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April 22, 2015

Scale, Failure, Replication and Gardening: Continuing the Discussion on the future of Big Aid.

April 22, 2015
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Or should that be beautiful?

Or should that be beautiful?

I’ve been having a series of great conversations on the draft of my new paper on the future of INGOs (plenty of time if you want to comment – here it is INGO futures, Green v5 April 2015 (edited)). Some of these have been under Chatham House Rules, so no names/organizations, but here are some of the standout topics that have emerged so far:

Scale: It’s all very well to ask ‘how do you take a supertanker white-water rafting?’ and suggest that big can be bad (slow moving, bogged down in procedures, conservative), but size also brings clear advantages. Scale creates influence, economies, cross-country learning and the ability to invest in experimentation and take more risks (even to pay the wages of weird strategic advisers bloggers who achieve nothing particularly tangible). Break up Oxfam into 40 mini-me’s and you would lose a lot, as well as potentially gain on flexibility and innovation.

So the question arises, what kind of hybrid combination of scale and subsidiarity gives you the optimal blend of flexibility and clout? And presumably that balance depends on the issue – economies of scale matter more in some areas than others – and the political and social context. The arguments are likely to look different depending on whether you are in long-term development, humanitarian or advocacy (see here for previous rant on Grey Panthers, aka rafts for wrinklies). Lots of thinking needed (as well as identifying what the current spread of supertankers and rafts is within the aid business and how well/badly it is working).

Finally, some versions of flotillas might be positively counter-productive – one cash-strapped Dutch NGO has apparently broken itself up into self-financing business units, with the predictable result that hard-to-fund areas like advocacy and development education have virtually disappeared.

quote-Winston-Churchill-success-consists-of-going-from-failure-to-759Failure: There is a common lament that development failure is neither recognized nor punished- when was the last time an NGO went out of business? But the obvious difference is that companies go bust because there is a clear profit/loss bottom line, and very few non-commercial entities behave the same way (governments, UN bodies etc). And the noble efforts of Engineers Without Borders to get us all discussing and learning from failure seem rather to have, errm, failed.

So is failure the right way to think about performance or an unhelpful polarizing dichotomy when there isn’t a clear bottom line metric and in practice, almost any programme or change process is a combination of the two? Isn’t it more important to be able to identify elements within a programme that are not working and fix them en route, rather than reduce everything to binary red/green lights?

And there is a temporal issue here too. Development veterans who return to countries after long absences find that local staff in programmes that were once deemed ‘failures’ often turn up years later at the heart of success stories (a bit like Tim Harford’s Adapt thesis, or those failed infant industries that end up providing the basis for subsequent industrial take off).

Replication: We should acknowledge that there is already lots of one-off innovation going on. My colleague James Whitehead has been doing an internal positive deviance exercise, collecting and analysing dozens of innovations across our work – I’m trying to get him to write a post on it.  I have long been

More replicants needed?

More replicants needed?

banging the drum for programmes like Chukua Hatua in Tanzania, and TajWSS in Tajikistan. But despite its success, Chukua Hatua is still the only Oxfam programme that I know of doing multiple parallel experiments. Why are such innovations not being replicated within/between agencies?

Ecosystem Gardening: If the UK is indeed a unique development cluster (as I argued in a recent post), then the role of big aid agencies (DFID, Oxfam) could be that of ecosystem gardeners, taking a system-wide view on nurturing and strengthening the cluster.  This could include:

–          More support for start-ups and spin-offs as incubators of new ideas/approaches – the sector is currently too much of a monoculture of generalist organizations all doing roughly the same thing.

–          Encouraging large organizations to steal/borrow innovation from others

–          Finding ways to overcome the ‘big money’ problem (large aid organizations with relatively few staff can only sign large cheques), eg through ecosystem intermediaries (who can break up large cheques into lots of small grants) or equity for spin-off organizations or ‘people not projects’ funds that back outstanding individuals.

ecosystem gardening–          Encouraging greater complementarity – working in middle income countries is becoming politically difficult for northern governments (local governments resent the intrusion, taxpayers and the Daily Mail bang on about India’s space programme). Yet 60-70% of the world’s poor people still live in MICs. Perhaps bilateral agencies should consciously encourage a combination of national and international NGOs to pursue strategies tailored to MICs – eg norm change, tax, redistribution, innovation government policies and practices, etc

–          But also collaboration – there are some areas where the aid and development agencies are all engaged, but are not fully cooperating to learn vital lessons in what are really difficult operating environments eg on programming in fragile states; creating ‘safe spaces’ for discussion and learning from failure

Keep the comments coming please – this is all really useful.


  1. Thanks for the post Duncan.

    Aren’t there lots of NGOs that go out of business or merge with others? I thought there had been a trend of this in say the last 20 years in the UK.

    I think one of the roles of large INGOs is to do much more to find out what works and what doesn’t and provide the evidence for this so this can be picked up by others. Of course MEL and impact measurement are an increasing part of what INGOs do but at the moment I think the general model is to do the activity and then to try to measure if this works – with the primary aim being the activity rather than the measuring.

