Development in an Imperfect World: Lessons from the Field Part 2


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To follow up on my last entry, I'd like to highlight a few more lessions I've learned in my five years at the Bank and share some aspects of the "inner workings" of my job in development. Click here to read the introduction and the first three lessons.

Let me spell out a few more of these lessons that I've learnt as a Health Economist.

4. Don’t be “means” wise and “ends” foolish
No matter where you are along the results chain at any given time, it’s important to keep an overall perspective and stay focused to reap the payoffs at the end. This is necessary so that no input, activity or process blocks or slows down your movement along the chain. The further you go along the chain, the more compelling it becomes to cover the remaining distance. For example, having achieved a policy change for introducing new technology, hired the personnel, provided them training, straightened out logistics and supply issues, it becomes all the more necessary not to hold up supplies for some silly procurement procedure.

Typically, a team of different specialists is involved in ensuring progress along the chain. Even the most successful of projects would have stalled had the standards or guidelines been applied too stringently at any stage. It is therefore in the collective interest to stay focused and work towards the end results.

5. Don’t give up – follow through
Often, as an individual or an organization you’ve been given a clear mandate and terms of reference (TOR) on which you’re expected to deliver. In the absence of an enabling environment, it is easy to give up. In such situations it is alright to step out of your given mandate to create an enabling environment and deliver on your TOR, all for the cause of development. For example, the WHO’s mandate is to provide only technical assistance to its member countries and not involve itself in implementation issues. But often it is also asked to provide human resources for implementation of a program, to which it agrees in order to improve public health outcomes.

6. Common sense is needed in abundance
Finally, a word on the personality traits required to be successful in the development sector. In the business of accelerating development, one must be considerate of others. Often, you deal with people with variable commitment to the cause. Systems are inefficient, institutions are weak, and capacities low. For example, if you’re invited for a 3pm meeting which finally takes place at 4pm, you cannot blame the other person for making you inefficient. You need to be smart enough to know how to use your time in the intervening period.

Furthermore, the development sector requires people who feel strongly about results and are impatient to see them achieved but, at the same time, are patient with the time consuming process that underlies it. Sounds contradictory? If some people have learned it, so can others. And, last but not the least, although frameworks, principles, and theories are needed to guide one’s understanding, in the end, development is all about being pragmatic. Rugged common sense is needed in abundance.

What do you think? Do comment and share your own lessons and experiences.


Join the Conversation

February 16, 2010

Dr. Ahuja,

I enjoyed reading your summary of your personal experiences, in development sector. What made both of your posts wonderful is that you have incorporated a case example, for each lessons learnt. This would enable any average Joe to visualize what exactly were you referring to.

I agree with most of your assessments. Though I don't have experience working through World Bank in development works, based on living experience I would like to add few more points.

1. Lack of coordination: It really hurts to see efforts and resources being used to do the same stuff and each organization want to keep their work exclusive. Funding is hard to come by, so collaborative efforts and literatures review before hand might ease that pain.

2. Bad practices by one organization hurts another to follow up: Even if there is coordination, while following up others work it sometimes gets tough. I was involved in a project to train people on disaster preparedness; I was absolutely stunned to find that people want money to attend the hands-on training on their locality on a weekend. To boost the number of attendees, the previous organization was paying them money.

3. "If you are not doing science, you are overhead": I have quoted a national director of US federal research institute that I used to work for before. But this so true across the board. When a developing nation receives a funding, all we hear in the media is the total sum, not the sums that will eventually get to the target group. I was heart broken to see, when working in Nepal, how the "progress" (report) is measured from plain paper and B/W images to glossy color prints as it moves up the chain of command before being submitted to the donor.

I hope to hear a lot more of life experiences from you, it will motivate lot more people like me.

Rajeev Ahuja
February 18, 2010

Hello Prajwol,
Thanks for your comments.

I completely agree with you that there is tremendous scope for coordination among development organizations. By its very nature, designing any development intervention and getting it implemented is not an easy task, which very often gets more difficult due to lack of coordination among development organizations. My sense is that even as the number of development organizations is increasing, they are beginning to coordinate better...but of course much more needs to be happen on that front and fairly quickly.

You will have noticed that I didn't comment on this aspect in my blog. On donor coordination, I am still gaining a perspective which I plan to write in my subsequent blogs. Stay tuned.