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Duncan Green's blog

What do we know about the long-term legacy of aid programmes? Very little, so why not go and find out?

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We talk a lot in the aid biz about wanting to achieve long-term impact, but most of the time, aid organizations work in a time bubble set by the duration of a project. We seldom go back a decade later and see what happened after we left. Why not?

Orphaned and homeless children being given a non-formal education at a school in IndiaEveryone has their favourite story of the project that turned into a spectacular social movement (SEWA) or produced a technological innovation (M-PESA) or spun off a flourishing new organization (New Internationalist, Fairtrade Foundation), but this is all cherry-picking.  What about something more rigorous:  how would you design a piece of research to look at the long term impacts across all of our work? Some initial thoughts, but I would welcome your suggestions:

One option would be to do something like our own Effectiveness Reviews,  but backdated – take a random sample of 20 projects from our portfolio in, say, 2005, and then design the most rigorous possible research to assess their impact.

There will be some serious methodological challenges to doing that, of course. The further back in time you go, the more confounding events and players will have appeared in the interim, diluting attribution like water running into sand. If farming practices are more productive in this village than a neighbour, who’s to say it was down to that particular project you did a decade ago? And anyway, if practices have been successful, other communities will probably have noticed – how do you allow for positive spillovers and ripple effects? And those ripple effects could have spread much wider – to government policy, or changes in attitudes and beliefs.
 

How does Gender change the way we think about Power?

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One Billion Rising-Delhi-14 Feb 2013The importance of gender to 'Thinking and Working Politically' is often overlooked, as are power and politics in gender discussions. Duncan Green reviews a concept brief from Developmental Leadership Program on the links between gender and power.

I can’t attend the next get together of the Thinking and Working Politically network in Bangkok next month because of a prior commitment to speak at DFID’s East Kilbride office (ah, the glamour of the aid biz….). Apart from missing out on the Thai food, it’s also a shame because they are focusing on an area I’ve previously moaned about – the absence of gender from a lot of the TWP/Doing Development Differently discussions.

Ahead of Bangkok, some of the participants have fired some useful preemptive shots. Tomorrow I’ll review an ODI survey on aid programmes promoting women’s leadership. Today it’s the turn of the Developmental Leadership Program, which has just published an interesting, if tantalizing, six-page ‘concept brief’ on Gender and Power by Diana Koester.

Koester argues that a gender lens can add a lot to the TWP’s analysis, but also vice versa – we need more thinking about power and politics in gender discussions. Some excerpts:

"Donors have largely neglected ‘gender’ in their efforts to understand power relations in partner countries. In particular they are often blind to the ways in which power and politics in the ‘private’ sphere shape power relations at all levels of society; the ways in which gender hierarchies mark wider economic, political and social structures and institutions; and the opportunities for peace and prosperity emanating from feminized sources of power. By addressing these blindspots, a focus on gender can significantly enhance donors’ insights into power dynamics and their ability to ‘think and work politically’ overall.’

This paper "addresses three main questions: What is power and how can a gender perspective help us understand it? What is gender and how can a power perspective help us understand it? What policy and operational messages follow from a focus on gender and power?"
 

If Complexity was a person, she would be a Socialist. Jean Boulton on the politics of systems thinking.

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Jean Boulton (physicist, management consultant and social scientist, right) responds to Owen Barder’s Wednesday post on thinking of development as a property of a complex adaptive system.

Jean BoultonI’d like to go a bit further than Owen on the implications of complexity for how we understand power and politics. It is generally the case that the powerful get more powerful and the big get bigger. We know this through bitter experience, captured in complexity language by the notion of ‘positive feedback loops’ which equate to the economists’ ‘increasing returns’. In general there is no reason to expect that economies will self-regulate and find a ‘natural’ balance. Even forests, if left to themselves for long enough, reduce in diversity, increase in efficiency and become ‘locked in’ to ecological patterns that are hard to invade and change and can easily collapse (see below, left). Despite the popularity of the phrase ‘complex adaptive systems’, complex systems do not always adapt.

