The Scaling-up Fallacy

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failure of the Kenyan government to sustain a successful school-based de-worming programme after donor funding was withdrawn due to corruption in the Education Ministry.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paradox: despite clear evidence that this programme was extremely cost-effective it was cut when the donor funding was withdrawn.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.


10 responses to this post.

  1. […] with a British aid freeze? – The Scaling-up Fallacy – Are we really assessing development impact? – […]


  2. […] scaling up. Indeed this lack of scalability is, I believe, a major factor hamstringing attempts to transform pilot projects into large national programmes. Development agencies have attempted to get around this problem by the ‘Training of Trainers’ […]


  3. […] patronage opportunities and per diem cows to be milked to the utmost. Additionally, and as I’ve previously remarked, you lose the tight management team you had before and instead are confronted with trying to manage […]


  4. […] service delivery particularly badly managed. Unfortunately short-term, local solutions to this are not […]


  5. Posted by David on November 8, 2011 at 7:09 am

    One might argue that the piloting of a concept that will not feasibly be scaled through government indicates a poor design of the pilot – one that is fundamentally dependent on small, focused management, and has not considered management incentives and capacities as part of the object/problem it hopes to address.

    Otherwise, I fear, it would be possible to suggest that several scaled-up pilots could deliver wonderful education, health, and other services without regard to the government – and aside from looking a bit like neo-colonialism if those scaled-up firms are foreign owned or managed, this also runs into serious concerns around the rules of the game for participation (voting), and eventually, issues around trade-offs with truly national topics like security and defense.

    The latter could be a topic of a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say: if convincing the government to maintain and scale a pilot is not a core consideration of the pilot, I would argue that in fact the pilot has not demonstrated much value for money. (Maybe this comes from a focus on governance issues as half of my daily workload).


    • Hi David,
      I am not sure that I agree with your implied premise that all public services should be delivered through government. Instead government’s role, especially in a situation of severe capacity constraints, might be better confined to regulation and standard setting. Most Britons, for instance, get their water and electricity through foreign-owned companies, but I don’t see anyone worrying about a democratic deficit there.
      Also pilots, which in theory are experimental (although not often enough treated as such), need a different set of (flexible!) management skills to running large programmes, so I do not think that a pilot should necessarily be designed so as to be later automatically scalable. I favour evolutionary rather than big bang approaches.
      Conservation and development projects that are not sustained beyond the initial funding period are my number one pet peeve (see my first ever post). But rarely, imho, has the lack of subsequent support by the local government got much to do with perceived value for money but rather with a whole raft of perverse incentives operating within these bureaucracies. Donors can moan all they like about governance, but if they want to invest in more tangible issues (like health, education and the environment) then they need to get real about the situation they face on the ground, rather than swinging wildly between over-optimistic up-scaling programmes, and white flag exit strategies.


      • Posted by David on November 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm

        Hi MJ,

        Thanks for your reply – I certainly don’t think that government should be directly providing all social services (I’m American, it’s pretty far from my usual experience too). And I agree with your general conclusions on the uselessness of false sustainability – that first post is what drew me to this blog today (great work, by the way!).

        I guess, as someone whose day job is to try to get sector area work (like health, education and the environment) to consider the incentive structures and political economies of the governance environment in which they operate, I am frustrated when people take the bureaucratic situation as a given. I realize it is slower to change and much more difficult than a technocratic solution to a sector problem, but the latter are in my opinion the low-hanging fruit, and are starting to run out. Increasingly, all good development work will have to be political. The best example I can think of for this is something you’ve also posted on, about integrated conservation and development – the more meaningful projects in that area find a way to make the protection of the wildlife area or other scarce resource also revenue-generating for the community, creating an incentive for the effort, rather than just offering aid/bribes for a static effort. Increasingly, I think this type of attention to political economies is necessary for good development.

        I get your point that the idea of “scale it up through government” tends to fail, and is often offered hypocritically as an exit strategy by people who know better. And I do like the idea that a potential separate avenue is to build up the capacity of a separate entity as a social contractor, as in Google – although that was not a public good they generated, to allow learning by doing and diffusion of good practices. (Although too often, the skills have been built among local hires of an INGO and the flexible team doesn’t really own its own future direction). Scale-up is not planned for well, and naive assumptions about host country uptake are a big part of that.

        That said, I do think it’s a bit silly to put forward a “pilot” that is not trying to offer proof of concept of something for wider use. If the design of the pilot works only so long as the donor-supported effective management structure is in place, with no attention to either transferring responsibility to government or growing the local delivery mechanism (usually company/NGO) and preparing it to take on similar work at larger scale, it’s not really a valuable pilot even if it is successful on the small scale. The plan may be to build slowly from a pilot site to 5 sites to a province, over a seven-year period, I have no qualms with going slowly or carefully.

        I’ve seen a lot of projects that work really well with a ratio of 10 staff to 300 participants from communities of 10,000, without any suggestion that the delivering company can grow to be 100 people and deliver the same service to 100,000 people – and this is often in a country of 10,000,000 or more. It’s hard to see how that is “good development” as opposed to advanced humanitarian relief. I think it’s time that we saw working on the incentives for leaning from and growing good ideas (whether through government directly, through social contracting, or through a huge donor scale-up) as part of every project, rather than take the governance situation as a given of the landscape like the climate or the time zone.

      • Hi David, Thanks for the kind words. I pretty much agree with these suggestions, except that in facing practical challenges on the ground I find I have little option to take bureaucratic inertia and dysfunction as a given, and thus plot a way around that with a social enterprise (aka NGO). Will respond on your other points with a quick new post.

  6. […] not so unexpected.) Thus I’ve recently enjoyed my little debate with David on my post from May: The Scaling-up Fallacy. We touched on several issues related to project scale, but one seemed to need a fuller response, […]


  7. […] pressure in a lot of conservation and development work that I have repeatedly queried (e.g. see here and here.) I.e. impact evaluation and Prichett et al.’s experiential learning is all about […]


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