June 11, 2015

Calling All Lonely Development Reformers

If you work in global development, at some point you have found yourself bumping up against the way the sector works. You may be working at an implementing organization on the ground, researching impact at a think tank, setting policy at a ministry, or evaluating proposals at a donor. You may be passionate about one particular issue or your efforts might be focused geographically.

No matter your role or position, there will be times when the structures and incentives in the broader sector undermine the progress that you and your collaborators are able to make. Between contracting requirements, funder demands, public scrutiny, short timelines, and many more obstacles, your work feels like driving on a rugged, muddy road. Any progress you make is a slog: harder than it should have to be. You can see a dozen ways for the sector to work better, and you wonder why no one is fixing them.

Take heart: You are not going crazy. And you are not alone.

In late April, I was part of a roomful of practitioners gathered for a “Doing Development Differently” meeting in Manila to talk about changing the way the sector works. Everyone in the room had a story (or a hundred) of frustrations to share. More importantly, everyone was finding ways to move things forward. This burgeoning conversation holds promise for anyone working to make the development sector work better.

Doing Development Differently Takes Next Steps

The Doing Development Differently (or “DDD” for short) conversation started at an event in Cambridge last fall. The conversation has been codified in a manifesto, which, among other things, calls for the development sector to orient efforts toward problems rather than pre-defined solutions; to ensure local ownership of efforts at all political and managerial levels; to iterate rapidly between program design and implementation; and to manage risks through the use of “small bets” and fast failure.

After participating in that first meeting, I wrote with cautious optimism about the challenges facing the DDD movement, and the questions of what to do next. The recent follow-up workshop in Manila took on many of those questions.

Hosted by the Overseas Development Institute and The Asia Foundation, the Manila workshop worked to establish a deeper understanding of DDD. Short talks from a range of practitioners offered examples of work that aligns with the principles of the manifesto. Particular highlights include Toix Cerna discussing education reform efforts in the Philippines, Gerry Fox and Aung Kyaw Thein describing the Pyoe Pin program in Burma, and Anna Winoto sharing her experience at Indonesia’s National Development Planning Ministry.

Participants then turned our attention to what it means to put the DDD principles into practice. For example, I was surprised to realize that many of the projects discussed at the workshop were using traditional program management tools, such as logframes, but transforming them by implementing them in adaptive and participatory ways. These traditional tools and the accompanying donor mandates are often sources of frustration for implementers. The workshop discussions showed that DDD is not always about freeing implementers from these tools, but rather about re-appropriating them. Constructive personal relationships between staff at implementers and funders are key to making this successful.

A Crowded Field of Reformers

The DDD conversation is far from the only reform effort; a number of movements are trying to change the way the sector works. There are calls for evidence-based policy from academics, think tankers, and others who see both fads and archaic methods capturing too many resources in the sector. Those calls resonate with the value-for-money agenda that shapes constraints on many bilateral donors. Similarly, the social enterprise movement encourages the development sector to draw from private sector methods.

Along a different axis are the reform movements focused more toward participation and local ownership, which put greater focus on the “how” of development aid instead of the “what.” And a set of conversations around thinking and working politically emphasizes the need to grapple with the power structures and self-interests in development, especially at the national level.

In this crowded field of reform efforts, there is an outstanding question of how the DDD movement should distinguish itself from—or ally itself with—other reformers. There are clear overlaps with the thinking-and-working politically crowd, as well as the participatory and local movement. On the other hand, DDD stands apart from the calls for evidence-based methods for its willingness to use more qualitative methods and to iterate programs based on more rapid forms of feedback. Its emphasis on governance and politics also sets it apart from private-sector approaches.

The proliferation of reform efforts is due, in part, to the fact that defining a solution is harder than describing a problem. Harder still is implementing a solution; and hardest of all is propagating that solution across the sector. The development sector is quick to reflect, but slow to change.

What’s An Optimist To Do?

Where does that leave you—the development professional pulling out your hair in your own corner of the sector?

If, like me, you’re an optimist about the sector’s ability to change, then follow these conversations, contribute to them, and draw from them. Many of these reform efforts will provide you with the frameworks you need to plan a new effort, or the language and external validation you need to convince a donor to try a new approach. These conversations can also provide you with the networks of like-minded thinkers and the camaraderie you need to avoid banging your head on your desk.

And, if you do, please share your experience. The sector needs its own feedback loops to continue refining its efforts, and all of us reformers do, too. Because none of these manifestos, convenings, or workshops will matter unless we actually create change in our field.

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Photo: ODI, used with Creative Commons

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