the development of the planet as a whole. To avoid it and to build more “southern” trust towards “northern” actors, we can try to build more partnerships based on “southern” agendas. In the end, equilibrium between both agendas is needed and necessary, but it is time now to balance this equation, and “northern” actors have a decisive role for this. Leadership and negotiation are essential skills in this stage, for both sides.


Reinventing the models for a more efficient “north-south/south-north” cooperation


Traditional models of aid flow also differ from each other, but basically they share a common characteristic: the economical decision making power remains at the top (Biekart, 1999), and consequently its accountability is predominately upwards. Kees Biekart presents his representation of the “aid chain”, in the case of Northern ODA through CSO:


Image 1: Aid Chain – Northern ODA through CSO (Biekart, 1999:79)


On this traditional European model, at least five direct accountability chains are linked compulsorily upwards (and optionally downwards). At the top, a northern government is drafting and taking decision upon the main themes and issues to be addressed by the chain, downwards. At the bottom, southern citizens in need rarely know where the money is coming from, and how much of the original amount is actually reaching them at the grassroots. Although very much common in Europe, this model is quite costly, once a significant amount of the original money donated at the top as taxes or private donations are spent with intermediary costs (as personnel, equipment, and so on) within an elevated number of intermediaries from top to bottom.


Image 2: Aid Chain – Multilateral Agencies through CSO



Similar to the previous one, this model brings five direct chains of decision making and accountability. Some would say six, because there is also an accountability relationship between the northern government and its citizens, who pay the taxes. Even though a great example on how countries may cooperate with each other through partnerships, usually the politics within the multilateral organisations create a higher level of bureaucracy on their decision making processes. Again, this is a very costly model, maybe even more in relation to the first one. However it has a different purpose, as said: the cooperation among nations.


Image 3: Aid Chain – State Owned Aid Organisations through CSO


Another common architecture takes place when a state creates its own aid agency, to operate development donations. It is less bureaucratic and has fewer intermediaries; however, the government influence is really high. Such influence may be too much dependent of the political health and tendency of the government. Less continuity and identity shifting could be usual and a threat. Three to four levels of accountability are seen (four if you consider the relation between the northern government and its tax payers).



Image 4: Aid Chain – Private Foundations through CSO


In theory less bureaucratic, and normally established through private endowments (sometimes also through public endowments), private foundations’ aid model (or philanthropy, as many would prefer) involves three levels of accountability and decision making. Less costly, this model can be very efficient; however, the quality of the foundation’s board of trustees is critical for its good governance. Many foundations, especially in the USA, are reluctant of inviting foreigners as board members; therefore, such board configuration is less qualitative and legitimate to operate internationally. CSO-led public foundations (state originated) would certainly be a very innovative and creative manner to pursue international development.


Another common feature shared by all these models is the bet on the “northern” decision making of development processes, once always “northern” organisations are ultimately at the top. None of them, in fact, bet on “southern” decision making models for “north-south/south-north” cooperation. In times of MDG and terrorism, new models of international cooperation are needed to respond to the new complexities of our “post-development era”. A new international agenda, built from both the “north” and the “south”, should be shared. However, additional “southern” empowerment at the decision making level of the aid chains is critically necessary.

In concert with empowerment, another important concept is participation. Indeed, participation and empowerment are two close concepts, once participation is ultimately about decision making and for that empowerment is needed. Even being related, there is no causality between one and another. On the one hand participation is understood as both means and ends for the people to directly participate in political, economical or social decisions in issues that affect their life; on the other hand empowerment is meant as the ability of individuals, groups and organisations for achieving some autonomy and independence, as well as “the structural conditions which affect the allocations of power in a society and give access to its resources” (Breton, 1994). Furthermore, participation is also seen as complementary to empowerment, as a way to encourage people to assume their rights and to strengthen popular organisations, trough cognitive, psychological, political and economical dimensions (Molyneux and Lazar, 2003).

The challenge for the “north-south/south-north” cooperation lies on the connection between them, as foreseen by Sherry Arnstein (Arnstein, 1969), when she clearly defines participation as citizen power; furthermore she distinguishes the participation in a qualitative scale, the ladder of citizen participation (ibid.). Although this scheme cannot be generalised, it adds that there may be different qualities of participation/empowerment, and it opens up the box of such concepts in a more analytical and critical way.


