Archive for the ‘Conservation & Development Agencies’ Category

Why did local approaches to development go out of fashion?

An interesting post from Duncan Green, with even more interesting comments, on a bottom-up approach to ‘doing development differently’. Duncan is reasonably concerned that the recommendations of ‘Local First in Practice’ a new book by Rosie Pinnington might just be a rehash of old arguments in new clothes. (Although I don’t see this necessarily has to be a bad thing.)  Duncan’s concern is backed up by a few commenters, with John Magrath asking:

“This is exactly how international aid agencies used to operate most all the time in the 80s + early 90s. What’s missing ? – is any analysis why all this was ditched, suppressed, fell out of fashion….”

I wasn’t working in development in the 1980s and 1990s so cannot speak as to the accuracy of Magrath’s assertion, but assuming it is true his question is pertinent. And if so, I would venture it is not relevant just to this specific example, but the constant churn of development fads that hinder all long term initiatives. (The sort needed to achieve any kind of social change …) Donor fickleness is an old curse.

Here’s one thought: might it be related to changes in senior management in big conservation and development agencies (donors and BINGOs)? When senior people take up new posts they often want to stamp their own style on an organisation (especially if they have come from outside). Hence the constant re-configuring and search for the latest silver bullet. Most development project portfolios mix great performing projects with desperately poorly performing ones. So incoming managers always have plenty of evidence to support their own prejudices in deciding what to chop and what to proceed with.

Big businesses suffer from this too, but most business cycles last only a few years, so the business can withstand such convulsions, and metrics for success (profitability) are clearer. In contrast many development programmes operate over far longer time horizons, and it can be hard to find good objective measures by which to judge success. So management rotation could lead to a lot of babies get chucked out with the bathwater.

I write this post watching just such a process happening in front of us right now where I work. It is incredibly frustrating!

Scraps from big brother’s table

“How do you find working with [name of BINGO withheld]? How could the relationship be improved?”

These questions, and others in a similar vein, were asked of me and my colleagues last week by consultants hired by a major donor of a BINGO that supports us with some of said donor’s money. The donor wanted to see whether they were getting fair value for money from the relationship.

Mismatched: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in Twins

Equal partners, right?

As with so many other ‘partnerships’ in the aid world, the relationship between a BINGO and small local NGO is far from an equal one whatever anyone claims. Indeed, just like recovering drug addicts, so for BINGOs: the first step in dealing with the problem is to recognise that it exists and that simply mouthing endless platitudes will not make it go away.

There is also no avoiding the fact that societal pressures (aka donor preferences) mean that both sides, the BINGOs and the local NGOs, are addicted to such relationships, with little hope of being weaned off. Moreover, for both sides there is often very little choice in who they partner with: at least in tropical conservation BINGOs largely try to stay out of one another’s territories, whilst vice versa the choice of capable local partners for a BINGO to work with may often be quite small. So to a significant degree partners are stuck with one another.

A more reflexive, self-critical approach will certainly help; being honest about the nature of the relationship does not have to mean being arrogant about it. As with so many things in life, that understanding, personal touch can make all the difference to the relationship. But is there anything more that could be done?

Ultimately I think it comes down to a question of how and to whom the BINGO are accountable. This echoes one of the main themes in development aid in recent years to which a leading response has been a call for more transparency, and the emergence of things like the International Aid Transparency Initiative. I think the same trick could work again here.

One of the things we found frustrating about our relationship with the BINGO was being drip fed small amounts of money that covered only a few months and were then micro-managed, e.g. budget lines of only $1-2,000. (The BINGO did not have systems that could differentiate between capable, trusted local partners, and others about whom they were more cautious.) The micro-management was a pain, but in many ways it was the drip-feeding of funds that caused the bigger problem, because they were almost impossible to plan for.

Partly, I think, the BINGO did this to remain in control, but partly also I think because it kept us in Oliver Twist mode – always asking for more but rarely seeing the bigger picture – and thus allowed them to prioritize their own management costs and strategies. I would like to see BINGOs being much more open about their own funding streams; how they are divvied up, managed and reported. The middle-man role is an important one, and for our part, those of us in smaller NGOs need to recognise that performing this role does not come cheap.