Instead, complexity suggests that  if we want economic development that equalizes power, reduces inequality and incorporates longer-term environmental goals, there is a need for some sort of regulatory processes to counter the seemingly inevitable coalescing of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Otherwise the rise out of poverty is linked more to growth than to development (development meaning a qualitative change in shape and form of the economy rather than a quantitative change – you can obviously have both). And an economy that is growing can in fact take our attention away from underlying structural exacerbations of inequality. Growth cannot go on forever, as land, water and minerals are consumed – not to mention the impact on climate change – but growth can mask just who captures the bulk of resources and can exert control over governments, markets and societies.
 

Can aid agencies help systems fix themselves? The implications of complexity for development cooperation

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Owen BarderOwen Barder gave a brilliant lecture on complexity and development to my LSE students earlier this year. Afterwards, I asked him to dig deeper into the ‘so whats’ for aid agencies. The result is this elegant essay (a bit long for a blog, but who cares?). I will try and get some responses to his arguments from similarly large brains.

If economic development is a property of a complex adaptive system, as I’ve argued elsewhere, then what, if anything, can development agencies and NGOs do to accelerate it?

ants in thailandTo be clear what we mean when we say that development is a system property, here’s an example from the animal kingdom. You may have seen recently that ants have recently developed “super colonies” – including one that covers 6,000km along the Mediterranean that is said to be the largest co-operative unit in the animal kingdom. It is natural to talk about the “behaviour” of the colony, even though we understand that we are really talking about the individual actions of hundreds of millions of ants. Each ant responds to its external environment, including the behaviour of other ants. Because all the ants are adjusting to each other, this creates the sense that the colony as a whole is changing its behaviour, and we soon begin to ascribe intent and agency to the colony rather than the individual ants of which it consists.

Like any complex adaptive system, an ant colony will tend to go through long periods of stability and then sudden periods of rapid change that come about when ants all adjust their behaviour in response to changes in the behaviour of the ants around them. The emergence of a super-colony did not depend on the ants individually becoming fitter and stronger, learning new skills or becoming more entrepreneurial. They didn’t suddenly have access to better nutrients that made them healthier– nor have the ants benefited from universal education, access to microcredit, or new vaccines.  In fact, the ants haven’t changed at all: the colony’s behaviour can change even if the individual ants have not, because it is a self-organising complex system whose behaviour in aggregate is not simply the sum of its parts: it is determined to a large extent by the way those parts interact with each other.
 

Could the UN’s new Progress of the World’s Women provide the foundations for feminist economic policy?

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London launch of UN Women’s new flagship report,Progress of the World’s Women 2015-16Yesterday I went to the London launch of UN Women’s new flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-16, in the slightly incongruous setting of the Institution of Civil Engineers – walls adorned with portraits of bewigged old patriarchs from a (happily) bygone era (right).

The report is excellent. These big multilateral publications are usually a work of synthesis, bringing together existing research rather than breaking new ground. And that’s fine; it’s really important that a UN body has pulled such an excellent range of research together and made it accessible to policy makers. Gender and development debates suffer from a fair number of unsubstantiated claims and pretty dodgy stats (don’t get me started), and this report feels like something you can trust – I hope someone will go through it and pull out every major stat and graphic.

But the overall approach is both new and exciting, in that it applies an explicitly human rights approach to economic policy. Laura Turquet, UN Women researcher and report manager, summarized this as ‘bringing together human rights and economic policy-making to ask ‘what is the economy for?’’

This is a big deal, because the normal approach to gender and economic policy is incredibly reductive and instrumental – educate girls and get women into the workforce because it boosts growth! It ignores whether that will improve the lives of the said women or just pile more burdens onto their pre-existing roles as carers (of children, old people, neighbours), home maintainers etc etc.
 

Lifting the lid on the household: A new way to measure individual deprivation

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Guest post on an important new initiative, the Individual Deprivation Measure, from Scott Wisor, Joanne Crawford, Sharon Bessell and Janet Hunt.