Image 5: The ladder of citizen participation (Arnstein, 1969)




How to achieve higher levels of “southern” citizens’ empowerment through participation in a suitable aid chain model? From the current models one can say that the relationship between “north” and “south” is located somewhere in between placation and partnership, at Arnstein’s ladder. Moving this “southern” participation upwards is therefore a necessary condition to achieve such higher levels of empowerment. Another good question in order to answer our previous questioning is: how could “northern” development actors delegate more power to their “southern” counterparts?



My search for alternatives to approach an answer to such questionings meets some new discussions that already take place within the Latin American branch of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation[7], a private donor foundation created in the USA in 1930 with the mission of “helping people to help themselves”. Such discussions aim to the case by case adaptation of the Community Foundation Model of community development.


Rethinking community foundations in the light of “north-south/south-north” cooperation


Community foundations are CSO, driven by the community itself. Usually, they are created by endowments that are capable to sustain its development mission and programs in the long term. Another important characteristic of community foundations is that the owners and the beneficiaries are, in part, the same people. Higher levels of empowerment can be exercised here, if the owners are well prepared to run it, representing more realistic delegated power for citizen control. Delegated because the endowment can be done not only by the community members themselves (when that is the case, like in many places in the USA), but also by third parts, usually interested in fostering the development of the community or the territory in question.

According to Fabiana Hernandez-Abreu[8], community foundations may also act as “bridges between donors and nonprofits”. She states that the New York Community Trust, for instance, presents its funds in this way:

“Donors with every kind of philanthropic interest find that a fund with The Trust is a simple, flexible, and rewarding way to accomplish their charitable goals. There are four different funds to choose from: Unrestricted, Field of Interest, Advised, and Designated.” (Abreu, 2007:17)


She highlights that “on the other end of the bridge is the Grant-making or Programming area, in which community foundations, driven by mission and areas of interest, create programs in order to make grants to local non-profit organisations to address community needs” (Abreu, 2007:18).

Certainly, the context of creating community foundations in the USA, or in any other “northern” country, is rather different of creating them in the “south”. In the “north”, the communities themselves are probably more able to create their own initial endowments from within, but in the “south”, with the short of income, this is less plausible. In the “south”, the endowments should be raised from more diverse sources, including (why not?) international sources.

In 2005, Andrés Thompson[9] asked himself: “Is it the ‘community foundation’ concept adaptable to Latin America? And if so: under what conditions?” (Thompson, 2005:5) He argues that, despite of the variety of approaches and definitions, “community foundations are about money and community” (ibid.). For him, two simple approaches to the concept of “community foundations” are: the “money” driven approach and the “community” oriented approach.

He says that “those that see community foundations mainly as channels for the circulation of financial resources are mostly concerned with some of the following issues: Raising endowed funds from a collection of donors; Providing philanthropic services to donors by advising them how to invest their money in worthy causes; Investing the foundation’s assets (usually independently of where) and monitoring its portfolio return; Appointing trustees with influence in the richest segments of local society; Building of assets for perpetuity; Stewardship; and Accountability and transparency in the use of funds” (ibid.: 6-7); among others.

On the other hand, he ponders that “for most of the practitioners in the field of community foundations that see their potential for addressing the community’s problems their major concerns are: Building community capacity; Awareness of community needs and responsiveness to the community; Accountability and transparency in the use of funds; A focus on “living” people and their needs; Board formation and development that reflects (not represent) the varied community interests; Diversity; Building on community assets; Building of social capital; Strengthening the local nonprofit sector; and Community involvement, including governance” (ibid.: 7-8); among others.

Altogether, Thompson considers that “the general concept of a democratic, non-profit, community oriented institution that collects money from within and from outside the community and redistribute it to address the interests and needs of the same community seems a very attractive one, both as an exit strategy for external donors or for resource mobilization within communities, the community foundations’ approach appears to be the ideal one. Several cases from the developing world are there to demonstrate their feasibility” (ibid. p.9). And in relation of its adaptation to “southern” regions, he concludes that factors to be considered in such analysis are: 1) Time (it is a medium to long term strategy); 2) The local legal and tax incentives (they may facilitate, or not, the implementation of a community foundation); 3) Wealth (are the sources enough to generate a sustainable endowment?); 4) Responsiveness to community (they should answer the pressure of addressing the urgent needs of the communities); 5) Resource mobilization and capacity building (sustainable assets building); 6) Leadership role (permanent building of local leadership is essential); and 7) Strategic Grant-making (a clear development agenda to operate the built trust) (ibid. p.10-17). In the end, he concludes that “community foundations are not a model to be copied and replicated everywhere; their feasibility depends of the specific environment in which they intend to grow and develop and, to a large extent, on the leadership capacity of the pioneer group” (ibid. p.18).

