What Development Is and What It Could Be

by Ryan Schlief


I stood on the dock with a beer.

The lake was similar to the lakes where I grew up. People were in boats fishing or eating at a water-side restaurant. Families lived here. And many others came from town to get away for a few minutes of relative peace. As I stood there taking it all in, in one corner a massive pipe pumped sand and water into the lake. Looking out on the water, I could not imagine what would eventually happen to this lake and those living nearby.

It would take time to fill the entire lake. Gradually land sprung up as if there had been a drought. Elsewhere, where thousands of families lived, the pipe continued for many months to flood them over - submerging homes, streets and lives under water and silt.

In a shady real estate deal, the land around and under the water had been leased to build luxury apartments. This sounds so unbelievable, but it’s true. Throughout, an estimated 20,000 people were forced from their homes and off their land.

And, have you seen these luxury apartments?

I haven’t either — because they don’t exist.

In the past five years this land has sat empty. The investors have moved on and the local developers claim the project could eventually be made. The World Bank stopped funding to Cambodia entirely when nearby communities organized against the project. Since 2007, I have only seen this proposed project in Phnom Penh, Cambodia cause complete destruction for so many. When I compare what I saw on the dock back then to what exists today, I wonder how could all of this happen?

The promise of development to improve the lives of people has been lost.

As IAP and our partners have seen countless times in many countries, the current focus of development is purely on the end product itself and the purported economic benefit to a few. These projects are conceived, designed and funded by a very small number of people — often people who have never stepped foot in the country, let alone have spoken with those in the community itself. It is extremely rare for those who will be affected — whether positively or negatively — to be involved. In fact, they often don’t even find out what’s happening until after the project is already set into motion.

Drawing from one of the largest community-led surveys on global development — involving 800 people in eight countries — the findings of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team show how local expertise can change development for the better. As one person in Zimbabwe said,

“Development must be shaped by the people. Poverty cannot be eradicated only by people not affected by it — people must also fight their own poverty.”

IAP started this initiative to show that those who face development are the ones who can in turn improve it. Surely those who have seen how development changes their lives — for better or for worse — are best placed to advise on improvements. We recruited a team of eight amazing people from eight countries to conduct local research and present policy proposals to change how development is done. Sek Sokunroth and his family were forcibly evicted from their home near that same lake area community in Phnom Penh after living there for 25 years. Mela Chiponda has seen the harm caused by diamond mining in Zimbabwe. Moon Nay Li from Burma has seen the government in Burma force communities, including her own, from their land.

IAP’s Global Advocacy Team (l to r): Sek Sokunroth, Jessica Amon, Mohamed Abdl Azim, Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Mela Chiponda, Jamil Junejo, Moon Nay Li, Bernardino Morales Tera.

The forthcoming report not only advocates for local expertise to be recognised in planning development projects, but it also outlines specific improvements.

In today’s development, it is completely acceptable for people to be harmed. A climate of fear limits 67% of respondents from fully participating in government-led consultations. More than 84% of those surveyed have been or will be displaced by a development project — many by force. In fact, 26% report physical violence was used to force them to move from their homes and land.

In today’s development, the benefits of a project often do not go directly to improving people’s lives. Even when governments and funders promised to improve lives or even end poverty, 77% of the people surveyed reported no benefit from the project. Of the few who received some compensation or assistance to make way for the project, only 8% said their lives had improved for the better.

In today’s development, communities that face negative impacts often also have limited political and economic power. Those harmed by development actually should be at the front of the line for receiving any benefits.

In an upcoming report, the International Accountability Project and the Global Advocacy Team call for a return to what development could be — what many of us believe or wish was happening today.

As this report shows, these communities have innovative and practical ideas on the kind of development they need — just like you have for your own community. But unfortunately 94% of those surveyed have never been invited to share these ideas with their government.

“Instead, imagine for a moment what if development were designed and lived by the same people?”

What if those designing and funding development actually lived in the communities nearest to the project? What if they and their families had to benefit or suffer personally — how would their work be different?

We imagine they would likely use their first-hand experience to create the maximum benefits for themselves and those who need it most and limit or prevent any harm done.

The IAP and Global Advocacy Team report title asks for a return to the idea that development should always improve lives and never cause harm. Instead of being devoted to the end products, development should focus first on realizing community-led plans and priorities. The image of the compass calls us to return with a clean page to the drawing board — and ask whose inspiration should be followed before drawing the first line.

Back to Development — A Call For What Development Could Be is a call and a practical roadmap of how to return to what development promises — not just what it claims today. From around the world, 1000 people have contributed to make this report a reality.

This report is directed to those who fund and design development projects. Local communities, especially those facing negative impacts from development, will likely find shared ideas and a sense of solidarity in these eight chapters. And for everyone who believes we can design projects in a participatory way — relying on local priorities, plans and expertise to improve lives — we hope you are inspired and see this report as a continuation of ideas and actions that will return development to what it was always intended to be.


The report, Back to Development — A Call For What Development Could Be, will be released in English, Spanish and Arabic in the eight countries where the community-led research was carried out. Additional copies will be available in print and online for download. Ryan Schlief is the Executive Director of the International Accountability Project — an international organization supporting community-led policy initiatives and development priorities. Follow IAP for more updates — bit.ly/IAP4FB and @4accountabilty.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.