The development tortoise and the donor-fuelled hare

Now my blog has been going for a little while, one of the great pleasures is getting unexpected comments on posts several months old. (Comments on new posts are similarly gratifying – I love all commenters equally! – but 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, hence this post.

David suggested that small pilot projects that are not designed to be scaled should never happen on the assumption (my inference) that they will never represent value for money. He went on to say:

“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 he’s got some pretty good points, and, as a general principle, I do think we should be looking to take things to scale. E.g. I fully support the ambition of Jeffrey Sachs et al. in the effort 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 they are or can be. So how do we square this circle?

First I think it is worth noting that not every Western company grows into a world-conquering behemoth, sometimes this is not for lack of ambition of the directors, but many other companies stay small out of choice; less hassle for the boss. The same also applies to development, particularly amongst the smaller NGOs. If their donors are happy to keep the money flowing then they clearly represent value for money to someone.

Many small company bosses want to keep their companies small because of the challenges of managing staff. These challenges are multiplied in developing countries where the small pool of educated talent is often a major constraint. I suggest that might be what is stopping many of those projects with 10 staff serving 10,000 community members from growing further.

Unfortunately, albeit for the best of reasons, many donors, especially institutional donors, are not satisfied with this. They want to reach the 10 million. So they push the accelerator pedal as hard as they can … and then the wheels come off because capacity to deliver is just not there.

One response might be simply to invest in capacity development – e.g. focusing on education, but that turns out to be just as dependent on internal capacity. I think we need to be more pragmatic. If, as most do, donors want to achieve tangible results then they need to face up to the reality on the ground, rather than swinging wildly between over-optimistic up-scaling programmes, and white flag exit strategies. A project that is going just as big and as fast as it can is better than a car crash. As in so many other cases, it turns out that Aesop’s old fable is extremely relevant to conservation and development: nine times out of ten, the tortoise wins in the end.


4 responses to this post.

  1. A very important point. More and more, in discussions, I use the argument “it is complex”. It can be used against most “either – or” thinking.

    One aspect of small scale interventions that is often overlooked is the (lack of ) effect on empowerment. Empowerment against government policy normally depends on the ways that the people with an interest can join forces and present a common front. Small NGOs keep the mobilization small. When working small scale, it is thus extremely important to assess the effects on power relations of the interventions. If it is a service delivery project, it might take the local and national duty bearers from the hook, by delivering local caritative services, while it should be rights based delivery.

    I admit this is another discussion, but it is a rant I like to post regularly. Indeed large scale interventions not taking into account power relations are even worse.


    • Hi Sam.

      Good point on empowerment. I need a like button on comments to indicate my approval for statements such as “Indeed large scale interventions not taking into account power relations are even worse.” 🙂

      A rights-based approach is good, but can be a real long haul. Also less sexy service delivery (e.g. in environmental sector) is likely to benefit last, so there is a real place for service delivery now. That needs to follow as much good practice as possible wrt power relations and other soft but important issues.


  2. Posted by David on December 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for laying out these thoughts – I find I really agree. If I could make one plea about such situations, it’s that there be better attention in the stage of designing a program to what about it, particularly, can be scaled/sustained to represent a strong return on investment.

    I think intuitively, we often understand our most powerful legacy to be changing a community’s conception of rights and expectations of their services, empowering them, building capacity of certain leaders, building linkages and alliances across unexpected lines, etc. Yet, so much of the time, because those have been described as either a) necessary steps to accomplishing XYZ or b) incidental side-effects that are a bonus around real results of reducing dropout rates/improving nutrition/tangible outcome ABC. In either case, it seems to me, we therefore don’t hold ourselves properly accountable to what we often see as the most profound changes that our projects contribute to, on a human scale, and we probably also miss opportunities for learning and improving our efforts over time.

    I am hopeful that a more honest assessment of why “Project Splendid Hope”, whatever it is, will matter – even in intangible or difficult-to-measure ways – might suggest different aspects to bring to scale; not so much the improvements in service delivery it enables, but the learning of those who own the improvements, the alliances that make the enabling possible, the leadership of key champions with real development vision. It feels like there are a lot of low-hanging fruit in those areas that we as development actors could grasp, if we were both more honest about scale and thought differently about what the significance of our work often is.

    Anyway, thanks again for this thoughtful blog – always a good place to start my day!


    • Hi David,

      These are all good points. I would tend to agree with you with the following reservations:
      – I firmly believe that such intangible changes are best achieved through tackling something concrete – learning by doing. So even if the intangible ‘bread’ is the greater win, we still need the tangible ‘meat’ in the development sandwich.
      – Intangibles are hard to measure. Accountability is much easier with tangible goals.
      – Great staff deliver great intangibles, but poor extension staff can have the opposite effect. Failing projects that focus on the tangibles might at least deliver something, whereas much easier for a projects where the intangibles are front and centre may end up being a complete waste of money = bad for donor confidence.
      – Intangible gains are much harder to scale up due to the staff constraints.


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