A longtime NGO enthusiast belatedly discovers that international development programs are an invasive species that change the targeted societies in unexpected, and often negative ways, and reliably fail to achieve the results intended.
This is the paradox: When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected. You can find examples of this in every corner of development practice. A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone. Communities in India cut off their own water supply so they could be classified as “slums” and be eligible for slum-upgrading funding. I’ve worked in places where as soon as a company sets up a health clinic or an education program, the local government disappears—why should they spend money on primary schools when a rich company is ready to take on the responsibility?
My favorite example of unintended consequences comes, weirdly enough, from the United States. In a speech to a criminology conference, Nancy G. Guerra, the director of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Delaware, described a project where she held workshops with inner-city Latina teenagers, trying to prevent them from joining gangs. The program worked in that none of the girls committed any violence within six months of the workshops. But by the end of that time, they were all, each and every one, pregnant.
“That behavior was serving a need for them,” she says in her speech. “It made them feel powerful, it made them feel important, it gave them a sense of identity. … When that ended, [they] needed another kind of meaning in their lives.”
The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.
But it should be kept in mind that this dynamic works both ways. Mass migrants are also an invasive species, and they change the “ecosystem” they are invading every bit as much, and as “unexpectedly”, as the development programs do.