The shape of India’s non-profits in the 21st century

India’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been in the midst of a brewing crisis for sometime now, which goes well beyond questions over technical competence or efficiency of delivery, to questions over their existence and their legitimacy. It is pertinent to examine the reasons for this crisis, and set out ways in which NGOs can restart swimming against the tide.

NGOs trace their raison d’etre to the twin failures of state and markets. In the latter half of the 20th century — the heyday of NGO action in India — there were vast swathes of population who did not have access to basic services, mostly living in areas that were geographically not served by the state, typically in rural areas. The private sector, particularly prior to 1991, was largely state-controlled, and had an even more limited reach.

Where basic services reached hitherto neglected regions, sections of population were left out owing to usually their social background. NGOs swung into action to fill this gap. Funds flowed in, as did public-spirited people, either helping extend government services, or providing services of their own. NGOs became a sector.

Evolving context

More recently, particularly in post-liberalisation India, with significantly enhanced penetration of the market, and superior tools of governance available to the state, the situation is quite different. India’s urban population went from 11% in 1991 to 31% by 2011. Pockets of severe deprivation remain, but the story of the average rural person is significantly different than before.

As much as 77% of the bottom quintile of the Indian population today owns mobile phones and 87.3% of all households reported having access to electricity. At the same time, nearly 7% of the bottom quintile of the population also face catastrophic health shocks that wipe out over 20% of their annual household income. All said, the poverty line for per capita income remains at Rs 32 per day in rural areas and Rs 47 per day in urban areas.

The changing role of the state has been one of the most notable factors affecting the role of NGOs in India. On the positive side, health, education, and a host of other government services reach a far greater section of the population than before. Governments have enacted key legislations that created a legal framework for local governments, and introduced a wave of rights-based entitlements. Several NGOs had key roles in conceiving and piloting activities that culminated in these laws.

Shifting landscape

Projects that used to rely on NGOs for last mile delivery have gradually moved towards local governments, or networks of self-help groups established by government programmes. The political impetus for this, in no insignificant measure, came from the proliferation of identity-based politics in the post-Mandal era.

In terms of the negatives, governments have tended to pit empowerment and entitlements against each other, and even as entitlement-based legislations are in place, the current political narrative doesn’t appear to be in its favour. The same goes for rights activists, who have suffered from a crackdown on funds and their freedom to dissent.

The basic rights framework built over several decades of struggles (education, food, employment, information, etc.) is increasingly being challenged, and key legislative measures to ensure these rights are being diluted through a combination of executive orders, amendments that erode their core characteristics, or by allowing bureaucratic apathy to rule the roost. Also, while local governments now see more funds passing through their bank accounts, there are several reports that their scope for intervention and discretion has been significantly curtailed.

Problematic response

As the external environment evolved, NGOs responded, but in ways that in the long-term weakened them as institutions, and the sector as a voice of the poor and marginalised. NGOs allowed their mandates to be dictated by the nature of funds available. Several other development sector entrepreneurs adopted the social enterprise model, taking to heart, for instance, management guru C.K. Prahlad’s bottom of the pyramid thesis.

There are numerous examples of NGOs who have grown rapidly to essentially become large-scale contractors of the government, or have adopted a set of targets and management practices that erode the social core of the organisation. In doing so, a common casualty is their ability and willingness to engage with the political economy, which is often at the heart of protecting or furthering the interests of people they work with.

The other direction some NGOs took was to move away from implementation. This was a direct consequence of the state expanding its reach, and arguments being raised in favour of NGOs withdrawing from areas where they had been working since long. Some NGOs took up research and advocacy, and settled into a role where they intended to be watchdogs of government programmes, and a few influential NGOs (as research agencies, think tanks and advocacy units) have been successful.

However, even the larger (and more influential) NGOs failed to come up with a widely accepted accountability framework. The sector demanded self-regulation (in terms of activities, and results, not funding), but was unable to put forward a coherent framework that could be used to measure them. Attempts to arrive at sector-wide standards were defeated by ego clashes, and some of these attempts were viewed as siding with the government.

NGOs also were guilty of not putting in place sound systems, especially in human resources, and to a lesser extent, financial management, at times driven by donor pressure to cut administrative expenditure.

