Posts Tagged ‘results-based management’

Development is complex, so start with the simple things

Building capacity one brick at a time

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

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

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

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.

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?

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