So when a big chunk of the donor money goes on BINGO bureaucracy (no doubt disguised as technical assistance) we shouldn’t bleat too much. Proposing standards for what is an appropriate slice to take is likely to be counterproductive (in the same way that misdirected focus on overheads has proven). Instead the BINGO becomes accountable to some degree to their small NGO partners (who are already have to do lots of accounting to their bigger brethren), and both sides of the partnership can better evaluate whether or not they are getting value for money from the relationship. Longer lasting commitments of funds would also help the smaller NGOs to plan better.

Why does the UNDP exist? (reprise)

Three and a half years ago I asked: why does the UNDP exist? Last night I chatted to a couple of UN staffers (albeit from different agencies). They also were unable to provide an answer.

In their opinion though, some of the other UN agencies do seem to work quite well in middle income countries, who know what they want and have the capacity to provide overall management / oversight, whilst the UN agencies source neutral technical inputs, albeit rather expensively, and provide emergency additional funds when required. The problem is when the recipient government lacks the vision to stake out real leadership on most substantive issues, and instead spend their time chasing more donor cash, which is then often spent ineffectually as focus turns to the next grant opportunity.

Any supporters of the idea of a UN mandate to replace the entire government for South Sudan might want to take a moment to pause and consider the humungous bureaucracy that would result, and how, if ever, it would be possible to dismantle such a beast without returning the country to chaos. The current feuding in South Sudan is a tragedy, but surely there has to be a better solution than to bring in the UNDP! (Thankfully there are excellent other reasons not to pursue this option, which does not appear particularly likely.)

Paying for performance: the business class edition

Chris Blattman thinks that regular business class travel could be a symbol of all the wasteful excesses of the development industry*, and has suggested (symbolically, I am sure) that cutting back on business class travel by development agencies could be a new a Millennium Development Goal. But, as various commenters point out, there can be legitimate reasons for investing in business class especially for taller or older folk, and those who have to travel a lot (though I’m with Blattman on the issue of ticket flexibility being an irrelevance). So why, if you want to motivate your best staff would you want to take away an important symbol of your regard for their worth?

To me this question is the international jet-setting equivalent of the perennial poser of what to do about per diem culture in developing countries. Such payments are supposed to be reward for taking on extra or additional duties, and the hardship of being away from base, but have come to be completely subsumed in working practices as an automatic entitlement. I doubt that things are quite so bad amongst the the WB and UN global travellers**, but as symbols of their status as important people, I can see how business class travel and 5 star hotel accommodation is something of a badge of honour.

When evaluating these kind of perks, whether per diems or business class travel, the question that really springs to mind is: how good exactly are these best staff of yours? My experience of dealing with the UN system is somewhat limited, but my impression that its previous reputation for being something of a sinecure for the moderately accomplished is no longer accurate. However, even if your staff are geniuses (and I don’t hear many people questioning Jeffrey Sachs’s intellect), results from 60 years of international development aid are rather modest at best. Maybe humanity would actually be better off if some of these high powered folks were inventing whizzy new technologies or teaching the next generation rather than racking up air miles by the jumbo-load?

In conclusion, I am inclined to agree with Blattman that travelling business class as standard is indeed an unfortunate, highly visible symbol of wasteful overindulgence on the part of the aid sector. And in so far as it may encourage beneficiaries to puff themselves up with their own self-importance (as measured by the seniority of officials they meet rather than the extent of their actual achievements), then it could be worth cutting down on. But really I would mind much less if only I thought their work was delivering bigger results on the ground.

* My inference as to what he thinks it is symbolic of.

** For a start salaries are likely to be much better, so additional perks are not so important to overall remuneration.

Big man culture and the art of non-delegation

Big man culture is often used specifically to refer to the preponderance of men with strong dictatorial tendencies ruling many African countries*. However, like any proper cultural trait, its manifestation is not restricted to a single walk of life but is broadly preponderant, especially in many developing country government institutions.

Morten Jerven’s travails conducting his research into the failings of GDP calculation in African statistics departments (remarked upon in my previous post) struck a definite chord with me in that respect. Critics of his research have alleged that he did not seek the views of the statisticians themselves, including – critically from their perspective – the views of the department directors. Professor Jerven’s response will be familiar to too many people around here:

I had an invitation and introduction to all the offices I visited. … I wrote letters, emails and phoned all statistical offices in Sub-Saharan Africa repeatedly in order to verify information, request access and set up interviews. As anyone who has tried something similar can attest, the response rate is extremely low. For all the places I did go to I had a response, a contact and an invitation.

