Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ 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!


No no no

I sincerely hope this comment was taken out of context:

“The problem of providing rural water around the world hasn’t been cracked,” said Philippe Dongier, World Bank country director for Tanzania. “You could say, ‘if that’s not going to be sustainable, why should we build it?’ But that could be said all over the world.”

That’s from Tom Murphy’s investigation into the World Bank’s $1.4bn failed water project in Tanzania. Alas I reckon Tom’s journalistic standards are likely to be better than the World Bank’s sustainability policies.

It’s with this kind of rubbish that international aid agencies shoot themselves in the foot. And yet they express bewilderment at the growing opposition to official aid by various right wing groups in donor countries.

When to cash out

Matt Collins is concerned that the current fad in international aid for direct cash transfers may squeeze out other important investments, especially in public goods which may not be financed otherwise. I quite agree. For a long time in aid the mantra was: “Don’t give a guy a fish, teach him to fish instead.” ‘Cash is best’ is almost the complete opposite of this. Both perspectives are valid; neither are universally satisfactory.

Two lines of thought that might help to bridge the gap:

  1. Is there already a cash disbursement programme? If not consider setting one up as a first step (seeing as the evidence in their favour is so good) and then add on public goods / services later.
  2. To what extent might cash payments be more beneficial when they are the exception rather than the rule? If households come to expect them will it not simply generate more aid-dependency?

Putting my cynic’s hat on for a moment (I do occasionally take it off!) I suggest that this fad will in time fade just like all the others, leaving behind a useful legacy of a different way of thinking. The question “Would the beneficiaries be better off with straight cash?” will always be a good one to ask.

Not for the first time, and why we might foul it up again

Owen Barder is keeping a nice list of major public figures’ claims that “For the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to end extreme poverty within a generation.” in the words of World Bank president, Jim Kim, the latest to so pronounce. The list goes right back to Woodrow Wilson addressing the League of Nations in 1919. Obviously previous generations have not lived up to such lofty aspirations. Why not? And why should we be any different? I present some wild speculation …

Back in 1919, perhaps for the first time, the western powers could say they truly knew most of the world. The major features had been well mapped, and many distant peoples had been ‘civilized’ (aka colonised by racist imperialists). The sun never set on the British Empire and the industrial revolution had made some Americans fabulously wealthy. There were a lot of poor people in the world, but not so many, and Westerners had a surfeit of confidence as to their capacity to achieve great things. Moreover, in a world before the widespread existence of welfare states, it is possible they were not aiming that high.

What happened? Two major changes. Developing countries won their independence from the colonial yoke. This hugely increased their welfare in one important dimension (political freedom), but possibly impeded progress on technocratic goals such as raising average incomes due, in part, to the need to first concentrate on building the capacity of those new states. One signal success, nonetheless, does stand out: the drastic decline in infant and maternal mortality rates. So while economic development was stalling in many countries, populations were exploding. Suddenly it became a lot harder to eliminate poverty.

Fast forward to 2013 and we have passed an important inflexion point: now the number of desperately poor people in the world is declining in absolute terms, and not just in China. The zero goals some people are suggesting should follow the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015 appear tantalisingly in reach.

So why might we fail again? What new issue might once again expose our hubris? I give you two words: climate change.

Knowing what’s good for you

“Paying tax is a patriotic duty!”

So say some adverts around here. Alas avoiding paying tax is something of a national pastime. And not just taxes, but utility bills etc too. (Especially if you are, ahem, part of the government!) This obviously can make life quite difficult for the utility companies. In theory that would mean the rest of us having to pay more for our electricity and water etc, but such prices are highly political and thus tightly controlled by the government. Result: highly dysfunctional services that greatly undermine the economy.

What is interesting, is that in such a context, business opinion appears to divide. Some business people understand the fundamentals and would prefer to pay substantially more to get a reliable supply/service. However, others take the typically short-termist view that higher prices means higher costs, and higher costs are always bad.

