Posts Tagged ‘rants’

Bottom Up Thinking would vote for …

I’m not American, and I certainly don’t think anyone’s vote would be swayed by an ‘endorsement’ from this blog. But just suppose one or both cases were otherwise, I would vote for … both Obama and Romney!

Yes you read that right: both. This isn’t fence sitting: I want both as president. I want Barrack Obama to be the president he clearly wants to be, not the president he’s ended up having to be. I also want Mitt Romney to be president, even though I disagree with him on just about everything, and particularly that bit about not worrying about the seas rising.

I don’t want them sequentially, however. That would be pretty disastrous, I imagine. No, if I had a vote, I would vote for schism.

International politics, and climate change negotiations in particular, are currently held hostage by an America that seems incapable of deciding what it wants. All sorts of treaties negotiated by American presidents in good faith languish unendorsed by the most powerful country in the world because Congress is deadlocked.

So I vote for USA to split: Obama can be president of the northern/coastal ‘Union’ and Romney of the southern and central ‘Confederacy’. (Romney gets my ‘vote’ as the least bad option for the south.) Is this nuts? America seems so utterly divided I have little faith much will change whoever wins this election. The BBC is predicting that Republicans will hold the House of Representatives and Democrats the Senate (but a long, long way from a filibuster-proof majority).

I have no stats to support this, but I reckon that the Scots and the English agree on rather more than the two American camps do, and yet the Scots are seriously contemplating independence. So why not the Yanks? Even better consider the most recent example: the creation of South Sudan. Are Americans not also the victims of a colonial misadventure which drew arbitrary lines on a map regardless of  tribal and religious affiliation?

Dividing America could help knock on the head some of that divine mission to lead hubristic nonsense that emanates from time to time, and might also force head-in-the-sand Republicans to face up properly to what the rest of the world thinks. At the very least we would be able to negotiate with both sides of America, rather than the present situation in which, frankly speaking, I sometimes wonder whether we’d be better off if they didn’t show up at all, such is the inability of negotiators to actually represent their country.

Any way, I can say all this secure in the knowledge that absolutely no-one in the American political establishment is paying any attention whatsoever. To all my American readers (whom I assume are quite non-hubristic) I simply wish you a nice election day. I feel I really ought to care who wins, but am struggling to do so, even though I’ll be gutted for you all if Romney wins. Please let us know when your country has decided on who it is.


Standing on your head

The pioneers of community-based natural resources management framed it firmly within the bottom up approach to development paradigm, and yet donors, recipient governments and the big multi-laterals (and some BINGOs) often find it really difficult to shake the top-down mentality.

“[Community-based fire management] training workshops designed to increase the expertise of practitioners should be conducted at the national and sub-national levels and should be followed up with an adequate level of technical support.”

That is the second practical recommendation made in the Executive Summary (not an obscure bullet point buried in an appendix) of a relatively new guide to community-based fire management (CBFiM) issued by FAO. A whole five pages are devoted later on to a dreary recitation of four such workshops FAO held around the world between 2004 and 2009.

If you wanted to design a big new national programme of CBFiM, which I wouldn’t, then I suppose something along those lines might be an early step, but I would recommend starting with one small workshop and a trial project, before expanding on a province by province basis. More to the point, to assume that is what all readers of that manual want to do strikes me as a spectacular lack of imagination on FAO’s part.

A gem of an oxymoron that appears in the background section declares (my emphasis added):

“Sources of ignition and fuels are local; thus, the systems and frameworks of fire management are often best established at the provincial level, while monitoring and analysis are usually best dealt with at the national level. Yet discussion and debate often take place without reference to the appropriate scale of intervention.”

Quite! It continues:

“To ensure that suppression occurs effectively at the local level, that is, that unwanted and undesirable fires are kept small, everything else in the fire management equation must occur at higher levels, including effective coordination and cooperation of all fire management agencies.”

