Posts Tagged ‘management capacity’

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 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.

Something is better than nothing

A blog on conservation and development surely cannot let the Cancun summit on climate change pass without any comment. On the other hand it does all seem a rather long way from the day to day work in which I am involved. Many of my colleagues made the trip over but I cannot say I am sorry to have missed the whole jamboree. Apart from the odd publicity stunt, I’m really not sure what is the value of all the NGO presence at these summits. Fine, if a government official has invited you along because they actually value your input, but most NGOs seem to go just to be … er … well … seen.

After the complete disaster that was Copenhagen, expectations were so low that any kind of achievement was going to be applauded. And if it weren’t for that chastening experience I would expect far louder complaints about the huge number of holes left to be filled in the Cancun agreement.

Of course, I am disappointed at where we are now; the various pledges made don’t seem to amount to much more than a finger in the dike. But I am also a realist, and too often the environmental movement can sound far too shrill in demanding the infeasible. Sometimes the important thing can be to establish the principle, and then ratchet up the numbers later. The European Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme came in for huge criticism early on for being far too generous, but is now, gradually, making up for lost ground. Yes we need strong incentives to drive the sorts of investments necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, but there is also something to be said for getting the ball rolling; as it picks up steam, and technological improvements come through, the harder challenges will not seem quite so daunting.

REDD+ is one of the few real successes on the UNFCCC negotiations since Kyoto. Here Cancun has at last provided some solid ground for things to start to move forward. However, from where I sit, there is still one major problem if REDD+ is going to make a big difference in Africa; the extremely government centric approach. I think this might work in South America and SE Asia where management capacity is higher, and maybe even some other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but where I work I see a big problem. It goes like this:-

Natural resources and environment have hitherto been under-resourced sectors here; not top priority for the government and not top priority for donors. So let’s compare with a sector which is relatively well resourced: health. The health sector in theory reaches into every village with its drug provision programme, but in reality most village drug dispensaries are extremely poorly stocked. This ought to be the easy side of health care provision (in contrast trained employees can get easily tempted by better paid jobs), but the leakage and basic mismanagement are massive and endemic. Why then should we have any confidence that a government-run fund to disburse REDD money to villages protecting their local forests will provide money on time and without taking a huge cut?

Although I well understand the reasons for working at the national level – many drivers of deforestation are best addressed here – I think REDD will have much more impact on actual forest cover in Africa if the regulated market were to be opened up for direct access by the private sector. See also my previous musings about keeping REDD a transaction-based system.

ps. Beyond REDD, am I skeptical about how effective will be those huge sums being bandied around to help developing countries adapt to climate change? You betcha! But that’s just the same old story.

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.

Do we need more Aid?

Lots of hand-wringing this week in New York about poor progress towards the benighted Millennium Development Goals. (Texas in Africa has an excellent post about exactly who is doing the hand-wringing.) It is good to see top level acknowledgement (from the very top!) that business as usual in the aid industry is not going to solve the problem. However, the old 0.7% of GDP argument is rearing its head again, with the UK promising to up its donations to that figure by 2013 at the same time as implementing a whole raft of reforms about how it provides aid. Do I think this is sensible? No I do not, and here’s why.

There is a huge gap between a successful pilot project and a wide scale programme of intervention. When an intervention is scaled up in this way a savvy donor will lean on upon the government of the beneficiary country to ensure that someone good is put in charge of the new programme. This person may well be very able and impressive, and sitting in comfy aircon offices in the capital, it can be easy to be beguiled by these people – after all, they’re our chosen partners. But, the person in charge is not the person on the ground implementing the programme. They will likely be of much lower calibre, and working in a management system that is mildly dysfunctional at best. In actual fact all the donor’s hopes are vested in a bunch of pretty junior employees who are a long way from the supervision of the donor’s chosen champion. Even if the beneficiary government wanted to overhaul their civil service, they would be greatly constrained by the talent pool available.

In my experience the closer one is to a project, the more one sees the problems, when from the outside it may appear all is well (and this applies as much to our projects as any others). Some of the biggest problems are at the sharp end, in actual service delivery; here capacity is at its lowest (development speak for incompetence is at its highest) and management skills almost non-existent. Yet the donors by and large trust these local government officials to deliver key projects and services, and just suck up the all the reports of ‘success’ which are sent to them.