Woman in her home. Kaski, NepalYou don’t have to look far to find assertions that up to 70% of the world’s poor are women ‑ despite Duncan’s efforts to show that the claim cannot be substantiated.

Just last month, ONE launched a new campaign called “Poverty is Sexist”, drawing on star power to bring attention to the issue of women’s poverty.

ONE didn’t use the 70% stat, but implied that poverty is feminized. Yet the reality is that it is still not possible to say whether women are disproportionately poor ‑ despite widespread calls  for better sex-disaggregated statistics.

Why? Because both monetary measures of poverty such as the International Poverty Line and multidimensional measures such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index continue to use the household as the unit of analysis. This assumes that everyone in a given household is equally poor or not poor – and that’s a big problem.

Not to mention concerns about the gendered differences in the experience of poverty. How do you price the value of being free from violence or securely accessing family planning?

These are not small problems. A great deal hangs on how we measure social progress. Are development programs working? Do anti-poverty policies make a difference? Is foreign aid alleviating poverty? Evaluating households makes it impossible to see how different members of the household are doing. And failing to assess dimensions of life that are particularly important to poor women, or men, limits our ability to show whether and how their poverty differs.

So what to do? Well, despite heated debates about measuring global poverty, something of a consensus has emerged. Most experts now agree that monetary poverty measurement should be complemented by multidimensional measurements. The individual, not the household, should be the unit of analysis. Poverty measurement should reflect the views and priorities of poor people. And in so far as possible, measurement should provide meaningful comparisons across contexts and over time.

Is a Data Revolution under way, and if so, who will benefit?

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RicardoFuentesNieva croppedGuest post from the beach big Data Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, by Oxfam’s Head of Research and paid up member of the numerati, Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes)

A spectre is haunting the hallways of the international bureaucracy and national statistical offices – the spectre of the data revolution.  Now, that might suggest a contradiction in terms or the butt of a joke – it’s hard to imagine a platoon of bespectacled statisticians with laptops and GIS devices toppling governments. But something important is indeed happening – let me try and convince you.

A new research report by ODI  “Data Revolution – Finding The Missing Million”  (launched yesterday in Cartagena during a Data Festival) tries to make sense of the coming data revolution, and what it means for international development. According to the authors: The data revolution is “an explosion in the volume of data, the speed with which data are produced, the number of producers of data, the dissemination of data, and the range of things on which there are data, coming from new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet of things and from other sources, such as qualitative data, citizen-generated data and perceptions data.”

For the numerically minded (I proudly include myself in this group) this is a rather welcome transformation. Data, data everywhere – but then why haven’t we, number geeks, solved all of the world’s problems yet?
 

Where have we got to on Theories of Change? Passing fad or paradigm shift?

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Gum Arabic farmers at Hilat Ismaiel, North Kordofan, SudanTheories of change (ToCs) – will the idea stick around and shape future thinking on development, or slide back into the bubbling morass of aid jargon, forgotten and unlamented? Last week some leading ToC-istas at ODI, LSE and The Asia Foundation and a bunch of other organisations spent a whole day taking stock, and the discussion highlighted strengths, weaknesses and some looming decisions.

(Summary, agenda + presentations here)

According to an excellent 2011 overview by Comic Relief, ToCs are an "on-going process of reflection to explore change and how it happens – and what that means for the part we play". They locate a programme or project within a wider analysis of how change comes about, draw on external learning about development, articulate our understanding of change and acknowledge wider systems and actors that influence change.

But the concept remains very fuzzy, partly because (according to a useful survey by Isobel Vogel) ToCs originated from two very different kinds of thought: evaluation (trying to clarify the links between inputs and outcomes) and social action, especially participatory and consciously reflexive approaches.

