Archive for the ‘View from the Bottom’ 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!

Bottom up thinking points the way for REDD

More good stuff from CIFOR, this time a survey of 23 different pilot REDD+ projects from around the tropics. The variety of approaches on show just goes to show, again, the benefits of Bill Easterly’s ‘seekers’ over ‘planners’. At both national and international levels I fear there is not enough flexibility in how government officials expect REDD+ to be delivered. And while there is plenty of justified scepticism about the prospects for REDD+ itself, I reckon a lot of that would go away if the price for carbon climbed up to the $20-30 per tonne of carbon dioxide that many experts think is required to push the global economy into making the necessary changes to head off catastrophic climate change. Less faffing around in negotiations and a clearer regulatory landscape would no doubt help too.

Community conservation needs to be meaningful for communities

Some good stuff pumped out by CIFOR as part of a big comms effort around the latest round of international climate change talks, that this year took place in Lima. Much of the best stuff has a relevance far beyond just the UNFCCC negotiations bubble. One thing that particularly caught my attention was this story about what conditions are required for the successful involvement of local people in monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon savings achieved through REDD+ activities. Manuel Boissière, a CIFOR researcher, boils it down to four things:

  1. Relevance – “if something about the project is not seen as relevant to their daily lives, local people might not be willing to commit to such a project.”
  2. Skills – not just technical capacity and literacy, but “is it always clear to local people what it is they are measuring?”
  3. Reporting systems – how do you get the data back to HQ? (An important consideration, but the least interesting lesson.)
  4. Quality validation – “the ability to check whether the data that have been collected are correct.”

The 4th is the hardest, Boissière reckons. Just using some remote sensing in the office doesn’t cut it, because it is a one-way street: the scientists can check their data, but it doesn’t provide any useful feedback to communities, and any good quality control system involves rapid feedback. Instead Boissière recommends an approach based around participatory maps that are meaningful to the local communities.

“If you look at academic literature [on community participation in MRV], it’s all about cost-efficiency—how to get local communities participating in tree measurement and what is the cost of it, and are they doing a good job compared to scientists or not? And that has been really the limitation.”

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s not just on the monitoring side. I don’t have a problem with those people who first come to the conclusion that they need to work with communities to deliver conservation goals because the resources just aren’t there to deliver ‘command and control’ conservation. It’s a valid observation, and often critically important in persuading officious bureaucracies to loosen up a little bit.

But if that is your sole basis for doing community conservation you are in trouble. If you want to succeed with community-based conservation you absolutely need to make your work meaningful and relevant to the communities. Providing a steady stream of recognisable benefits is very important, and without which you are likely to struggle, but beyond that communities need to be engaged as full partners. They need to have a basic comprehension of what they are doing and why. If they are truly going to (help) manage their local natural resources they need to be empowered to make informed decisions upon bases that they understand.

In short, community conservation will only work when the communities involved actually care. And how do you persuade anyone to care about something?

Emerging from what?

One of the most illuminating insights in Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos (see last week’s review) was on how well suited complexity science is to tackling issues of systemic risk in the global financial system (e.g. too much inter-connectedness amongst banks and other financial institutions). The reason being that there was a wealth of data, millions upon millions of individual transactions, just sitting there waiting to be analysed if only someone could bring the right toolset (and a powerful enough computer). Complexity science can take all that apparent randomness and help us tease out significant emergent patterns and behaviour.

I thought this was particularly illuminating because it perfectly illustrates one of the major challenges of bringing complexity science techniques to bear on development problems: for the most part we do not already have the data, and going out and collecting it is very expensive. Different analytical approaches no doubt differ in their data requirements, but I suspect that in many cases that chaos nerds have an even bigger problem in this respect than randomistas. In short without the huge morass of data there is too little random feedstock from which patterns can emerge.

If we combine that problem with one of the main challenges to RCT’s global domination – limited external validity when context is everything* – I am worried that complexity thinking may sometimes me the equivalent of the proverbial sledgehammer used to crack a nut. It may be that the nut is so hard to crack that nothing short of a sledgehammer will suffice to do the job, but the reality is that we cannot go round deploying chaos science sledgehammers everywhere, not least because I doubt there are enough capable chaosistas.

