Posts Tagged ‘capacity building’

Decentralisation Blues

The World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan reckons that there needs to be real political demand for capacity building to truly transform dysfunctional developing country institutions, and avoid the trap of isomorphic mimicry. He is surely correct in this assertion, but I fear the rose-tinted spectacles return when he advocates the benefits of decentralisation:

“One reason [for doubting local authorities capacity to manage financial resources] may be that no one has given local authorities the chance to deal with funds.  There may have been no demand for financial management at the local level because the central government has told you what to spend.  If you give them the chance to make the decisions, then they might actually build the capacity or hire that capacity because it’s something they can decide for themselves.

Moreover, if the local governments are accountable to the local population, they will have to build capacity really fast. They can no longer put the blame on central government if things don’t work well.”

To be fair to Devarajan he does qualify his enthusiasm with the requirement that local governments should be accountable to the local population. The trouble is that in the decentralisation that I have witnessed in least developed countries I have never seen much sign of that condition coming true, and certainly not any evidence of it leading to substantially increased capacity. Instead, where local official venality and low capacity are the rule rather than the exception, as is the case around here, such pushes as there are to improve service delivery come from above, although even here there’s a lot more political rhetoric than practical action. Decentralisation thus leads to temporary petty fiefdoms that can go largely unmolested so long as performance is not notably worse than elsewhere in the country (and sometimes even when it is).

This rose-tinted view of decentralisation is not restricted to ill-informed denizens of the embassy district and big donor agencies. I think we field operatives can sometimes be equally guilty in assuming that just because community leaders are that much closer to their constituents they will therefore be that much more responsive to their needs, or that bad leaders will get voted out of office. For even at the community level base party politics and local rivalries so often trump technocratic concerns of executive competence.

I would suggest that demand for good services is predicated on at least some idea of what they should look like and sense that they are properly due. By this I mean not just that a community should want the service, and be prepared to air their grievance to anyone who cares to come by and ask (very common around here), but that their sense of justice should be inflamed at the breach to the perceived social contract, and, as an aggrieved party, they are prepared to act seriously to obtain redress. Consuming many government services, e.g. sending one’s children to the local school, might be a largely passive undertaking, but service quality depends upon a community’s aptitude to pursue their due proactively, and in turn for the rest of society not to regard such direct action as disproportionate.

Some would translate all of that as the need for a large middle class, and trot out that old canard about democracy not being workable without one. I am prepared to be a bit more optimistic than that, but I think we should be cautious about expecting demand for service provision to drive improvements in local capacity. There will always be counter-examples, usually championed by exceptional local leaders, but countrywide I wouldn’t pin your hopes on anything other than slow progress, with plenty of steps back interspersed with the forward ones. Social change is slow and messy.

Hat Tip: Lee Crawfurd

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.

Development is complex, so start with the simple things

Building capacity one brick at a time

Ben Ramalingam has a great post setting out how to incorporate both results-based rigour and necessary but woollier capacity-building type projects, by putting them on a two-dimensional continuum of complexity. I think this is a good way to visualise the issues.

I have only one thing to add, and it links back to Tony Blair’s recent comments (see my previous post on Learning by Doing) and the problems of form vs function. If we want to build the capacity of developing country institutions, then I think there is no better way to do so than to first focus on delivering the simple things, which can indeed be measured using a results-based framework. Moreover, critical self-analysis of the difficulties in improving delivery beyond a certain threshold may well lead the institution on to try tackling the more complex and challenging tasks whilst not forgetting the most important end goal of improved service delivery.

J the Hoodie recently contended that while Aid might be able to deliver some worthy results, it cannot (at least not on its own) ‘fix’ any of the big problems such as poverty alleviation, food shortages or global environmental degradation. In such I think he is right. Part of the problem, I think, is that Aid has even tried. When faced with such intractable problems it is far better to focus on what we know we can do; start with the simple things and build up from there. There’s a lot that we will still never fix with Aid alone (international aid policies and environmental cooperation surely need to see order of magnitude improvements), but you never know, we might even surprise ourselves with what we can do!

Learning by Doing

Kudos to Owen Barder who has no lesser a dignitary on his Development Drums podcast than Tony Blair. Some of his answers are slightly evasive, suggesting to me that you can take the man out of front line politics, but you can’t take the politician out of the man. But he has also got some interesting things to say about his African Governance Initiative, and Lee the Bandit’s unerring sense for the hidden gem was fully functioning on this roughly transcribed extract:

“People often say to me ‘you’ve got to train the civil service of the country in order to be able to do the things they need to do.’ I personally think you can spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars doing that and nothing much come out of it (Barder: and we do). What we do is different in 3 crucial respects, the first is we combine a political interaction … the second is we prioritize, this is about delivering programs … people have this view that if you train up the civil service then they can deliver the programs. My view is that if you work on delivering  specific prioritised programs, you will get out of that the capacity that you require and can work on for delivering other things, and that its in the practical prioritization and doing things that makes the difference. The third thing is that our teams live in the country, they work alongside their counterparts in the country, there is a very strong interaction.”

