Where are the examples of good donorship in complex systems?

September 25, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Everyone loves a good scapegoat. When faced with trying something exciting, risky or new, the temptation is to say ‘they’ won’t let us. In the World Trade Organization I’ve heard developing country delegates argue that there is nothing they can do to stop the tide of imports, even when the WTO rules have lots of wiggle room to allow poor countries to protect their vulnerable communities (at the start of the now-dormant Doha round I was part of an attempt to develop and publicise that flexibility through the so-called ‘Development Box’).

Those WTO days came to mind in recent conversations about how to work differently in complex, unpredictable systems. Whereas accountability in simple predictable contexts can be demonstrated by reporting that you have done what you said you would do, accountability in complex unpredictable programmes is about ‘adaptive management’, tweaking the work as you learn more about the system in which you are working, or in response to events. As Keynes once said ‘“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

So much for the theory, but when discussing all this with the people who actually, you know, do stuff, I have been struck by how many of them say ‘thiscomputer_says_no is all great, but the donors won’t allow it.’ Is that really true? At least sometimes, donors are not the problem; we (as in NGOs and other recipients of aid spending) are.

My favourite example is the Chukua Hatua programme in Tanzania, (which I’m visiting again in a couple of weeks – v exciting). DFID had set up the Accountability in Tanzania (AcT ) programme, managed by KPMG. They approached us and said (I paraphrase) ‘here’s £1m to do something innovative on accountability.’ But our first problem was that the Oxfam computer said no – it demanded all the usual outputs, outcomes etc, and for several months we had a problem even accepting DFID’s cash.

When we finally defeated the computer and took the money, we developed an evolutionary approach (try lots of things, consciously select the best and scale them up). But KPMG were not convinced by our theory of change. We had a bit of a wonk showdown between rival ToC nerds (I was Oxfam’s pointy head). They decided our ToC was fine, and got particularly excited when we described it as ‘developmental venture capitalism’, at which point they gave the project another £0.9m (never underestimate the importance of co-opting the right language).

Once convinced, someone from AcT became part of the project discussions – no more’them’ and ‘us’, and DfID started working with us on new ideas, such as getting citizens, especially women and youth, involved in the process of drafting a new national constitution (referendum February 2014). DFID has also adapted the model in Somaliland. So much for inflexible, box-ticking donors.

tajwss logoAnd elsewhere? Another of my favourite programmes, the Tajikistan Water and Sanitation Programme, relies on the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)’s willingness to agree 10 year funding (much longer than the usual project timescale for what could easily be portrayed as a ‘talking shop’ (but has proved remarkably productive). Solutions emerge, in Matt Andrews style, from the forum, but cannot be foreseen and put into a standard funding proposal. The Swiss can live with that.

A quick email exchange with a few evaluation gurus produced some other thoughts:

It’s all about individuals: Ros Eyben’s work on how skilled aid workers learn to ride two horses (aid bureaucracy and real world) simultaneously applies here. Donor fund managers and others can either tick boxes, or use the flexibility that always exists within the rules. Regular contact with the partners on the receiving end can help them work out what needs to be done.

Confidence: If you aren’t sure of your ground, whether as donor or recipient, it’s much easier to play safe and tick the boxes. Assertiveness in suggesting changes to the plan is much harder – how do we support staff to acquire it? You’d think it would be easier for larger INGOs to push back, but only if their internal processes allow them to do so (see ‘computer says no’). And who is supporting smaller local organizations to be more assertive with donors?

Staff shortages and incentives: Ideally, the donor would accompany the programme on its power and change cycle, adapting reporting requirements as the programme evolves. But that runs up against some pretty big obstacles – it complicates the effort to prove value for money if cash donated for one thing is then used for another. But also the cult of low overheads means donor agency staff are under huge pressure to disburse large wads of cash, which leaves little time for getting to know and understand any one programme.

If we are to get better at working in the messy realities of complex economic, social and political systems, we have to take the donors with us. That means working with the good guys, being assertive, and collecting and amplifying examples of good donorship. Please add your own (only genuine candidates – please minimise the level of sucking up to donors!).

Or of course, we could always carry on behaving like Dilbert.

dilbert auditing

September 25, 2013
Duncan Green