How do we get down to the nitty gritty on ‘Doing Development Differently’?

The ‘Doing Development Differently’ network has been going great guns since it launched late last year, with hundreds of Andrew Wells-Dangwonks and practitioners signing up to the DDD manifesto. It’s just had its second big get together, a thrilla in Manila – I couldn’t go so Andrew Wells-Dang (Oxfam-Vietnam) reports back.

Mabuhay! I and about 50 other development wonks gathered for the second meeting of this network following an initial gathering at Harvard University in October 2014, which produced a ‘DDD manifesto’. Whilst some of the prominent voices from the first workshop – ODI’s David Booth, the Asia Foundation’s Jaime Faustino – were also present, the focus of this workshop was on practitioners rather than researchers. (All the presentations and other materials can be found here – in addition to being an undercover blogger for Duncan, I also presented with a DFID colleague on how we are trying out innovations in governance programming in Vietnam)

The idea of ‘doing development differently’, as Duncan’s previous posts have pointed out, is broad (or vague) enough to cover many possible viewpoints. In a way, this can be seen as a strength, as it helps many people adopt the idea. We all want to be different, but different from what? Some participants conceive of DDD mainly as ‘innovation’ or ‘entrepreneurship’, terms borrowed from the equally fuzzy language of business management. More specific, but slightly unwieldy, are the related movements for ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP), ‘locally-led, politically smart’, and ‘problem-driven, iterative adaptation’ (PDIA) – which is probably the most specific, positive description.

Beware ToC-rage
Beware ToC-rage

The engaging panels, open space discussions, and long breaks (love those meriendas!) in Manila focussed on two types of programmes that are problem-driven, iterative, and adaptive, or at least trying to be:

  • Coalition-building programmes for policy reforms (such as Pyoe Pin in Myanmar, Coalitions for Change in the Philippines, and the Vietnam Coalition Support Programme that I’m involved in). These programmes (as well as SAVI in Nigeria that was also represented) share certain features in common, though interestingly enough, we all mean something slightly different by ‘coalitions’, and our contexts differ in unexpected ways: in Vietnam ‘policy advocacy’ is a neutral term compared to ‘reform’ or ‘change’, but in the Philippines it’s the other way around!
  • On the second day, we also heard from public sector service delivery programmes – considering examples from Indonesia’s planning ministry, an Asia Foundation initiative in Ulaan Bator, Mongolia, and budget strengthening in ‘fragile states’ in Africa through ODI. These relate to discussions of institution-building working from within the state, a different approach to demand-side governance.

By about the third presentation, it was clear to everyone that many of the same lessons, challenges and experiences arise from multiple cases in varying contexts. If I could summarise a single outcome, it’s that PDIA, or DDD principles, or whatever we call them apply in both of these types of programmes – and probably in many (if not all) others, since the basic context of complex operating environments, multiple partners/stakeholders, and uncertainty of outcomes applies widely.

But once we recognise this, then what? Beyond the general DDD principles – local leadership, stepwise planning, ‘small bets’ and others – perhaps there is a need for more specific guidelines for groups of programmes under the DDD umbrella? For coalition-building programmes, for instance, these might include the value of a challenge function from ‘insider-outsiders’: people who understand our context but also keep one leg outside it. Another key learning is the need to integrate aspects of formal and informal coalitions in our work, since some formality may be necessary to achieve legitimacy and cohesion, but most of the changes that matter happen through personal linkages among individual actors.

For service delivery projects, key issues include how to support reform actors within government agencies, an appropriate

There's theory, and then there's practice
There’s theory, and then there’s practice

role for  embedded technical advisers within ministries, and what are supportive, but not interfering, positions for donors as conveners. Another set of guidelines might well apply for ‘working politically’ at a national reform/transition level, and so on. DDD, we all agreed, should not be restricted only to a certain type of governance programme implemented by actors (such as Oxfam and the Asia Foundation) that already follow many of the principles.

With this observation in mind, the workshop organisers posed a series of questions:

  • How to close the perceived gap between the general agreement on DDD principles and specific applications in practice, so that the principles become a norm, not an exception?
  • How can the principles be mainstreamed into other sectors, including in traditional large donor programmes such as health and infrastructure?
  • Can adaptive monitoring tools such as theories of change, strategy testing and contribution analysis be reconciled with donors’ ‘results’ and ‘value for money’ agendas that stress upwards accountability?


