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November 22, 2016

Is it time to move on from Stats and Numbers to Metaphor and Narrative?

November 22, 2016

Where has the Doing Development Differently movement got to, two years on?

November 22, 2016
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The DDD crew reassembled in London last week, two years on from the Harvard meeting that really got the ball ddd-manifestorolling. Unfortunately I could only attend the first session and the next day’s post mortem, so other participants, please feel free to add your own impressions/put me right.

DDD is evolving fast into something approaching a big tent movement. At its core are principles of iteration, adaptation, using systems thinking. If you want to know more check out the DDD manifesto and website. See also this great post by Alan Hudson and Dave Algoso, clarifying the areas of overlap and difference between the various movements. Here’s a 4 minute collection of worthies at the Harvard Meeting (including me) trying to define DDD.

The main players are an interesting bunch: a non-exhaustive list includes donors and multilaterals (DFID, World Bank, OECD, UNICEF); thinktanks (ODI); academics (Harvard, Birmingham); specialist institutional reform agencies (AGI); innovation hubs (Reboot, Feedback Labs) and Humanitarian NGOs (IRC, Mercy Corps). Development NGOs are conspicuous by their absence (some thoughts below).

There has been some rapid progress over the last two years, moving rapidly from theory to practice, with lots of pilots and testing going on – I can’t keep up with the output of country case studies, think pieces etc etc. Is DDD just another passing fad? Probably not, because it has not emerged at the whim of some bureaucrat or spin doctor in New York or Washington, but out of lived practice and experience, including the failures of traditional approaches.

The conversations revealed some fascinating challenges, including:

The double edged sword of aid: Parts of DDD have been driven by/are reliant on donor funding, but this is a mixed adaptive-planblessing to put it mildly. Reforming the aid system to make it compatible with DDD is a massive exercise, and means sailing against some powerful headwinds right now. While there are examples of reforms efforts underway in some of the big aid agencies, several speakers argued that it is better to sidestep the official aid system altogether, find support from developing country governments keen to find better ways to drive change, maybe turn to foundations for funding (they are more flexible than official donors). But also ‘if you want to innovate, take a couple of zeroes off’, in the words of a Brazilian mayor. DDD requires skills like facilitation to identify problems and convene lots of different players to solve them, and lots of time, but big money is often neither necessary nor particularly helpful. Getting beyond aid would also help get beyond the increasingly redundant North-South division – governments and other players everywhere want to do this stuff.

How state-centric should DDD be? A lot of the thinking behind it (see books by Matt Andrews, Brian Levy and others) springs from a rethink of previous failed attempts to improve the quality of governance. Although DDD draws quite a bit from private sector approaches e.g. agile technology, management theory (e.g. for problem identification), some of the most dynamic DDD practitioners, like Harvard’s Building State Capability programme, use them to improve effortst to reform governments. It would be helpful to clarify which aspects of the DDD agenda copy across to working on private sector, civil society or other non-state actors.

This is particularly important in working out how DDD works when states are predatory or hostile to reform – an area that is only going to increase in importance for the aid and development sector. Part of the answer there is likely to involve an increased role for non-state actors.

complexity-signWhere are the INGOs in all this? The humanitarians are stepping up, perhaps because they are more used to working in an adaptive, flexible way in response to more unpredictable, chaotic situations, but the development NGOs seem largely absent and/or silent. Oxfam and other INGOs are doing lots of interesting things in this area, though we don’t brand them as DDD – multi-stakeholder initiatives, convening and brokering, trying to encourage innovation, redefine success (eg by learning how to ‘count what counts’ – women’s empowerment, influencing) and make more use of real-time evaluation. But all too often, in practice this runs up against the pressures of competitive funding bids, which push us to drop all the fancy stuff and stick to plain vanilla, linear projects. DDD requires advanced project management skills, when in many countries it’s hard enough to find the basics. And most baffling and frustrating of all, the many one-off examples of innovation and DDD, usually down to some entrepreneur or maverick who has managed to slip in below the radar, rarely seem to spread.

I wondered if this was because INGOs are too big for the small things (taking supertankers white-water rafting) but also too small for the big things (big service providers like Palladium managing massive donor grants, with the capacity and permission to try out DDD, less subject to the strictures of the ‘sticky middle’ of middle managers with their logframes and best practice guidelines)?