Upon arrival at all these places I went through the dissemination office to clarify my purpose and research. At all those offices I also requested an interview with Directors and senior management and in every case these requests were ignored.

Yes openness about one’s data and methods are hardly common amongst government staff around here, but we knew that already. What Professor Jerven alludes to, but does not elaborate, is how the institutional architecture in such organisations itself is set up to frustrate the inquirer.

In particular, the concentration of official power and responsibility in a single big man or woman at the top. This tends to be reflected in all official correspondence and notices, which are always issued in the name of the head honcho. Inquirers are instructed to address all correspondence to the same. Often the whole institution will have only a single official email address, with staff having to use personal addresses at the likes of Gmail or Yahoo just in order to work effectively. (Sending emails to the official address is often as about as useful as trying to signal to them in semaphore.)

Some of these problems can be mitigated where the Executive Director is a genuinely committed and energetic leader, but still it hardly makes for great dynamism. Where he or she is more concerned simply with protecting their own interests or personal fiefdom it can lead to almost complete paralysis. It can be so frustrating to have go right to the top to get the smallest thing addressed wherever it does not very clearly fall within an underling’s typically narrow job description.

All of this is tied up to a degree with the shallowness of the talent pool in the labour force (though where rent seeking is common, talent often fails to rise to the top any way), and sometimes one can feel a certain sympathy for senior officials. But too often I also just want to scream: “Lighten up a little!” (Pomposity in execution of their duties is regrettably common.) “Give a few of your many reins to some of your junior staff. If you never show any trust in them then you’ll never find out if you can trust them.”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly in what has coalesced into a social norm, is that such management structures and approaches are also often found in businesses and NGOs, although less rigidly in the best performers. Of course such social constructs are not immutable, and in time one would expect the big man culture to wane (just as it is slowly in the political sphere), but for the time being the art of non-delegation will continue to frustrate the Professor Jervens of this world, as well as those big men and women who wonder why they can get so little done.

* The term is a literal translation from various Bantu languages, hence the African association, although I think the practice itself is not particularly African.

Burying criticism

Chris Blattman thinks that NGOs are atrocious in the way they bury criticism. This was his opinion given in response to a paper showing NGOs were twice as likely to want to work with outside, independent academics who appear to have an a priori view that is supportive of the sector in which they work (microfinance in the study) than they would if the a priori view was critical.

I work for an NGO and largely agree with the Blattman. Indeed this blog has covered NGO unconstructive responses to criticism before (here and here). I also like the study design which reminds me of those experiments where identical CVs were sent out but with different names on top to test latent racist attitudes. But I think there are some important points to make in response.

  1. As pointed out in a comment on Blattman’s post, in the study the negative treatment email’s opening sentence of paragraph 2 is pretty uncompromising: “Academic research suggests that microfinance is ineffective.” This blunt approach, which mirrors exactly the positive treatment email, unfortunately does not conform to social norms in how we express disagreement, which is usually hedged in a way to give due acknowledgement of the correspondent’s position. In short the negative email approach does not make them sound like great partners.
  2. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We all struggle to deal with countervailing views. Science is littered with examples of where prominent academics of the time have suppressed publication of a paper that ran counter to their view of the world, only for it later to turn out the author was correct and the bigwigs wrong.
  3. NGOs live, work and fundraise in the real world, not some idealised planet populated by homo rationalis. The robust battle of ideas that lies at the heart of academic life may be the anomaly, not NGO responses to criticism. Inaccurate or inappropriate criticism can do a lot of damage to an otherwise successful programme. NGOs may conclude it is better to do their learning behind closed doors, and then change direction if appropriate, than to admit their failures. Like it or not, I suspect many of the most successful NGOs are probably those which more carefully burnish their reputations by controlling the release of bad news about their work.

However, in my view, none of the above constitute sufficient justification for the lack of openness amongst many NGOs in the conservation and development sectors. The time has come for admitting failure and other exercises in honest self-assessment and humility. Though the road may be tough, eventually we will all be stronger for it.

On whose behalf do they speak?

How Matters recently featured a guest post by Scott Fifer on the need to listen to local leaders, especially when they say “Thanks but no thanks.”

