Posts Tagged ‘human capital’

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.


Big man culture and the art of non-delegation

Big man culture is often used specifically to refer to the preponderance of men with strong dictatorial tendencies ruling many African countries*. However, like any proper cultural trait, its manifestation is not restricted to a single walk of life but is broadly preponderant, especially in many developing country government institutions.

Morten Jerven’s travails conducting his research into the failings of GDP calculation in African statistics departments (remarked upon in my previous post) struck a definite chord with me in that respect. Critics of his research have alleged that he did not seek the views of the statisticians themselves, including – critically from their perspective – the views of the department directors. Professor Jerven’s response will be familiar to too many people around here:

I had an invitation and introduction to all the offices I visited. … I wrote letters, emails and phoned all statistical offices in Sub-Saharan Africa repeatedly in order to verify information, request access and set up interviews. As anyone who has tried something similar can attest, the response rate is extremely low. For all the places I did go to I had a response, a contact and an invitation.

Upon arrival at all these places I went through the dissemination office to clarify my purpose and research. At all those offices I also requested an interview with Directors and senior management and in every case these requests were ignored.

Yes openness about one’s data and methods are hardly common amongst government staff around here, but we knew that already. What Professor Jerven alludes to, but does not elaborate, is how the institutional architecture in such organisations itself is set up to frustrate the inquirer.

In particular, the concentration of official power and responsibility in a single big man or woman at the top. This tends to be reflected in all official correspondence and notices, which are always issued in the name of the head honcho. Inquirers are instructed to address all correspondence to the same. Often the whole institution will have only a single official email address, with staff having to use personal addresses at the likes of Gmail or Yahoo just in order to work effectively. (Sending emails to the official address is often as about as useful as trying to signal to them in semaphore.)

Some of these problems can be mitigated where the Executive Director is a genuinely committed and energetic leader, but still it hardly makes for great dynamism. Where he or she is more concerned simply with protecting their own interests or personal fiefdom it can lead to almost complete paralysis. It can be so frustrating to have go right to the top to get the smallest thing addressed wherever it does not very clearly fall within an underling’s typically narrow job description.

All of this is tied up to a degree with the shallowness of the talent pool in the labour force (though where rent seeking is common, talent often fails to rise to the top any way), and sometimes one can feel a certain sympathy for senior officials. But too often I also just want to scream: “Lighten up a little!” (Pomposity in execution of their duties is regrettably common.) “Give a few of your many reins to some of your junior staff. If you never show any trust in them then you’ll never find out if you can trust them.”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly in what has coalesced into a social norm, is that such management structures and approaches are also often found in businesses and NGOs, although less rigidly in the best performers. Of course such social constructs are not immutable, and in time one would expect the big man culture to wane (just as it is slowly in the political sphere), but for the time being the art of non-delegation will continue to frustrate the Professor Jervens of this world, as well as those big men and women who wonder why they can get so little done.

* The term is a literal translation from various Bantu languages, hence the African association, although I think the practice itself is not particularly African.

Fat cats make good accountants

Amidst all the kerfuffle arising from the  revelations last month about supposed ‘fat cats’ of Aid gobbling up too big a portion of DFID’s budget (and that led to the line by line review of DFID’s budget I blogged about yesterday), I have yet to read any analysis of why this has happened. Those stony hearts on the right want simply to reduce the aid budget, whilst those on the left lament that more money should go to the intended recipient countries.

I’ll give you the answer in one sentence: many would be contractors from developing countries do not generate reports to high enough standards nor keep good enough accounts to keep busy aid bureaucrats confident that money is being well spent. This, of course, is a sweeping generalization, and ignores elements of culture (sharing a common culture can greatly increase ones sense of confidence in a contractor). I have no doubt that many people and organisations in developing countries are capable of this, and the fact that at least one Indian company apparently got a big contract is testament to that. However, in the least developed countries (often the biggest aid recipients) this capacity is likely to be lowest.

