Pragmatism and its discontents: Brian Levy’s brilliant review essay on How Change Happens

April 27, 2017

Guardian launches important new Website on Inequality

April 27, 2017

How far has DFID got in implementing ‘Doing Development Differently’ ideas on the ground?

April 27, 2017
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I’ve been banging on about the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement for a few years now. Initially driven by big bilateral donors frustrated with the ODI DDD reportfailure rate of old school project approaches, especially in trying to ‘build states’ and reform governments , DDD advocates ‘politically smart and locally led’ approaches, avoiding cookie cutter ‘best practice’, while staying sufficiently aware and adaptive to learn and tweak your interventions as you go.

But all too often, reform movements such as DDD fizzle out when put into practice. Their initial clarity gets blurred by the demands of ‘rolling out’ to the unconverted; ‘mainstreaming’ dilutes the rigour and translates into just another level of compliance and set of tickboxes for staff and partners.

Is that happening to DDD? To find out, ODI researchers supported DFID’s attempts to DDD throughout 2016, both at head office, and in country programmes in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Nepal. They have now written up what they saw in a new report, by Leni Wild, David Booth and Craig Valters. Some of the findings that struck me include:

‘DFID’s growing emphasis on being ‘problem driven’ – setting aside standard formulas and templates and focusing instead on specific constraints to development that need to be unlocked to enable progress. There is often an emphasis on facilitation or convening local efforts, and on being politically smart in critical areas such as inclusive economic development.

Less encouragingly, it has proved easier for staff to build-in an ability to respond to changes in context, than to set out an approach that commits to purposeful experimentation or ‘learning by doing’. While there are a few good examples of facilitation of locally-led change, this also remains a challenging dimension.’

In terms of my current favourite 2×2 (left), that means DFID is more comfortable above the horizontal axis, than below: it is easier to admit uncertainty on context than on intervention.

context intervention 2x2Other lines that jumped out:

Getting faster at failing (and stopping): ‘Take action to scale back funding where there are early signs of failure. As well as being better ‘value for money’ for UK aid, it also achieves real results.’

On Why Now? ‘Adaptive management is among other things, a response to the retreat from budget support that has occurred over the last few years, and the return to donor country operations that consist of a portfolio of projects or programmes.’

On Fragile States: ‘It is unclear that much headway has been made in applying flexible or adaptive approaches in conflict-affected countries.’, partly because the role of other departments on issues like counter-terrorism means that ‘consensus across government is more likely to be achieved by falling back on standard ‘train and equip’ programmes, for instance around security and justice sector reform.’

A missing link to gender work: Adaptive and gender programming have much to learn from each other but so far ‘Gender programmes have a tendency to fall back on ‘best practice’ rather than ‘best fit’ or locally-appropriate approaches: it remains rare for gender-related programmes to use structured experimentation to test different possible ways of empowering women and girls and to adapt their approach based on learning about which programme activities work more or less well.’

The backroom people aren’t the problem after all: ‘In our experience, procurement staff can be among the champions of innovative programme design, despite common perceptions to the contrary.’

Portfolios not projects: The report advocates thinking in portfolios rather than individual projects, which would allow

  • ‘Obtaining a balanced mix of programmes that are adaptive and non-adaptive in a given sector or country portfolio: This could help in managing concerns that adaptive programmes can have high staff costs and unpredictable spending rates, and could support synergies between programmes that are more or less adaptive.
  • Experimentation with a range of interventions to address a common problem: This would allow for a ‘multiple bets’ approach, helping to manage risk and create space for complementarities and learning across different implementing partners.’

All in all, a useful reality check. Hope ODI can continue to shadow DFID as the DDD work matures. Has anyone done anything similar on other donors by the way?

For info, now I have more or less finished promoting the book, I’m moving on to doing some research on how aid donors (both INGOs and bilateral) work in fragile contexts, both in terms of promoting social and political action, and in working with non-state forms of ‘public authority’ in Africa. When plans become clearer, I’ll be coming back to you to ask for reading, contacts and advice.

10 comments

  1. Super interesting and encouraging but to a semi-outsider it is unclear how TWP or DDD can be operationalised in settings where the dysfunction is embedded in the political economy. It often seems that policy papers on DDD etc typically frame the problem as an internal donor reform problem, thereby encouraging the kind of check-lists DDD wishes to avoid. It would be great to read more detailed country case studies of how donors attempted to implement DDD strategies (not what they did) in reform resistant countries.

  2. While working with AKRSP in the Pakistan’s northern mountains in the eighties and nineties, we were able to get what the world bank described as the highest concentration of micro hydros in a geographical area in a community driven programme DFID funded for almost fifteen years. What however was interesting was the hydro component was never mentioned in the project planning document, it was opposed by both the Board and Senior Management of the organisation. But despite this we managed to respond to peoples needs in the field and adapt our programme to include what was not part of its original plan. It was a brilliant story of doing development differently. Very little of that institutional memory is retained and DFID in Pakistan today like so many donors will keep reinventing the wheel to repeat it.The absence of institutional memory as much as mainstreaming work against working differently

  3. Yes, but how Differently?

    The report seems quite conservative in its interpretation of ‘Differently': yes, there’s a growing shift to PDIA (problem driven iterative adaption), losing the logframe.

    While that’s great, I’m uneasy about labelling/ lauding this as some kind of revolution.

    Isn’t it just tinkering with the template, revising the planning & implementation process of pre-existing agendas? Leaving so many huge problems with aid untouched?

    1. Sorry, to clarify, my concern is that this report focuses on whether donors are doing PDIA (as a management exercise), with less attention to (and analysis of) country-driven PDIA. I worry that this slippage perpetuates a comfortable aid-narcissism illusion that NGOs, multilaterals and donors can do PDIA just by changing their planning and project management processes. It turns questions of country ownership & government-led PDIA into more palatable, conservative (and far less transformative) managerial issues of losing the logframe.

      1. Yep, I think this is a genuine issue. ‘Doing Development Differently’ approaches cover a spectrum from ‘getting better at making them do what we want’ to more transformational approaches. At the moment everyone is united by a common enemy – the logframe. When/if that is removed, I would expect those differences to become much more visible

        1. Agreed. I’ve seen quite a few organisations claim to be doing PDIA while just focusing on logframes: i.e. portraying themselves as radical, while maintaining the usual hierarchies. Your blog could have highlighted this spectrum, note the danger of equivocation being used as a veil of progressive reform, and caution against reports such as this portraying donors’ managerial shifts as DDD?

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