As with the paper on which I commented yesterday, Scott was making one of those obvious points which are too often forgotten, and I found myself agreeing with just about every word he wrote. However, I was also a tad concerned that the excellent points he was making all depended on one critical question which was never fully addressed: to what extent is Scott’s local partner, Abel Barrera Hernández, actually a good representative of the people Scott and Abel want to help?

Us expatriate advisers often worry a lot about the extent to which we should speak on behalf of the beneficiaries we are seeking to support, but can suffer serious blind spots when it comes to our local partners. As far as I could tell from Scott’s post Abel has not been elected by the people of Guerrero, Mexico. Even if he is extremely popular, and has helped the people there a lot (Scott implies both), they might not agree with Abel when he argues against the GO Campaign providing funds to improve the local school with a new floor on the basis that this ought to be the government’s job.

“Admittedly, part of me wanted to say to Abel, the hell with the cultural traditions, and to hell with the government! These kids need an education. These kids want and need books and desks and chairs and a floor.  But that part of me shut up (mostly).  My years of grant-making have taught me to know that I don’t know it all. And if a respected leader and human rights champion is telling me my well-intentioned ideas don’t fly with him, then I gotta figure he knows more than I do.”

It seems that Scott and Abel came up with a solution that sounds sensible and will give the practical support to the communities they need, so, without knowing anything more about the situation in Guerrero, I do not wish to imply any criticism of this particular instance; indeed the conclusion they reached sounds praise-worthy. But we do not always get it so right with our partners selection, e.g. in Guinea-Bissau it appears IUCN put rather too much trust in their local partners when they embarked upon a community conservation initiative on the Cubucan peninsular.

Local partners are vital to the success of development projects, but just because they are local and they are your chosen partner, does not necessarily make them good, nor automatically entitle them to speak on behalf of your would-be beneficiaries. Both labels have to be earned, and sometimes you might even find that actually it is the international partners who do a better job of protecting the interests of the beneficiaries.

Standing on your head

The pioneers of community-based natural resources management framed it firmly within the bottom up approach to development paradigm, and yet donors, recipient governments and the big multi-laterals (and some BINGOs) often find it really difficult to shake the top-down mentality.

“[Community-based fire management] training workshops designed to increase the expertise of practitioners should be conducted at the national and sub-national levels and should be followed up with an adequate level of technical support.”

That is the second practical recommendation made in the Executive Summary (not an obscure bullet point buried in an appendix) of a relatively new guide to community-based fire management (CBFiM) issued by FAO. A whole five pages are devoted later on to a dreary recitation of four such workshops FAO held around the world between 2004 and 2009.

If you wanted to design a big new national programme of CBFiM, which I wouldn’t, then I suppose something along those lines might be an early step, but I would recommend starting with one small workshop and a trial project, before expanding on a province by province basis. More to the point, to assume that is what all readers of that manual want to do strikes me as a spectacular lack of imagination on FAO’s part.

A gem of an oxymoron that appears in the background section declares (my emphasis added):

“Sources of ignition and fuels are local; thus, the systems and frameworks of fire management are often best established at the provincial level, while monitoring and analysis are usually best dealt with at the national level. Yet discussion and debate often take place without reference to the appropriate scale of intervention.”

Quite! It continues:

“To ensure that suppression occurs effectively at the local level, that is, that unwanted and undesirable fires are kept small, everything else in the fire management equation must occur at higher levels, including effective coordination and cooperation of all fire management agencies.”

Putting out the fire in my backyard requires coordination and cooperation of ministry or sub-ministry agencies? I could maybe just about live with this tosh if the report was not supposed to be specifically about community-based fire management. Alas!

Some people, unfortunately, really just do not get bottom up. That’s all right; I don’t really get ballet. Thankfully, this need not greatly concern the world of ballet. If only we could say the same for community-based conservation and development.

How enterprising is your social enterprise?

So the SOCCKET ball is the latest incredibly dumb development idea to get the treatment from the blogosphere, led by tea-drinker Aaron Ausland. In his latest post he gives the SOCCKET ball co-inventor and ‘Chief Social Officer’ of Uncharted Play, Julia C Silverman, the right of reply.

“I’d like to clarify Uncharted Play’s business model for the SOCCKET product …  We are a social enterprise, not an NGO; we answer to our investors and are kept afloat by revenue, not donations as your post implies …

For our users in disadvantaged communities, corporations and public institutions underwrite the cost of SOCCKET distribution through bulk/wholesale ball purchases. Users (children) “earn” the balls by participating in the programming of our official NGO partners.

