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.


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.

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