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Global North-South Conversation - International Development: Challenges and Lessons



For our second global North-South conversation, we were privileged to speak with Yasmina Sarhrouny, an international development professional with over 18 years of experience in the design and implementation of development projects and programs across various regions, including the Middle-East, North Africa, as well as West, and Central Africa. This is the second of many conversations in an ongoing series emphasizing global issues through North-South dialogues. As a part of this series, we aim to highlight scholars and experts from the Global South to enhance discourse between countries in the Global South and those in the Global North on important topics such as conflict, violent extremism, gender, and human rights, among others. As a part of our mission at Transformative Peace, we view this initiative as an important part of cultivating more effective approaches to conflicts and crises and highlighting diverse perspectives.  These approaches prioritize inclusivity, a focus on human rights, and the integration of diverse perspectives. Consequently, this series serves to elevate the voices of the global south in a predominantly western-centric media environment. Please enjoy our second of such conversations with Yasmina Sarhrouny.


* The views and opinions expressed in this content are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Transformative Peace. The Author is solely responsible for the content shared.


How important are Global North-South dynamics to inhibiting and/or facilitating development in the countries of the Global South? What policies, international bodies, or attitudes stand out to you as particularly problematic in this regard? Do you see any of these problems reflected in approaches to the recent violence in Palestine, or the long-standing structural violence that preceded it?


International development assistance is theorized, designed, implemented, and evaluated within the persistent inequalities and power imbalances between the Global North and the Global South. The Global North's historical and current exploitation of the resources of the Global South, in its diversity and complexity, have contributed to these power imbalances, perpetuating fragility and inequality, and often actively supporting regimes, institutions and paradigms that undermine the resilience and the independence of Global South’s emerging powers. The legacy of colonialism, including in the field of international development, philanthropy and academia, continue to hinder development efforts despite rising voices for more agency and ownership by the recipients of assistance.


The UN, international development organizations and academic institutions have often been problematic, as they prioritized the interests, political agendas and economic hegemony of powerful member states, over humanitarian aid and sustainable drivers of resilience in Global-South countries. Development bodies and organizations have also instrumentalized international laws and regulations to perpetuate structural inequalities, as we have seen in Apartheid South Africa and the case of Palestine since 1948. Additionally, instances of racial paternalism in development agendas and approaches (especially in the African continent), of coercive practices restricting member states’ choices and options (conditional aid being a case in point), are regularly decried and studies by post-colonial scholars trying to contextualize and decolonize international development. 


International development’s response to the ongoing horrific genocide unfolding in Palestine and the long-standing structural violence that preceded it is a stark example of the power imbalances and double standards that exist between the Global North and the Global South. The violence in Gaza is rooted in over 75 years of documented war crimes, displacement and injustice, historical and ongoing power imbalances, including the displacement of Palestinians from their homes and the unequal distribution of resources. And yet, “Northern” international development institutions continue to align with the political agendas of their member states. For example development practitioners from Western countries vehemently denouncing Russia’s military operation in Ukraine only to choose deafening silence when it comes to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, embodies the root cause of what’s ailing development in our world today: it remains subjected to the powers that created it in its first place and to the ideologies driving it.


What kind of changes would you like to see from national governments in and outside the region to bolster community resilience and development?


To bolster community resilience and development, national governments in and outside the region should prioritize policies and initiatives that address the grievances that exacerbate inequality by strengthening local governance institutions. This includes investing in structures and mechanisms that ensure that local voices, priorities, and needs are taken into account when the government is planning and budgeting for critical infrastructure, such as healthcare, education, access to justice and transportation. Such a paradigm shift would ensure that communities have ownership of and a shared responsibility in the resources they need to withstand and recover from disruptions, including those caused by climate change, crises and natural disasters. 


With respect to inclusion, how important is women’s participation, both at the grassroots level and the national level, to development outcomes?


Women's active involvement in civic life, encompassing political spheres and civil society, is vital for fostering inclusion and advancing sustainable, locally-led development. Empowering women as political and societal agents promotes transformative policy decisions, especially those linked to human development, and more representative national and local democratic institutions. Numerous studies demonstrate that increased female representation leads to enhanced legislative effectiveness, improved governance quality, and better development outcomes, both at the national and at the local levels. 


National governments can take steps to encourage women's civic participation by allocating special GESI funds and resources and investing in closing digital divides, improving access to information and creating safe spaces for women and girls to voice their needs and priorities and develop leadership capacities. 


Women's contributions to civil society are indispensable. Their activism and advocacy drive positive change and challenge traditional gender roles. Ultimately, this will result in stronger communities, more effective policymaking, and a fairer future for everyone. As women gain more agency and voice, they become catalysts for positive transformation, driving innovation, creativity, and collective action. 


How do things like gender, climate change, and violent extremism intersect with development?


The intricate interplay between gender inequality, climate change, and violent extremism within the realm of development underscores complex and interconnected challenges. Climate change, as a catalyst, has the potential to exacerbate preexisting disparities and vulnerabilities, disproportionately impacting women, at-risk youth and marginalized communities. This heightened vulnerability can escalate conflict dynamics and trigger forced displacement, further exacerbating social tensions in peri-urban, overpopulated areas with finite resources, and perpetuating cycles of instability. Exploiting these vulnerabilities and grievances, violent extremist groups capitalize on recruitment and garner support. 


Gender inequality emerges as a significant factor correlating with instability and conflict, while enhanced gender equality stands to bolster economic productivity, enhance development outcomes, stabilize communities and foster representative local institutions.


What have recent coups across the Sahel had on regional development?


Recent coups and political upheavals are driving instability and fragility throughout the Sahel region. These events have led to disruptive consequences, including the destabilization of democratic processes and governance in conflict contexts, engendering uncertainty. Coupled with this, the coups have impaired regional cooperation and partnerships, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Sahel Alliance.


As a consequence, the activity of violent extremist non-state actors in the tri-border zone between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali has intensified. Simultaneously, these developments caused spillovers in the coastal states beyond the Sahel that are further destabilizing West Africa. The military takeovers, favoring kinetic counterterrorism approaches at the expense of national reconciliation, deradicalization and reintegration, are undermining efforts to tackle climate change and its ramifications, namely drought and food insecurity. 


Comprehending the international dynamics contributing to instability in the Sahel, such as the rivalry among global powers (France, The US, China and Russia, among others) and the effect of external interventions, is crucial to understanding the drivers of political violence in the sub-region, and to devising targeted responses that foster peace and safeguard regional development and stability.


What are some of the most important lessons you found in your 20+ years in development?


A notable lesson I learned throughout the years is the tendency for externally sponsored development programs to falter during implementation or yield superficial changes to institutional structures without substantial improvements in functionality, especially when they do not include legal and institutional reforms that guarantee sustainability. 

The enduring legacy of colonialism within international development poses another significant concern for development practitioners, necessitating the integration of post-colonial theories to decolonize development aid practices and explore endogenous resilience and social change mechanisms, especially in the fields of conflict resolution, governance, peacebuilding and natural resource management. I have seen during my career, for instance, how combating gender-based violence programs were regularly instrumentalized for global securitization and for affirming rationales and systems of power, including civilizational hierarchies, amongst omissions and silences in line with political agendas and global alliances. Such approaches must be dismantled and challenged for a more just, equitable and locally-led response to vulnerabilities and violence, and ultimately for sustainable resilience in the Global South.



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