Last month Justin Sandefur at CGD lamented the regrettable failure of the Kenyan government to sustain a successful school-based de-worming programme after donor funding was withdrawn due to corruption in the Education Ministry. This is another good example of the sustainability paradox: despite clear evidence that this programme was extremely cost-effective it was cut when the donor funding was withdrawn. I assume that this was as much a political act intended to hurt the donors – who lost something they cared about – but as such is clearly rather callous. But, more than anything, it is another example of the phenomenon that what the donors want and what the recipient country government want are often not the same thing.
This, however, is not exactly news around here. More interestingly Sandefur also suggests that this raises questions about “the feasibility of turning small NGO pilots into manageable national policies”, although he failed to elaborate much on that idea in the rest of his post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently, and I think there is an important additional argument to be made here.
Whether a pilot is being developed by an NGO or a bespoke, direct donor-funded project, it will have its own management structure. It will also have a significant investment of technical advice and support that is inevitably diluted when a project is transformed into a national programme. However, I can live with that; if we want aid to be cost efficient, then we need to be able to realise economies of scale on techniques that have been shown to work.*
My beef is with the management. Because, to the international aid industry, scaling up nearly always means launching a nationwide government programme. In doing so the donors discard the effective management that produced the initial successes in favour of a dysfunctional government bureaucracy. Not only do you lose some basic management nous, but you also lose the driving vision, the leadership that got the pilot project to where it did.
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google, they didn’t show some initial promise and then hand their genius idea over the government. Instead they secured some outside investment including big business management expertise (Eric Schmidt) – thus addressing their ‘absorptive capacity’ – and grew the company to the multinational search behemoth it is today. More to the point, Google isn’t just big; it continues to be incredibly successful.
I’ve blogged before (here and here) about the importance of the quality of management in delivering conservation and development results. The standard donor approach to scaling up suggests that donors remain stuck in a rut that emphasises technical barriers (leading to misdiagnoses of project failure) over management constraints, combined with the belief that all you need is a bit of capacity-building in profoundly dysfunctional institutions to turn it around.
The next time donors are seeking to scale up a successful programme, I hope they will remember the Google story, the Grameen Bank story, and the countless other examples of private sector efficacy in turning innovation into successful business models. After all, most donors are capitalist countries, not socialist ones, and there’s a reason that communism collapsed.
* There is another argument to be made here that many projects are scaled up before the jury has properly returned a verdict, leaving key issues still unresolved. But, conversely, if an approach does appear to be working, I can understand how funders, desperate for new solutions, may pile in prematurely.