The background for understanding Supras’ approach to development cooperation is broad and varied. To say that development cooperation is complex and complicated is a truism. Since the mid 1970s Lars T. Soeftestad, Supras’ Founder and CEO, has been involved in this work in various capacities, including as an NGO activist in Norway, as a grassroots level project manager in Bangladesh, as a Professor teaching applied anthropology and development cooperation at the University of Zürich in Switzerland, as an Anthropologist at the World Bank working on project management and policy level work in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa and West Africa and, presently, as CEO of a consultancy company in Norway (see section Library for the output of this past and ongoing engagement). Throughout there has been a concern with trying to understand and learn, that is, research, writing and publishing has been important, and a dialectic between practical work and research runs through the approach employed (see section Library for details). The accumulated wealth of experience and knowledge – from projects that failed miserably, via approaches that worked partly, and to projects and approaches that have worked well, led to Supras’ Vision, Strategy and Profile and, subsequently, to its Service areas and Portfolio of work.
The only meaningful way to address the mounting challenges that occur along a multi-dimensional set of variables, is to think and operate in terms of complexity. Economics-infused theoretical and practical stances, together with a search for the one elusive causal factor and, finally, single-variable modeling, do not work any longer.
The fundamental lesson learned through these more than 25 years of involvement, is that development work is much more complex than we are prone to think. In a sense, our insights and tools, the means at our disposal and the goals we have identified, have so far lagged behind the reality that we have tried to grasp, understand, impact, affect, change, and/or trickle down to. To complicate things further, this reality is itself changing fast. This dramatic change involves at least three key aspects: (1) What it is that we try to understand and embrace, (2) The scale of this more or less unknown entity and (3) The issues that are considered relevant:
1 Subject matter
From the very beginning, the subject matter of development cooperation, especially what is at the other end can, in hindsight, be understood more as a black box than anything else. Various stages have certainly brought us closer to understanding the content of this black box, from a position of understanding the counterpart as a government and a nation-state, until today’s position of increasingly understanding local people as the real counterpart and key stakeholders (and not only as beneficiaries). At the same time, our understanding has moved from seeing the recipient in terms of a political organism to understanding that it consists of people – often a great many – that have languages, cultures and religions, function according to social organization and values, are organized according to ethnic groups, and, finally, that the inferences and juxtapositions of these variables create a reality that is immensely complex. Concomitantly with this realization, we have time and again seen how the tools and approaches at our disposal have been sadly and frustratingly lagging in modeling this reality in necessary detail, as well as delivering the goals we have set.
Scale is an important aspect to consider. Increasingly we realize that in order to address one issue, and address perceived problems in a given geographic locality, we have to involve increasing numbers of people and groups that often are located elsewhere, and address other issues, serially or in parallel. That is, the issue of stakeholders have entered the scene in full force. It has become necessary to involve all relevant stakeholders, including the stakeholders that themselves decide they want to be involved, and for a variety or reasons. In a growing appreciation of the complex social and cultural landscape of stakeholders and the often shifting relationships between them and the alliances they enter into, we have become accustomed to differentiate between public sector, civil society and private sector, and to the stakeholders located in these societal sub-sectors. Relevant stakeholders are increasingly available in these sub-sectors in developing and transition countries. An important realization is that stakeholders, often having radically different points of departure, also have radically different goals, and so we increasingly find that stakeholders work to influence development interventions, sometimes to the point of opposing them.
It used to be that we were concerned with relatively straightforward tasks and goals as, say, building a road or increasing agricultural output. Today, a host of issues are potentially relevant in connection with a development intervention, often articulated by as many stakeholders. For project implementing agencies and their staff, as well as for the counterpart agencies in recipient countries, to negotiate the often conflicting expectations and demands stemming from the various issues that are deemed relevant, is becoming an increasingly complicated, difficult and long-drawn process. As the efforts to address problematic issues and find solutions increasingly call for projects that are international, for example, river basin management and biodiversity protection, the complexities and difficulties would seem to multiply.
An overriding goal as well as challenge today, in a situation of increasingly fragmented social fields, at all levels – from the local to the international – and the concomitant growing complexities, would seem to be to locate – or else create – integrating mechanisms at various levels in order to support the unity and integrative force of traditional culture and social organization.