The Chinese have already said it long before: where there is a threat, there is also an opportunity. If it is not another blueprint to be copied, than it should be adapted to the context-specific environment in which favourable condition may be set. From my perspective, the adaptation of the model, according to each local place where it is going to be tried, is equally complex as the “north-south/south-north” development relationship of nowadays. The idea, for instance, of a “community foundation” for South America, where South-Americans could address their own development needs through endowments gifted by “northern” development actors is not at all a bad idea to be considered (the same for other “southern” regions). In such case, a new aid chain would be configured. Image 6 bellow attempts to represent it, in a most simple way; once, depending on the context-specific environment, it could be remodelled as the context requires of it. On it, I’ll call it “southern endowment”, not to mislead it with the concept of community foundation. This “southern endowment”, as I call it by now, could be not strictly community oriented, but also thematic or even territorially oriented. In other words, it could be serving a community, a theme (or problem), or a territory (a city, a country, a region).


Image 6: Southern Based Endowment Model




With two-three direct chains of accountability, this attempt risks a downsizing of the traditional aid chain models. Furthermore, a “southern” placed endowment would also entrepreneur in bringing the decision-making of the endowment to the “south”, advancing the empowerment of the “south” on the international development agenda.

Its foreseen sources of resources may be diversified as well, not putting the charge of this asset building in single actors. Here, both resources from “northern” and “southern” sources are introduced, in a joint “north-south/south-north” endeavour.

One of the main challenges would be the board of trustees’ setting. Depending on how this board is set, downwards accountability could be drastically enhanced. For instance, a quota for the participation of grantees in the board is something that could guarantee some downwards accountability.


“Northern” and “southern” actors who gifted the endowment could also have a space in such board; as well, legitimate specialists of the community, theme, and/or the territory served would either find a space there, especially on its first configuration. It is important to highlight that, most probably, space for the endowment donors in the board (especially in the board’s first mandate circle) is also crucial to give such donors the necessary guarantee that in the long run the donated funds must be used towards agreed and shared ends. Ultimately, a culture of full accountability and transparency (upwards and downwards) is mandatory for such type of organisation.

Additionally, a democratic rotation system should be created, in order to guarantee internal democracy and legitimacy for the board of trustees. Altogether, I would defend a mixed board configuration, having on it grantees, specialists (thematic, territorially, and/or community members) and interested donors. Undoubtedly among the initial attributions of the first board, the identity, the programmatic grant-making planning and the administrative/financial use of the trust are key to be set.

The financial feasibility of such endeavour should be realistic. A large experience on trust management has been captured by many foundation officers around the world. Usually, they work with the yearly “5% budget rule”. That means that each year, an average of 5% of the total assets should be spent in both the operation and the programming of the organisation. If one takes into account the amount of ODA/OA expended by a country like The Netherlands, for instance, one could see the following picture:


Image 7: Dutch Gross Bilateral ODA, 2004/2005



For a rough example, if 50% of what The Netherlands gives to, say, India (a democratic country, and a relatively stable and growing economy) would be addressed to the creation of a CSO Indian-led Endowment Fund; that would represent USD 38 million each year, considering the 2004/05 amount to that country. In five years, that would be USD 190 million. Applying the “5% budget rule”, such USD 190 million endowment would represent USD 9.5 million of annual revenue for both operations and programming of this Indian organisation. Usually, the average share of the annual revenue of foundations is 10%-12.5% for operations and 87.5%-90% for programming. By operations I mean all administrative costs of the organisation (including salaries, office expenditures, equipments, and so forth), and by programming I mean the actual grant-making work plus the execution of some project, if that is the case. Considering the example above, this organisation would have an annual budget for operations of about USD 1 million, and a programming annual budget around USD 8.5 million, which is nothing bad at all for a brand new “southern” development organisation.