Later on in the interview Tony Blair uses the actual phrase Learning by Doing. Three cheers say I, for this is definitely something in which I believe, big time.

Traditional development approaches to capacity building tend to focus around short training courses. These can teach people technical skills but they fail to stimulate the critical thinking that is essential to solving real world problems. Instead we get dysfunctional institutions that superficially look capable of doing a job, but lacking the internal engine to make it tick. This problem applies equally to government institutions, local NGOs and even local branches of international NGOs.

Learning by Doing gets people to work through an entire process, and in doing so develops a whole host of soft skills. In practice this is achieved through mentoring and is inevitably a slow process that is not readily susceptible to rapid scaling up. Indeed this lack of scalability is, I believe, a major factor hamstringing attempts to transform pilot projects into large national programmes. Development agencies have attempted to get around this problem by the ‘Training of Trainers’ approach, but you have to have trained some really top notch trainers if this is not to suffer from the inevitable Chinese-whispers-style degradation of skills imparted. Any way, nobody I yet know has tried ‘Mentoring of Mentors’.

One big problem with this approach can be the receptiveness of the institution whose staff are being mentored. Tony Blair’s initiative appears to work at the very highest levels, and to be aimed at supporting African presidents who really want to get things moving (even if this is at the expense of democratic accountability). He takes an admirably realistic approach that focuses on just a few priorities over a presidential term of office. Elsewhere in developing countries, however, just about every institution of government has multiple sources of donor support, many of whom will be engaged in some kind of capacity building. It is far from clear that the staff from these institutions are interested primarily in delivering change, or more in the per diems and other ephemeral benefits. I gather that the ‘traditional’ Technical Adviser role is losing popularity in favour of short term consultants precisely because developing country institutions find these less intrusive.

So three cheers for Learning by Doing and Mentoring. And thirty three cheers for institutions who are open enough to genuinely want it!

The Scaling-up Fallacy

Last month Justin Sandefur at CGD lamented the regrettable failure of the Kenyan government to sustain a successful school-based de-worming programme after donor funding was withdrawn due to corruption in the Education Ministry. This is another good example of the sustainability paradox: despite clear evidence that this programme was extremely cost-effective it was cut when the donor funding was withdrawn. I assume that this was as much a political act intended to hurt the donors – who lost something they cared about – but as such is clearly rather callous. But, more than anything, it is another example of the phenomenon that what the donors want and what the recipient country government want are often not the same thing.

This, however, is not exactly news around here. More interestingly Sandefur also suggests that this raises questions about “the feasibility of turning small NGO pilots into manageable national policies”, although he failed to elaborate much on that idea in the rest of his post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently, and I think there is an important additional argument to be made here.

Whether a pilot is being developed by an NGO or a bespoke, direct donor-funded project, it will have its own management structure. It will also have a significant investment of technical advice and support that is inevitably diluted when a project is transformed into a national programme. However, I can live with that; if we want aid to be cost efficient, then we need to be able to realise economies of scale on techniques that have been shown to work.*

My beef is with the management. Because, to the international aid industry, scaling up nearly always means launching a nationwide government programme. In doing so the donors discard the effective management that produced the initial successes in favour of a dysfunctional government bureaucracy. Not only do you lose some basic management nous, but you also lose the driving vision, the leadership that got the pilot project to where it did.

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google, they didn’t show some initial promise and then hand their genius idea over the government. Instead they secured some outside investment including big business management expertise (Eric Schmidt) – thus addressing their ‘absorptive capacity’ – and grew the company to the multinational search behemoth it is today. More to the point, Google isn’t just big; it continues to be incredibly successful.

I’ve blogged before (here and here) about the importance of the quality of management in delivering conservation and development results. The standard donor approach to scaling up suggests that donors remain stuck in a rut that emphasises technical barriers (leading to misdiagnoses of project failure) over management constraints, combined with the belief that all you need is a bit of capacity-building in profoundly dysfunctional institutions to turn it around.

The next time donors are seeking to scale up a successful programme, I hope they will remember the Google story, the Grameen Bank story, and the countless other examples of private sector efficacy in turning innovation into successful business models. After all, most donors are capitalist countries, not socialist ones, and there’s a reason that communism collapsed.

* There is another argument to be made here that many projects are scaled up before the jury has properly returned a verdict, leaving key issues still unresolved. But, conversely, if an approach does appear to be working, I can understand how funders, desperate for new solutions, may pile in prematurely.