The Daily Fail may well rage at these ‘fat cats’ of Aid, but imagine their scorn if they were to read reports written in mangled English by people for whom this is not their first language, and/or who just did not get good enough schooling in writing proper English. (A skill which is quite distinct from analytical thinking and empathy with poor people that are two of the most important abilities in doing practical development work.) And this whole storm in a teacup would quickly be recognised as such if it were instead discovered that significant corruption had occurred in DFID-funded programmes. If there is one person the Daily Fail hates more than a fat cat it is a corrupt foreign official!

If, as seems apparent, the proportion of DFID funds spent on UK-based consultants is going up, then I would suggest one simple reason: DFID’s own budget is rising quickly while staffing levels have been reduced. In such a situation DFID’s remaining staff will naturally look for good ways to get rid of big chunks of money at once. As I have previously noted, I think this is a false economy: at some point larger transaction overheads (as a proportion of funds disbursed) will have to be incurred if you are going to achieve high quality results in countries where government capacity is low.

For this reason, although I disagree with their reasoning (e.g. see Terence Wood’s demolition of Lord Ashcroft’s ill-informed ‘golden taps’ diatribe), I actually agree to some extent with the aid critics. DIFD should drop its misguided focus on the entirely artificial target of spending 0.7% of GDP on international aid and development, and instead simply seek to generate the best development outcomes that it can. If DFID can demonstrate that a budget increase will effectively deliver more good and the British Treasury can afford it, then it should spend more, but if not then it should not spend money just because it has it in the department budget (the standard donor failing). If development aid is a ‘race’ then it is not a sprint to 0.7% of GDP; it is a marathon, and the finish line is elimination of widespread poverty, which despite significant progress in recent years regrettably remains a distant target.

My conclusion from two years ago still stands:

“Few people would disagree that the aid system needs serious reform. Many say we need both more and better aid. I think that’s too much to deal with at one time. First make it better, much better, then add more if the absorptive capacity really is there.”

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.

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!

Who you gonna call?


Ghostbusters: just more likeable than the Federal Bureau of Exorcism.

Musing further on  my post yesterday on the beauty of small projects and human resources constraints, it occurred to me that I left out an important additional consideration. It’s a major advantage of NGOs over government agencies: not only are their staff likely to be better trained and more flexible, they’re not also tasked with enforcing the law.

This issue occurs especially in community conservation projects.* Twenty years ago, if you were a wildlife, forestry or marine biology geezer working in a developing country then chances are you worked for the government. So when the community conservation revolution broke out many advocates naturally assumed that they’d have to retrain the government officials.

This is certainly not impossible; I’ve worked with some excellent current and ex-government natural resources officials who are capable of establishing great relationships with local communities. But I think they are more the exception than the rule. Picture yourself as a poor farmer: yesterday a game ranger turns up to arrest your neighbour for a naughty spot of poaching in the nearby national park, then today he turns up all smiles to preach to all of you that the national park is your friend, and that everyone can – and should – work together peacefully, and for the betterment of all. How are you going to feel?

Trust is absolutely central to successful community engagement in conservation. Despite our various more concrete achievements in the projects I help to run, establishing trust is one of our successes of which I am most proud, and frequently find myself returning to it when people ask us what they think is the secret to our success. Without trust, you’ll find community members just turn up to meetings for the per diems, with trust you’re often preaching to the choir (though they still appreciate those per diems, thank you very much).

I can readily appreciate how different the tropical conservation landscape looked 20 years ago, and that there might have been little alternative to working with government agencies and staff on community conservation. But with plenty of alternatives now available (in most tropical countries) I think a reappraisal is called for: if we were to design a system from scratch we would never dream of combining the role of policeman and community facilitator.

Donors should take note, and place themselves in the position of rural communities wanting to engage in conservation. Who you gonna call?

* Although I think the wider principles are more generally applicable to other community development projects: poor farmers may not have much respect for government-employed agricultural extension workers.

Small still is beautiful

Bee Hummingbird - the smallest bird in the world 2

The beautiful bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world.

Last year I blogged about how I believe that in conservation and development small is often beautiful, remarking:

“small projects and organisations are a lot more personal; I think this element of personal endeavour can do a lot to ameliorate the charge of development work being patronising.”

