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Is the British development bubble a good thing? Reflections after another session at DFID.

January 24, 2014
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To be an aid  and development wonk based in London is to inhabit a very unrepresentative bubble. Beyond these shores, Australia has UK_Government_logos_2012_-_UK_AIDfollowed Canada in downgrading aid by absorbing it back into the foreign ministry, and subordinating aid policy more explicitly to national self interest. In Europe, most governments are cutting their aid budgets as part of their austerity packages. Wherever I go, people ask me why the UK government is bucking the trend, ramping up aid as it cuts other (far more vote-catching) budget lines, and to be honest, I struggle for an answer. The development NGOs claim it’s all down to our wonderful lobbying and public awareness work, but a vibrant green NGO scene hasn’t had much success on environmental policy, so not sure that stands up.

Organizationally, in addition to a disproportionate number of big development NGOs, the UK has a cluster of top notch thinktanks (IDS, ODI, IIED), generating a rich intellectual exchange on ideas in development and aid. This is backed up by dozens of development studies courses at undergrad and post grad levels (really hope they can all find jobs one day) and globally renowned academics (Robert Chambers, Paul Collier, am I allowed to claim Ha Joon Chang for the UK?) The London-based Guardian is way out in front on its coverage of development, with two separate (and excellent) sites:  Poverty Matters and the Development Professionals Network. Everyone bumps into each other at seminars, parties etc – there is a constant intellectual buzz.

The strengths and weaknesses of this British development bubble came home to me last week, as I attended a DFID seminar on ‘beneficiary feedback and the rigour of evidence.’ 50 DFID staff and NGO evaluation wallahs, some great speakers, and a genuine, nuanced and well-informed exchange on the issues.

So what were the downsides? (Hey I work for an NGO, there’s always a downside.) For starters, the title – ‘beneficiary feedback’ made a lot of people cringe. As Robert Chambers argued, words matter, and that phrase establishes a clear frame of them/us, upper/lower. We do stuff to them, then ask them for feedback on whether it was helpful and congratulate ourselves on our inclusiveness. Imagine we used the phrase ‘mutual accountability’ instead, and really meant it.

Second, as panellist Jeremy Holland pointed out, the ‘who’ is often more important than the ‘what’ or the ‘how’. Who provides the feedback? Who do they feed back to –other local people, or experts/donors/academics? Who evaluates the data? Who decides what is good quality and what isn’t?

To which I would add, who is in the room at DFID? Because on a quick skim, I saw 50 white faces, not one black or Asian one (the gender balance was OK). If the British Bubble leads to that kind of skewed ‘voice’, that’s pretty worrying, not least because the of the post colonial baggage that goes with being ‘Great Britain’. Check out the handy map of the very very few countries that the UK has not invaded.

British invasions

Third, which side of the brain are we using? Robert argued strongly that the whole aid business is far too ‘left side’ (numbers, evidence, linear systems, the world as an independent external object of study through cleverly designed observation). Robert calls this the ‘things’ hemisphere, whereas the right hand side corresponds to ‘people’ – relationships, complexity, systems. What do we lose by adopting a left-sided view of the world?

Fourth, and this may have just been down to excessive politeness (another failing of the British Bubble), there seemed a general desire to move on from trench warfare over what constitutes evidence (Big Push Back Forward v RCTs – all criticisms of which are now dismissed as ‘straw men’), and discuss how to improve both qualitative and quantitative methods, and select the right combination of methods for any given area of enquiry. Interestingly, Robert argued that cost effectiveness is a much better/less loaded word for what we seek than ‘rigour’ (which is often equated with quantitative methods), provided ‘cost’ includes human and financial costs and benefits. We need to recognize that both quantitative and qualitative methods can either be rigorous or rubbish, depending on how they are implemented.

Stefan Dercon, DFID’s chief economist, made the useful suggestion that a more conventional left-hand-side rigour should be applied to the selection of people to talk to, so that you understand ‘how they fit into society’, what voices they represent and what the information they share can (and importantly, cannot) tell you. But that how you then talk to them should use a range of techniques, designed to fit any given context.

And one other rather intriguing suggestion (didn’t catch the name of the member of the audience from whom it came): the current way of exchanging knowledge is very vertical – gurus like the panellists speak, write, blog, and their wisdom supposedly percolates down to the grateful footsoldiers of the aid business and academia (maybe even beyond). Instead of panels, why not ask the panellists to do an online surgery, where people who are actually working on this in the field (maybe even some beneficiaries…) can ask for guidance and suggestions on how to improve their work. Has anyone tried this?