At the risk of gross generalization, the first group tends to treat ToCs as ‘logframes on steroids’, a useful tool to develop more complete and accurate chains of cause and effect. The second group tend to see the world in terms of complex adaptive systems, and believe the more linear approaches (if we do X then we will achieve Y) are a wild goose chase. These groups (well, actually they’re more of a spectrum) co-exist within organisations, and even between different individuals in country offices.

Some healthy scepticism about ‘Citizen Engagement’ (and why I’m excited about MOOCs)

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MOOC logoDuncan Green recently spoke at the launch of a MOOC about Citizen Engagement, put together by the World Bank, LSE, IDS, ODI, Harvard and Civicus, and offers a review of the discussion and the sceptisim that citizen engagement can solve everything.

MOOCs are taking over. If you aren’t yet excited about Massive Open Online Courses, you should be. When I was first getting interested in development the only way to bridge the gap between reading the news and coughing up squllions for a Masters was to cycle through the rain every Tuesday evening to London’s City Literary Institute to sit at the feet of Jenny Pearce and her course on Latin America (I ended up taking over from her, and writing a book based on the course). These days I could stay warm and dry, and listen online to development gurus from around the world. The numbers signing up are colossal – Jeff Sachs reportedly has 14 million students for his MOOC on sustainable development.

As often happens, the initial surge came in the US, but it’s crossing the Atlantic. Last week I spoke at the LSE at the launch of a MOOC on ‘citizen engagement’, put together by the World Bank, LSE, IDS, ODI, Harvard and Civicus (a sort of crowd-sourced MOOC – even more funky). We spoke a few days after the MOOC went live, by which time 14,000 people had signed up from all over the world.

The discussion was pretty good and although no-one was against citizen engagement (CE), they were strikingly sceptical about the hype around it – no-one is drinking the participation-will-solve-everything koolaid any more. Some snapshots:

The best synthesis so far of where we’ve got to on ‘Doing Development Differently’

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Duncan Green of Oxfam reviews a new report from ODI entitled "Adapting development, Improving services to the poor".

Adapting Development, Improving Services to the poor Finally got round to reading the ‘Adapting Development’ the ODI’s latest 54 page synthesis of the theory and practice underpinning the ‘Doing Development Differently’ approach. It’s very good – a good lit review, laced with lots of case studies and good insights – and definitely worth a careful read. Weirdly the bit that jumped out for me was on results and monitoring (see below):

The starting point is that "Change is almost always driven by domestic forces, and often occurs incrementally, as a result of marginal shifts in the ways interests are perceived, especially by elites." (pg. 4)

ODI argues that "the best approach for domestic reformers and their supporters combines three key ingredients.

Working in problem-driven and politically informed ways. This might seem obvious but is rarely the norm. Such an approach tracks down problems, avoids ready-made solutions and is robust in its assessment of possible remedies. Too often, diagnosis only gets as far as uncovering a serious underlying challenge – often linked to the character of local politics. For example, studies of medicine stock outs in Malawi and Tanzania and of human resources for health in Nepal reveal how power, incentives and institutions lead to chronic gaps in supply. It is difficult to identify workable solutions to such problems, and attempts to do so often focus on the wrong things. Doing things differently means understanding what is politically feasible and discovering smart ways to make headway on specific service delivery issues, often against the odds.

Being adaptive and entrepreneurial. Much development work fails because, having identified a problem, it does not have a method to generate a viable solution. Because development problems are typically complex and processes of change are highly uncertain, it is essential to allow for cycles of doing, failing, adapting, learning and (eventually) getting better results. This requires strong feedback loops that test initial hypotheses and allow changes in the light of the result of those tests. Some of the greatest success stories in international development – the South Korean industrial policy being only one example – are the result of a willingness to take risks and learn from failure.

Supporting change that reflects local realities and is locally led. Change is best led by people who are close to the problem and who have the greatest stake in its solution, whether central or local government officials, civil-society groups, private-sector groups or communities. While local ‘ownership’ and ‘participation’ are repeatedly name-checked in development, this has rarely resulted in change that is genuinely driven by individuals and groups with the power to influence the problem and find solutions." (pgs. 4-5)

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