Had a fun dinner in Brixton market last week with Samir Doshi, a Senior Scientist at USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab, which describes itself as “an innovation hub that takes smart risks to test new ideas and partner within the Agency and with other actors to harness the power of innovative tools and approaches that accelerate development impact.” This appears to be a novel way to get into the sandpit and do all sorts of really interesting things on adaptive management and technology and ‘doing development differently’. He’s also helping to co-organize a Sida DDD event today, which sounds like it’s going to have quite a turnout. Some highlights from the conversation:
With the ever increasing tidal wave of data being churned out and hopefully becoming available for transparency/accountability purposes, there is a lot of discussion on using this for Big Data crunching. That tends to be all about philosopher geeks crunching numbers in some trendy Silicon Valley office, but Samir feels that it’s also about connecting big data with small data – generating information and analyses that is usable at a local and household level to provide new insights that can spur community driven development, using technology as a means to connect with those that don’t have a voice.
USAID is getting v excited about ‘Adaptive Management’, working closely with its program on Collaboration, Learning and Adaptation. Looking at other industries such as IT, finance, and even military counterinsurgency strategies, Samir and colleagues are exploring how real-time data can help us improve a ‘probe-test-response’ cycle with tight feedback loops and “small bet” experiments in a PDIA-like approach.
They’re also thinking about how we can improve the current Adaptive Management narrative, which is more or less that an intervention is under way, then something goes wrong or is dropped, and we adapt to try and keep things on track. But Samir reckons what we really need is ‘Evolutionary Management,’ which continually changes the outcomes of delivery as well as how we do it. The interesting thing is that you can use the same data you would use for AM tweaking to do some much deeper EM rethinking. But this needs we need good data that we use not as a tactical monitoring/tweaking tool, but as an enabler of strategic dialogue. Stay tuned for more articles and blogs on the real-time data for adaptive management work coming from USAID and the research team of IDS, ODI, Feedback Labs and Reboot.
Samir thinks that one of the flaws in the current aid and development set up is that it doesn’t really do R&D
(Research and Development). R&D combined are agile: you get some insights through research, put them into practice, then work back from the results to sharpen thinking through further research, then back into practice – e.g., in software, finance, pharma or even gene tech. He says that generally in development, “We either do R or we do D and the two are not usually connected in the same program.” While not taking the conventional industry approach to R&D, the Lab is working to strengthen join the two through locally-driven R&D projects with real-life results on the ground. Programmes like the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) and Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) engage a range of diverse partners in solving development challenges and supporting locally-driven research. DFID and other donors seem to be going down a similar track. What other examples are out there?
What I liked about Samir’s shtick is USAID’s focus on practical relevance. The Lab has set up something called the Practical Adaptation Network with Feedback Labs – take a look if you want to see their approach, including ‘sprint teams’ to ‘committed to producing a tangible deliverable within 100 days that moves us closer to adaptive, agile and inclusive practices in development’. What, no multi-year lit reviews, evidence papers and concept notes?
All this is in marked contrast to conventional NGO views of ‘the donors’ – jobsworth stick in the muds insisting on their logframes and KPIs, intent on blocking our attempts at innovation. I fear the boot may be on the other foot – we need to find innovators like Samir in the donor agencies, and work with them to overcome the forces of inertia both in the aid donors, and the NGOs.
I’m off to Washington in November to flog the book (what else), and have some time scheduled with Samir and USAID colleagues – really looking forward to it. But I also want to sit Samir down and get his life story – anyone who mentions, in passing, that he spent 6 months living in a cave, doing the Dalai Lama’s washing up (and another three years in a tent) has to warrant a blog all of his own.