Posts Tagged ‘SNAFU’

The power law and why Aid is SNAFU

According to Ben Ramalingam’s new book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, emergent characteristics of complex systems (a category that covers most targets of international development aid) often follow a power law in which most results are clustered together but which are offset by a long tail, e.g. lots of mostly poor people and a few incredibly, stinking rich folk. This tail is fatter, and contains much more extreme elements than you would expect from a Normal distribution, so that ignoring it as a few outliers can be incredibly dangerous. Conversely, such as in the case of earthquakes, the tail commands all the attention over swiftly forgotten smaller events. Maybe the same could be said of success rates in Aid projects? Boosters focus on the Green Revolution and the eradication of small-pox ‘fat tail’, sceptics obsess about the vast majority of Aid projects and spending which appears to achieve very little. Both are right, and both are wrong, and both could probably do with reading Ramalingam’s book.

I hope the title does not put people off the book. It suggests to me an anarchic office environment with harassed over-worked managers, when in fact the chaos that results from too many aid projects is rather more slow moving, if no less SNAFU. Ramalingam does have a good justification for his choice of title, but you will have to get to the final few paragraphs to understand it.

The book comes in three parts, and is a mixed read. The first part is a well-written indictment of the many failures and hubris of the international aid system. It treads familiar ground for anyone who has read Ferguson, Easterly and others. I have yet to tire of reading such critiques partly, perhaps, because they fit well with my prior beliefs, but also because such tales of failure are often instructive, useful to remind oneself what not to do!

Some of the targets may be easy, but all the more deserving of criticism. Occasionally it over-reaches, e.g. in condemning the reliance of orthodox economics on the idealised Homo economicus without acknowledging the many useful findings it has produced. Perhaps better editing would have helped, since such lapses are an easy mistake to make when a polemicist’s blood is up, but they do not detract significantly from the argument.

The second part introduces the reader to the power law and other elements of complexity science, and struggles manfully against the reader’s presumed lack of familiarity with this difficult subject. Part of the problem it faces, I think, is that complexity science is as yet a very young discipline. Theory and understanding are still very much in development, hence appropriate analogies and clear explanations are not well established. This presents a barrier to comprehension of a school of thought that is conceptually difficult to grasp.

Given this challenge it is ironic that the book suffers from too much space given over to this part, presumably in some attempt to keep the book balanced between the three parts. Such space has to be used up somehow: Ramalingam has chosen to do so through regular diversions into the history of complexity science. It is laudable that Ramalingam wants to tip his hat to the giants in his field, but such diversions are not fully contextualised (since this is not a history of the development of complexity sciences) and thus not especially illuminating. They are also somewhat repetitive, and distracting from the main argument.

One criticism of the use of complexity theory in development is that it is good for telling us after the fact what went wrong, hence the long list of shame in part one. But it often seems less good at telling us what we should do instead. This is slightly unfair because for the biggest aid agencies with millions of dollars to spend, investing $50,000 (say) in a complexity assessment could save a lot of money from being wasted on a doomed project. (If only aid agency incentives worked that way …) Ramalingam makes this point, but then in part three goes further with a series of examples of where complexity thinking has been used positively to underpin some highly successful development programmes.

How you respond to these examples may depend upon your background. I loved the on-the-ground examples such as the Subak system for irrigation management in Bali, the ecosystem-based approach to tackling endemic malaria in parts of Kenya, and using positive deviance to find ways to reduce child malnutrition in Vietnam, but others left me wondering “So what?” Conversely the talk of chaotic patterns in epidemiology may leave anyone with a decent grounding in ecological population dynamics thinking “Well, duh!” Some of these examples could thus perhaps have done with a better connection back to the critiques of part one to highlight why the use of complexity science is important.

