I realised recently that I have a fairly standard playlist of topics I bang on about to people during the frequent ‘blue sky’ (well, the initials are BS, anyway) sessions after someone phones up and says something like ‘can I pick your brains as part of our strategy refresh?’ So I thought, if I am going to give the same answers whatever the questions, I could save everyone a lot of time by writing them down in one place. Also, I’m getting a bit bored listening to myself (hate to think how other people feel).
So here’s my playlist, with links
Systems Thinking and Ways of Working
Writing How Change Happens threw up some recurring issues about the way we think and work:
Shocks and Critical Junctures: Change in complex systems occurs in slow, steady processes such as demographic shifts, punctuated by sudden, unforeseeable jumps. These discontinuities are often linked to crises, shocks and scandals: the status quo is thrown up in the air, and when it returns to earth, things have changed. That stop–start rhythm can confound aid agency plans and processes. The one bit of the aid business that is designed for such a rhythm is the humanitarian/emergencies bit – the rest of us need to learn from them about how to identify, analyse and respond to critical junctures and the opportunities and threats they create.
Adaptive Management, Doing Development Differently and Alternatives to the Logframe: Traditional aid projects often resemble baking a cake; a neat, linear process of ingredients + recipe → result. Reality is much messier in complex systems such as polities, societies and economies: prediction is a fool’s errand; attribution elusive; we are navigating in a fog. That means setting up systems to get fast feedback, and to respond to that fast feedback through ‘adaptive management’.
Positive Deviance: this involves identifying and studying the positive outliers on any given issue, to try and understand where the system itself has thrown up solutions to any given problem (child malnutrition, school drop-out rates etc). It attracts me as an approach because it respects the system, and is not ‘all about us’ and our projects. So why isn’t it a standard entry point when we are considering a new area of work?
Getting to the Grassroots
Immersions: Nothing like spending a week in a village for jolting aid wallahs out of their assumptions and arrogance. Why don’t more organizations make it obligatory?
Diaries: Portfolios of the Poor is a wonderful book that explored how 250 poor families managed their finances by sending the same researchers back every two weeks to talk to them, building trust and uncovering a previously invisible financial ecosystem. If we are serious about understanding how poor people live, allocate their time, resolve their problems etc, why don’t we learn from that and do diaries on governance, environment, health etc etc, before jumping in with our idea of what is needed? We’re currently trying it out on governance in Mozambique, Pakistan and Myanmar as part of our ‘Action for Empowerment and Accountability’ research programme.
Who we work with: Unusual Suspects
Beyond the state/CSO mindset: Missing out crucial ‘non state actors’ like faith organizations, traditional leaders, informal civil society networks (eg cultural associations, savings groups or funeral societies, women’s networks) seriously undermines our ability to understand how power and influence operate in any society.
Supporting individuals/leadership (inc Universities): we need new ideas for identifying and supporting progressive leaders, whether at the grassroots or further up the food chain. We could even revamp some old ideas, like scholarships. We also lack a clear universities’ influencing strategy where we identify and target next generation leaders by university, department or role (eg student union leaders), influencing them via curricula, lectures, immersions or internships.
Spin offs and seeding the system: You can’t turn a supertanker like Oxfam into a scrappy, innovative, experimental start up, so why don’t we deliberately spin off a bunch of our projects with a bit of funding every year, to seed the ecosystem with new ideas and approaches?
What we work on
From the Exotic to the Familiar – the end of the ‘development issue’. Why aren’t tobacco, alcohol or road traffic core development issues? After all, they all kill many more people in poor countries than, say, malaria.
The world is urbanizing; effective social movements are more likely to emerge from shanty towns than rural villages, so why do many INGOs find it so hard to go urban?
My Rules of Thumb
Beyond specific suggestions, I have a set of heuristics – ways I screen the conversation. These include:
- Do you have an explicit power analysis or theory of change about what you are trying to achieve? If not, why not?
- Have you thought about gender? What about other aspects of exclusion/inequality?
- Can you point to successful examples of what you are proposing? Conversely, if your suggested has never worked, anywhere, maybe you should think about why that is!
- What mechanisms do you have in place to identify what you are doing wrong, and change course?
So now, if people still insist on BS sessions, I can at least save some time by sending them this post in advance, and saying this is where we will begin the conversation.
But what have I missed?