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Aid on the Edge of Chaos, A Book You Really Need to Read and Think About

Duncan Green's picture

It’s smart, well-written and provides a deeper intellectual foundation for much of the most interesting thinking going on in the aid business right now. Ben Ramalingam (right)’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos should rapidly become a standard fixture on any development reading list.

The book argues for a major overhaul of aid in recognition that the world is made up of numerous interlocking complex systems, far removed from the assumed linear world of cause → attributable effect that underpins a lot of aid programmes. That fits pretty perfectly with a lot of the stuff on governance, institutional reform etc from ODI, Matt Andrews, and Oxfam’s own work, all covered on this blog. But it adds to it in important ways.

  • It deepens our understanding of complexity and systems thinking, drawing on a range of other disciplines
  • Much of the current aid thinking about complexity is happening in work on governance and (to a lesser extent) advocacy. The book widens the scope to just about every corner of the aid business – management, humanitarian, health etc
  • Its 25 great case studies will spark ideas in people’s heads about how they can apply the thinking in their own work

The argument is divided into three sections: a thorough critique of the current aid system; an introduction to complexity and systems thinking; and a final ‘so what’ section on the reform of aid.

Complexity 101 – Part 2: Getting to the So Whats

Duncan Green's picture

ODI’s Harry Jones continues his stocktake on complexity and development.

Yesterday, I tried to pose and answer some straight questions on complexity and development, mostly focusing on whether development problems are complex and why it matters. Today, I try to answer the ‘so what’ question and suggest three areas where changes to aid agency practice could be made:

1) How can development agencies tackle complexity?

Aligning with the three challenges outlined yesterday (distributed capacities, divergent goals and uncertain change pathways), I’d argue that all solutions proposed to deal with complexity fall into one of the three categories:

  • Interventions must capitalise on distributed capacities, finding ways to link up actors and action that fosters more voluntary coordination and collaboration.
  • Interventions must facilitate joint interpretation of key problems by key actors, and must enable negotiation on and commitment to common goals.
  • Interventions must innovate, must foster learning about how change happens, and must be flexible enough to adapt to emerging signals.

This is the reverse of the typical bureaucratic reaction to complex problems, which seeks to ‘reduce’ complexity by strengthening centralised oversight, agreeing up front on narrow, singular goals, and trying to determine in advance what will work and what will be needed. While these approaches have their place, uncertainty, divergence and distributed capacities are integral to many problems and cannot easily be swept under the carpet.

Complexity 101: Behind the Hype, What Do We Actually Know?

Duncan Green's picture

Complexity week continues with this excellent stocktake from the ODI’s Harry Jones (who’s got a new guide out on ‘Managing Projects and Programmes in the Face of Complexity‘). Part two tomorrow.

Seven years ago John Young, Ben Ramalingam and I decided to begin research on complexity theory and international development.  We felt there was really something of use and interest in there but that it might take some time to persuade others of that fact and more time to find out exactly what that value was: although there were already a few people working on complexity, since  then, the blogosphere has come alive with discussion of the ‘C’ word. It’s clear a large number of development professionals see value in complexity theory and international development (for example, here is Owen Barder on complexity in international development, William Easterly’s take, Ben’s blog devoted to the issue, and all the posts on Duncan Green’s blog about complexity and development).

What we don’t seem to have reached is much agreement on exactly what that value is. As we look forwards to this week’s launch of Ben’s book on complexity in development (which I have yet to read), it seems an opportune time to reflect on what we know. In that 2008 exploratory review we set out to examine whether complexity and development was a case of ‘paradigm, hype, or lens. Six years on, here’s my attempt to review the evidence on some straight questions on complexity and development, in two parts.  In this first part, I look at whether development problems are complex and why it matters; in the second part I will look at what to do about that complexity where it exists.

*N.B. to avoid disappearing up my own comments page I will use the popular simple-complicated-complex (bake a cake, make a rocket, raise a child) schema subscribed to by Stacey, Zimmerman, Snowden et al.

Transparency & Social Accountability: Where’s the Magic?

Kate Henvey's picture

Are citizens receiving the greatest development impact for their development dollar? This is the basic principle at the heart of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, giving citizens in developing and donor countries the information they need to hold their governments to account for use of those resources.

Last week, as Publish What You Fund (PWYF) released their second Aid Transparency Index (ATI), which assesses adherence of the world’s major donors to their IATI commitments, the question turned from one of how institutions performed on the index to one of how aid transparency enables effectiveness, accountability and social change in real terms.