Putting out the fire in my backyard requires coordination and cooperation of ministry or sub-ministry agencies? I could maybe just about live with this tosh if the report was not supposed to be specifically about community-based fire management. Alas!

Some people, unfortunately, really just do not get bottom up. That’s all right; I don’t really get ballet. Thankfully, this need not greatly concern the world of ballet. If only we could say the same for community-based conservation and development.

How enterprising is your social enterprise?

So the SOCCKET ball is the latest incredibly dumb development idea to get the treatment from the blogosphere, led by tea-drinker Aaron Ausland. In his latest post he gives the SOCCKET ball co-inventor and ‘Chief Social Officer’ of Uncharted Play, Julia C Silverman, the right of reply.

“I’d like to clarify Uncharted Play’s business model for the SOCCKET product …  We are a social enterprise, not an NGO; we answer to our investors and are kept afloat by revenue, not donations as your post implies …

For our users in disadvantaged communities, corporations and public institutions underwrite the cost of SOCCKET distribution through bulk/wholesale ball purchases. Users (children) “earn” the balls by participating in the programming of our official NGO partners.

Our corporate partners are wonderful, but they are not development institutions. When they were deciding to work with us, they were evaluating whether to put marketing dollars into SOCCKET sponsorship or into another campaign, not another charity.”

So, let’s just be clear about this: Uncharted Play is ‘selling’ the SOCCKET balls, just not to the end users. I.e. they are relying upon a traditional aid model and CSR-style conscience-buying, and then trying to make money out of it. Sounds rather like some big ugly consultancies I know … More to the point their feedback model is as broken as the rest of the aid system. A bottom-of-the-pyramid business proposition this is not.

“Given the distribution of accountability, it would be all too easy for us to simply pay lip service to our social mission while dedicating the bulk of our financial and human resources to sales, marketing, etc.. However … this is not the case: we are truly focused on collaborating with communities to implement meaningful, catalytic programs, and – rather than resting on our laurels or focusing strictly on profit – we are taking aggressive action to engage closely with our partners and participants and track outcomes so that we can drive toward maximal positive impact.”

Really? This reads just like typical drivel from a development agency with negligible impact. What ‘impact’ are they seeking? How many kicks of the ball does it take for a kid to generate enough electricity to power a light while they do one hour’s homework? In fact it looks like the one part of their social enterprise that is doing its job well is the marketing department. So all very reminiscent of the NGO world

I know plenty of people are very sceptical about the concept of a social enterprise. Uncharted Play unfortunately appears to be a living embodiment of all their arguments that it is just the same old guff dressed up in new clothes. A pity for all the truly enterprising social enterprises out there.

ps. Ms Silverman also claims:

“… kids have found the product to be truly magical. … When we actually say that the ball is special, that it can harness energy and power a lamp or a phone, there is always a collective yell of excitement.  Then, when we plug in a lamp to demonstrate, the kids’ eyes just pop out of their heads, and you can see the wheels beginning to turn.”

Has Ms Silverman considered that this might partly be because the kids have just received the coolest physics lesson of their lives? It would be great if more science lessons could be this inspiring, but I doubt very much it represents value for money for destitute kids.

Development blogging and the US election

I don’t think there are many American politicians I would care to meet. I loved Obama’s idealism, but, just like Tony Blair, he ain’t even come close to walking the walk on environmental issues. So I’m left feeling all Fox-Mulder-ish: I want to believe but final proof is always just out of sight, and you end up reluctantly concluding it always will be. >90% of congressional representatives and 100% of Republicans would seem to belong firmly in the do-not-invite-to-dinner category. It’s deeply unsettling to find Republicans would even consider electing some of those loonies to the White House.

But you didn’t come here to read my thoughts on US politics, so why the rant? The answer is not that I suddenly found politics, but that US politics, and in particular the race for the Republican nomination for US President, has found this blog. I hadn’t realised I touched on issues of much concern to all those Americans who lack even a passport, but not so!