    I’ve worked in the medical research institute in Malawi for the last couple of years. The focus of the activity here (including many activities that are similar to those Oxfam might do) is solely to find out if a particular intervention works. So things aren’t framed as failures if they don’t work as they advance the knowledge. If something is shown to work (whether it’s an innovation or not) then it can be picked up by others as it is systematically shared. And this is not mostly about conducting RCTs.

    So with the scale of an INGO (big enough to be able to do this properly but not big enough to have significant impact on a national scale on its own) then focusing more on finding out what works and what doesn’t (as an aim in itself rather than a by product of the doing) to influence others would seem to me to be a step forward.

  2. Thanks for another interesting post. On the idea of ‘encouraging large organizations to steal/borrow innovation from others’ – I absolutely see the need to spread new ideas and share learning and innovations, but I’m wondering how we do this in a way that supports the (possibly smaller, more precarious) organisations whose innovations are being borrowed. We talk a lot about documenting programme learning to help spread ‘best practice’ – which suggests NGOs want their good ideas to be pinched/replicated. I spent several months hanging out with national NGOs in Malawi a couple of years ago, and while they talked a bit about sharing good practice, there was also a real concern about their ideas and approaches being copied by others. Lots of discussion along the lines of ‘we’re very innovative, and we need to make sure we benefit from these ideas, and that they’re not stolen by other agencies’. In some cases staff described examples where their suggestions for possible interventions had been taken up by big donors, and saw this as a negative thing – their idea had been nicked. ‘Documentation’ was partly about showing that they were using particular approaches, to prove that they had developed these ideas before others copied them. One NGO was worried that since other agencies had adopted its main programme approach, they’d lost their USP and faced more funding competition. I could understand their fears.

    Not sure how common this is or what you do about it, but I’d be interested to hear any thoughts from others.

  3. The issue of safe spaces comes up in lots of different discussions I’ve had recently. Different types of organisations need different sorts of spaces too. Definitely interested in hearing about ways in which people have found these spaces in their organisations.

  4. I have also been thinking about ‘safe spaces’ for a while. Most recently, I discussed it here within the context of ‘building back better’ state/business relationships in Vanuatu as part of the recovery from Cyclone Pam:

    More generally, I have used the ‘Devpacific Dialogues’ series to bring together people from government, donors, NGOs, academia, media & private sector to share thinking and experience around issues of common interest:

  5. It should be simple. All external aid should be channeled through competent, certified host country institutions. Doing it any other way only defeats the purpose of self-sustaining, self-managed development. If development is mostly about capacity building, can there be any other way. When I stop seeing a clutter of INGO signs at almost every corner in every city of Africa, I will then know progress is being made.

  6. The role of small donors.

    Rant: Just because of the kind of animal it is, a large donor will act like a large donor. Overestimating its impact, range, expertise. Try to push things. I was at the receiving end of DFID, I know. What become of coordination above all? The supremacy of value for money? All other donors duly followed. As the feedback system in place are reelections, a good soundbite, combined with awe from other white male politician is more important than long term impact for the successor in office.

    Ecosystem gardening is what you expect form a fox, not from a hedgehog, a donor who needs to know its niche to stand a chance, and plays it. I think this kind of approach will rather be expected from a donor like Ireland, or Switzerland: enough independence, so small that the ambitions are limited too.

  7. Hello, I am CEO of a agri based social impact project in Pakistan called Jassar Farms. My project aims to augment milk yields of dairy animals of poor dairy farmers through usage of superior genetics.

    I have hands-on experience of trying to engage the large global donors like USAID, DFID, AUSAID, GTZ etc for many years now and my experience is that these organizations have very fixated ideas and have outlived their utility effectively. Their approach in not only more bureaucratic than the governments themselves but they are closed to the concept of local ideas / innovation.

    As someone working on bottom of the pyramid in a country that is marred by terrorism and a host of other developmental challenges, I can very accurately say that these large donors have had very marginal developmental social impact in Pakistan so far. Similarly, I have so far been unable to see better results in other developing countries as well. So why are they there if their impact is marginal? Are they their to play tunes for the local audience at home? Are they their for creating developmental jobs for home country citizens? Are they their to make the home country look good in the eyes of the world and those involved in development space? These are some of the questions that spring to mind when one thinks about big donors today from a standpoint of the country being targeted for potential impact.

    In view of the above and my own experience of fund raising in the developmental space in a developing country, I would strongly recommend that the current model of aid from the developed countries to the developing countries needs to be spun around on its head i.e. much smaller vehicles / organizations that invest in local ideas of local entrepreneurs should be the way forward for sustainable development. Seed money to scale money, training to exposure visits etc should be the model for times to come. The old model of aid delivery has clearly failed to deliver because no rivers of honey and milk are flowing in even a single country out of the developing world after receiving tens of billions of dollars over many decades.

    I hope many feedback is of value.

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