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Doing Development Differently

Building State Capability: Review of an important (and practical) new book

Duncan Green's picture

Jetlag is a book reviewer’s best friend. In the bleary small hours in NZ and now Australia, I have been catching up on my reading. The latest was ‘Building State Capability’, by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock, which builds brilliantly on Matt’s 2013 book and the subsequent work of all 3 authors in trying to find practical ways to help reform state systems in dozens of developing countries (see the BSC website for more). Building State Capability is published by OUP, who agreed to make it available as an Open Access pdf, in part because of the good results with How Change Happens (so you all owe me….).

But jetlag was also poor preparation for the first half of this book, which after a promising start, rapidly gets bogged down in some extraordinarily dense academese. I nearly gave up during the particularly impenetrable chapter 4: sample ‘We are defining capability relative to normative objectives. This is not a reprisal of the “functionalist” approach, in which an organization’s capability would be defined relative to the function it actually served in the overall system.’ Try reading that on two hours’ sleep.

Luckily I stuck with it, because the second half of the book is an excellent (and much more accessible) manual on how to do Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation – the approach to institutional reform that lies at the heart of the BSC programme.

How do you make aid programmes truly adaptive? New lessons from Bangladesh and Cambodia

Duncan Green's picture
Lisa DenneyDaniel HarrisLeni Wild

Following on from yesterday’s post on adaptive aid, a guest piece from Lisa Denney (far left), Daniel Harris (middle) and Leni Wild (near left), all of ODI.

A swelling chorus of the development community has been advocating for more flexible and adaptive programming that can respond to the twists and turns of political reform processes. They argue that in order to achieve better aid outcomes, we need to do development differently. As part of this agenda, ODI and The Asia Foundation, with the assistance of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, tracked and analysed three programmes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Mongolia. These programmes explicitly sought to work politically in practice, using a relatively small amount of money, a relatively short timeframe, and a focus on tangible changes. We followed attempts to achieve environmental compliance and increase exports in the leather sector in Bangladesh, and to improve solid waste management in Cambodia and Mongolia; issues identified for their potential to make important contributions (economic, health, environmental, etc.) to the wellbeing of citizens. Two of our case studies were released this month, telling the story of how the reforms unfolded and shifted strategy to better leverage the incentives of influential stakeholders, as well as the mechanics of how the Foundation supported adaptive ways of working.
 

How adaptation worked in practice

In each case, the programme teams (led by staff in the Foundation’s local office, and supported by a variety of contracted partners and a wider uncontracted reform network reaching both inside and outside of government) made significant changes to strategy during the implementation phase that helped to address difficult, multidimensional problems. In Cambodia, the team faced a complex and often opaque challenge in which waste collection is characterized by a single company with a long-term confidential contract that is difficult to monitor, a fee structure that does not encourage improved household waste collection, garbage collectors whose conditions do not incentivize performance, and communities that are difficult to access and do not always understand the importance of sanitary waste disposal. With a small Foundation team and limited funding, the approach relied on working with individuals selected as much for personal connections, disposition, and political know-how in working politically and flexibly, as for technical knowledge. The team began by cultivating relations between City Hall and the single contractor providing solid waste management services, then moved to work with the sole provider to improve their delivery, and finally, resolved to end the single contractor model in favour of competition.

Sue Unsworth’s ‘upside down’ view

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

Sue UnsworthSue Unsworth’s work provides us a wealth of knowledge on governance and institutional change, stemming largely from her ‘upside down’ view of the conventional reality of the aid world. Here is a quick peek into some of her work – particularly, insights into how donor-approaches should evolve to engage successfully with politics.

Sue’s work with David Booth – captured in this paper, Politically smart, locally led development – presents seven case studies of problem-driven approaches that provide important lessons to donors, as well as a clear message that merely using new terminology without actually changing the ‘ways of working will not yield results. The authors suggest that chasing ‘international best practices’ often lead to imagined solutions that do not address the problem at hand.

"…for politically smart, locally led approaches to become the norm, a more radical shift is needed in the way donors conceive development challenges and their role in addressing them. They need to abandon oversimplified concepts of ‘ownership’ and ‘partnership’, and unrealistic assumptions about the scope for outsiders to lead transformational change"

Doing Problem Driven Work, great new guide for governance reformers and activists

Duncan Green's picture

One of the criticisms of the big picture discussion on governance that’s been going on in networks such as Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically is that it’s all very helicopter-ish. ‘What do I do differently on Monday morning?’, comes the frustrated cry of the practitioner. Now some really useful answers are starting to come onstream, and I’ll review a few of them.

First up is ‘Doing Problem Driven Work’, a paper by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock. It turns previous work on PDIA – ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’ – into a toolkit, aimed primarily at those involved in reforming governance from the inside, whether government reformers, or big bilateral and World Bank donors with access to the corridors of power. However, there are clear parallels with and lessons for the work of more ‘outsider’ NGOs and campaigners.

It starts by noting that while many reform projects have failed in the past, those that succeeded often involved a ‘problem focus’. Problems ‘force policymakers and would-be reformers to ask questions about the incumbent ways of doing things’ and ‘provide a rallying point for coordinating distributed agents who might otherwise clash in the change process’. ‘Good’ problems are urgent and can be easily addressed by those in the room. They often spring from crises or other ‘critical junctures’.

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

Duncan Green's picture

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.

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

Duncan Green's picture

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)

Working With The Grain: An Important New Book on Rethinking Approaches to Governance

Duncan Green's picture

Even though it’s relatively short (223 pages), Working With the Grain (WWTG) took me two months to finish, but I’m glad I did. It adds to a growing and significant body of literature on ‘doing development differently’/’thinking and working politically’ – Matt Andrews, Adrian Leftwich, David Booth, Diana Cammack, Sue Unsworth etc. (Like Matt and Adrian, WWTG author Brian Levy is a white South African – what attracts that particular group to rethinking governance would make an interesting study in itself.)

Brian summarizes the common elements of this emerging school of thought as:

"An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground — not some normative vision of how they should be;

A focus on working to solve very specific development problems – moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern [...]

Recognition that no blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation." (pg. 207)

What makes this book special is Brian’s CV – two decades at the World Bank, which experience he raids to provide great case studies throughout. It feels like he’s now gone back into academia (he teaches at Johns Hopkins and the University of Cape Town) partly to make sense of what he’s learned from 20 years of success and (more often) failure (he characterizes the orthodox governance approach as ‘a breathtaking combination of naivete and amnesia’). Unlike most such tomes, I found it clearer on the ‘so whats’, than the general diagnostic, which tends to get bogged down in endless 3 point lists and typologies (hence the two months).