When/how does aid help Africa’s public services work better?

June 4, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I seem to be spending most of my life at the ODI at the moment, largely because it is producing an apparently endless stream of really useful researchODI factors papers and seminars. Yesterday saw a combo of the two, as it launched Unblocking Results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery (OK, maybe it still has a thing or two to learn about snappy titles…..).

The starting point for the work is that while there is a vast amount of research on the role of institutions in delivering (or failing to deliver) health, education, water etc, there is very little on the role of aid agencies when things go well. So ODI carried out a positive deviance exercise, identifying 4 success stories out of 60 initial candidates, and then delving into the reasons behind the success.

They were a rural water programme in Tanzania, a pay and attendance monitoring programme in Sierra Leone, support for the government Strategy and Policy Unit, also in Sierra Leone, and a local government programme in Uganda.

According to the report, ‘Six factors seem critical in this regard and provide clear implications for the design and implementation of aid packages that seek to address service delivery blockages. Apart from the first (windows of opportunity), they are all within the control of external partners to pursue. However, in most cases, they would also require considerable deviation from current practice.’

The six, complete with natty graphic (right) are:

Identifying and seizing windows of opportunity: plenty of overlap with my own work on shocks as drivers of change. The authors described what I now call WoOs (sorry) as the most significant common factor behind the success stories. But it’s not just a question of waiting around for a shock – prior relationships, trust and knowledge are crucial to being able to seize WoOs, as is a ready source of at least limited funding.

Focusing on reforms with tangible political pay-offs: governments listen to aid agencies when they help deliver ‘tangible goods and services that politicians could capitalise on in their campaigns.’ i.e. unless you align political self-interest with governance reform, you can forget it.

Building on what exists to implement legal mandates: concentrate on the implementation gaps that already exist, rather than rewriting current rules and laws, even if that means accepting the reviled ‘second best solutions.’

Moving beyond reliance on policy dialogue: Building on the previous point, ‘[successful] aid packages seem to focus on ‘getting things working’ rather than perfecting the framework (through the development of laws, procedures, regulations, policy processes).’ Nuts and bolts, not endless seminars.

Facilitating problem solving and local collective action solutions: yep, it’s our old friend, convening and brokering. One speaker worried about a ‘scramble to convene and broker’, which could make the per diem culture of East Africa and elsewhere look like a garden party.

Adaptation by learning: ‘Aid packages benefit from in-built flexibility that allows for regular programme adjustment based on learning and changes in the local context.’

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is – it echoes work by Matt Andrews, the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a lot of the stuff on ‘how change happens’ on this blog.  Sue Unsworth reckons we are reaching some kind of ‘critical mass’ of research findings. Rebecca Simson of ODI helpfully summarized the so what’s for donors in this table (it’s not in the report, but Matt Andrews wisely advised them that unless they can offer a table of so whats, the donors won’t listen).

ODI Summary

But does that mean donors are going to start adopting the lessons of such success? The obstacles in terms of ideas, institutions and incentives, are high. One useful suggestion from the seminar was to apply the same positive deviance approach to the donors – where do donors depart from standard practice and pursue enlightened approaches to governance reform, and why? As Ros Eyben has shown, an awful lot of these success stories seem to boil down to stubborn individuals in the aid sector, willing to ride the two horses of satisfying the demands of logframe/results-based aid, while operating in the real world of messy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along innovation, (however painful the result). Oh good, needs more research……