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August 4, 2017

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August 4, 2017

Looks like the NGOs are stepping up on ‘Doing Development Differently’. Good.

August 4, 2017
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For several years I’ve been filling the ‘token NGO’ slot at a series of meetings about ‘doing development differently’ (DDD) and/or planned v actualthinking and working politically’ – networks largely dominated by official aid donors, academics, thinktanks and management consultants (good overview of all the different initiatives here). Periodically, a range of NGOs appear on the scene, and according to ODI and Care are doing plenty on the ground, but they haven’t been very organized about it. So I was delighted when earlier this week, World Vision pulled together a bunch of international NGOs who are already working on and circulating draft papers about DDD to discuss (Chatham House Rule) setting up a network.

Why does it matter for INGOs? Because the DDD discussion could inform our work in a lot of areas where we are trying to get our act together: power and context analysis, theories of change, adaptive management, localization, making ‘partnership’ more genuine.

What can INGOs bring to the party for the wider DDD community?

Complementary strengths: on a good day, NGOs are closer to the ground, or at least to partners who themselves are working directly with communities (DDD looks very different depending on whether you are directly operational, or work through local partners). That could help address a nagging concern about DDD – the incongruity of a movement dedicated to ‘politically smart, locally led’ development being led by a bunch of senior, mainly white aid wallahs in London, Washington etc. For example, we can introduce more emphasis on participatory processes and ‘bottom-up thinking’ into what are often very top down approaches to ‘political economy analysis’.

We understand power differently: INGOs stress the importance of ‘informal power’ – what goes on in people’s heads (‘power within’), the importance of organizing to achieve ‘power with’. That’s why we go on about gender so much. The existing DDD crew have a lot to teach us on more formal channels of power – political settlements, elite bargains etc etc. Lots of opportunities for a useful exchange there (especially on the interface between informal and formal).

Can NGOs move the needle to the left?

Can NGOs move the needle to the left?

Triggering a necessary argument: DDD has been in fuzzword territory so far – a useful degree of blurring and ambiguity over what it actually means has allowed lots of people to buy into it, even if on some level, they disagree about what DDD means. For example, is DDD about effectiveness (aid donors getting better at persuading governments to do what you think is good for their country) or empowerment (including helping local people change the government, if that’s what’s required)? At some point the benefits of fuzziness may fall relative to the costs of confusion, and the NGOs could help get that clarifying conversation going.

A focus on how money changes hands: It was clear from the conversation that the way aid is funded is critical to encouraging/discouraging DDD. Yet that topic hasn’t got much attention so far in the DDD fora. INGOs find it much easier to do DDD with unrestricted than with restricted funds tied to particular projects and indicators. The current boom in Payment by Results in theory could encourage DDD, but in practice seems to promote Business as Usual conservatism. Project timescales are crucial – much easier to try things out, learn, adapt etc in a 5 year programme than a 12 month one. Lots to learn there.

So what are the next steps for our incipient NGO caucus?

Harvest existing practice: as our recent draft paper found, there is lots of DDD-type practice already going on, so we need to pull that together across a range of INGOs and see what patterns/lessons emerge.

Identifying examples of good donorship: most of the time, INGO people whinge about the way funders cramp their DDD style, complexity signbut I have definitely seen examples in Oxfam where the reverse is true – innovative funding approaches by donors have forced us to try out new stuff. We need to collect and analyse such examples, and then lobby like hell for more of them.

Exchange between NGOs: like any large institutions, NGOs have their share of blockers (ideas, interests, institutions) as well as advocates for DDD. Lots of opportunity for peer to peer support on this to build up the knowledge, confidence and profile of the good guys.

As for how we promote DDD within the NGOs, I could see three options:

Positive Deviance: identify the examples of good practice that are already there, and make a big fuss about them

Weaken the disabling environment: identify what is stopping DDD spread (whether internal or external) and try and neutralize it (a bit like DFID did with its Smart Rules)

Strengthen the enabling environment: What would need to change to make DDD the norm in NGOs? HR (who we recruit, how we train staff)? Processes (reporting, procurement etc)?  Incentives?