‘Chet’, who shall hereafter be known as ‘the bigot’, thought that my previous piece on Homosexuality and development aid, has special relevance to the election campaign by Massachusetts’s former governor, and his “homosexual agenda”. The bigot attempted to post a comment under said musings of mine, linking to a piss-poor hatchet job on the afore-mentioned governor’s campaign*, with a series of probably libellous articles all under the enlightening heading: “MR for President? Read this First!” Hmm … don’t think I need to actually read any of that to work out what you’re trying to do.

Fortunately (unfortunately for ‘Chet’) he fell foul of my comments moderation policy, which vetoes all boorish bigots. If the comment was an attempt to create a Google bomb then it failed, because a quick Google search on his key phrase did not turn up the bigot’s hatchet job web-site. So maybe my comments moderation policy is far from unique. I’ve marked it as spam just to help anyone else who may get some similar nonsense.

On the other hand, I gather that the smart money is on Obama to beat anyone other than that governor, so, if I want Obama to win (do I care?), maybe I should have accepted the comment? All in all this is why so much of American politics suck. Everywhere else in the world, most politics is about the battle for the middle ground, but in the US it too often seems to be about who’s the biggest nutter in the asylum. I’m surprised they haven’t nominated Jack Nicholson …

Here endeth the rant.

* I shall deliberately refrain from mentioning his name or linking to the hatchet job website, for fear of doing the bigot’s own search engine manipulation work for him.

Mainstream me

So I’ve been pondering a bit recently on the riddles of what gets mainstreamed and what doesn’t in aid, and how it gets mainstreamed. A lot seems to go wrong.


Here’s what I reckon should get mainstreamed, in rough order of importance:

  • Aid Effectiveness. I mean if you’re not effective why do you even bother? And yet large parts of the aid industry seem to resemble nothing more than a giant job creation scheme. There was a good reason why all those structural adjustment programmes recommended drastically slimming down government bureaucracies that are now propped up by so many aid projects.
  • Sustainability. Oh yeah I’ve said this all before. Can easily be filed under effectiveness.
  • Good Governance. Governance is all about the processes we go through to achieve other goals, so tackling it as a separate item or bolt-on extra is surely nuts. Someone, however, needs to tell that to some of the government officials around here, who recently I overhead praising the importance of training on good governance … if you don’t know when you’re stealing from the very people you’re supposed to be serving then time to get another job!
  • Environment (including climate change). I’m an environmentalist so of course I’m biased on this one. But environmental issues impose important limits on what is and what isn’t achievable (and sustainable!), and externalities are often and easily generated that impose on other people, who are likely to be at least as poor as those you’re trying to help.
  • Disadvantaged Demographics (i.e. gender, but a lot more besides). I’m not saying it ain’t important, just I think the above are, on average, more important.

And here’s one that does not deserve to be mainstreamed in its own right:

  • HIV / AIDS. I mean if it’s a workforce problem then it falls under Aid Effectiveness (constantly ill staff = unsuccessful project). Or if it’s a critical constraint in the target community then what the **** are you doing trying to implement some other kind of project?

Of course, as my argument on HIV/AIDS demonstrates, all these are contextual. Most education projects are unlikely to be constrained by environmental issues or to generate much in the way of environmental externalities, so gender is probably more important to consider, and vice versa for infrastructure development projects.


How things get mainstreamed is equally important. Check boxes belong with job creating bureaucracies but rarely have anything to do with reality.

I was recently discussing gender issues with some colleagues and, at first, my natural suspicion of the gender-trumps-everything agenda kicked in, and I suggested that it isn’t particularly central to the work we do. But then just as I was moving on to the “But of course we treat it as important … blah blah …”, it occurred to me that the reason that it isn’t a big issue for us is that our excellent field team are all to some extent sensitive to problems of women’s marginalisation, and attempt to mitigate them at each step in their fieldwork. (Not saying that our practices in this area couldn’t be improved, just that they’re not too bad.) I.e. we had actually mainstreamed gender issues in our work. It gives us precious little to fill in those blank spaces on grant application forms that ask how we address gender issues, but it works a lot better in practice than some tokenistic additional practice.

