Small still is beautiful

Bee Hummingbird - the smallest bird in the world 2

The beautiful bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world.

Last year I blogged about how I believe that in conservation and development small is often beautiful, remarking:

“small projects and organisations are a lot more personal; I think this element of personal endeavour can do a lot to ameliorate the charge of development work being patronising.”

I stand by this, and I think the recent small kerfuffle over Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) is as good an indication of this as any. First, Robert Chambers, who I genuinely respect, praised it in a piece of on the Guardian and Duncan Green’s Poverty to Power blog. On that blog I posted a comment querying how well this translated from a small pilot project into a big donor-funded programme (see also my recent post on the Scaling Up Fallacy):

“It’s great to hear of new bottom up approaches like this. I have a question about roll out … I can see how this kind of approach could work at a pilot level with well-trained *sensitive* facilitators. But what about when it is scaled up? How do communities react when a local govt health official comes along and shames them all? From my experience I can see how the whole approach might suffer from institutionalization – and the different relationship people tend to have with officialdom – but seek enlightenment from my cynicism.”

Alas I received no enlightenment.* Then Liz Chatterjee responded with a comment piece in the Guardian that raised many of the ghosts that I had speculated at. Whilst I should be cautious about assuming that cause and effect align with my own prejudices, I cannot help thinking that at least some of the more degrading aspects of CLTS might be alleviated in a pilot project, and/or where you have a small NGO with dedicated, caring staff who are alert to the possibility that things could go wrong.

Big organisations, and especially big government bureaucracies, are inherently clunkier than their smaller, nimbler cousins. They tend to resort to top-down, even when implementing a supposedly bottom-up approach. Staff subjected to a couple of weeks’ training will try to adhere to a perceived blue-print, rather than have the confidence to innovate and respond flexibly to the impacts they achieve in the field.

Unfortunately, these conclusions are pretty depressing for anyone expecting international aid to have large-scale positive impacts. It suggests big economies of scale are really hard to achieve. And I think this is true of most community development oriented projects. More than anything else these depend on the quality of the staff implementing them, and the talent pool in developing countries can be worryingly shallow.

But Aid can and does support many other types of projects which may be more susceptible to rapid expansion. If donors have the right kind of relationship with the host country government, as Owen Barder implies with many of his posts on aid successes in Ethiopia, then maybe you can improve services at a larger scale. That is not to say that we should give up on community projects – quite the opposite (as otherwise I’d be out of a job!) – but we need to understand their limitations, and who are the best agents to support them.

* Hint: even if you are an aging giant of development studies, if you’re going to use new media, then you should also make an effort to utilise its capacity for rapid interaction with your readers that more traditional academic publishing largely lacks.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] to make poverty history, I’m just sceptical about their proposed means. But, as I’ve blogged before, I do think there is a lot to be said for small projects that do not try to be something more than […]


  2. […] core design. And sometimes small projects may be best off staying small, see previous posts of mine here and […]


  3. […] 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 learning how to […]


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