The challenge of Doing Development Differently

I attended the first Doing Development Differently (DDD) workshop organised by the BSC gang at Harvard CID and ODI; read more about the workshop here. See Day 1 summary; and Day 2 summary. Some thoughts, over time:

  1. DDD is the big picture: DDD is about the details and and the beauty of innovation and creativity on the ground. But more importantly, DDD is about the big picture. As the workshop signalled (at least) to me, the battleground for the DDD conspirators/crusaders is the top table, with donors and policymakers; the moneybags, decision-makers and influencers. Expressed in an extremely cliched way, the goal ought to be to facilitate d on the ground by changing the rules of the D game. This makes sense to me. Gathering and influencing activists and local champions is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for real change. Unless those determining the overarching policy environment for localised development work are willing to change their fixed ways, there can can be little progress. At the same time, this workshop definitely missed a trick by not having participants from governments (I am sure they considered this long and hard), which in many middle income countries have come to be all of the above – the moneybags, policy/decision-maker,etc. This is also the way DDD will be able to go beyond aid.
  2. DDD is not new: Much of the conversation was about familiar themes: participation, logframes, being locally embedded, stakeholder analyses, decentralisation, etc; neither are the champions (think-tanks, academics, NGOs and donors) a new species in development. But that shouldn’t be a dampener – we can never have too many good ideas. What will be interesting to follow is the contours of the coalitions DDD is able to draw up; how members find support with and from each other; and eventually, how this shapes the D game. What is new for these actors possibly is some of the language – which references the strategies used by private sector players.   
  3. But, DDD is damn hard and risky: There are plenty of enemies out there – the rigid project structures, the business cases, the impatient donor desk officer, the weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Attempting DDD comes with its risks and in most jobs in the development world (with the possible exception of research-y ones), it is unclear if the rewards at the end of the tunnel outweigh the numerous manholes on the way. So why would anyone try out DDD? And if they did, how will they muster up the personal/institutional capital to do so? For how long can one fight the establishment?
  4. Therefore, be smart:Thinking and Working Politically; Politically Smart, Locally Led – all of these arguably are only a difference of semantics compared to DDD. Creating space within the aid establishment requires forming alliances. Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or the Government of Bihar (once upon a time), I have always held that there are some fantastically creative bureaucrats that thrive within these systems who either possess (or are backed by) powers that can create space for DDD. Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and agreed that it is at the root of many problems, but also encouraged us to think of ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities, perhaps. Some of the younger participants (and I will include myself in this group) found it difficult at times to agree that the “project” is the problem – so thoroughly trained we all are in the mainstream development model. For us then, the idea of finding room for manoeuvre sounds that much more attractive, although that might mean that the revolution will be delayed.
  5. PDIA is not a model (I checked with Matt!) – rather, PDIA is one of the ways of DDD and falls within that tent. I wondered about the abuse of the term PDIA, i.e, if PDIA gets ‘mainstreamed’, everyone and their nephew will produce case studies that mimic the essential ingredients of PDIA. This has happened with ‘participation’ – at one point, everything everywhere was participatory and local. Many a stick was handed over just in time for a telling picture or a stirring case study. Important then, to find a balance between a large inclusive camp and an intellectually elitist one. This is a balance every movement has to strike and in the spirit of PDIA, continually revisit over its lifetime. However, it is important to anticipate this challenge. That the World Bank is so enthusiastic about it should make them wary already – its as clear a sign as any that PDIA and DDD are well on their way to being ‘mainstreamed’. But then, remember the ‘top table’ argument – that is the high stakes DDD game. Also, hopefully, the DDD tribe will ensure that DDD doesn’t get confined to a single model – not a Payment by Results (PbR) one; nor an Embedded Technical Assistance (ETA) one. We truly need to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.
  6. DDD is spreading! – The principles of DDD are finding their ways into many donor RfPs. Those proposing projects are being forced to regurgitate the jargon, hopefully in ways that make sense. Do I see donors reaching out to their partners and contractors to make sure they ‘get’ it? Not as much as I would like.

All of this is very exciting. Getting deeper into this has implications for everything: in our personal lives as much as in our professional ones; in how we do and learn. Will stay tuned.

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