Pressures of time meant that I took much longer to finish reading the book than ideal, and it maybe that a more focused reading would have been easier on the brain, but by the end I found the book frustrating. The overall aims and structure of the book are clear, but in the detail Ramalingam often appears to lose sight of where he is going with too many digressions in what may be an attempt to humanise an extremely abstruse subject. Ultimately I think the book needed more on aid and aid projects, and how they can be improved by the introduction of complexity science, and less on complexity science itself and its practitioners.

All of which is a pity because the ideas contained within the book are incredibly important. Indeed, despite those flaws, I have little hesitation in recommending it to anyone working in development or in developing countries. Unfortunately I suspect the very deliberate (and quite correct) decision not to offer any panaceas will limit the book’s impact on how most aid agencies operate. The world will be poorer as a result.


Life in upside-down land

This is not a post about living south of the equator, but some observations about the topsy-turvy world which NGOs inhabit, and the strange rules that govern their behaviour. You may choose to listen to Queen’s I’m Going Slightly Mad while reading it.

If, in running a business, you make a big sale you have a number of options as to what to do with the money. You might decide to invest your profits in delivering an extra good product to your customer in the hope of enhancing your reputation and winning further business. Or if business is fairly slack at the moment and the outlook poor, you may choose to hoard the cash and eke it out to see you through the hard times. Conversely you could use the revenue to drum up other business or otherwise invest in your company, confident that you will raise enough additional funds to ensure you deliver the promised product to your customer on time. In fact your biggest problem may well be cash-flow, and you may need to rely on bank loans to resolve this situation for you.

In contrast NGOs rarely suffer from cash-flow problems. Except for the most deluded donors, grant money is mostly dispensed up front, which is particularly important as small NGOs are not attractive organisations for banks to lend money to. But, bizarrely, operating under-budget is almost as bad for us as operating over-budget. Of the three broad options available to businesses above, only the first is a possibility for us. We cannot speculate to accumulate because grant acquisition is far less predictable than adding new customers, and donors scream blue murder if we use their cash for something else. Neither can we save our money for a rainy day. Some donors will allow for no-cost-extensions, but typically that may involve moving more money into the salaries pot (we have to pay our staff somehow during that extended period) and changing the budget involves difficult negotiations with the donor. In contrast businesses just commit to delivering on their promises at the cheapest possible cost to themselves.

Now, to be fair to the donors, the better ones at least are often prepared to be flexible, but, and this is the key constraint, everything has to be requested in advance and negotiated! Even for minor expenditure changes that should be frankly beneath their attention they raise queries if things have not been cleared in advance. However, these negotiations take time and energy on both sides, such that, despite the best intentions on the part of donors, NGO managers may be reluctant to make sensible adjustments due to the hassle involved. There is also an implication that somehow budget changes mean that either the project was not planned properly and/or has not been well managed since, when adaptability is a key element of good management and it is impossible to plan projects to the last detail in advance.

The classic result, of which I have recent experience, is an under-performing project that is nonetheless under-budget. This ought to be an oxymoron, and is often put down to lack of (absorptive) capacity on the part of the grantee. But I think it speaks as much for the upside-down way in which we are forced to work, in which managing the inputs has become at  least as important, if not more important, than delivering the promised outputs. I, for one, would feel much more confident about strategically re-budgeting funds to ensure a project stays on track if I didn’t fear aggressive questioning later by the donor, and if I could feel confident that successful delivery of key outputs (or progress towards them if the output is particularly challenging) would inevitably lead to further funding to fill in gaps later on.

Alas, instead I am trapped in a Goldilocks budget management system which frowns upon anything which is either too hot or too cold, or just a bit different from what was on the menu, even if it’s that much tastier as a result.

Good for personal development, bad for economic development

Ranil Dissanayake has written a perceptive elegy to his time in East and Southern Africa.

“I will miss the constant obstacles, challenges, fights, compromises, small victories and major changes that come when working in a developing country Government here. There is no such thing as a simple task in Government: a photocopy could take an hour of begging or a day spent searching for the magical combination of a machine, electricity, printer toner and paper in one place. … It can be frustrating, but when you finally start seeing all these small things coalesce into something bigger, you begin to thrive on the little challenges.”