It is true that part of the blame lies with recipient governments. Donors can do little to clean up corruption and improve management practices – these things need to come from within. A lot of responsibility lies with donors who are maddeningly inconsistent both between themselves and over time (witness DFID’s back-tracking on general budget support) with conditions upon grants and loans often subsequently relaxed. They ignore basic issues like sustainability.

However, the rest of the aid industry (especially aid advocates) are also often guilty of mistaking local success stories with the next silver bullet and making wild extrapolations. Take, for example, the Guttmacher Institute’s estimate of $180 million for the annual cost of providing effective maternal health care to every Ethiopian women who wants it. (HT: Owen Barder) Now I’ve never worked in women’s health issues in Ethiopia; maybe there really is that capacity in the health system (Ethiopia does have a reputation for more efficient implementation of aid projects), and maybe the Guttmacher Institute have really researched the issue to its utmost limits, but I hope they will excuse me if I am just a little bit sceptical because I don’t see any capacity like that where I am.

The development sector is not just a pipe into which if you pour more money one day, more impact will come out the other end the next day. Where ‘absorptive capacity’ does not exist the additional funds will either go unspent, be wasted on unnecessary overheads, or be stolen. NGOs such as the one where I work continually have to battle to convince donors as to our absorptive capacity (not entirely unreasonably), and yet donors appear happy to continue to pour in more money into government systems which manifestly have considerably lower management capacity.

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.

Cash on Delivery & the Last Mile

Recently I had a conversation with a donor representative here who was frustrated by the progress of rolling out CBNRM initiatives in this country, and the subject of Cash on Delivery came up. (Ok, I suggested it.) This was well analysed by Owen Barder, but I think he missed one important angle which in many ways sums up  my motivation for writing this blog.

Owen principally talks about COD creating incentives for policy changes (though he is not clear what kind of policy changes he means), and correctly points out that until donor threats carry real credibility these will have little impact on donor country leaders. He also highlights the marginal impact aid conditionality has on the interests of elected politicians, although I believe we should not underestimate their persuasive force when there is no direct negative impact on a politician’s personal interests. (Not all politicians are totally corrupt.) My interest, however, is on solving the delivery problem, and here we are not necessarily talking about the bigwigs. (As the CGD blurb mentions, COD can be used within countries too.)

A lot of aid suffers from the problem of the Last Mile (e.g. see Esther Duflo’s TED talk). This problem is not always well appreciated (or well enough appreciated) by aid officials working in their plush offices in the capital city, or those even further away in donor countries. They tend to engage with aid on two levels. Firstly they get involved in direct bilateral projects; these are intensively funded and can help pilot new approaches, and point the way forward for a certain sector in the host country. Such projects can produce great results (if you can avoid the problem of unsustainability), but do not produce many bangs for the lots of bucks invested owing to the rather concentrated nature of such work. Donors, typically, then seek to convert these narrow projects into broader national programmes; in doing this they team up with the best officials they can find, nurture and support them, and generally get a good feeling that they are working with the right people.

Except that, at least in the country where I work, such talent is at a premium, and most of it heads towards the private sector. All this aid has to be delivered by someone, and here donors are trapped by constraint of low human resources and their understandable, though often misguided, desire to minimise transaction costs. I’m talking here about the teacher who doesn’t turn up to work, or the agricultural extension officer who cannot get to work because his car has been requisitioned by a higher-up. The final mile is often by far the worst managed, and this is the problem we confront daily in our view from the Bottom Up. I think most people working in aid do realise this, but then rather forget it in their desire to push out the latest big idea, or somehow kid themselves that this time they’ve got the right trick to solve that problem.

I think mid-ranking officials, as long as they’re not hopelessly corrupt, might be more susceptible to COD incentives. Most such officials want to be managing bigger departments, with bigger budgets (more opportunity for patronage if you want to be cynical). Under COD, those officials who can better manage delivery will do better, those who cannot will be left by the wayside. And it will also get the donor out from under their noses; as Owen points out, the best thing about COD might be how it incentivises donors to reform. Those who want change should first put their own houses in order, and donors are more culpable than most in this respect.

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