Participants (including a number of open-minded donor representatives) sought to identify moderate solutions that might build support within their agencies: setting up innovation funds within larger-scale programs, for instance, or ‘twinning’ DDD-type approaches with bi/multilateral loan projects, budget support, and other ‘business as usual’ strategies to get the money out without a high monitoring burden or fiduciary risk.

These solutions may have merit in some cases, but they take the existing political constraints on donors as a given, rather than identifying ways to advocate for changing it (that is, applying a political economy approach to the donors, not just to programme counterparts).How to apply DDD principles to £100 million programmes is probably the wrong question, since the spending pressures of such a programme almost inevitably exclude the kind of in-depth communication and close relationships among donors, implementing agencies, and local partners that iterative, adaptive development requires. Can donors instead be convinced to fund small-to-moderate sized programmes that spend a much greater percentage of their budgets on analysis, participatory design, and learning, both at the start and during the process?

Other questions emerged from the workshop discussions. How can we (donors, implementers and partners) demonstrate incremental progress over a longer term? It’s fine to talk about ‘small bets’, but DDD can’t be just about quick wins or ‘low-hanging fruit’. Are we willing to persist to achieve outcomes that might take years, like the Filipino excise tax reform campaign, which began in the mid-1990s and succeeded in 2012? Are donors willing to continue funding? Or by contrast, when do we accept that a certain initiative is not working? If we do recognise a failure, are we able to take action, since we have existing relationships and ties with partners, and a built-in belief that with just a little more time and resources, this might work?

I hope that future DDD reflections (already being planned) will take up these and other practical questions, rather than too much navel-gazing about how to spread the DDD manifesto and principles, or whether a particular programme conforms to the principles or not. It would also be good to continue to broaden the participants beyond the middle-aged men (like myself), many of us from donor countries, though often with long experience in one or more developing country contexts. I found that the national and regional staff and managers, both women and men, who were present in Manila had particularly valuable and, dare I say, ‘different’; contributions to the debate.

A handy metaphor
A handy metaphor

For me, the main value of a few days in Manila is that I came back with several new ideas about the design and implementation choices of the Coalition Support Programme in Vietnam. What does ‘transformational change’ mean for us, and how do we recognise it? How can we combine qualitative assessment and monitoring that is partner-led with ‘harder-edged’ decision making about who to work with, on what issues and for how long? And a final powerful image provided by one of the presenters: of governments (and other bureaucracies) as turtles, with a hard shell evolved over time. If external reformers such as multi-stakeholder advocacy coalitions bang on the shell, the turtle just withdraws further inside and waits for the banging to end. How can we instead get under the shell, encourage the turtle to poke its head and feet out and take steps forward?

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3 Responses to “How do we get down to the nitty gritty on ‘Doing Development Differently’?”
  1. Jaime Faustino

    A big thanks to Andrew for a well-written summary.

    I’d like to comment on notion of ‘small bets’. This phrase has become part of the DDD lexicon. It is in the DDD Manifesto and Duncan’s blog for the first DDD workshop.

    But linking ‘small bets’ to ‘quick wins’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’ mischaracterizes the concept. Small bets are about innovation and breakthrough. The logic is as follows: At the start, we accept that we have is a series of untested hypotheses – basically, educated guesses. Through tests (i.e. small bets) we get feedback, learn, and adapt. As some bets start to gain traction, larger bets are made to get to breakthroughs, innovations, or transformational change.

    This is a proven and well-documented method to finding breakthroughs in complex and dynamic situations. In “Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries,” Peter Sims draws lessons from a broad range of individuals and organizations, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Thomas Edison, the story developers at Pixar Animation Studios, Steve Jobs, Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus, comedian Chris Rock, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, US President Obama’s media campaign team, the US Army’s Chief of Strategic Plans and companies such as Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Google, SAP, 3M and Hewlett Packard.

  2. Andrew Wells-Dang

    Thanks for this clarification. Jaime’s successful work on excise taxes, land registration, and other issues have clearly happened organically as a series of ‘small bets’ over time. While a potential large donor programme based (at least in part) on DDD principles still looks like a ‘big bet’ to me!

  3. Matius

    I have only recently followed DDD, and have the same sentiments about hearing the same issue expressed differently by donors and NGOs alike. And now corporations are using their language to enter into he same market. In housing what you build becomes more pertinent than how you build it. And it is these process issues which donors for example will view from an audit perspective, not program outcome. Although outcome mapping is a great step towards learning about process, the leveling off of government funds will reduce NGOs ability to measure process. Instead what is seen is the lower amount of ODA is a way to repackage development as things to do with innovation. Innovation is a process and verb, yet what I see is donors insists on a product.

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