Where has the Doing Development Differently movement got to, two years on?

November 22, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

The DDD crew reassembled in London last week, two years on from the Harvard meeting that really got the ball ddd-manifestorolling. Unfortunately I could only attend the first session and the next day’s post mortem, so other participants, please feel free to add your own impressions/put me right.

DDD is evolving fast into something approaching a big tent movement. At its core are principles of iteration, adaptation, using systems thinking. If you want to know more check out the DDD manifesto and website. See also this great post by Alan Hudson and Dave Algoso, clarifying the areas of overlap and difference between the various movements. Here’s a 4 minute collection of worthies at the Harvard Meeting (including me) trying to define DDD.

The main players are an interesting bunch: a non-exhaustive list includes donors and multilaterals (DFID, World Bank, OECD, UNICEF); thinktanks (ODI); academics (Harvard, Birmingham); specialist institutional reform agencies (AGI); innovation hubs (Reboot, Feedback Labs) and Humanitarian NGOs (IRC, Mercy Corps). Development NGOs are conspicuous by their absence (some thoughts below).

There has been some rapid progress over the last two years, moving rapidly from theory to practice, with lots of pilots and testing going on – I can’t keep up with the output of country case studies, think pieces etc etc. Is DDD just another passing fad? Probably not, because it has not emerged at the whim of some bureaucrat or spin doctor in New York or Washington, but out of lived practice and experience, including the failures of traditional approaches.

The conversations revealed some fascinating challenges, including:

The double edged sword of aid: Parts of DDD have been driven by/are reliant on donor funding, but this is a mixed adaptive-planblessing to put it mildly. Reforming the aid system to make it compatible with DDD is a massive exercise, and means sailing against some powerful headwinds right now. While there are examples of reforms efforts underway in some of the big aid agencies, several speakers argued that it is better to sidestep the official aid system altogether, find support from developing country governments keen to find better ways to drive change, maybe turn to foundations for funding (they are more flexible than official donors). But also ‘if you want to innovate, take a couple of zeroes off’, in the words of a Brazilian mayor. DDD requires skills like facilitation to identify problems and convene lots of different players to solve them, and lots of time, but big money is often neither necessary nor particularly helpful. Getting beyond aid would also help get beyond the increasingly redundant North-South division – governments and other players everywhere want to do this stuff.

How state-centric should DDD be? A lot of the thinking behind it (see books by Matt Andrews, Brian Levy and others) springs from a rethink of previous failed attempts to improve the quality of governance. Although DDD draws quite a bit from private sector approaches e.g. agile technology, management theory (e.g. for problem identification), some of the most dynamic DDD practitioners, like Harvard’s Building State Capability programme, use them to improve effortst to reform governments. It would be helpful to clarify which aspects of the DDD agenda copy across to working on private sector, civil society or other non-state actors.

This is particularly important in working out how DDD works when states are predatory or hostile to reform – an area that is only going to increase in importance for the aid and development sector. Part of the answer there is likely to involve an increased role for non-state actors.

complexity-signWhere are the INGOs in all this? The humanitarians are stepping up, perhaps because they are more used to working in an adaptive, flexible way in response to more unpredictable, chaotic situations, but the development NGOs seem largely absent and/or silent. Oxfam and other INGOs are doing lots of interesting things in this area, though we don’t brand them as DDD – multi-stakeholder initiatives, convening and brokering, trying to encourage innovation, redefine success (eg by learning how to ‘count what counts’ – women’s empowerment, influencing) and make more use of real-time evaluation. But all too often, in practice this runs up against the pressures of competitive funding bids, which push us to drop all the fancy stuff and stick to plain vanilla, linear projects. DDD requires advanced project management skills, when in many countries it’s hard enough to find the basics. And most baffling and frustrating of all, the many one-off examples of innovation and DDD, usually down to some entrepreneur or maverick who has managed to slip in below the radar, rarely seem to spread.

I wondered if this was because INGOs are too big for the small things (taking supertankers white-water rafting) but also too small for the big things (big service providers like Palladium managing massive donor grants, with the capacity and permission to try out DDD, less subject to the strictures of the ‘sticky middle’ of middle managers with their logframes and best practice guidelines)?

Overall, the conversations left me very excited. Visions of dispersed networks of DDD thinkers and facilitators (mainly local), working with local governments, civil society organizations, private sector groups and others to get change processes up and running. What costs there are could be covered by a combination of those using the service, and top ups from suitably flexible forms of aid (eg funding facilities for DDD processes, potentially a ‘switchboard’ or server to matchmake between demand and supply, peer to peer networks of reformers supporting each other). Cool stuff, and I think more organizations and individuals need to get on board.