It can be confusing and irritating if outsiders take on the mantle of somebody else, become their spokespersons and advocate their causes. Whereas we may all sometimes need help to speak up and put our concerns on the agenda, it feels wrong if somebody else takes over and carry the burden on their shoulders. It is not only the success that belongs to the persons concerned; the failure also belongs to them, and indeed the struggle out of difficulties.

A child has the psychological need to master situations, not always be helped and cushioned to do things he or she has to learn to do alone. A child, and adults, too, should be allowed to feel satisfaction when succeeding, and the discomfort when failing, when one has to try again or, perhaps lower the bar. We don’t want to be denied the opportunity to be masters in our own house, take responsibility and do things alone and together with others in our home, community, workplace and other situations.

Let this be the first premise in today’s article that will discuss some key aspects of development, including aspects supported by development aid agencies. It should be noted that development is basically from within and below, more rarely from above and outside. I am writing about these issues today because of the ongoing debate about the role and function of international non-governmental organizations in Pakistan. According to media reports, some have been de-registered and the rules and regulations for all are being tightened.

I have spent much of my professional life in development research and administration, especially in the field of education in bilateral and multilateral organizations. In the 1970s, I began studying societies far away from home, notably in developing countries outside the European and Scandinavian backyard where I grew up. When I first travelled to undertake fieldwork in Tanzania, it was to learn, not to teach. Yes, I may have compared with the Norwegian things I knew, but I also just observed, registered and tried to understand on the premises of the people, communities and organizations in the new land – as any good social scientist and anthropologist would aim at doing. As foreign students and academics we used to say that this was the opposite of what missionaries, aid workers and diplomats often did.

We were worried and puzzled if foreigners came to Tanzania and they knew most things before they landed. Some of those who came, indeed many Americans, would already know the local language Swahili; they would be well informed about cultural traditions, the country’s administrative structure, and much more. They even had clear opinions about what was right and what was wrong, and how the country ought to move away from it socialist policies to a free market economy.

In those days, liberal Europeans, along with local friends, thought it was wrong and insensitive of foreigners to behave more like preachers and masters rather than listeners and apprentices. Sometimes we said: “The foreigners, yes, the Americans, must be paid to spy for CIA.” Many advertised their own culture and economic system in ways that were far beyond their role as students and aid workers, and they brought back home knowledge that was gathered when they were wearing their own ‘tinted eyeglasses’.

The second aspect of importance when studying other cultures becomes is to try to understand when we are neutral and scientific and when we are not. It helps having background knowledge, but we must not draw conclusions before we have done our own data collection, before we have spoken to the people that we study. After all, they are the ones who have the shoes on and know where they hurt. They may not have the full answers, but they would know much more than outsiders about many issues.

Also, we should know that we must not poke our nose into cultural and other issues when we have no right to do so, and we should not be judgmental without having broad and deep knowledge, and even then, we must consider how and when to speak and say that something is good or bad, right or wrong. When we have normative opinions, we should express those in understanding or together with those we talk about. We should not be ‘Besserwissers’ who think we know it all, because as outsiders many details may be obscure to us.

This leads me to the third aspect I want to draw attention to, notably being an ‘armchair revolutionary’. Yes, it is a term we used more a generation or two ago than today. It was used pejoratively when describing leftwing radicals from a safe theoretical and outsider’s corner. One would not need to take responsibility for any practical consequences of one’s opinions, albeit speaking as if one knew too well why things went wrong, or right, analyzing it in hindsight but pretending one had almost been able to predict tit all in advance if ‘they had only asked me’.

Often, I feel that we Westerners are such ‘armchair revolutionaries’ or, should I say, oracles, when talking about the rest of the world. We overstate our real knowledge and understanding about most development problems and what countries and communities should do en route to a more prosperous future. Also, in our time when we are well-informed, at least at ‘Internet-level’, we may think we understand most issues but at the same time we lack the details required to do so, and we don’t even realize it.

But it isn’t only foreigners who may lack the required local understanding. It can just as well be locals who belong to the upper classes or, for other reasons, are detached from the masses, for example, that they have gone to private schools at home before studying abroad. Women from such backgrounds may be even more detached than men.

In recent years, I believe that foreign aid agencies place less weight on local knowledge than before. Staff members have become general aid administrators with less sector knowledge. In bilateral organizations and embassies, the staff members are often just diplomats with less training and interest in aid than was common when the staff had a career in development aid. In spite of this, donors seem not to shy away from having opinions about how well the recipients are doing, be it Pakistan or Tanzania.

We should welcome the debate in Pakistan where the authorities want a greater say in development aid activities. It is important that foreign organizations follow the policies and plans, indeed the rules and regulations of the country where they work. Foreign NGOs should fall under the local government or private organizations, not the other way around. If we really want impact of activities, the work must be carried out through local organizations, be it government departments, labour unions, child right organizations, women’s organizations, education improvement organizations, and so on. Foreign and international organizations are important, with their perspectives, value emphasis, work methods, and so on, not only their money. But they must be part of the local structures. They must behave as guests, not try to become hosts.