The use of euphemism and excuses for failure

In amidst all the usual jargon, international development includes some truly excellent / excruciating euphemisms. ‘Rent seeking behaviour’ aka corruption (or gangsterism, bullying, cheating and stealing) has to be my favourite, whilst ‘Development Partner’ aka donor (he who pays the piper, not exactly an equal partner) is one of the most ridiculous. This reluctance to call a spade a spade is very understandable in the context of international diplomacy – indeed we could probably not do without it – but is less helpful in a results-focused business which is what the aid industry these days claims it is.

Although the two examples above do not particularly relate to project performance, much of this euphemistic language arises in attempts by donors and implementing agencies to explain the failure of their last development project. The preference is always to find some technical or at least technically sounding (hence the need for euphemism) excuse as to why a certain project failed. Although Ben Ramalingan was talking much more generally than about the failure of a single project when he criticised the Results-Based Management framework that I discussed in my previous post, the wrong management framework is another good candidate. Anything is better than criticising the recipient country managers; just because they may be incapable of organising a booze-up in a brewery it isn’t their fault. If anything they just need their capacity building …

So we build their capacity. We send them on a few training courses. Yeah! Now they know how to use a logframe everything will go swimmingly … Rarely does the aid industry really attempt to get to grips with the real capacity constraints; poor management culture and incentives in the civil service. (I’m sure there are more.) Donors know reforming the civil service is hard enough in their own countries, and World Bank supported efforts in developing countries grind along at a snail’s pace achieving only peripheral successes, e.g. performance appraisals without performance related pay or promotion.

I think this partly explains the constant search for new ideas and potential silver bullets in development, even though we actually have quite good ideas already of quite a lot of things that work … when managed properly. When the great new hope comes along – e.g. REDD in conservation – the taps open once again, and all the same mistakes are made over again. “This time it’ll be different”, donors – sorry, development partners! – tell themselves, because, well, hope springs eternal.

This is not a call to end development aid; not all aid projects fail and far from all developing country managers are incompetent. But I do think the industry is going to have to get more honest with itself. We need to set more modest targets for aid projects and stop using implementation channels that are known not to work. Then we need to fess up when things don’t work, and end the self-delusion as to why they didn’t work. International diplomacy can work with appropriate technology human-wielded latrine construction tools, but successful development just needs a few spades.

Are you feeling patronised?

No-one likes to depend upon charity hand-outs. The poor are often “wretched” perhaps because they’re also reduced to the begging bowl. This is a universal problem for all sorts of charitable endeavours; a British homeless man’s pride must be as battered as that of many Least Developed Countries. I suppose after a time one gets numb to many of the indignities. (Another symptom of aid dependence?)

I was lucky enough to be born into a reasonably well-off family in a rich country. I’ve benefited from the odd freebie, but, by and large, I can assert with pride that I have achieved my successes mostly under my own steam, and earned my comparative riches through my own hard work. But that does not blind me to the rather patronising nature of the work in which I am now embarked. We provide the funds, because the country where I work is too poor, and we provide some of the expertise, because that is either missing too or too thinly stretched.

When working with the poor, rural communities our organisation targets, one  is concious of the huge gap in wealth, usually manifested most obviously in the gadgets we bring. However, that huge gap also seems to inoculate both sides against some of the worst aspects of patronising charity; the wealth discrepancies are so big the communities mostly just seem pleased that we’re helping them, perhaps in the same way I wouldn’t feel guilty about accepting a gift from a multi-millionaire who can definitely afford it.

When the gap is smaller, however, the issues of patronisation arise. Mostly I encounter these when dealing with local professionals here (government types, academics, some NGO staff and consultants), but I also sometimes detect hints of similarly strained relationships between these professionals and poor community members. Wounded pride leads to push-back; heads get stuck firmly in the sand, political agendas come to the fore, and awkwardness reigns. It can be extremely frustrating; the same people who eagerly write in their own strategies that they need “capacity building” (usually supported with generous per diems), then get shirty when given some of the advice they so clearly need. I presume they are frustrated too!

Building local ownership is the best solution, but this ownership (and capacity) building can take a long, long time, during which time the ruling elites are benefitting but the intended ultimate beneficiaries are going nowhere. This is one of the major dilemmas of international aid and development, and inevitably results in twin-tracked approaches which compromise that crucial local ownership. (And can you truly own something which someone else is paying for, any way?)

A significant portion of my job involves managing inter-organisational politics. Sometimes it is pure ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour, but frequently one can detect a strong subtext of push-back against patronisation. And, as frustrated as I may sometimes get with it, I always try to remember to put myself in their shoes. The desire for self- assertion is natural and reasonable; it must be magnified several times over each time you’re reminded that someone else is paying (so you’d better keep them happy: conditions on aid grants seem particularly patronising to me) or one of  their representatives apparently knows better than you. Are we ‘development partners’ or ‘development patronisers’?

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