Thus we see another result, across a wide range of economic issues, government fixed prices and royalty rates stay exactly that – fixed – for relatively long periods of time under lobbying from special interests. Then, inevitably, the earthquake happens, and the price shifts dramatically, doubling or more overnight in the case of some royalties. Unsurprisingly businesses then complain that it is impossible to plan sensibly against such huge political uncertainties. So I’m waiting for the day when enough of these businessmen and women grow up, drop the whole ducking and diving mentality, and accept that a far better solution is for such prices to increment annually based on inflation or some other appropriate measure.

One of the trite aphorisms of the aid industry concerns the benefits of teaching someone to fish over just giving them a fish today. Many business people here, however, appear to prefer the solidity of the fish today over hypothetical fish tomorrow.

Admitting it’s not good enough

The call to be open about failure in development projects has much to be said about it, as I have blogged before. But between success and failure there is a middle ground in which many conservation and development projects cluster. Sometimes acceptance of this result is appropriate; it may not be appropriate to expect rich country levels of achievement in some of the poorest countries. And such compromise is de rigeur in any policy processes, whatever a country’s level of economic development.

But when it comes to project implementation I think that too often we are too ready to accept this half-baked mediocrity, write up our ‘success’ reports and move on. Unfortunately short term papering over of the cracks can lead to long term failure, although by that point usually the main protagonists have long since moved on. Many times this takes the form of an initially successful project that has been poorly scaled up into a programme that grinds on for years based on its initial fanfare, before eventually donors get tired off the lack of progress and pull the plug, often one at a time so it limps on for quite a while with ever-diminishing financial support. My guess is that this kind of failure rarely even gets noticed as anything other than a sense of regret amongst those who were involved that so much early promise should amount to so little in the end.

But sometimes the failure can be more dramatic, such as the drastic short-comings both morally and militarily that have been brutally exposed in the Malian army over the last 12 months, despite years of capacity building from the US previously. Todd Moss laments the tendency to see those policies and results through rose-tinted glasses. I’m no military man, but allow me to guess a little at what might have happened: the junior officers on the ground would have reported the good start they made whilst making their reservations clear that there was a long way to go. These reservations were subsequently air-brushed out by senior officials and politicians keen to declare success and move on. Doh!

The even bigger difficulty occurs when that conversation needs to take place across the cultural boundary. How do you tell the local partner that while their efforts are nice and appreciated they do not, ultimately, deliver on the requirements? That technically their output is lacking a necessary level of sophistication? Arrogance does not become one, and us oh-so-enlightened Westerners are guilty of that far too often. Smooth diplomacy, however, can only get you so far: either you need to accept the product delivered with all its flaws, or you need to risk giving offence in pushing for improvements, whoever is tasked with delivering them.

At this point budget strictures can come into play. Few project designs incorporate budget for doing anything twice (although a contingencies budget can help). So as well as having the courage to reveal the hard truths to local partners one faces the challenge of finding the budget and/or fessing up to the donor how you stumbled. Little wonder then that many project managers opt for the easy way out. A little less neo-colonialism, may come at the cost of a lot less development. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess which outcome the target beneficiaries would prefer.

Before I get deluged in a pile of hate mail, I should point out the big but in this. There is obviously a huge slippery slope starting with robust and honest assessment of technical quality of local partner outputs and descending to rampant neo-colonialism, and at the bottom of which one is likely to find the target beneficiaries having very different views. Alternatively you can just call the bottom of the slope charter cities, on which it seems the jury is still out, and will almost certainly stay out, until one is actually attempted.

I should also like to add that such eventualities as I describe above are not the rule. Many times I have seen excellent outputs produced by local partners. But neither, unfortunately, it is as rare an exception round here as one would like, especially when dealing with quasi-governmental institutions who do not have a meritocratic culture.

Whatever happened to ICDPs?