I stand by this, and I think the recent small kerfuffle over Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) is as good an indication of this as any. First, Robert Chambers, who I genuinely respect, praised it in a piece of on the Guardian and Duncan Green’s Poverty to Power blog. On that blog I posted a comment querying how well this translated from a small pilot project into a big donor-funded programme (see also my recent post on the Scaling Up Fallacy):

“It’s great to hear of new bottom up approaches like this. I have a question about roll out … I can see how this kind of approach could work at a pilot level with well-trained *sensitive* facilitators. But what about when it is scaled up? How do communities react when a local govt health official comes along and shames them all? From my experience I can see how the whole approach might suffer from institutionalization – and the different relationship people tend to have with officialdom – but seek enlightenment from my cynicism.”

Alas I received no enlightenment.* Then Liz Chatterjee responded with a comment piece in the Guardian that raised many of the ghosts that I had speculated at. Whilst I should be cautious about assuming that cause and effect align with my own prejudices, I cannot help thinking that at least some of the more degrading aspects of CLTS might be alleviated in a pilot project, and/or where you have a small NGO with dedicated, caring staff who are alert to the possibility that things could go wrong.

Big organisations, and especially big government bureaucracies, are inherently clunkier than their smaller, nimbler cousins. They tend to resort to top-down, even when implementing a supposedly bottom-up approach. Staff subjected to a couple of weeks’ training will try to adhere to a perceived blue-print, rather than have the confidence to innovate and respond flexibly to the impacts they achieve in the field.

Unfortunately, these conclusions are pretty depressing for anyone expecting international aid to have large-scale positive impacts. It suggests big economies of scale are really hard to achieve. And I think this is true of most community development oriented projects. More than anything else these depend on the quality of the staff implementing them, and the talent pool in developing countries can be worryingly shallow.

But Aid can and does support many other types of projects which may be more susceptible to rapid expansion. If donors have the right kind of relationship with the host country government, as Owen Barder implies with many of his posts on aid successes in Ethiopia, then maybe you can improve services at a larger scale. That is not to say that we should give up on community projects – quite the opposite (as otherwise I’d be out of a job!) – but we need to understand their limitations, and who are the best agents to support them.

* Hint: even if you are an aging giant of development studies, if you’re going to use new media, then you should also make an effort to utilise its capacity for rapid interaction with your readers that more traditional academic publishing largely lacks.

Facilitating What?

Aaron Ausland raises the age old question of how exactly ‘participatory’ all this community-centred development (and conservation) work is. It’s a serious and almost inescapable problem. Our overall goal might be facilitating community development, but in any given meeting we are almost certainly focused on facilitating the next step of  our project. A good facilitator will ensure a meeting stays reasonably focused on the topic at hand, but, given the topic was most likely chosen by the facilitator, how can we be sure this isn’t just a box-ticking exercise? Is this what the community really most want to discuss? Probably not …

I think this issue is another facet of paternalism in development.  Aaron’s criticisms of ‘facipulation’ as a ‘bad thing’ are 100% on the money, but I also think a certain amount of facipulation is almost inevitable, and even sometimes desirable, because the fullest forms of participation are just too onerous. (The cost-benefit ratio of the project disappears to infinity.) Sometimes a certain amount of facipulation may also be appropriate in order to achieve a constructive outcome from a meeting with local politicians or officials who might otherwise cause trouble.

Another difficulty is that if we are to achieve the highest levels of community participation, then we have to be prepared to let our projects take a very different direction than what we perhaps first envisaged. This is often problematic since if we’ve promised our donor a chalk project we cannot then deliver a cheese project, even if that’s what the communities want. Even if we were wise enough to promise donors a mixture of chalk and cheese in the first place, high levels of community control and direction inevitably pose management challenges. This requires high calibre staff on the ground able to adapt and adjust strategies on the go.

In all of this what I think it is very important is to realise when one is guilty of facipulation; to understand when the reality falls short of the proposal rhetoric. Knowing this, we will hopefully strive to ensure the manipulation part is minimised. In short, a guilty conscience is good for keeping us in check!

