I’ve been banging on about the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement for a few years now. Initially driven by big bilateral donors frustrated with the failure rate of old school project approaches, especially in trying to ‘build states’ and reform governments , DDD advocates ‘politically smart and locally led’ approaches, avoiding cookie cutter ‘best practice’, while staying sufficiently aware and adaptive to learn and tweak your interventions as you go.
But all too often, reform movements such as DDD fizzle out when put into practice. Their initial clarity gets blurred by the demands of ‘rolling out’ to the unconverted; ‘mainstreaming’ dilutes the rigour and translates into just another level of compliance and set of tickboxes for staff and partners.
Is that happening to DDD? To find out, ODI researchers supported DFID’s attempts to DDD throughout 2016, both at head office, and in country programmes in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Nepal. They have now written up what they saw in a new report, by Leni Wild, David Booth and Craig Valters. Some of the findings that struck me include:
‘DFID’s growing emphasis on being ‘problem driven’ – setting aside standard formulas and templates and focusing instead on specific constraints to development that need to be unlocked to enable progress. There is often an emphasis on facilitation or convening local efforts, and on being politically smart in critical areas such as inclusive economic development.
Less encouragingly, it has proved easier for staff to build-in an ability to respond to changes in context, than to set out an approach that commits to purposeful experimentation or ‘learning by doing’. While there are a few good examples of facilitation of locally-led change, this also remains a challenging dimension.’
In terms of my current favourite 2×2 (left), that means DFID is more comfortable above the horizontal axis, than below: it is easier to admit uncertainty on context than on intervention.
Getting faster at failing (and stopping): ‘Take action to scale back funding where there are early signs of failure. As well as being better ‘value for money’ for UK aid, it also achieves real results.’
On Why Now? ‘Adaptive management is among other things, a response to the retreat from budget support that has occurred over the last few years, and the return to donor country operations that consist of a portfolio of projects or programmes.’
On Fragile States: ‘It is unclear that much headway has been made in applying flexible or adaptive approaches in conflict-affected countries.’, partly because the role of other departments on issues like counter-terrorism means that ‘consensus across government is more likely to be achieved by falling back on standard ‘train and equip’ programmes, for instance around security and justice sector reform.’
A missing link to gender work: Adaptive and gender programming have much to learn from each other but so far ‘Gender programmes have a tendency to fall back on ‘best practice’ rather than ‘best fit’ or locally-appropriate approaches: it remains rare for gender-related programmes to use structured experimentation to test different possible ways of empowering women and girls and to adapt their approach based on learning about which programme activities work more or less well.’
The backroom people aren’t the problem after all: ‘In our experience, procurement staff can be among the champions of innovative programme design, despite common perceptions to the contrary.’
Portfolios not projects: The report advocates thinking in portfolios rather than individual projects, which would allow
- ‘Obtaining a balanced mix of programmes that are adaptive and non-adaptive in a given sector or country portfolio: This could help in managing concerns that adaptive programmes can have high staff costs and unpredictable spending rates, and could support synergies between programmes that are more or less adaptive.
- Experimentation with a range of interventions to address a common problem: This would allow for a ‘multiple bets’ approach, helping to manage risk and create space for complementarities and learning across different implementing partners.’
All in all, a useful reality check. Hope ODI can continue to shadow DFID as the DDD work matures. Has anyone done anything similar on other donors by the way?
For info, now I have more or less finished promoting the book, I’m moving on to doing some research on how aid donors (both INGOs and bilateral) work in fragile contexts, both in terms of promoting social and political action, and in working with non-state forms of ‘public authority’ in Africa. When plans become clearer, I’ll be coming back to you to ask for reading, contacts and advice.