But there is another emergent pattern out there, of bloggers sounding really stupid when they write about things they don’t understand. So now maybe Ben and co can tell me how badly I am wrong …

* In chaotic systems this is represented in the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, hence the joke about the butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest triggering a thunderstorm on the other side of the world.

The minutiae of cultural differences

You are walking along an unsurfaced road. A motorbike is coming towards you. You step out of the way towards the side of the road. The motorbike follows you. You both get annoyed and you have to step off the road entirely in order not to get run over.

“A bit rude!” you think.

“Why did he have to move to the smoothest part of the road?” thinks the motorcyclist.

If I were an African farmer

Not so long along ago Save the Children UK produced a bunch of adverts highlighting how anyone born into a rich country had won the ‘lottery of life’ in terms of expected well-being etc. I.e. however much we might feel like things weren’t great, that in fact we are incredibly lucky, and that globally we are the privileged 1% (or whatever the proportion is). This was popularising a fairly well established philosophical point known as the Veil of Ignorance, which asks you to consider how fair various aspects of public policy are if you do not know in advance which family you will be born into.

lotteryoflife1

However, such invitations to consider the hypothetical can suffer from a sense of individual exceptionalism. (Or at least it does with me, I confess.) It goes like this:-

A key requirement of any good development worker is the ability to empathise with the people you are trying to help. (Without such empathy you probably wouldn’t be working in this sector.) So it is that on many an occasion I have thought how I would act if I were a poor rural farmer like those in the communities we are assisting. I’m a fairly bright guy (if I do say so myself) and I’ve been involved in a lot of innovative work, so even if my educational opportunities were way lower than the fantastically good education I received in the UK, I like to think that as a rural farmer I might rise above the crowd; I would try lots of different things, not everything would pay off, but enough would that I would be one of the most successful farmers in the village, respected by my peers. I may well have some position in the community leadership.

And indeed were you transplant me now, as a grown adult, into such a village I don’t think it is being too arrogant to suggest that something like that would happen. (In order to make it a fair experiment, I would have my entire technical knowledge bank wiped, and have only access to the same information other villagers have.) The life would be tough, much tougher physically and health-wise than my current life, but I like to think I would succeed.

Nature vs. Nurture

But is this really a fair thought experiment? Who am I really? We are all products of the culture in which we, and our parents before us, were brought up, and the resources that were available. We know, for instance, that the diet that a mother eats during pregnancy, and the diet of a child during its first few years, are critically important for later physical and mental development. And not just the diet; my parents talked to me a lot when I was very young, they provided a stimulating play environment, and once I was old enough encouraged me to read. The most valuable aspect of my education was not the knowledge and technical skills I learned, but the capacity to think critically and to think for myself, the thirst for new knowledge and experience, and the self-confidence to try such things. All of which is very hard to separate out from the person I am today.

Quite simply, if I were born into a rural village around here I would not be the same person. Not being the brawniest or healthiest child I may well instead have ended up something of a loser.

A hundred years ago, colonialists would routinely dismiss local people as stupid and ignorant. They were racist, but not totally wrong. They just did not understand the sheer magnitude of advantages they had in life being born a European. Even now it requires a tremendous leap of imagination to truly put ourselves in the shoes of someone born into poverty. If I were a poor African farmer, you might pity me or scorn me. If you are a development worker you might desperately want to help me, to listen to my problems, and try to see life from my perspective. You may strive not to get too frustrated when I am unable to articulate my situation or take apparently irrational decisions. I hope you would respect me. But you would not see me as an equal, because in most things I simply would not be your equal.

Humble gratitude

“Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right.”

So said I a couple of days ago. Something worth remembering, especially for those of us who work for NGOs and are fond, as I am, of bashing donors on a regular basis. Unfortunately always easier to remember when you hear others complaining than when launching into one’s own remonstration.

Thank you.

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.

Corruption myth flipped but still lands butter side down

“Many international development organisations hold that persistent poverty in the Global South is caused largely by corruption among local public officials. In 2003 these concerns led to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which asserts that, while corruption exists in all countries, this ‘evil phenomenon’ is ‘most destructive’ in the global South, where it is a ‘key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development’.

There’s only one problem with this theory: It’s just not true.”