Kicking off the conversation, Duncan Edwards of the Institute of Development Studies challenged the basic assumption that because better data/information is accessible, citizens, governments and institutions will use it in their decision making processes. The common narrative in open development projects is flawed, Edwards claims, it simply cannot be proven that to “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” 

AidData, along with several other voices, countered that while open data is certainly not sufficient to provoke positive change it is a necessary baseline to catalyze better development outcomes. 

Transparency can only lead to greater social accountability if citizens understand what data means and if there is genuine public debate about a country’s development spending. The panelists at the October 24th Brookings Institution launch of the 2013 ATI report suggested how transparency can catalyze positive change:

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

'Many vested interests benefit from a lack of open government'
Public Leaders Network 

“In the first of a series of interviews with speakers and attendees at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit 2013, we talk to Professor Jonathan Fox, of the school of international service, American University, Washington.

He will moderate a session in which the founding eight OGP countries will present their two-year national action plans as well as reflect on their first progress report from the OGP's independent reporting mechanism. The OGP was launched in 2011, and is aimed at making governments more transparent and accountable.”  READ MORE
 

Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems: Review of an Important New Book

Duncan Green's picture

The last year or so has been a bit quiet in terms of big new books on development, but now they are piling up on my study floor (my usual filing system) – Angus Deaton, Deepak Nayyar, Ben Ramalingam, Nina Munk etc etc. I will review them as soon as I can (or arm-twist better qualified colleagues to do so).

But I thought I’d start off with a nice short one. Governance for Development in Africa: Solving Collective Action Problems, by David Booth and Diana Cammack, provides a very readable 140 page summary of the ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme, bits of which I have previously discussed on this blog. 140 pages is wonderful – you can read it in a morning and feel a glow of satisfaction for the rest of the day. Think there’s a lesson for me somewhere there…..

The book moves from theory to the APPP’s in-depth national fieldwork in Rwanda, Mali, Niger and Uganda and back again, coming to some uncomfortable conclusions.

The book’s underlying conceptual message is that trying to understand (and reform) African politics on the basis of ‘principal-agent’ thinking has been a disaster. Instead, it is much better to think in terms of ‘collective action problems’. The difference is that the first approach ‘assumes that there are principles that want goods to be provided but have difficulty in getting the agents to perform’.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Mobile phones on the rise in Africa
IT News Africa

“Seven in ten Africans own their own mobile phones, with access essentially universal in Algeria and Senegal, according to Afrobarometer findings from across 34 countries.

The report, based on face-to-face interviews with more than 51,000 people, reveals that 84% use cell phones at least occasionally, a higher level of access than reported previously by the United Nations. Internet use is less common – with only 18% using it at least monthly.

These technological trends are detailed in Afrobarometer’s report, “The Partnership of Free Speech and Good Governance in Africa,” released today at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.”  READ MORE
 

Investments to End Poverty Launched: A Goldmine of Killer Facts and Infographics

Duncan Green's picture

Last week saw the launch of the killer fact-tastic inaugural Investments to End Poverty report by Development Initiatives. The report makes the case for aid as an essential part of ‘getting to zero’ on absolute poverty by 2030, but as is increasingly the norm, the report locates aid among the much wider issue of development-related resource flows, both domestic and international. In speed reading mode, I have not yet read the full 330 page monster, but an advance peak at the 10 page ‘highlights’ document provides a goldmine of stats and infographics for many other purposes into the bargain. Some of the ones that jumped out at me:

Depth of African Poverty (see map)
 

Giving the Poor What They Need, Not Just What We Have

David Evans's picture
Recently, this blog discussed a study on cinematic representations of development, highlighting notable films such as Slumdog Millionaire and City of God. Over the weekend, I was reminded that even forgettable films can underline key development lessons. In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a professional magician engages in international charity work. He explains, “I go to places where children have neither food nor clean water, and I give them magic,” as he passes out magic kits in an unidentified low-income rural community. A journalist asks, “Do you also give them food and clean water?” “Well, no. I’m a magician. I bring magic.” Later, his endeavor failed, the magician returns to the United States and meets an old friend:

“What about the poor?”
“Turns out they didn’t want magic: They just wanted food and clean water.”
“Ugh. Fools!”
 
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

How will Development be Financed? The Eclipse of Aid, and What It Means for Post-2015

Duncan Green's picture

Thanks to Alex Evans for recommending ‘Who Foots the Bill’, a report from the ODI’s Romilly Greenhill and Annalisa Prizzon on trends in development finance. It was published at the end of last year, but somehow I missed it – probably because it is pegged to funding the post-2015 goals, a timesuck discussion I have tried to avoid (without much success).

But actually its value goes way beyond post2015. Here are some highlights:

Conclusions on Financing for Development:


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