I recall one of my early visits out here I was searching for a job (any job) that might keep me here for a bit longer: talking to a boss of a small company, I said that I relished dealing with things like regular power outages. He cut me off dismissively complaining that these were incredibly bad for business. Even worse, he was massively frustrated at being constantly undercut by competitors who slip a bung to procurement managers rather than competing squarely on service and price.

Many years later, I can see both sides of the coin. Every single power cut and episode of slippery business is individually immensely frustrating and sets us back. However, like Ranil, I also thrive to a certain extent on the knowledge that I can cope and that we have the robustness in our approach to deal with these challenges: not in the way that embassies and big businesses will just throw money at a problem – insulating their staff from vagaries of life out here – but because we built up our NGO from zero and have overcome many obstacles along our way. We are proud of what we have achieved, but also one gains an individual sense of satisfaction of having adapted to a challenging environment.

On my visits back to UK I am sometimes struck by the apparent banality of conversation, e.g. the latest good wine found down the supermarket, rather when was the last power cut. Both topics are equally parochial, and talk of power cuts may seem equally banal to people who live deep in the bush – off-grid – and have to generate their own power. Nonetheless, one feels toughened up living out here, and though many years ago I might have sounded a bit wet behind the ears with my talk of relishing such challenges, now I’d far rather hire someone with a bit of gung-ho like that than someone who will fall to pieces when faced with sheer number of things that just don’t work as straightforwardly as they do back home.

All of which is to say that, for all the nonsense talk you hear sometimes about people coming out here to find themselves (and it is utter tosh), there is no doubt that if you’ve got the right personality in the first place then this is a great place for personal development; you will be challenged in so many ways you’ve never been before.

Unfortunately what is great for personal development, is absolutely **** for businesses and economic development. I decided to come here, and so have to accept the rough with the smooth as part of the life I’ve chosen for myself. Locals and local businesses merely despair at the dysfunctionality of  their country. Things are getting better, but there are so many other things which could so easily be so much better still if  important government institutions just worked a bit more like what they should do.

To be continued

Sleeping with the Enemy

What do you do if you know a friend of yours is a crook? You might not have any actual evidence, but you know it for sure, and you could easily gather the necessary evidence without putting yourself to much effort. You also know that the authorities are rather plodding and/or in league with them, and are unlikely to catch your friend. What to do?

Thankfully this is a dilemma which I suspect many readers (at least those safely ensconced in developed countries) have never faced, however, it will be far too familiar to anyone who has had a field posting in a developing country for any significant length of time. The friend will work for the government in one capacity or another, and after a while it will dawn on you that they must be quite corrupt in how they are carrying out the duties of their office.

The simple moral response is to turn your friend in, but that is not short of consequences. Outsiders meddling in this way is definitely not welcomed! You may not even be believed and nothing will come of your intervention – corrupt networks inside government are quite resilient to this kind of accusation. Regardless of the outcome you will almost certainly lose the trust of all the other officials you need to work with in order to do your work. And in governments where petty corruption is endemic, will the replacement be any more virtuous? Indeed your friend may well be your friend (as well as colleague) precisely because s/he is less grasping and obviously corrupt than other local officials. There may definitely be a case of better the devil you know!

Finally, if this is a relatively junior official, which is likely to be the case in a field posting, do they really deserve to carry can for the whole corrupt system? Most likely they will just be part of a bigger network. In one case I have come across we have even speculated (probably naïvely, but friends are friends) that our friend was trapped in his corruption; that if he failed to continue to cooperate he would simply be hung out to dry. Indeed that is often the unfortunate outcome of anti-corruption drives around here in which one or two junior officials are made scapegoats for a much deeper-embedded corrupt network.

So inevitably you find yourself turning a blind eye. Without the subject ever being discussed between you and your friend you work out where the red lines are; at which point would you feel unable to continue to ignore the corruption? If they cross that line you may still feel unable to do anything, but by pushing the boundaries in this way they would cease to be your friend, becoming an adversary to be contained so far as is possible.