So says Jason Hickel. He explains:

“According to the World Bank, corruption in the form of bribery and theft by government officials, the main target of the UN Convention, costs developing countries between $20bn and $40bn each year. That’s a lot of money. But it’s an extremely small proportion – only about 3 percent – of the total illicit flows that leak out of public coffers. On the other hand, multinational companies steal more than $900bn from developing countries each year through tax evasion and other illicit practices.”

It is a good point, but here’s the thing: it’s not necessarily the amount of money stolen that matters. Since most of this money is stolen from government coffers this only materially harms a citizen of that country if the government would otherwise have spent the money on services to them. Round here, however, most people are pretty cynical; the government mostly spends money on itself (legalised corruption if you like) and is often pretty useless at actually delivering useful services.

But, as anyone who has spent significant time in the least developed countries will tell you, the bigger problem is the all pervasive, endemic petty corruption. I would wager that economic underperformance happens not so much because some official stole some money from the government, but because someone could not register their business without paying a bribe that they cannot afford; others die or are maimed in road accidents because the police accept small bribes on a daily basis to look the other way; the list goes on … I have no figures to back up this assertion, so could be wrong, and obviously some thievery does have direct economic consequences if it means a new road or power plant is not completed. On the other hand how many business investment opportunities are foregone with investors are put off by their inability to enforce basic contracts due to a justice system that is always on sale to the highest bidder?

Dr Hickel’s moral outrage is well directed. The scale of tax evasion by multinationals is truly disgusting. But it does not detract from the importance of developing country governments putting their own houses in order, and it would be a shame if the crusade against international tax evasion served as a fig leaf for inaction domestically. Alas I doubt a UN Convention will help much with that; real reform will only come when the citizens of these countries demand accountability for themselves.

A yardstick measure of inequity

No development project can possibly benefit everyone equally. E.g. a project aimed at creating jobs and other economic opportunities will disproportionately benefit the able bodied. Most people would agree that is not a reason not to undertake such a project.

Some donors attempt to get around this by mainstreaming support for so-called disadvantaged groups, and requiring projects they support to incorporate some kind of support for disadvantaged people into their work. I think this is a fairly silly approach. For a start you are never going to capture every single disadvantaged person: women and HIV/AIDS sufferers are the most commonly supported, mentally ill people rather less often. Secondly bolting on such adjuncts comes at the expense of project focus, and leads to project managers overseeing work in areas in which they are far from experts. Much better, I reckon, for donors instead to support a wide portfolio of projects that ensure disadvantaged groups are given a chance. (Different donors could even specialise in supporting different disadvantaged groups.)

But if we are to accept a certain inevitable degree of inequity in project design, how much inequity is acceptable? And by this I do not just mean how much is acceptable not just to us, but to the would be community of beneficiaries? Here is my suggestion for a convenient yardstick.

Probably the single biggest dimension of inequality in the world is the nationality of your parents and/or where you were born. And yet, a few philosophers apart, this is not an inequality that gets many people especially riled. Envious: yes, angry: not so much. My guess is this is because there is no human agency involved. The outcomes are very unequal, but, by and large, poorer people have not suffered a specific recent injustice perpetrated by identifiable rich people to cause this inequality. Even with colonialism, when taken as a whole, it is hard to argue that people born today in ex-colonies are poorer as a result, and plenty of people argue colonialism brought various developmental goods in exchange for lower freedoms.

Instead most people can accept without a deep upwelling of anger that even if you are born in the bottom 5% of the population in the UK, you will probably be able to watch TV every day of your life that you want to do so. Indeed, even if you do not have a job, the UK government will pay you enough money that you can afford to watch TV when you want to. Whereas if you were born in rural Malawi, say, you might only occasionally ever get to watch TV.

Thus my yardstick is this: does your project appear to introduce more inequity than this basic starting inequality? If so you should be worried? If not, you may well be ok. In many ways it is not a very good yardstick: rural Malawians and poor Brits are not living side by side, and so the inequity is remote, hidden even. Moreover the key point is that poor people do not really have anyone to blame for this starting inequality, whereas project staff and managers are clearly identifiable for local ire if unfairness is perceived. But it does provide a philosophical anchor point that could be useful during project conception if ever you are worried about differences between winners and losers that could arise from a new project.

Maybe someone else has a much better yardstick?

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