Posts Tagged ‘freedom to hire and fire’

Why I’m a Millennium Villages sceptic

Last week Jeffrey Sachs set out a robust defence of his brainchild, the Millennium Villages Project, although, as Tom Murphy pointed out, it was somewhat low on detail. I’ve never knowingly been near a Millennium Village, but my own experience causes me to doubt the lasting legacy of the MVP, at least in countries with similar problems to where I work.

First the good news, Sachs took on some of this detractors by saying that the MVP was as much about developing systems to improve service delivery (and hence attainment of the Millennium Development Goals) rather than just,  per se, achieving the MDGs in the targeted villages. I’m a big fan of systems approaches, so this gets the thumbs up from me. Systems are definitely more easily replicable and scaled up than individual projects that focus simply on the needs of its target area.

Now for the bad news, systems are not automatically and by definition scalable. A system that works well at one level may not work well a wider scales due to unanticipated problems and bottlenecks. Ben Ramalingam recently blogged on exactly some of the new challenges that occur as one scales up. This doesn’t mean that the original system was designed badly, but simply that good systems management takes an iterative approach, making tweaks and improvements as we go along (what I term the KISI approach).

But that is not the biggest problem that I see. Even the best designed systems need to interact with things outside their control, in particular people; indeed I suspect that the MVP has people playing integral roles at every step in the way (i.e. that mostly what we’re talking about here is systems for organising human work). A system’s output is constrained by the quality of these interactions. In short, as any good businessman knows, you need competent and motivated staff to deliver a high quality of service. And that is where so much service delivery in developing countries falls down, with last mile service delivery particularly badly managed. Unfortunately short-term, local solutions to this are not scalable.

The problems are legion, and not all a result of poor education amongst the workforce. I know some excellent and (when you consider what they are up against) surprisingly motivated local civil servants. But the overall system drags everyone down. Sure you can tinker at the margins with systems to improve paper flow (mostly in local government around here, we’re talking about paper flow), but the elephant in the room is an unmotivated and unsackable workforce.

Of course this problem will apply at the MVP sites, but there you also have a massive aid effort with lots of expat technical advisers and a high level of political interest. I’ve noticed around here, normally sloth-like civil servants who won’t even sit in a meeting without a generous per diem rush around like lauded socialist workers striving manly (or womanly) in the name of their country when a bigwig is due to visit, working into the night and through weekends, all without any per diems.

Thus I fear all the achievements of the MVP will wash up against the great brick wall that is a change resistant bureaucracy. Once the high level of funding, all the expat TAs, and the high level political interest have withdrawn we’ll be back to business as usual, and the MVP will be neither sustainable in the selected pilot villages nor scalable. Maybe this will not apply everywhere, but I would wager a decent sum that it will happen here. The community contributions which Sachs highlights may also be much harder to be elicit when it’s just government staff doing the asking.

The MVP has a laudable goal, and even as an experiment, the idea of resolving various systemic problems in service delivery is a worthy one that definitely deserves some experimentation; marginal changes can lead to marginal improvements, and, as a by product, perhaps a marginal improvement in government staff morale. But if Sachs wants to take a systems approach to achieving the MDGs maybe he should have looked at HR management reform in developing country civil services. It’s a Herculean task to be sure, that, around here at least, the World Bank has been striving at vainly for some time. But until you resolve that problem I fear these sorts of big push attempts to transform service delivery and hence quality of life in developing countries will always be at least one more big push away from succeeding.

The Converse of Accountability

A few years ago a donor asked us (informally) whether we would be prepared to partner up with another local NGO that they were also considering supporting in order to reduce their transaction costs. (An illusory goal – in effect they were asking to pass their transaction costs on to us.) We wanted the donor’s money, so we said yes we’d be prepared to partner in that way, but due to political concerns and doubts about our proposed partner’s capacity, we said that we would not be held accountable for what the supposed partner did or did not do, or how they spent their money. The donor quickly realised the sense of what we were saying and dropped the idea.

Accountability is one of the major pillars of good governance, and a regular buzzword in development-speak. With responsibility comes accountability. But, as the above example shows, with accountability also needs to come responsibility. We rightly object to being held accountable for something we cannot control.

