Posts Tagged ‘wicked problems’

The Charges against Big Aid

Terence, the Waylaid Dialectic, tears a couple of fair sized strips off Jonathan Starr’s self-righteous polemic about Big Aid. Terence’s points are well made, but I think not the whole story.

For a start, stripping away the pomposity, Starr is surely right when he says Big Aid has an accountability problem. As I and many other bloggers have remarked time and time again, our ‘customers’ are not the same people as those who pay the bills and that leads to massively misaligned incentives. Starr thinks he’s solved this by charging for his Somaliland school’s services, but (as Terence points out) since that only covers a fraction of the true costs – most of which are subsidised by volunteer teachers providing their time for free and him donating a pile of cash – I am not convinced he’s closed that case.

Still, for those of a certain political persuasion, the suggestion that our governments may be throwing millions of dollars at an unaccountable bureaucracy with a poor record of delivering its stated target results will be a like a red flag to a bull. International aid is surely not the only programme funded by Western governments to be susceptible to such a charge, but nonetheless we need to be able to justify aid spending in economically straitened times, and at present I do not think we can do so convincingly for large portions of government aid budgets.

Part of the problem, I think, is what Terence alludes to at the end of his piece when he states:

“Some aid fails because it’s bad. But a lot of aid is actually pretty good. And the reason why it still fails, when it fails, is only sometimes to do with the qualities of the people and organisations delivering it. More often, failure stems from the simple fact that the problems aid is being asked to solve are frequently close to intractable.”

There are two responses to calls for cash to be spent on problems that are “close to intractable” (aka wicked problems): (a) conclude that any investment of resources is highly unlikely to yield any results and thus refrain from any attempt to tackle said problems, or (b) determine that such problems are too important to be just ignored, and that it is fair and reasonable to take a few risks and try a few different approaches to see what might work. (Whatever you do, just don’t equate big problems with the need for big amounts of cash!)

Whilst some donors may decide that approach (a) is what best suits them, we can surely also support the idea that taking option (b) can also be a good idea. The problem, as I see it, is that we are very rarely upfront about the risks of failure. Far too much of the conservation and development industry is extremely reluctant to admit to failure (or even just disappointing results); glossy brochures proclaim an unending procession of success stories.

So by all means we should try to tackle these almost intractable problems, but we should be honest about our expectations of success in advance (sensible risk management), and we should also balance our portfolio with a good number of projects which follow more tried and trusted routes.

ps. Disclaimer: I helped setup and run what must surely be the most ‘perfectest’ of NGOs (according to Terence’s classification), so may not be regarded as entirely neutral in the basis for my above-stated views.

Should the biggest problems get the most money?

Last week Ranil over at Aid Thoughts discussed the new big thing in international aid: fragile states. The powers that be appear to have decided that these are the biggest problem out there in the aid world, and, as such, they deserve to get the biggest slice of the aid pie. I long have noticed a similar approach to prioritisation within conservation: the rarest species and the most threatened habitats get the most money.

Despite the fact that it incentivises everyone to talk up exactly how bad their problem is, on the face of this is in an eminently sensible approach to determine how to divide up a pot of money that is never big enough to solve all the problems in the world.

This, however, pre-supposes two things:

a) that there are solutions to be found to these, the biggest problems, and

b) that these solutions need a lot of money to succeed,

Neither of which are necessarily true. The biggest problems tend to me the most wicked problems, and therefore the least tractable to ordinary problem solving. And we seem to have conveniently forgotten about that old chestnut, absorptive capacity. Whilst I know little about how to ‘cure’ a fragile state (if such a thing is possible), the horror stories coming out of Afghanistan of wholesale corruption of aid flows suggest that the absorptive capacity conundrum hasn’t gone away, and is probably magnified in fragile states.

In both conservation and development I would like to see more money being devoted to solutions, especially proven solutions. That is not to say we should ignore the biggest problems, but if you don’t have a workable solution, then a lighter touch with smaller amounts of supporting funds seems a more sensible approach. Pouring money at a problem is unlikely to achieve very much more than reducing your pot of money for tackling other problems and increasing public and political scepticism of aid due to low success rates.

Great businesses, like great sporting teams, play to their strengths. International aid and conservation too often seems to play to its weaknesses, and that is much to our loss.

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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