Climate change seems to be the next big candidate for ubiquitous demands for mainstreaming. In tackling this I really hope that other donors follow the lead of Comic Relief (a UK donor) who, in tackling climate change, I gather have said they don’t want to fall into the same old mainstreaming traps, and instead want their grantees to really walk the walk.

Is it too much to hope that the rest of  the aid industry might finally mainstream good mainstreaming practice?

Telemarketing & Development

Although off-shore call centres don’t exactly have the best reputation in the West, up to now the rise of this form of cut-price telemarketing has been something of a development success story … up to now. Today I received a call from one – how did they get my number? – pushing some incomprehensible development something and climate change related wotsit MSc and short courses at some Dutch university. If I could name and shame them I would, but the name was too garbled and I had better things to do than to ask for it to be repeated. I know that fees for overseas students are vital to keeping alive many Western universities, but this was scraping the barrel.

So to anyone mad enough to contemplate repeating this abomination here’s a hint: if you’ve got my phone number, you’ve almost certainly got my email address. If your unsolicited marketing piffle makes it past my spam filter at least it won’t be mangled beyond comprehension by someone whose boss makes them watch British TV soap operas so they can empathise with their customers.

Ten things I didn’t want to know about aid ineffectiveness

A little birdie told me about this, and I just couldn’t resist. The donors in Tanzania have got  their own little website, included on which is a page telling us “10 Facts about Aid effectiveness in Tanzania”. They call themselves the Development Partners Group (DPG for short) and this is what they have to say:

    1. Tanzania’s aid effectiveness initiatives begun even prior to the international call on aid effectiveness. The initiatives follow recommendation of the Independent Commission report by Helleiner (1994) which called for among other things a closer collaboration between the government and development partners.
    2. DPG supports the coordinated Government-led programmes to strengthen capacity development in core reforms programmes such as the Public Financial Management Reform Programme (PFMRP), Public Sector Reform Programme (PSRP), Local Government Reform Programme (LGRP), Legal Sector Reform Programme (LSRP), as well as Poverty Monitoring Master Plan and Business Environment Strengthening Programme for Tanzania. Sector programmes with capacity development components include – but are not limited to – Primary Education Development Programme, the Secondary Education Development Programme, ASDP, as well as the health and HIV/AIDS programmes.
    3. The Joint Assistance Strategy for Tanzania (JAST) is the national medium-term framework jointly developed by the government and development partners in order to enhance aid effectiveness at country level. It replaces the Tanzania Assistance Strategy (TAS), which served as medium-term framework for development cooperation between 2002/2003 and 2004/2005.
    4. JAST is approved by Cabinet and signed by 19 bilateral and multilateral agencies including: African Development Bank, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, European Commission, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, UN, USA, and the World Bank.
    5. MKUKUTA-PER dialogue structure is the main structure for technical dialogue between the Government, Development Partners and domestic stakeholders. It integrates all major national development priorities and sector processes into a single process, whilst retaining government exclusivity on its internal dialogue.
    6. DPG endeavours to align its own structure of sectoral/thematic and sub-groups to a corresponding government-led dialogue structure, within the cluster structure of the MKUKUTA and MKUZA.
    7. Three modalities are used to deliver aid assistance to the government of Tanzania: General Budget Support (GBS), Basket Funds and the Direct Project Funds with the GBS being the most preferred mode since it is consistent with government’s legal structure and processes.
    8. The Sector-Wide Approaches (SWAps) are applied in key sectors including water, health agriculture, education HIV/AIDS and core reform programmes. Under SWAps, line ministries take a leading role in putting in place a comprehensive and operational plan and programme as well as a coordination framework allowing various stakeholders to focus on commonly agreed goals and targets.
    9. Tanzania’s mutual accountability framework particularly the Independent Monitoring Group mechanism, is one the most established mechanisms worldwide with three evaluation reports produced since 1994.
    10. Most of the working groups under the DPG are organised around a troika chairing structure, that is, there is an incoming and present and out-going chairing arrangement (act as leaders of the group), with other DPs being either active or delegating members, in accordance with the division of labour outlined in the JAST.