This moral equivocation then gets even worse when you yourself get involved in some kind of improved governance (i.e. anti-corruption) project. It is almost impossible not to co-opt government in many such projects – donors always require us to work in partnership with government – and so you find yourself sharing a stage with the same corrupt officials you are effectively targeting. (Of course, until charged and proven guilty they are presumed innocent, so you can hardly object to their involvement!)

The best that can be hoped for: either the authorities eventually get their (wo)man, but then you lose your friend, or you hope  to create the conditions under which your friend’s corruption becomes impossible to sustain, and they simply cease it because they have no alternative. But this is probably just pie in the sky dreaming. In the meantime we carry on in our extremely morally-grey ways, such are the contradictions of a life in tropical conservation and development, and another step on the way to SNAFUdom.

SNAFU redux

When I first conceived of my previous post it had a rather different character than it ended up: a testament to the immediacy of blogging, and how one’s thoughts can take one in unexpected directions. Lindsay’s original post, which is far better than any of my analysis, had a powerful tinge of sadness about it. What are we doing when everything is so ****ed up?

I’ve never seen a war up close and personal, thank God, so can only rely on others’ reports, but one very powerful theme is that war is almost never noble or honourable, but is a terrible, ugly, de-humanising, tragic event. All adjectives that could be used to describe the sort of extreme poverty from which the aid industry seeks to rescue people. For the foot soldier forced to fight a war, some of  their biggest problems stem from blinkered generals fixated on a particular strategy (how many ‘big pushes’ did the Western Front see in WWI?) without due regard for the realities of the situation on the ground, and so it goes in development too. SNAFU. Of course, war and development both also have their heroes, who, against all odds, actually manage to achieve a truly worthy feat, and these heroes are rightly lionised.

My family and friends from my old life praise me for what I’m doing; the nobility of the sacrifice etc. But how noble exactly are we? Or are we just a peculiar bunch of adventure seekers practising poverty one-up-man-ship? The grim I-told-you-so satisfaction of the grizzled veteran who sits there and can say:

“Once again the donors and the recipient country government have ****ed it all up. There’s no chance of really doing what they expect, so we just have to try our best.”

What’s point of that? Because the donors would get someone else if you didn’t take the job? Because that someone else would be worse at it than you would be, so better you do it? Doesn’t seem very noble to me.

Fighting the system sure takes some courage, and it can take many forms, even, dare I say it, a blog. But what I find so sad and disappointing is that clearly the aid system could be so much better, and clearly a great many people within the system know and understand that, and yet the status quo seems to change so very slowly. Did you turn up to work today to alleviate poverty, advance tropical conservation, or to claim your pay cheque?

Here’s wishing for a nobler international aid system!


Lindsay Morgan also dispatched her personal thoughts from her trip Southern Sudan. The post had all the usual ingredients, grizzled veterans, impossible projects, crazy donor expectations, poverty that won’t go away and that might get worse when you leave, constant travel to uncertain ends.

One word summed it up for me: SNAFU. It was coined by frustrated foot soldiers in the Second World War. The parallels seem striking to me, and to Lindsay who remarked:

“Aid workers are like soldiers fighting in a war the public back home has forgotten about or doesn’t understand.”

The big bosses at HQ draw lines on maps / construct logframes without any real clue as to what it look likes for those on the ground. Nonsensical orders come through and someone has to make sense of  them. You never get the supplies you ordered; some logistics corps idiot / donor always has another idea. Then just when you’re finally about to make some progress they change their minds and tell you to do something else. No wonder green-behind-the-ears newbies turn into cynical veterans after just one campaign / project, and veterans compete with stories about just how bad it got for them. SNAFU indeed.

There is one important difference. In war there is a pretty severe feedback loop: lose a battle they shouldn’t have and the general responsible will be cashiered in an instant. In aid and development, it seems, it remains SUSFU.

%d bloggers like this: