The unintended consequences of development projects

June 24, 2021

David Scott at the University of Karlstad shares the main conclusions from his doctoral thesis on the projectification of development assistance.

David Scott. Photo: Private.

Swedish international development assistance is increasingly organized into projects, transforming politics into measurable and controlled activities. We met with David Scott, PhD and Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Karlstad, who has explored how projects are used to organise Swedish development assistance and the consequences of increasing projectification.

Swedish development assistance has ambitious and transformational goals. Its motives are based on solidarity towards the international community and stand on a rationale of promoting values such as democracy, human rights and social equality. At the same time, the ongoing projectification means that we increasingly organise development assistance into technical, results-oriented, and time-limited projects. David Scott argues that this creates a paradox between ambition and means. He asks what consequences such projectification has for the potential impact of development assistance.

With a background in political science, David began his doctoral studies in late 2015. Five years later he presented his dissertation (Dis)assembling Development: Organizing Swedish Development Aid through Projectification at the University of Karlstad. His thesis relates to both international development and public sector management and adds an interesting perspective to researchers and practitioners alike.

The thesis explores how projects as a form of governing shape Swedish development assistance. “I am interested in how development projects are constructed and assembled,” he says and explains that he wanted to discuss the power relations that are reproduced and contested in the construction of development projects. To learn about such dynamics, David has observed and interviewed several development actors including civil society organisations, Swedish state donors and consultancy firms in international development.

The depoliticisation of development

David describes himself as a theoretical researcher, which has inspired his research. He wanted to say something critical about the neoliberal power structures that permeate our society and wondered how these come into expression through different forms of governing. He argues that the project format in development assistance can be seen as a symptom of neoliberal thinking. Similar to the managerialism inherent in neoliberalism, the project format embodies social change as linear and rational. Nevertheless, development assistance is built on high ambitions of transforming society. How we structure the development sector today is therefore in itself a paradox. Observing how this plays out in reality, David argues that the ongoing projectification has political consequences. In fact, David concludes that the project format makes development assistance very depoliticised – it is now more about fulfilling the bureaucratic requirements of the project rather than being political. “It goes against the very ambitions of development aid, which is to transform society in some way,” David says.

Reimagining development assistance

But what are the consequences of this? A question coming to mind is how depoliticised development assistance impacts the effectiveness of development projects. However, David stresses that his thesis is not part of the debate on aid efficiency. “In the neoliberal discourse, we can only criticise things that we do on the basis of efficiency and effectiveness. However, the consequences of depoliticisation are much more severe than development assistance occasionally being ineffective from an economic standpoint.” His analysis focuses on this discussion. Depoliticising development becomes a way of silencing conflicts and contradictions, he argues, making it impossible to turn development into a political issue. This shapes what is possible to do through development efforts.

In particular, David analyses and exemplifies the depoliticisation of aid in relation to worldviews, power and colonialism. When development is projectified, inequalities and power – including colonial power relations – are not challenged or contested. The development project could in this way be seen as a subtle continuation of colonialism where the project is utilised to spread and normalise westernised views of development. This in itself becomes a threat to development aid’s transformational ambitions, David writes in his conclusion. Reducing development to measurable activities means that we cannot fully approach crises of democracy, climate change or global inequality. In order to address the main global issues of today, perhaps development has to be understood from alternative worldviews beyond its current strict and bureaucratic form, he says.

Looking forward

The conclusions may stimulate a discussion about how we have chosen to organise development assistance in Sweden. In the meanwhile, research on the organisational form of development assistance and its consequences continues. Future research may look at how to connect the projectification of development to thematic themes, such as feminist and union organising, climate change and sustainability. This is also in line with David’s current research. While teaching at the University of Karlstad, he will also explore gender expertise in peacebuilding in Myanmar to understand how women’s organisations’ work is affected when it is forced to fit the project format. What other unintended consequences of development projectification might we discover through future research?

Written by Alice Castensson, Consultant, SweDev