What next?

First of all, one needs to acknowledge that a simple narrative of state and market failures will no longer work. Gaps exist, but of a different nature. NGOs have to not only frame the new narrative around how these failures manifest themselves in our world today, but also demonstrate an ability to design, pilot and implement bespoke responses to these failures. This calls for reforms, both to the NGO’s mission, and in its organisation.

NGOs should focus on innovation and learning. NGOs are far more valuable for their ability to experiment with approaches, and promote learning from both success and failure, not just at the organisation level but also at a sectoral level. The accountability framework that is currently missing needs to take shape. By doing this, they can seek to re-occupy the moral high ground without having to hide behind altruism when questioned on impact.

By cultivating space for experimentation, learning, innovation, it will continue to create models that a scale and optics-hungry state and the efficiency-seeking private sector can adopt in future. From the early days of micro-watershed development, biogas, community healthcare, micro-enterprises for rural livelihoods and sanitation, there are examples of this phenomenon. NGOs have also had significant success piloting and advocating initiatives that resulted in pro-poor legislations — whether in the area of women’s rights, or rural safety nets — and that reveals ways in which NGOs should seek to achieve long-lasting impact.

Scaling caveat

An important caveat is in order here. NGOs are regularly questioned on their ability to take programmes to scale. This is a red herring, and one that NGOs must ignore, or at least, rethink. Scaling up is not the responsibility of any one NGO. They will have to not only implement, but also focus on transferring the design and implementation capability to more local, more cost-effective implementation teams on the ground — whether they belong to local governments, or other smaller local community-based organisations. Scaling solutions require robust networks of organisations on the ground.

Refusing to be distracted by political pressure and lucrative funding opportunities, and instead focusing on a well-defined core mission requires strength of character and the stamina to stick to a mandate. It will require a strong coalition of NGOs and donors built on mutual respect and openness. If this implies a deviation from what the priorities of government, mainstream philanthropic foundations and donors are, there will be fewer, or perhaps a different set of financial resources to work with.

Moving along this path will also help the sector redefine its human resource models. While high quality professionals come at a price, knowledge and capabilities will have to be made more open-source if NGOs are to be successful in promoting external networks of learning and implementation agencies. Internally, for professionals working in NGOs, it is important that a clear career path exists right from the beginning, and NGO leaderships should demonstrate that these professionals growing up the ranks could occupy the corner rooms in NGOs.

This is part of the way ahead. NGOs in India, seeking to adapt to the shifting landscape of India, need to work with the state and markets, and at the same time, retain its difference. This is a critical reform or perish phase for NGOs as we know them. It will be interesting to watch how many NGOs today are up to this challenge.


This blog first appeared on VillageSquare


Does the Gates’ Letter 2017 answer Warren Buffett’s questions?

Melinda and Bill Gates have made an annual tradition of publishing their thoughts on their work in global development, the challenges they face, and their goals for the future. These letters are a manifesto for their philanthropic work, most of which is channelled through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates structured their 2017 Annual Letter as a response to Warren Buffet’s (CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.) letter to Melinda and Bill Gates, where he asked them to reflect on their work so far – on what had gone well, and what hadn’t; and to describe their goals for the future. He further said:

There are many who want to know where you’ve come from, where you’re heading and why. I also believe it’s important that people better understand why success in philanthropy is measured differently from success in business or government. Your letter might explain how the two of you measure yourselves and how you would like the final scorecard to read.

Buffet’s questions assume great significance given that in 2006, he pledged to donate 85% of his wealth to charity, and allotted a sum of about $31 billion to the Gates Foundation. These questions, from one of the most successful investor of our times, are essentially about how well his philanthropic investment in the Gates Foundation was doing. What had he helped them achieve?

In this column, I analyse Gates’ response, and examine whether they really answer Buffet’s questions. I came away with two main impressions: one, their answer as to what success looks like for the Gates Foundation (bulked up by Buffet’s sizeable contribution) is not convincing enough; and two, their response reveals a continuing faith in the role of technology, at the expense of behaviour, institutions, and politics.

