Kudos to Owen Barder who has no lesser a dignitary on his Development Drums podcast than Tony Blair. Some of his answers are slightly evasive, suggesting to me that you can take the man out of front line politics, but you can’t take the politician out of the man. But he has also got some interesting things to say about his African Governance Initiative, and Lee the Bandit’s unerring sense for the hidden gem was fully functioning on this roughly transcribed extract:
“People often say to me ‘you’ve got to train the civil service of the country in order to be able to do the things they need to do.’ I personally think you can spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars doing that and nothing much come out of it (Barder: and we do). What we do is different in 3 crucial respects, the first is we combine a political interaction … the second is we prioritize, this is about delivering programs … people have this view that if you train up the civil service then they can deliver the programs. My view is that if you work on delivering specific prioritised programs, you will get out of that the capacity that you require and can work on for delivering other things, and that its in the practical prioritization and doing things that makes the difference. The third thing is that our teams live in the country, they work alongside their counterparts in the country, there is a very strong interaction.”
Later on in the interview Tony Blair uses the actual phrase Learning by Doing. Three cheers say I, for this is definitely something in which I believe, big time.
Traditional development approaches to capacity building tend to focus around short training courses. These can teach people technical skills but they fail to stimulate the critical thinking that is essential to solving real world problems. Instead we get dysfunctional institutions that superficially look capable of doing a job, but lacking the internal engine to make it tick. This problem applies equally to government institutions, local NGOs and even local branches of international NGOs.
Learning by Doing gets people to work through an entire process, and in doing so develops a whole host of soft skills. In practice this is achieved through mentoring and is inevitably a slow process that is not readily susceptible to rapid 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’ approach, but you have to have trained some really top notch trainers if this is not to suffer from the inevitable Chinese-whispers-style degradation of skills imparted. Any way, nobody I yet know has tried ‘Mentoring of Mentors’.
One big problem with this approach can be the receptiveness of the institution whose staff are being mentored. Tony Blair’s initiative appears to work at the very highest levels, and to be aimed at supporting African presidents who really want to get things moving (even if this is at the expense of democratic accountability). He takes an admirably realistic approach that focuses on just a few priorities over a presidential term of office. Elsewhere in developing countries, however, just about every institution of government has multiple sources of donor support, many of whom will be engaged in some kind of capacity building. It is far from clear that the staff from these institutions are interested primarily in delivering change, or more in the per diems and other ephemeral benefits. I gather that the ‘traditional’ Technical Adviser role is losing popularity in favour of short term consultants precisely because developing country institutions find these less intrusive.
So three cheers for Learning by Doing and Mentoring. And thirty three cheers for institutions who are open enough to genuinely want it!