Back when I started this blog, two of my earliest posts (parts 1 and 2) concerned my criticisms of Integrated Conservation & Development Projects (ICDPs). The name got rather a bad reputation so one doesn’t hear too much about them these days, with thankfully the focus now much more on approaches such as REDD, community wildlife management and community beach management units in fisheries, that explicitly link community benefits directly with the natural resources being conserved. However, they have not gone away entirely, and any time in a community-based conservation project you hear the term (Alternative) Income Generating Activity, you should be on alert to a displacement activity covering up deep flaws in project design. That is not to say IGAs are always inappropriate, but they do need to be properly justified.

Whatever the terminology, this approach to conservation appears to be alive and kicking in the Lower Mekong Basin, and has recently been critiqued in a new book Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong, which in turn was summarised on CIFOR’s excellent blog. Some of their conclusions echo my own previous criticisms (my comments in brackets):

  • Define clear and plausible goals and objectives from the outset. “Too many project documents … do not really articulate the overall long term goals that they seek to achieve.” (A problem that can arise when project planning starts with the premise ‘something must be done’, rather than here is ‘something that can work and should be done’.)
  • Market-based mechanisms may help marry conservation and development. For long-term conservation projects, funding is crucial. (Yes, so don’t design everything around donor funding.)

Others are more generally applicable:

  • Monitoring systems are a source for learning and change, so use them. (No kidding!)
  • Fully understand the policy context. (Ditto.)

But there are two conclusions with which I find it harder to agree:

  • Provide alternative income generating activities. “Solutions must … always be context specific … understanding and negotiating trade-offs between conservation and development is fundamental in ensuring optimal outcomes for both.” (I totally agree with the quote, but fail to see how that leads to the headline conclusion.)
  • Invest more in education, awareness and capacity building. “Scaling up such capacity-building to the national level remains one of the biggest challenges for conservation worldwide.” (I’m not against such investment in theory, but too many conservation projects invest too much in such things, and not enough in their core design. And sometimes small projects may be best off staying small, see previous posts of mine here and here.)

The bottom line: “Many ICDPs have excessively ambitious goals and they inevitably make mistakes, so it is really important to make sure that we learn from those mistakes,” says Terry Sunderland,  one of the book’s editors. Word! (And not just for ICDPs.) Maybe the best lesson we can learn from this exercise would be to consign the whole ICDP concept to the dustbin?

Dimensions of Sustainability

One of the big disappointments of Rio+20 was the evisceration of the Sustainable Development Goals initiative which now looks like it is going nowhere. I hope that some of the ideas underlying that can find some other outlet; I particularly liked Kate Raworth’s notion of the sustainable development doughnut, in which economic activity is constrained by social minima and environmental maxima.

But, as with my previous post, there is no reason to wait for international politics to sort itself out; we can get implementing these ideas in our own efforts right now. When it comes to designing conservation projects I like to use another visual metaphor, what I call the dimensions of sustainability.

Typically a conservation project will start with a problem statement along the lines of habitat A or species B is severely threatened and something must be done. This may be expressed as a target to prevent the area of habitat shrinking below a given carrying capacity or a population declining below the Minimum Viable Population. Thus a red line is drawn. Everything else must fit around that line, and the further away from the line the better, so not only do we start with a massive constraint, but the whole project design is oriented towards pushing the target variable as far as possible from that minimum.

The problem is that this monocular vision of sustainability greatly constrains the range of solutions which might be considered, and can also lead to blinkered project management with negligible attention paid to other variables. Instead I like to start with a general consideration of the ‘sustainability space’. This space has three primary axes of environmental, social and economic sustainability (ref the three chambers of FSC). Each axis, however, may be a composite of various measures (or sub-axes, if you like), e.g. the environmental axis may list habitat protection, biodiversity and carbon as important issues, the social axis may consider issues of equity and cultural propriety, and the economic axis returns on investment and ability to meet the needs of the market (as opposed to the project logframe).

