Global Development Institute Blog

Pablo Yanguas is a Research Associate at the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research centre.

On April 2nd ODI hosted a group of aid practitioners and public sector researchers gathered for the purpose of discussing whether the “Doing Development Differently” (DDD) agenda can in fact be managed by development organisations. It seemed like a very necessary step after the “Doing Development Differently” Manifesto and ODI report, which have focused on changing the basic assumptions and discourse of aid, as well as providing some supporting evidence. The last panel of the day was tasked with debating whether the institutional barriers to DDD could in fact be overcome. Having worked on a similar question for political-economy analysis, I was invited to participate in this conversation, and this is what I had to say.

Institutional barriers are here to stay

The administrative and institutional barriers to innovations in the aid industry are well known: disbursement pressures, career advancement standards, corporate incentives, the illusion of control over results, technocratic organisational cultures, hostile political environments, as well as the very basic notion about what development assistance should do. ESID’s research on the use of political analysis at DFID and the World Bank has documented some of these constraints, and how hard it is to overcome them.

“Success stories” need to be taken with a grain of salt

Despite all these barriers, there is a growing body of evidence – more or less anecdotal, more or less biased – that change is in fact possible. The trick is what to make of these stories, and determining what exactly they are cases of. Are they:

  • Isolated efforts or strategic approaches to reform? For instance, the World Bank’s innovative programme in Nigeria, which is a one of a kind, as opposed to DFID’s “Smart Rules”, which resulted from a comprehensive process of internal review.
  • “Lone rangers” or organisations as a whole? In other words, are these initiatives bureaucratic or extra/infra-bureaucratic? The use of trust funds in the World Bank is an example of change happening around and in spite of core incentives, just as an energetic and enlightened head of office can turn a dormant DFID mission into a proactive developmental actor.
  • Accidental or purposeful? That is, are these cases of planned innovation, in which actors decided to do development differently, or are they cases of adaptation, in which practitioners simply had to make the best of a bad situation?

These questions are crucial for determining whether ostensible success stories are relevant, let alone replicable. Given the prevalence of personality-centred and extra-bureaucratic change, some kind of critical institutional memory is necessary.

DDD is simultaneusly more and less demanding than conventional practice

The paradox of doing development differently is that it may simultaneously be more and less ambitious than conventional practice, putting both more and less strain on the gears and engines of development.

  • In terms of management, principles like “empowered accountability” may be more demanding for the individuals involved, as professional choices become riskier for programme designers as well as for the managers who will assess them. However, a greater space for personal initiative, learning and adaptation demands less of accountability systems, which may come to rely more heavily on managerial discretion than on ridiculously nitpicky tools.
  • In terms of results, the focus on complexity and processes, rather than conventional outputs, may be less demanding for evaluation, which will not need as many proxies and unreliable indicators in the questionable quest to measure everything. However, it will be more demanding for the greater public – and taxpayers in particular – whose understanding of development has been shaped for decades by the promise of the technical fix, as opposed to the reality of incremental, contentious reform.
  • In terms of information, the embrace of uncertainty and iteration will be more demanding for practitioners, who will have to devise ways of compiling more sophisticated and ongoing data in order to properly adjust to context, for instance by spending more time in the field cultivating contacts and partnerships. The upside is that programme design then becomes less stringent and artificial in its drive to establish certainty and hold projects accountable to original expectations.

There is not enough evidence to make the case just yet, but we may very well come to realise that doing development differently is not necessarily harder than conventional practice – just different.

Change entails working at different levels

The paradoxes and ambiguities of DDD hint at the existence of different levels at which management transformations may be pursued:

  • At the high level of principals and principles, proponents of doing development differently will have to persuade ministers and directors – many of whom are not development practitioners themselves – that their organisations need to adopt a more relaxed understanding of the results chain. But principals are also subject to external pressures, and so this level of change also requires a shift in public discourse about development in general, and aid in particular, moving from a quick-fix mentality to a more contentious approach based on longer time horizons.
  • At the middle level of systems and structures, doing development differently entails changing those organisational features which inhibit – and even punish –  innovation, learning and adaptation. This goes all the way from budget preparation to evaluation standards and performance benchmarks.
  • At the low level of individuals and careers, managing a different kind of development requires new competency requirements for hiring, a system of inducements that rewards practitioners for trying new approaches, and above all a decoupling of career advancement from disbursement. In a way, DDD calls for development professionals, not simply aid administrators.

Naturally, the question arises of whether adopting a new approach to development can be promoted at any one level independently from the others, or whether it requires coordinated efforts at two or even all three levels at the same time.

In any case, underlying this entire discussion is the very rationale for development assistance as an industry:money. In particular: where would the money go? To facilitators, consultants, local brokers? Would there be any conditionality? Any targets for disbursement? How big would budgets need to be? Money is the one cross-cutting issue across all levels of change, and DDD proponents probably need answers to these questions if their efforts are to succeed.

Institutional barriers can be overcome, but not equally by all actors

With all this in mind, we can begin to sketch an analytical framework for understanding what the chances are that institutional barriers will be overcome, and where exactly that is likely to happen:

  • DEFINITELY – by individuals willing to go an extra mile despite corporate incentives and cultures, or bysmall units of like-minded people operating within larger organisations. The World Bank’s country team in Nigeria would exemplify this type, which we can call “outliers/lone rangers”.
  • PROBABLY – by small organisations like consultancies and implementers, which are by definition more nimble, or by those with longer time horizons and more relaxed disbursement imperatives, likefoundations. The work of the Asia Foundation in the Philippines would fall under this type, which we can call “explorers”.
  • POSSIBLY – by bilateral donor agencies using taxpayers’ money or multilateral agencies subject to consensus politics, as long as there is a change strategy targeting the three levels: public discourse about development, management systems and structures, and human resource policies. We can call this type of actors  “insurgents” (when they operate within agencies) and “advocates” (when they operate from outside).

At the moment we mainly see cases of “lone rangers” and “explorers”, but it would be a mistake to infer that their achievements can be easily ported to the realm of “insurgents” and “advocates”. These are fundamentally different fights, and DDD proponents may do well to cater to the different needs of these various actors instead of offering a single message. Not without a certain irony, the success of promoting change within development organisations requires DDD managers to practise the same kind of learning, adaptation and experimentation that they want those organisations to adopt in their programming.

DDD may be easier for local actors, but also more dangerous

A completely different issue is whether the doing development differently agenda – which so far has been mainly expressed in “donorspeak” – can in fact translate into the practice of local actors, both public and private. In this case, the answer will differ according to the issue that we focus on:

  • Uncertainty will be easier to manage for governments and local actors than for donors, especially in contexts of low capacity/delivery, where uncertainty and complexity are just fancy words for “politics”.
  • Time horizons are naturally longer for local actors than for external ones, especially in the case of donor personnel subject to 2-3 year rotations and aid programmes with a 3-5 year cycle, which hardly ever map onto the more protracted dynamics of local reform.
  • Incentives, in contrast, may in fact be harder for governments and civil society than donors, as local reformers and advocates remain embedded in political networks, systems of norms, and competing social demands which rarely allow them to rock the boat through innovation and change.

Doing development differently may turn out to be a feasible but dangerous exercise for many local actors.

A final word about DDD prerequisistes

In all this I cannot help but wonder about the shadow that the public sector casts over the task of pursuing development differently. Learning requires institutional capacity and adaptation requires political coverage, both things that may be missing from weak state organisations in many countries around the world.

Does DDD require an effective public sector supported by strong political will? If so, does the agenda give us any hint as to how to achieve them?