Overall, the conversations left me very excited. Visions of dispersed networks of DDD thinkers and facilitators (mainly local), working with local governments, civil society organizations, private sector groups and others to get change processes up and running. What costs there are could be covered by a combination of those using the service, and top ups from suitably flexible forms of aid (eg funding facilities for DDD processes, potentially a ‘switchboard’ or server to matchmake between demand and supply, peer to peer networks of reformers supporting each other). Cool stuff, and I think more organizations and individuals need to get on board.


  1. I think you are right, Duncan, about NGOS and DDD. Large ones especially. While the talk has been for a long time (ever, perhaps) about the need for change, the need to adapt etc. the fact remains that the incentives are not there for organizations to do many of the things that most would like to see tried. Linear project work is what pays the bills for the vast majority of NGOs. Much talk about disruption but very little has actually changed. I wonder what the recent unfortunate events in the US might do to this traditional way of doing development?

  2. ‘Development’ has lost its meaning as it has been frayed into the 21st century. Enough alliterative acronyms from intelligent folk; let’s have more accountability to poor people as incentive for good work.

  3. You did not mention that there are a number of development consulting companies that are also pushing for Adaptive Management, PDIA and DDD generally. These companies are pioneering the concept in various projects around the world in a number of sectors, including security sector reform.

  4. I’m not sure that I expect the NGOs or INGOs (speaking as one inside too) to make the serious change. The most inspiring change of this DDD sort- lithe and dynamic, moving, learning – I’ve seen has happened through alliances and networks that set their sights on sectors. I’ve seen it in environmental work and protection here in my own Province. In food systems across North America. In informal sector and self-employed alliances for decent work, protection. In women’s movements, queer movements locally and globally. Some include NGOs, INGOs, business and government. I find the people involved in the alliances are often outliers a bit in their own institutions. That’s maybe why they make such good bridges. Why don’t we talk and write and research more about networks? I appreciate the work done by IDS, Sussex on movements. Would love to read more about the connections between the two. Or any recent research in this area.

  5. I think that if this ‘movement’ is to progress it has to recognise that very little of what it proposed is radically different from what many Southern organisations advocated for in the past only to be accused of being ‘too responsive’ and not specialised enough. As if being responsive to people’s actual needs is a bad thing! And now as is usual, the development wheel turns and a completely ahistorical narrative develops that again centres ‘Northern expertise’ or – as is now fashionable to say – innovation.
    To be abel to work in the ways described, much work needs to be done to unlearn the instruction that being provided through many development schools. The real challenge is about changing systems that mould practitioners.

  6. I echo the comments of Julian and Allan.

    As a regular follower of you blog who clicks on your links :), I have started to watch hypernormalisation. Is DDD really another aspect of hypernormalisation of the development sector?

    In our INGO we also say we are doing development differently, working emergently, more feedback loops, developing an ecosystem. My sense is that we are all picking that up from the wider system and much of it from the very neo-liberal ‘paradigm’ that we want to reshape. Innovation in its worst form is a distraction from the simple fact that we already have all the technology and resources to solve poverty right now. Governments who work for their people, businesses supplying what people need – all that is available with no additional technology.

    Rather, it requires seeing ourselves as members of the largest social movement in history, increasing our connections (which is what your blog does so beautifully), so we work together, putting people before our careers or our organisation’s future, rather than acting as technocrats of the development sector Changing the way we change the world

  7. Hi Duncan,

    I have read with interest your book + some of your blogs.
    Indeed, the DDD movement is pretty interesting and based on much evidence on why development practitioners’ efforts (especially in big organizations) did not have much impact. I’ve worked quite a bit with the World Bank (also on a project where Matt Andrews -the guy behind PDIA – was involved) and the UN.
    Unfortunately, I see a common trend in so many of those organizations: very good people talking about doing things differently and doing more innovation, yet within a system that is not adept to do much innovation. I did some training on innovation (more flexibility in project management, more engagement with local stakeholders, more testing + prototyping) to several employees in some IOs and got a common feedback: “This is very interesting, yet I cannot apply much of what I learned going back to the organization where I work”. Developing some innovation labs (like UNICEF) is pretty cool yet the big change will come from changing the way management of those organization works and a bit then the “mentality” of those organizations. I rember talking to a manager once in on big organization about a very innovative program we were trying to develop to test some approaches and remember clearly his answer: “Tommaso, we cannot absolutely prepare a project document where we say we know a bit but we do not know something and we will better understand the problems as we move along with the project – we have to say we know everything about what what we do”. So how can you do innovation if you are not humble by saying you will learn more about the problem by doing more research and testing? How can we say we know everything??

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