  1. Your comment on pannel discussions rang a chord with me as my heart sinks every time I see that one is scheduled. It’s very rare that they generate any real audience participation, and even if the audience does get much time to pose questions, those chosen tend to be the most persistent and self-confident (here there’s commonly a gender bias), and not the more timid who might have rather different points to raise. Have I tried something different? A local level “surgery”? Well,it’s a rather different context, but when I was advising on a participatory watershed project in India which operated in 3 watersheds, we decided (in 2005) to do a participatory evaluation – with an evaluation team made up of 1 man and 1 woman from each of the 3 watersheds, one NGO representative each, and 1 (externally recruited) team leader. I joined from time to time as an observer. It was a very long process of field visits, and I failed to catch everything not only because of partial attendance but also as the language used was that of the villagers (Kanada and sometimes Telegu). So producing a final report in English with clear recommendations was a major headache! But in terms of learning and sharing at local level, I think a lot happened, and was really valued. Of course this would be inadequate in these days of demands for facts, figures, and “value for money”. SDC remains a little less demanding than DFID in this respect, but the trend is clear.

  2. Regarding the ‘online surgery’ question, OneWorld.org have done something a bit similar from the UN Climate Talks, broadcasting live video and enabling viewers to put their questions directly to interviewees (everyone from Presidents/Ministers, to negotiators, policy wonks and campaigners) via twitter, facebook, skype-video… etc. Not such a niche-focus, but similar underlying principles – an effort to open up a forum that’s not normally accessible, and to give a voice to people who aren’t normally heard.

  3. The comment on ‘vertical’ knowledge exchange rings very true – meetings using the panel format are often a disheartening experience. Even when on the ground development/anti-poverty/community workers – or the people who are affected by development programmes – are involved in such panels, what they say often seems to be immediately seized upon and reinterpreted by the ‘gurus’ in a way that fits with their own knowledge. Jane Carter notes that engaging with panels in meetings like this requires self confidenceand persistence. I’d add that familiarity with that kind of environment is also key – and once again, this favours those within the ‘expert bubble’ over those coming from a grassroots angle.
    My organisation (ATD Fourth World), has been trying to address this for a long time, by developing meeting/seminar formats that level the playing field , and try to allow for a horizontal exchange between academic experts, workers on the ground and the people affected by development projects (here’s a detailes description of the methodology: http://www.atd-fourthworld.org/Guidelines-for-the-Merging-of.html). The focus is on an equal back and forth exchange between all those present, not only to ensure everyone has understood what the ‘experts’ say, but also that the experts have not misconstrued what fieldworkers and ‘beneficiaries’ have told them. This takes a good deal of time, and language, cultural and social barriers all have to be carefully negotiated. We’ve found that during meetings like this, if people can spend time discussing common experiences in peer groups(ie groups of academics, or community workers, or people with experience of living in poverty) it improves the confidence of those not used to a seminar environment. Of course, as a method this isn’t perfect, and can lead to some quite heated discussion amongst participants.
    Most recently we’ve successfully used it in a 2 year project evaluating development programmes in roughly a dozen countries. Unfortunately, most of the country specific material about the project is not in English, but there is a working paper that gives a very broad summary: http://www.atd-fourthworld.org/Towards-Sustainable-Development.html.

  4. Interesting. I too dislike the talk down approach when it is not twinned with lots of opportunity for discussion. The Toronto Centre uses a collaborative process in at least some of its courses for financial sector regulators. I participated in one where “students” brought a draft action plan to solve a problem or achieve a goal that they were working on at home. A small group of students and teachers read and discussed each one and provided constructive feedback. It was very productive. The learning goes in both directions.

  5. i’m not surprised that there were no black or asian faces at the Dfid meeting. Disapoiintng that this worrying trend continues..especially as the world dynamics, decision making and stronger economies are shifting to the emerging countries..Dfid and its network then must rreally be living in a ‘bubble’.

  6. The term ‘beneficiary feedback’ may have made you cringe – is ‘self-reported assessment’ somewhat better? The Assessing Rural Transformations project at the Centre for Development Studies (www.gobath.ac.uk/art) is developing the Qualitative Impact Assessment Protocol (QUIP) which combines quantitative monitoring of key indicators and qualitative attribution of impact based on self-reported assessment by beneficiaries. The key here is that those conducting the qualitative research are deliberately ‘blinded’ (no researchers harmed in the process!) and know nothing of project interventions in the area. This avoids pro-project bias, and brings a more exploratory (as opposed to confirmatory), right-brain approach to the impact evaluation. Of course the proof is in the rigour – of both quant and qual elements of the evaluation, but preliminary results are very positive. For more ‘wonkish’ reading on this see: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cds/projects-activities/assessing-rural-transformations/Credible_impact_evaluation_18_October.pdf

  7. Powerful map.

    Though I am not against UK aid, perhaps the UK government isn’t exactly bucking the trend when it ramps up aid that makes it a requirement for development NGOs to partner with the private sector. And uses it to pay (mostly UK based?) private consulting firms to fund manage and knowledge manage.

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