The Gates letter focuses on global health, and they lay out a set of impressive numbers: globally, a consistent reduction in mortality rates amongst children under-five have led to 122 million children’s lives being saved since 1990. They talk about the vital role of vaccines, safe deliveries and better nutrition in making that number possible. A consistent theme here is the emphasis on cutting-edge research to develop technical fixes (vaccines, contraceptives, etc.), and helping poor people around the world improve access to these inputs (commodities).

In the 2016 letter, Melinda Gates wrote about women and unpaid domestic work – a complex socio-political issue that has no obvious technical fixes. She reflected on how women spend more time on unpaid domestic work than men do; and partly as a result, they make up a less than half of the organised labour force. That theme carries to this year’s letter as they write about the importance of empowering women by expanding economic opportunities, and their ability to make decisions, especially exercising their reproductive rights.

The 2017 letter also has plenty of the Gates’ trademark optimism that progress is inevitable, and they conclude with promises to continue working towards tackling the most pressing challenges in global health.

As I read the letter, I was conscious of the mega-complex of aid that the Gates have built, with powerful partnerships all around the world. And then, I wondered: with the global scale and scope of investments that the Gates Foundation makes, how would they really measure impact that is attributable to them? When asked to measure themselves, as Buffett did, the Gates talk pick issues closest to their heart, and report all progress made globally.

‘Attribution’ in this case is not quite how we understand it for discrete projects, or multi-input programmes, where a rigorous impact evaluation would suffice. But in order to properly answer Warren Buffet’s question, the Gates would have to demonstrate an improvement over the counterfactual: that they used the wealth bequeathed to their Foundation in ways that enabled a greater number of people to emerge from poverty than would have been in the normal course of events. This could be achieved by their role influencing global development policy, leveraging their resources to raise even greater funds dedicated to finding solutions to pressing development challenges, and their role in strengthening country governments to deliver essential services. On each of these three topics, the Gates fail to mention what their incremental contribution might be.

In answering Buffet’s questions as they did, the Gates may have been trying to answer another of Buffet’s questions, by explaining how success in philanthropy is measured differently from other sectors, where collaboration between different organisations (as opposed to competition) and contribution (as opposed to attribution) towards the achievement of a common goal, are valued. However, in the absence of a more critical reflection of their incremental contribution, they open themselves up to the familiar critique of aid that there is a tendency to overstate successes and not enough admission of failure.

Finally, there are three words that do not appear at all in this letter – ‘behaviour’, ‘politics’ and ‘institutions’ – that may impact the ‘final scorecard’ that Buffett refers to. The global health issues that the Gates talk about focus on the production and delivery of inputs to poor people. For instance, helping increase ‘usage’ is mentioned often in the discussion on contraceptives, but the need to study, and influence behaviour to expand adoption of these products is never mentioned. It is notable, for instance, that sanitation (a pressing public health problem that kills infants and causes stunting) that can only be fixed by a long-drawn process of behavioural change wasn’t mentioned in this letter.

On the other hand, the absence of ‘politics’ and ‘institutions’, despite of Bill Gates’ references to the ‘role of governments’ in last year’s letter, is quite unsurprising. A passing reference is made to the recent change of government in the US and the UK and the threat to foreign aid, but there is no mention of the fact that their wider politics (and resultant policies) potentially have far-reaching consequences, especially where radical politics has been systematically weakening institutions, both in rich and poor countries. Be it women’s reproductive rights, protection of refugees, migration laws, extractive industries, tax havens, or conflict zones around the world, they have the power to destabilise the current course of global development. These happen to be two stark examples, but they amply demonstrate the importance of geo-politics in determining progress in the developing world.

The 2017 Gates Letter leaves one with mixed feelings. It is fair to say that Warren Buffet’s questions go unanswered, as it remains unclear what the incremental benefits have yielded from his massive donation to the Gates Foundation. At the same time, not focusing harder on ‘behaviour’ indicates a puzzling neglect of the long hard slog certain social and development problems demand. Finally, ignoring ‘politics’ and the performance of ‘institutions’ could be a blind-spot that could undo a lot of the gradual progress made by low-income countries around the globe. That is a scary thought.

Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.

Can logframes be improved for adaptive management?

Posting in full, a comment I posted on a thoughtful blog by Pete, reflecting on what he calls

a nagging feeling that the way development organisations continue to use the log-frame to manage project performance is holding us back from really thinking differently and politically about development

My response:

Thanks for blogging about this, Pete. I agree wholeheartedly: it’s definitely time to overhaul how programmes are reviewed.

Revamping the logframe is one step. A possible option: In a standard logframe, each output has multiple indicators that get scored on the basis of whether the targets have been achieved or not, and the output then gets scored on the basis of the number of indicators that are met. How about, if we change the way this works and have indicators represent multiple pathways towards achieving an output? This would one, establish from the very beginning that not all of these pathways would work. This would also prompt programmes to reflect on the Theory of Change (and underlying assumptions) and integrate them with the logframe. If we did this, targets/milestones for some of the indicators would be met, while some others would not. But that would be written into the design of the programme assessment framework. Outputs would be scored on the basis of overall progress, and not tied to individual scores against each indicator.

The other step we need to take is to revamp how logframes are used for assessment: Scoring (as discussed above) is one aspect. The other aspect is capacity of those doing the scoring. Obviously, rigid and linear scoring is easier to undertake, as well as easier to defend using a rule-book. But if being ‘flexible and adaptive’ is a genuine priority, reviewers will need to stick their necks out to make judgments that go beyond just numbers. This should not only be “allowed”, but should be considered “essential”. A system of peer-reviews could be used to negate biases (in either direction).


Sue Unsworth’s ‘upside down’ view

Sue Unsworth’s work provides us a wealth of knowledge on governance and institutional change, stemming largely from her ‘upside down’ view of the conventional reality of the aid world. Here is a quick peek into some of her work – particularly, insights into how donor-approaches should evolve to engage successfully with politics.

Sue’s work with David Booth – captured in this paper, Politically smart, locally led development – presents seven case studies of problem-driven approaches that provide important lessons to donors, as well as a clear message that merely using new terminology without actually changing the ‘ways of working will not yield results. The authors suggest that chasing ‘international best practices’ often lead to imagined solutions that do not address the problem at hand.

…for politically smart, locally led approaches to become the norm, a more radical shift is needed in the way donors conceive development challenges and their role in addressing them. They need to abandon oversimplified concepts of ‘ownership’ and ‘partnership’, and unrealistic assumptions about the scope for outsiders to lead transformational change

This resonates with the PDIA community (Matt Andrews and co) who advocate problem-driven entry strategies, arguing that successful efforts at building capabilities require an unwavering focus on solving a specific ‘problem’.

Another important document was An Upside Down View of Governance, published in 2010 by the Centre for the Future State at Institute of Development Studies (IDS). (Here is an useful 15-page summary). The authors are clear about what the lessons for donors are:

progressive change can happen when people start to see that they have common interests in cooperating to create collective goods. There can be productive bargaining between public and private actors that results in positive sum outcomes (improved security, peaceful resolution of conflicts, more productive private investment, better public financial management, more inclusive public services). Moreover the processes of bargaining between state and society can themselves strengthen opportunities and incentives for collective action (including action by or on behalf of poor people) as well as the capacity of the state to respond.

Upside Down relied primarily on examples of (mostly) home-grown success stories from around the developing world – building a narrative around how one should view governance in these countries – in many ways, similar to Judith Tendler’s ‘Good Government in the Tropics‘ that focused on good government practices that made key sectors work in Ceara, Brazil.

Staying on donor strategies, there was another interesting piece, co-authored with Mick Moore in openDemocracy, that proposes the following set of questions to shape donor strategies, and operating in politically-informed and responsive ways:

  • What is shaping the interests of political elites?
  • What is shaping relations between politicians and investors, and might they have common interests in supporting productive investment? 
  • What might stimulate and sustain collective action by social groups to demand better services? 
  • What informal local institutions are at work, and how are they shaping development outcomes? 
  • Where does government revenue come from, and how is that shaping its relations with citizens?

