If top down control is unavoidable, can we still make aid more compatible with systems thinking?

Had a really interesting conversation last week with Oxfam Intermon and its friends in the Catalan aid system (in Spain, aid is regional with provinces and even cities like Barcelona pursuing active aid policies). I gave my usual rap about how complex systems require aid providers to adopt iterative, adaptive approaches to cope with uncertainty and the response was basically ‘yeah right’. In Spain at least, politicians are so worried that any incidence of corruption will undermine the case for aid, that they will always insist on tight control, logframes and all the rest, even if that means the aid is less effective (in this reading, value for money – VFM – is an argument for less (not more) command and control).

So let’s picture the system as two circles in a Venn diagram. One is all the policies and approaches that are compatible with command and control by the donor; the other is all those that are compatible with systems thinking. In Spain, in recent years, those two circles have been diverging, but let’s assume there is still some overlap. What policies might fit in the overlapping area, satisfying both criteria? What we came up with was:

Fund individuals rather than organizations: Cash transfers directly to poor people, where all the research suggests the money is used well. Alternatively fund scholarships for academic or leadership training for promising individuals. Both shorten the chain between donor and ‘beneficiary’ and so reduce the chances of corruption.

Stick with the organizations and individuals you trust: If you’ve been funding a given NGO or other partner for 20 years and nothing has gone wrong, that’s probably a pretty good guarantee that they are low risk and you can keep going. It may lead to a very conservative approach, but it’s pretty safe. But ticking both criteria depends on the partner having a good grasp of systems thinking, of course. Alternatively, think about ‘trust brokers’ – accepted and trusted intermediaries who can vouch for them.

No shortage of ambition….

Focus on brokering rather than money flows: Find partners who for relatively small money (so less risk) can bring together people and organizations to tackle problems with their own resources. The booming number of multistakeholder initiatives fit in this category.

Payment by Results: Bit of a controversial one this. The idea is great and highly compatible with systems thinking. Governments or other recipients get paid according to whether they get the results, not how they achieve them. That means the recipients can be as iterative, adaptive, experimental etc as they want. If it works, they get paid. And that means the money can’t be siphoned off before the results come through (here’s a current illustration of the reputational benefits for DFID). So much for theory, the practice has turned out to be very different, with donors seeing this as a way to offload risk while continuing to try and exert command and control.

Technical Assistance and Horizontal Exchanges: A city like Barcelona has lots of capacity and skills that might be of use to cities in other countries – town planning, environmental management etc etc. So the aid function could be setting up knowledge exchanges rather than signing cheques (and apparently this goes down particularly well in Barcelona, because lots of potential participants are dying to come to the city on the assumption that the town hall can hand out tickets to its famous soccer games at the Camp Nou – alas, it can’t).

So why are you so interested in an exchange visit with Barcelona? Credit:

If all else fails, pass the buck: Find the multilateral donor that is best at working with a systems-lens, and fund them. Then the responsibility for monitoring, accountability etc rests with them. Particularly attractive for small donors like cities and regions.

Conclusion? To make aid more effective in complex systems, you don’t have to reform the whole aid system, or achieve politically implausible commitments to letting go of control/ moving from upwards to downwards accountability. You can improve things in many ways within the existing system, so there’s no excuse for just grinding on with the same failed approaches.

What have I missed?

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2 Responses to “If top down control is unavoidable, can we still make aid more compatible with systems thinking?”
  1. Gloria

    Thanks for this, Duncan! Building on what is already working within rigid donor structures is certainly on point, great suggestions. I am wondering…your last resort option of choosing a multilateral organization often contradicts the goal of direct assistance and proximity to the beneficiaries, no? That seems to be a constant issue in feminist development efforts – you want to fund women’s organizations but donors don’t have capacity to oversee so many small CSOs. Also, slightly off the topic but – what do you do when the donor structures are rigid in that they have separate funding streams for development and humanitarian activities, thus making it really hard to fund this kind of systems thinking?

  2. I’d like to see donors put more value on learning what works and what doesn’t. If these were the key nodes of a logframe rather than the results themselves – based on testing the assumptions in a theory of change, and the sharing and uptake of that new knowledge, this encourage adaptive management and understanding failure with a focus on doing it better, quickly, but still abide by controls.

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