For several years I’ve been filling the ‘token NGO’ slot at a series of meetings about ‘doing development differently’ (DDD) and/or ‘thinking 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?
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, but 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 ……