The Case for Ladders

This post was transferred from my old blog. See the original post (with comments) at:


The first in a series on leadership and HR in Malawi.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about development in Malawi. So do a lot of my co-workers. Recently, I’ve had some thoughts that I think are worth sharing. Talking about development can be a bit boring sometimes though, so I figured I’d use cartoons. Hope it helps.

Picture 1 – The Ideal Situation


Drawing 1

The key to this picture is that the person driving the car is Malawian (the car is being driven along the road to development…it’s a metaphor) . I think having Malawians (competently) running this show is good for two main reasons.

1. The Philosophical Reason.

It’s easy to say the word “development”, but it’s a lot harder to know what it means. Development is about social change – getting from somewhere to somewhere else. It gets complicated because not everyone can agree where that “somewhere else” is. I think, then, that it makes sense then to have the people driving this process be from the society that’s being transformed. This is what I mean by “self-determination” on the above road sign, and I feel it’s valuable in its own right.

2. The Pragmatic Reason

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of Malawians in Malawi, and most of them will stay here for their whole life. Also not surprisingly, these Malawians speak local languages and understand local norms and culture.

Meanwhile, there are very few foreigners in Malawi, most of whom don’t speak local languages, and almost all of these foreigners will stay here for less than 5 years. Given the above, if Malawians were the core of the “development” process, if they were driving things, if they were (competently) in charge, I think a lot more would get done.

Picture 2: The Current Situation

Drawing 2

The problem is, however, that most Malawians are not driving the metaphorical development car. Most Malawians are not starting medium/large businesses, are not driving NGO policy, and are not engaged in dialogue around national development. For most Malawians, that car is on a cliff, and they don’t have a way up there. To start driving their own development, they could really use a ladder. (FYI, I know this is simplified, and I will elaborate on it in future posts … that’s why this is “the first in a series”)

That ladder could take many forms. It could be money to pay for education. It could be capital to start a business. It could be leadership training to really be able to manage an NGO. It could be work experience to learn new attitudes and skills. It could be confidence from having received positive feedback. It could be a lot of things. But for many people here, that ladder is not available, and for that reason, someone else usually ends up driving the car - often travelling too slowly to the wrong place.

Picture 3: Another Philosophical Note

Drawing 3 

While some of this post also relates to skills and experience, what I’m talking about here is leadership development. Whenever you start talking about leadership development in Malawi, you often get asked “leadership development for what?”. In a lot of ways this is a really great question, and one we need to be asking. However, in other ways, its pretty dangerous.

The danger comes from two things. Firstly, this is a bit of a throwback to an old-school mechanistic way of thinking. That way of thinking says that if we’re going to invest resources, we should have some clear and measurable intended outcome. That way of thinking has been the norm in development for the past 40 years. And while it still can be valuable, in many ways that way of thinking has failed.

Secondly, the question “leadership development for what” ignores half of my premise for why this is important in the first place: development should be a process of self-determination. So, in a way, leadership development work (and skills development work, etc.) should be seen as a way of helping Malawians do whatever they think is good for Malawi, not what we think they should think is good for Malawi. It’s a hard thing to let go of though.

4. The Way Forward (sadly putting philosophy aside)

Drawing 4

I think getting more people up that ladder, so they can drive that car, is the way forward for development assistance. I’m tired of foreign driven NGOs trying to determine what “should” happen in Malawi, while also consistently failing to make it happen. It’s time to put Malawians in the driver’s seat, help them get the ideas, education, and experiences to make good things happen, and then let those good things emerge on their own. That is the way I see development actually working – the role of the development sector should be helping to get people that ladder.

In accomplishing this though, there is a place for pragmatism. Despite my lofty philosophical points about self-determination, in the end this new approach for development would still be about allocating finite resources, and thus there is a (partial) role for mechanistic “cause-effect” thinking.

Take a hypothetical example. You have two promising youth, both smart, both with extremely high potential. You have enough money for one scholarship. One of the youths wants to study English Literature, the other one wants to do an MBA. My gut call would be that the one doing the MBA will contribute more to creating a future where many talented Malawian youth can study both English Literature and MBAs than the one studying English Lit. So maybe there should be a bias there.

This bias is why I drew the above picture with a car on the road to the “ladder factory”. For now, it’s worth thinking about what cliffs we help people climb. Thus unfortunately “leadership development for what?” isn’t a dead question yet. We just need to make sure it doesn’t jeopardize freedom and self-determination.

This is a new approach to development. It exists in rhetoric, and in a few scattered programs, but for the most part “development work” is still about running programs designed or mandated from the outside, with concrete on-the-ground “cause-effect” type objectives. And, for the most part, development assistance is not really working.

In my mind then, development assistance should be about using our resources to give real concrete support (in the form of educational assistance, experiential opportunities, leadership development, etc.) to promising Malawians who can then really help drive development themselves. From this, a more successful, and more self-determined development process could emerge. I think this would be a much more successful use of resources than what’s currently being done in the development sector. As always though, I’d be curious to hear what other people think.


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