So as usual, the NGOs are a bit late to the party, but we’re there now, headed for the kitchen and the bottles of warm Chardonnay, and preparing to get down and dirty. Get ready for some embarrassing dance floor performances ……


  1. Thanks Duncan. A welcome initiative, and useful round up of the meeting and what INGOs have to offer. To pick up on your point about formal and informal power: it’s less the case that current DDD thinking and focus by think tanks and others to date has been about formal power and processes; they’ve been very attentive to informal rules, norms and practices that influence elite interests and relative bargaining power between factions, such as clientelist or ethnic ties. But they’ve been blind to other informal norms — such as hegemonic masculinity or racism — that equally shapes how both formal and political institutions and processes work, at whatever level of government and state. Feminist scholarship and lens — such as feminist institutionalism or intersectional theory — bring a more holistic understanding of informal power and how it shapes who gets what, when and how, AND how groups with relatively less power can challenge the status quo. More cross-fertilisation between DDD advocates and the feminist activists and networks that Oxfam, CARE, Womankind, and other INGOs are part of is long overdue. The GADN Women’s Participation and Leadership Group (co-chaired by Oxfam and CARE) will be putting out practical guidance on how to bring gender into PEA later in the year. Bring on the dancing!

  2. Thanks Duncan for breaking the silence. I think there’s a lot of energy for this at the moment. And like Oxfam and World Vision, CARE will be putting out a paper on what we’ve learned, probably by the end of the year.

    I think the scope for peer learning is massive, as we can call each other to account on the core principles.

    In the meantime, I’ve written a brief summary which captures some of what we’ve done so far and the challenges we’ll have to face together. See here for anyone who’s interested:

  3. I have a question, about aid jargon:

    ‘Informal power’, ‘power with’, ‘power within’ etc? What does any of this mean? For me, it’s terribly vague, imprecise and unhelpful.

    This could refer to people’s beliefs (their self-perceptions; their internalised stereotypes about members of a group; their norm perceptions about what others think and do; their acceptance or critique of the status quo distribution) or it could refer to their collective strength (as shaped by other people’s support, their interest, reputational concerns, or organised labour’s capacity to push for higher wages through strikes because manufacturers as worried about productivity etc). There’s so much to unpack. I just don’t think this vague terminology is very helpful.

    Within Development, ‘power’ gets used a lot. Soo imprecisely. I think we need to clarify our meaning.

    1. Agree, but I think people like Jo Rowlands, Stephen Lukes and John Gaventa have made a decent start at doing that – just need to keep on going

    1. Alice – since covering this in a wonderful human rights based programming course back in 2005, I’ve always found VeneKlasen and Miller’s framing of power (particularly Chapter 3 of A New Weave of Power, People and Politics… – as very clear, practical and helpful. Made abstract concepts feel very real and relevant to our work.

  4. DDD will not change much if the status of women is not improved in a number of low-income countries so that the high total fertility rate can be reduced. Otherwise a rapid population growth rate, and the youthful structure of the population, will outstrip all possible efforts to raise a country’s Human Development Index (HDI) score. All the countries ranked in the bottom 20 on the UNDP’s HDI have been in that low human development neighborhood since the inception of the HDI in 1990. How will DDD change the future for the better for these countries?

  5. Thank you, Duncan, for this insightful article! Would it be ok for you if I posted an excerpt of it translated into German on the PIRON blog ( which reaches out to German NGOs working in development cooperation and humanitarian aid? I would like them to get in touch with your important work and ideas if they haven’t done so up to now.

  6. Thx Duncan – wherever possible if we could work together as NGOs and leverage our combined efforts donors might be prepared to invest in more innovation at scale. For example, World Vision and CARE and Kwantu (and interested others) have a partnership aimed at leveraging our joint social accountability work through a data platform that can help aggregate citizen voice for improved national governance – effectively amplifying constituent pressure on governments ie Jonathan Fox’s model but based on strong examples of where it has worked. But there are so few investments in testing this work at scale and still some skepticism in donor circles on the feasibility – prior to testing – from CDD quarters at the bank, be great if you could promote the idea that we need to test it at scale especially based on DFIDs recent macro evaluation.

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