Our corporate partners are wonderful, but they are not development institutions. When they were deciding to work with us, they were evaluating whether to put marketing dollars into SOCCKET sponsorship or into another campaign, not another charity.”

So, let’s just be clear about this: Uncharted Play is ‘selling’ the SOCCKET balls, just not to the end users. I.e. they are relying upon a traditional aid model and CSR-style conscience-buying, and then trying to make money out of it. Sounds rather like some big ugly consultancies I know … More to the point their feedback model is as broken as the rest of the aid system. A bottom-of-the-pyramid business proposition this is not.

“Given the distribution of accountability, it would be all too easy for us to simply pay lip service to our social mission while dedicating the bulk of our financial and human resources to sales, marketing, etc.. However … this is not the case: we are truly focused on collaborating with communities to implement meaningful, catalytic programs, and – rather than resting on our laurels or focusing strictly on profit – we are taking aggressive action to engage closely with our partners and participants and track outcomes so that we can drive toward maximal positive impact.”

Really? This reads just like typical drivel from a development agency with negligible impact. What ‘impact’ are they seeking? How many kicks of the ball does it take for a kid to generate enough electricity to power a light while they do one hour’s homework? In fact it looks like the one part of their social enterprise that is doing its job well is the marketing department. So all very reminiscent of the NGO world

I know plenty of people are very sceptical about the concept of a social enterprise. Uncharted Play unfortunately appears to be a living embodiment of all their arguments that it is just the same old guff dressed up in new clothes. A pity for all the truly enterprising social enterprises out there.

ps. Ms Silverman also claims:

“… kids have found the product to be truly magical. … When we actually say that the ball is special, that it can harness energy and power a lamp or a phone, there is always a collective yell of excitement.  Then, when we plug in a lamp to demonstrate, the kids’ eyes just pop out of their heads, and you can see the wheels beginning to turn.”

Has Ms Silverman considered that this might partly be because the kids have just received the coolest physics lesson of their lives? It would be great if more science lessons could be this inspiring, but I doubt very much it represents value for money for destitute kids.

Inflexion points

Various thoughts have collided in my head over the last week concerning value for money* in tropical conservation and development. I can see two possible inflexion points, which are clearly related in some sense, but also reflect different concerns linked to the issue of scaling up.

The first I’ll call the So What? point. At the bottom end of development, if someone spends $1,000, say, on donating school books, then most people’s reaction is simply to celebrate the fact that now some kids in a poor country have some books that they would not have had otherwise. It would seem churlish to question whether, in fact, there might be a better way to spend the money.

However, if someone else spends $10m on school books, then one is naturally inclined to question what is the eventual impact of this donation. How much better educated are the kids? How many are lifted out of poverty – or at least become less poor – as a result? They spent $10m on school books, but so what?

The second inflexion I’m calling the Get out of Bed point, and is the minimum grant size likely to interest a development practitioner. It is to a large part set by the organisation for which you work. BINGOs may not chase grants smaller than $1m, while the smallest NGOs will happily jump through several hoops for just a few thousand dollars.

The problem comes when a would-be donor perceives one as having a lower Get out of Bed threshold than one in fact does. One does not want to seem ungrateful, and maybe if there were less hoops  to jump through or less strings attached (hint to donors: these make small grants much more worthwhile), and/or if the grant would be easily renewable (dependable funding is always appreciated!) then we might go for it, but every application form takes up senior staff time when they might be better off just managing what they’ve already got on their plates. This can be a tricky issue for small but growing NGOs to navigate.

I haven’t had the time to really think this through, but I suggest that the best conservation and development action probably takes place when the two inflexion points are roughly aligned for both the implementing agency and its main donors. If the Get out of Bed threshold is much lower than the point at which the So What? test becomes applicable then the organisation concerned is desperately short of money (or fixated on raising money rather than achieving notable results). Conversely if  the Get out of Bed point is significantly higher than the  So What? question level, then the agency is probably swimming in cash and may well be more concerned about spending its great dollops of wonga than achieving value for money.

Contrary thoughts or suggested examples of the different cases are welcomed in the comments section.

* Note this discussion is not about the quality of service provided, efficiency of the activities undertaken, or the level of overheads applied. For the purposes of this post please assume such variables can be controlled for, although there may be an inevitable degree of confounding factors.

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