Scale, Failure, Replication and Gardening: Continuing the Discussion on the future of Big Aid.

April 22, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Or should that be beautiful?

Or should that be beautiful?

I’ve been having a series of great conversations on the draft of my new paper on the future of INGOs (plenty of time if you want to comment – here it is INGO futures, Green v5 April 2015 (edited)). Some of these have been under Chatham House Rules, so no names/organizations, but here are some of the standout topics that have emerged so far:

Scale: It’s all very well to ask ‘how do you take a supertanker white-water rafting?’ and suggest that big can be bad (slow moving, bogged down in procedures, conservative), but size also brings clear advantages. Scale creates influence, economies, cross-country learning and the ability to invest in experimentation and take more risks (even to pay the wages of weird strategic advisers bloggers who achieve nothing particularly tangible). Break up Oxfam into 40 mini-me’s and you would lose a lot, as well as potentially gain on flexibility and innovation.

So the question arises, what kind of hybrid combination of scale and subsidiarity gives you the optimal blend of flexibility and clout? And presumably that balance depends on the issue – economies of scale matter more in some areas than others – and the political and social context. The arguments are likely to look different depending on whether you are in long-term development, humanitarian or advocacy (see here for previous rant on Grey Panthers, aka rafts for wrinklies). Lots of thinking needed (as well as identifying what the current spread of supertankers and rafts is within the aid business and how well/badly it is working).

Finally, some versions of flotillas might be positively counter-productive – one cash-strapped Dutch NGO has apparently broken itself up into self-financing business units, with the predictable result that hard-to-fund areas like advocacy and development education have virtually disappeared.

quote-Winston-Churchill-success-consists-of-going-from-failure-to-759Failure: There is a common lament that development failure is neither recognized nor punished- when was the last time an NGO went out of business? But the obvious difference is that companies go bust because there is a clear profit/loss bottom line, and very few non-commercial entities behave the same way (governments, UN bodies etc). And the noble efforts of Engineers Without Borders to get us all discussing and learning from failure seem rather to have, errm, failed.

So is failure the right way to think about performance or an unhelpful polarizing dichotomy when there isn’t a clear bottom line metric and in practice, almost any programme or change process is a combination of the two? Isn’t it more important to be able to identify elements within a programme that are not working and fix them en route, rather than reduce everything to binary red/green lights?

And there is a temporal issue here too. Development veterans who return to countries after long absences find that local staff in programmes that were once deemed ‘failures’ often turn up years later at the heart of success stories (a bit like Tim Harford’s Adapt thesis, or those failed infant industries that end up providing the basis for subsequent industrial take off).

Replication: We should acknowledge that there is already lots of one-off innovation going on. My colleague James Whitehead has been doing an internal positive deviance exercise, collecting and analysing dozens of innovations across our work – I’m trying to get him to write a post on it.  I have long been

More replicants needed?

More replicants needed?

banging the drum for programmes like Chukua Hatua in Tanzania, and TajWSS in Tajikistan. But despite its success, Chukua Hatua is still the only Oxfam programme that I know of doing multiple parallel experiments. Why are such innovations not being replicated within/between agencies?

Ecosystem Gardening: If the UK is indeed a unique development cluster (as I argued in a recent post), then the role of big aid agencies (DFID, Oxfam) could be that of ecosystem gardeners, taking a system-wide view on nurturing and strengthening the cluster.  This could include:

–          More support for start-ups and spin-offs as incubators of new ideas/approaches – the sector is currently too much of a monoculture of generalist organizations all doing roughly the same thing.

–          Encouraging large organizations to steal/borrow innovation from others

–          Finding ways to overcome the ‘big money’ problem (large aid organizations with relatively few staff can only sign large cheques), eg through ecosystem intermediaries (who can break up large cheques into lots of small grants) or equity for spin-off organizations or ‘people not projects’ funds that back outstanding individuals.

ecosystem gardening–          Encouraging greater complementarity – working in middle income countries is becoming politically difficult for northern governments (local governments resent the intrusion, taxpayers and the Daily Mail bang on about India’s space programme). Yet 60-70% of the world’s poor people still live in MICs. Perhaps bilateral agencies should consciously encourage a combination of national and international NGOs to pursue strategies tailored to MICs – eg norm change, tax, redistribution, innovation government policies and practices, etc

–          But also collaboration – there are some areas where the aid and development agencies are all engaged, but are not fully cooperating to learn vital lessons in what are really difficult operating environments eg on programming in fragile states; creating ‘safe spaces’ for discussion and learning from failure

Keep the comments coming please – this is all really useful.

April 22, 2015
Duncan Green