Ummm … so exactly how is any of  the above effecting real change that, say, a poor Tanzanian farmer would recognise? Or, to put it another way, exactly how far up their own arses are the so-called Development Partners?

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.

Aid efficiency & focusing on the important things

(with apologies to DR who doesn’t make the rules)

Informal chat with a Donor Representative (DR), 2009

MJ Presumably the NGO projects will be much more efficient than the government ones.
DR Yes, we expect that. But they won’t be the most efficient.
MJ Oh? Who will be the most efficient?
DR The private sector.

Meeting with Donor reviewing progress on a grant we have from them, 2011

(Same donor representative, DR)

DR We’re a bit concerned about this capital expenditure here [value < 0.5% of budget] which was not in the original budget and not approved by us.


And that, my friends is why the private sector will always be more efficient than NGOs.

But seriously, putting aside the nit-picking, what, at the end of the day, are your public interested in? (This is a bilateral donor.) The answer is impact. If you stopped worrying so much about the little things (including in your work with government), and instead focused on the impact bottom line, everybody would be much happier. If an aid recipient can deliver great service to its beneficiaries who cares how many Land Cruisers they buy? I guess this is what COD aid is all about.

Steady State Stultification

So here’s another call for a steady state economy for an environmentalist, this time a respected blogger. I really despair of this incredibly pessimistic attitude. It’s also completely barmy. The global economy is currently worth an estimated $62 trillion, or $10,500 per head at purchasing power parity. How would you fancy that as your annual salary? Didn’t think so! I think we can comfortably agree that most other people earning over the global mean would feel similarly, and hence the idea is dead at birth. Steady staters may claim that an SSE doesn’t have to equate with communism, but it does sound awfully like it in some key aspects.

I have a sneaking suspicion that what many SSE proponents envision is a national steady state economy rather than a global one. Presumably this would therefore be closed to immigration? How about that for a new left-right partnership? And apart from the insufferable sense of moral superiority that it might give them, since a large part of global economic growth is now taking place in poor countries, and that this economic growth generates lots of global externalities (did someone mention greenhouse gases?) one wonders exactly what good it would do the SSE-adopting countries.

I am firmly in favour of conservation and development, and I’m even more certain that the communities where we work are, though they’d probably be quite happy with an annual salary of $10,500. That said there are some big issues out there which often get left unmentioned for the sake of political correctness. How far off are the limits to further growth? We don’t know the full answer (so how can you set the correct level for a steady state economy?), but one or more water wars in drier parts of the world seem a likely outcome for the 21st century. If everyone in the world ate as much meat as your average Yankee we’d need multiple Earths just to grow all the animal feed. Then there’s this global warming thing that’s gotten everyone up in arms.

Almost every social and environmental problem in the world would be easier, possibly much easier to resolve if there were less people sharing our planet. It should be possible to talk sensibly about population and demography without being accused of advocating neo-eugenics or sounding like Paul Ehrlich on LSD.

Technology can certainly help, but it won’t solve every problem, and the steady staters are also right to point to the need to include things like natural capital in accounting standards (national and corporate). Simply choosing the right reference points could do a lot to avert our global headlong rush into catastrophe. Two things prevent this from happening right now: we don’t really yet know how to value stuff like biodiversity (or even how many billions of tonnes of carbon we can safely pump into the atmosphere), and heavy political resistance in favour of the status quo. Probably things are going to have to get somewhat worse, and natural resources ever scarcer, before the tipping point to change comes. Pushing SSE nonsense in the meantime, however, isn’t going to help our cause.

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