What is really stopping the aid business shifting to adaptive programming?

March 23, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Jake Allen

Jake Allen, Head of Governance for Sub Saharan Africa at the British Council, left such a well argued, sweetly written comment on Graham Teskey’s recent post that I thought I’d post it separately

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

(HL Mencken said something similar to this, just not as pithily)

With each piece that I read on the topic of how we do development differently, many of which are on this blog, I’m finding myself getting increasingly frustrated, and feeling like this whole line of thought has gone down a cul-de-sac. We’ve been saying the same things for quite a while now, but things haven’t really changed: our development isn’t that different; our thinking and working not that much more political; our programmes not hugely more flexible nor adaptive. Some thoughts:

Old Dog, Old Tricks
There’s an implicit assumption that programmes in the bad old days were rigid, technocratic and uncontextualised, and now we are on the other side of the Rubicon, are the polar opposite. I suggest that programmes were pretty much as adaptive and politically aware then as they are now – for the day-to-day, on-the-ground work, it’s basically impossible not to have been. Maybe you think the bureaucracy and reporting were different, and we used to have to just report on the results we initially set out to achieve, but that’s all changed now? To you I say, you clearly haven’t done a lot of reporting lately. For sure, there’s often now a report heading that says, ‘how were you adaptive?’, but unless the programme’s been explicitly designed as a Doing Development Differently lab rat, you’ll still have to jump through the reporting hoops.

What did we expect? You can’t have all but a few variables remain exactly the same, and expect that injecting some good intentions and a lot of writing was going to change a whole huge system and its embedded culture. Development institutions are, by and large, political bureaucracies. Their cultures and practice need to be understood in this context, with a recognition that these aren’t going to change much or fast, so we need to adapt within the current structures.

When people as how the project is going - flames

The Low Politics of High Ideals
A large part of the development world believes, or wants to believe, or at least finds it convenient to claim, that what we do is apolitical. Now I realise at this point there’s probably a whole load of people who’ve sprayed their coffee on the monitor in rage – and for sure there are loads of people and organizations who really are attempting to put the politics and power back into development. What I think is missed is the big picture of aid/development, and therefore the programmes designed within it, as being absolutely tied into big-P Politics: we are operating in other countries and doing things that directly attempt to influence how that country is run. We are only there because we are allowed to be there by their governments, but that license is granted because of the Political consensus and the trade-offs (and sometimes trade) that has been accepted and agreed.

Too Big to Not Fail
What is a programme? It’s lots of things: an idea; a Theory of Change; a vehicle for values; a bureaucratic entity; a thing valued at an amount of money; a way of changing the world. What it’s not is perfect, or a plan for delivery that should be stuck to.

It’s too big to not fail, but actually it’s also too small and too short. It’s too big because actually programmes end up almost always being collections of smaller actions and interventions, which tend to be much more successful because it’s easier to work with smaller geographies: less people, you can see the boundaries of systems; practically more doable; managers can actually hold the whole thing. But rarely do they cohere back to a single entity that forms a consistent whole (other than in the beautiful fictions of the annual report). They’re too small because even a programme of £50m is a drop in the bucket of a national economy. They’re too short because the lofty ideals and impact they aim for are generational.

I think that what underlies this is that we are all involved in a process of attempting to shift the world towards a set of accepted norms and values.

What I planned versus what happened

And if we see it like that, then ‘the programme’ starts to make sense: it’s an expression of the striving towards shared values, which can best be delivered at a local level, and we just have to accept the bureaucratic burden this comes with. It’s our job. But it’s the job of the leaders in the development sector to make and defend this case. A while back Jonathan Glennie made a case for reframing aid as ‘foreign public investment’.  The detail and language aren’t important here; what matters are the ideas that investing in other countries is inevitable, essential and valuable and as public investment should cut across a range of sectors and objectives. It also touches on another important point: that any investment fund would not put pressures to get money out the door above making sure that spending is effective. Development agencies, if operated on a fund basis, would be able to stop, change and retrench funds with ease, making them more effective at delivering their objectives. I’d be interested to hear views on this.

It’s the Smart, Stupid
I return sometimes to DFID’s Smart Rules, which I think were the best recent attempt to get an organisation to change its culture and foster better programming.

People seem to have focused a lot more on ‘Rules’ than ‘Smart’. Smart is about taking all the rules and systems and, even if briefly, putting them to one side and being able to ask ‘what are we trying to do, and how do we do it?’ I should say at this point that I’ve met plenty of people who embody this approach, but they remain the exception – as a colleague says ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Of course you still have to fill the forms and please the bosses and ministers – as I say, recognising the politics and the bureaucracy is essential.

Smart is also only as good as the least smart part of the process. Smart doesn’t work if donors try and subcontract it to someone else, but don’t do it themselves. You can’t tell a programme to be smart if you’re then not going to give it any of the actual ability to do so (yes I’m looking at you, donor in an African country who’s demanding adaptive programming at the same time as enforcing rigid adherence to pre-planned budgets! Not one of my programmes I should add.)

All this isn’t entirely fair to Graham and his original piece. He wasn’t talking about the whole problem, just a bit of it. But this ‘bit of it’ approach – it’s about MEL, it’s about learning, it’s about capacity etc – ends up missing the bigger points and stops us making the changes that will really have an effect.