For a project to be truly sustainable we need to keep all of these variables within sustainable bounds. Excessively prioritising one or two over the others will rarely be constructive. Moreover consideration of this wider picture may help one to understand how a little shift in that initial red line might in fact make the whole difference between project feasibility and miserable failure.

Moving the red line can create space to find a workable solution

For the hard-core conservationists out there it is important to note that this is not about compromising on important principles; if a habitat fragments too much it ceases to function as God intended. But many of those red lines we like to draw are based upon questionable data, and may be somewhat precautionary. Neither point invalidates the need for a line, but they do suggest a certain amount of flexibility. This is important when considering the range of practical interventions. It might be that without such flexibility no project is likely to succeed. (Alas such unsolvable equations are too often not sufficient to stop investment in the project.)

Instead my approach of considering the various dimensions of sustainability is intended to define the problem space properly. It is only within that space that we are going to find any solutions.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim any great originality for the insights above so I would be interested to hear if anyone has similar or alternative frameworks. Equally please do let me know if you ever find the above useful in designing a project yourself.

Alleviating the gloom

So Rio+20 has concluded with only the barest flicker of the needle on the meter of progress to a more sustainable society.* But then if you expected anything different you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog, and I wouldn’t have drafted this opening before the conference had even started.

Away from the big international negotiations and gridlock politics, however, there are some better news stories, most of them inspired by local needs and aspirations, a bottom-up approach this blog is proud to celebrate. So here are a few examples that caught my eye in recent weeks and months:

Ultimately, caring for our environmental (our patrimony) is a moral question. It is therefore good to see some religious leaders taking their share of the responsibilities.

The sixty four million dollar question: do these and other initiatives amount to much more than a few isolated successes, or might they add to something rather more significant? Wangari Maathai won a Nobel Peace Prize in part because she succeeded in translating a bottom-up effort into a national movement. Let’s hope a few of these pioneers can taste success on that kind of scale.

* For what it’s worth I agree with Duncan Green; international politics has reached such an impasse that I think progress is only likely in response to major shocks to the system. Depressingly this is probably going to mean a couple of massive environmental catastrophes before the survival instinct kicks in.

Maintaining your investment

In my last two posts I queried how donors may fail to sustain otherwise successful projects that cannot make the grade to self-sustainability. Many others, of course, are handed over to the host country government, who proceed to run them into the ground.

These, however, are not the only things that the government (local and national) here fails to invest in. Basic infrastructure is repeatedly failing without any adequate back-up or emergency planning. Every time it appears to take the authorities by surprise. E.g. despite chronic power failures the water supplier’s stand-by generator has not been maintained and so power shortages automatically equal water shortages. Fine for a few hours, crippling for a couple of weeks!

Interestingly, there is one counter-example. After what I imagine is years of pushing by donors tired of funding new roads only for them swiftly to fall into various states of disrepair, the government is actually now quite good at repairing pot holes and the like. But alas this proactive approach does not yet appear to have spread to other parts of government.

It is temptingly easy to blame the government for all these failures, and slam them we do, but the problem is wider than that, as anyone who has rented property around here can attest. Landlords tend to build a house and then sweat their asset for all its worth, typically refusing to carry out any repairs.

This does not have to be totally irrational if one thinks of a boot-strap situation: a landlord may build a house and rent it to cover the costs of sending their children to university. Here the expectation of long term returns from education may far exceed that from property, and thus it may be appropriate to thus sweat ones asset. But I see many examples where clearly the landlord is not that poor.

Lack of credit and a poorly functioning financial system at large almost certainly do not help either, but I find it hard not to conclude that there is a culture of not maintaining one’s investment. How common this is in other developing countries I do not know (if you do please weigh in with a comment), but I can see it being a significant drag on economic development. Especially while the government cannot manage to keep the lights on!

(The big donors, too, could offer rather better examples than they do.)

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