And yet in efforts to improve local governance in developing countries I fear this is exactly what we may be in danger of doing. Around here at least, service delivery over the last mile is often poor to abysmal, so pushing local officials into being accountable for the performance of their departments seems like a good idea. But department heads have remarkably little control over their juniors. They have minimal say over who is hired, and even corrupt officials are very rarely fired, just transferred to another province, to become somebody else’s problem. Patronage is also a problem; disciplining some local bigwig’s distant relative is always going to be a dicey proposition. So officials lapse into the inevitable semi-comatose apathy.

Civil society advocates for accountability should take note. So should donors. My suggested rule of thumb: never give money to someone who lacks professional authority over his/her own staff. Unfortunately that would rule out a lot of government to government aid.

Donor befuddlement: half measures & contradictory aims

Two posts recently have brought to my attention how far donors still have to go in designing a more adaptable and hence effective and efficient aid system.

Half Measures

First, Lindsay Morgan (of Dispatches) wrote a piece about performance-based contracting for health services in Southern Sudan.  Those with a serious interest should read the whole piece yourself, but in essence it appears that a coalition of donors is trying to inject a little discipline of the market into healthcare provision in one of the most under-developed soon-to-be-countries of the world. Except that they still don’t seem to entirely get some of the most important aspects of how the private sector works. So NGOs are getting performance-based contracts, but have to work with GOSS staff, over whom, presumably, they have pretty low influence (no hire or fire, no disciplinary measures), which to my mind rather diminishes the level of achievement you can expect from management. The NGOs also had to work through some kind of central procurement system, which apparently caused no end of problems.

Whilst the GOSS health ministry staff may perhaps have learned something from this kind of system (NGO working practices and the like), I fail to see how just putting in a team of technical advisers couldn’t have just achieved the same thing. On the other hand if the donors want to get private sector / market-based practices embedded in healthcare provision in Southern Sudan, then they need to act a bit more like ordinary customers and stop making silly restrictions as to how their contractors work.

Contradictory Aims

Then Madeleine Bunting wrote about DfID’s new contradictory policies (HT: Matt @ Aid Thoughts). I am with many of the commenters in having little sympathy for the worries of DfID staff about Daily Mail journalists digging through the data and trashing one or more aid projects. The Daily Mail may be more than a little bit biased, but a good dose of daylight is the best prescription in my opinion, and, very probably, there are one or two aid projects which deserve a good trashing.

But I do think that the plan to axe up to half the work force is crazy, and even crazier when one considers the anticipated large increases in DfID’s budget. (Disclosure: I have a friend who works there.) Openness and transparency requires more effort to put documents into the necessary formats, especially if the data is to be made available in a manner actually useful for general analysis. These kinds of overheads cannot be just wished away. Moreover the relentless focus on minimising transaction costs is, in my opinion, mostly illusory: someone is bearing these costs, if not DfID then someone they are funding. I know of at least two international consulting firms currently doing very well out of managing DfID grants round where I work.

Not a good week

If anybody out there reading this works for DfID and/or with healthcare in Southern Sudan can correct me or at least give a better picture, then please do. But, unless I’m completely barking up the wrong tree, all in all it doesn’t look a good week for donors.

Parallel Worlds

Yesterday I wrote about the subtle language divisions to be overcome here. In pacifying the provincial officials whom we had irked my local colleague took most of the “blame”; as an expatriate the officials appeared to expect that kind of behaviour from me, but they thought that my colleague should have corrected it and ensured a better relationship. It was a conclusion that we partly shared: that one way to avoid such problems in future was to ensure my colleague primarily handled these relationships.

In fact, this passes for standard practice in a lot of development work here. Although when required we can both generally operate effectively in each others’ “worlds”, when dealing with various partners we tend to work in parallel: I handle communication and coordination with international partners and expatriate technical advisers in local partners whilst my colleague handles the relationships with local partners. Even when dealing with other NGOs, I am more likely to call or be called by another expat, whilst my colleague is likely to speak with their local director.

It is a slightly surreal arrangement that mostly seems to work, but relies on there being very close relationships between colleagues at each organisation. When this breaks down, the parallel worlds become detached, and we enter into management limbo. As an NGO we have the ability to hire our own staff, and are better able to ensure this crucial partnership is filled by people who work well together. Bilateral aid projects which typically partner an expat TA provided by the donor with a project manager provided by the recipient government are much more fraught, and I’ve seen a few go up in flames as a result.

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