It’s the quality of management, stupid

This is a familiar refrain of this blog, but I was reminded of it by Ben Ramalingan’s dissection of the failures of Results-Based Management in (UN funded) aid projects. He makes some good and depressing points about the inflexibility in approach and other limitations introduced by the RBM framework. But here’s the thing: these sorts of challenges (‘wicked problems’) are confronted on a regular basis by businesses all around the globe. Many business problems cannot be solved by some kind of linear engineering algorithm, but require flexible, creative and iterative solutions. That this is not easy is reflected in the large number of businesses that fail every year, but plenty succeed.

How many development interventions succeed? I have no idea, since admitting failure is one of the things the aid industry finds hardest, but we can hypothesise that the success rate is lower than that of the private sector. If we accept this hypothesis for a moment, the obvious question is to ask why the lower success rate? I would venture to suggest that the answer lies in the quality of management.

Before someone points out the obvious, I should add here that I’m talking about relatively simple project level interventions, e.g. improve access to clean water in a defined area, rather than the really wicked problems of conservation and development such as how to eliminate poverty or stop deforestation. Aid projects to deliver such services seem reasonably analogous to businesses and thus the comparison is fair.

Ramalingan is right to criticise restrictive management paradigms brought to bear in development projects, but I think he’s nonetheless missing the point. A good manager will always adapt and refine plans to reflect the reality with which they are confronted, and good management systems will allow good managers appropriate leeway. This is basic good management principles and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be achievable with RBM (though I’d recommend a good dose of KISI too). Inadequate or long delayed feedback on progress, a much lamented challenge in development, also shouldn’t be such a problem at the project level (it is much harder at the planning / donor level), as a good manager should always have a pretty good idea as to whether progress is being made, e.g. determining whether you’ve been successful in supplying clean drinking water to poor people isn’t rocket science!

So how does good business management differ from that used in a typical development project? Here are some suggestions:

  • No fixed delineation between planners and implementers (see my earlier post), instead there will be regular communication between senior and junior managers.
  • This typically leads to more flexibility to adapt when originally adopted strategies don’t work so well.
  • Clear lines of responsibility: business is a much less collaborative environment than development. Managers have reasonable authority to act within the realms of their responsibility, and can quickly refer upwards if needed. Contrast with bilateral donor projects riven by the gaping chasm between government staff on one side and expat technical advisers on the other.
  • Successful businesses have management teams that stay together for long periods of time, and thus have learned how to keep a steady hand on the tiller. Businesses know that if their key talent in a certain area leaves their business interests there will likely suffer or even collapse entirely, so great care is taken to ensure continuity when staff do leave. Contrast with rotation of expat TAs on development projects, who often only stay for 2-3 years before moving on.

So sure, having a good planning / management framework can help, but it is the soft skills that matter so much more, and that’s why most businesses, especially those operating in the knowledge / service economies, place such a high importance on good HR management. When will aid / development / conservation learn this lesson?

Adaptive Management in Developing Countries

David Week suggested KISI is essentially about Adaptive Management. To which I would agree; Adaptive Management is a rather more grown-up term, and doesn’t necessarily exclude simple solutions, but then again I think neither should KISI, so long as you start with simple ones and evolve from there.

David also wanted to know what I thought about Adaptive Management in the conservation / ecosystem management sphere where it originated. I cannot pretend I have come across any practical examples of it out where I work, but then I’m not much into protected area management, and it may be that it is being used there. One important difference: although the unknowns are comparable – how will the community react v. how will the ecosystem react – Adaptive Management tends to be viewed as a technical, managerial system, whilst anything that impacts people necessarily becomes political. Would-be technocrats may lament such interference, but development inevitably takes place in a more contested space than Adaptive Management theorises.

Adaptive Management clearly requires strong management skills, analytical thinking, a capacity for self-criticism, and the imagination to conceive new solutions. Unfortunately these are some of the skills in which I see the greatest shortages here. People who have them are unlikely to be in mid-level management with a government institution: businesses and NGOs will always attract the best people. This does not bode particularly well for a KISI approach in development, but donors can at least set a good example; adaptive management is about a whole lot more than just tweaking the terms and conditions on your next grant.

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