What about the other 95% of the original endowment? That would be the asset to be invested on the market in order to generate new revenues for the next year. Normally, foundations’ staff members target a minimum 5%-6% return, yearly, over this 95% amount. In our example, this 95% represents some USD 180.5 million; that amount is to be invested at the financial and economical market and it could even help to develop the local economy of the region where it is to be invested.


Please, do take into consideration that the example is very limited, including in terms that, on it, we only explore one endowment source. In general, if well managed, the outcome would be an autonomous and sustainable new way of promoting development through international cooperation efforts, with a shared power balance between “northern” and “southern” partners.


Concluding Remarks


Our new and complex world requires new and complex strategies. The one proposed in this paper is far from being simple, but it is a chance for “northern” development policy makers to listen to “southern” development thinkers, sharing agendas and delegating more power southwards. As one of the consequences, this position has a strong potential to revert a lot of the criticism against the “north” coming from “southern” voices. Moreover, more than a simple development thematic strategy, this is a sustainable legacy strategy to foster long term development among nations. You plant a seed, and let it blossom.

This alternative way would certainly require new roles of both “northern” and “southern” donors, CSO and policy makers. New researches should be foreseen, as well as new kinds of more horizontal relationships between governments, CSO and people. The locus of such relationships, in our case here, would be primarily within the board of trustees of these endowment organisations. The balance of power among the board members and a diverse composition are vital.

Southern visions of long-term structural development would finally achieve a new level of implementation; a practical one. Goals and indicators can be easily used to measure the effectiveness of such process, including social and economical indicators. Additionally, market actors could also play their role, once market expertise is a requirement for the good governance of the endowment assets and for the long term financial sustainability the organisation.

To conclude, all of that might be an effective and innovative new strategy to foster development on this planet, rejoining “south” and “north” in a common endeavour. Some practical experiments about this logic are already under early stages of planning and drafting in the western side of the Atlantic. Other initiatives would be very much welcomed, but how far this is going to get is a question for time, visioning and political will to answer.





Abreu, Fabiana Hernandez (2007). Community Foundations: a Vehicle to Endorse and Sustain Local Development Processes Taking Place in Colonia/Uruguay? New York: City University of New York.


Arnstein, Sherry R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. In: JAIP, Vol. 35 (4). Pp. 216-224. (10-July-2006)


Biekart, Kees (1999). The Politics of Civil Society Building. Amsterdam: International Books & Transnational Institute.


Breton, Margot (1994). Relating competence: Promotion and empowerment. In: Journal of Progressive Human Services, Vol. 5 (1). Pp. 27-45.


Friedman, John (1992). Empowerment – The Politics of Alternative Development. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.


Korten, David C. (1992). People-Centred Development, in Bauzon, Kenneth E. – Development and Democratization in the Third World – Myths, Hopes, and Realities. New York: Yeshiva University.


Molyneux, Maxine and Sian Lazar (2003). Implementing rights: participation, empowerment and governance. In: Maxine Molyneux and Sian Lazar, Doing the Rights Thing: Rights-Based Development and Latin American NGOs. London: ITDG Publishing. Pp. 50-62.


Rahnema, Majid (1997). Towards Post-Development: searching for signposts, a new language and new paradigms, in: Rahnema, Majid & Bawtree, Victoria (1997) The Post-Development Reader. Dhaka: University Press LTD.


Thompson, Andrés A. (2005). Exploring the concept of “community foundations” and its adaptability to Latin America. New York: City University of New York.












*Rui Mesquita Cordeiro is Brazilian and is currently working for W.K. Kellogg Foundation as its Program Associate for Latin America and the Caribbean, based in São Paulo, Brazil. His Masters degree in Politics of Alternative Development Studies was achieved at the Institute of Social Studies, in The Hague, The Netherlands. Other articles of him are published at

* /

) +55 11 8541-9186 / +55 11 4191-2233 x. 113

[1] CSO: Civil Society Organisation.

[2] MDG: Millennium Development Goals.

[3] ODA: Official Development Assistance.

[4] OECD: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (

[5] USA: United States of America.

[6] BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

[7] W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF):

[8] Uruguayan, Fabiana is a local leader of development processes in the city of Colonia, Uruguay.

[9] Argentinean, Andrés is Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, based in Brazil.


1 October, 2007 - Posted by | Intl Cooperation

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