Much of this has now become close-to-mainstream thinking, especially in donors such as DFID. Case studies of politically smart, problem-driven, adaptive approaches abound – from many parts of the developing world. Obviously, a lot still remains to be done in making this altered view a part of mainstream practice.   

Many of these ideas are beginning to inform donor approaches, particularly in fragile states. But adopting them as mainstream practice would imply a big shift in how donors see their role: from being experts with responsibility for “delivering” on the millennium development goals, to being much more effective facilitators of locally driven change.

But ‘doing development differently’ is not easy. There are several obstacles – rigid project structures, business cases, impatient donor desk officer, a weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Only the brave donor desk officer will take on the bureaucracy of her own organisation. Donors, especially bilaterals, remain under pressure to deliver quantifiable outputs, and this leads to a perpetuation of business of usual models of delivery, driven by standard assumptions of ‘participation’ and ‘ownership’.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sue’s work has been her insistence that none of her insights are in themselves, ‘remarkable’ or particularly innovative. And it is true. ‘Politics matters’ is a truism. What really matters is what we do with this realisation, and how we integrate it into our work. Watch her, in this ODI video, speaking on how ‘thinking and working politically’ can be operationalised in day-to-day operations of donors

Sue Unsworth will truly be missed. Here’s hoping that we can make her ideas continue to prosper.

Do donors need more (and better) Contract Managers to deliver results?

I frequently come across people who say that donors are under increasing pressure to spend more with fewer staff. This usually comes from friends and colleagues that work with donor agencies, or those that interact closely with them. This is supposed to be largely a consequence of pressure from domestic tax-payers, who have refused to continue to fund bloated aid bureaucracies.

This directly impacts how donors approach the ‘results agenda’. The ‘results agenda’ implies an expectation from donor agencies that they record and report results that their funds are able to achieve. The focus therefore is on outputs and outcomes, as well as the cost at which these were achieved, and on demonstrating how they compare against context-relevant benchmarks. For donors, this means selecting the right implementing partners, and holding them to account for the delivery of cost-effective results.

But this also means rethinking how donor agencies themselves are run. An important question that donors face is regarding the staff composition in their offices (especially the country offices). Should there be more Programme Managers or Contract Managers? The easy answer of course is to say, “we need both”. But what should be the balance of power between the two? In this post, I acknowledge this is a genuine dilemma, but deliberately argue for the latter.

One of my main points in a previous post was that to navigate the results agenda donors need to invest in their staff.

Donors that adopt the ‘results agenda’ (or the value for money agenda, for that matter) need to invest time and resources to ensure their staff fully understand the implications of this agenda, the mechanisms through which it is to be implemented, and most importantly, its limitations. It is possibly redundant to state that ‘context matters’, but it really does. As donors continue to trim down staff, it places greater emphasis on their ability to manage projects and contracts with implementers in ways that are accountable, and yet retain the flexibility necessary for development work

Again, this will not be possible without a mix of technically competent staff who are also adept at administering programmes. My observation is that in an environment where donors design and then contract out programmes, it is crucial that they possess a battery of effective contract managers.

I should clarify what I mean by contract managers. One, I refer to contracts in a general sense – all grants are bound by contracts; so are all service providers. I refer specifically to programmes, and not to service vendors. Second, those managing these contracts are essentially those that are currently called desk officers, advisers, programme officers, or something similar. What I am arguing in this post is that these people need to be more adept at contract management – and if pushed, I am arguing the side that their ability to draw up and manage contracts (of which commercial acumen is a part) needs strengthening. Here are two reasons why:

  • Prominent donor agencies these days are not short of programme funds. Significant sums of money need to be “programmed”, and in its most elementary form, this could be understood as signing and managing contracts worth the size of your annual budget. Given that donors rely on grantees and contractors to deliver projects, the ability to run competitive procurement processes, and manage tight contracts is critical. Moreover, corporate support services of finance and administration are also under considerable strain in many agencies.
  • In the areas of service delivery, advocacy or research, leading experts are increasingly to be found not within donor agencies, but in implementing agencies, service providers, think-tanks or research institutes. Donors contract these specialists as required, using a variety of contractual modalities. As more and more technical work is delegated to external agencies, donor staff are required to focus on effective contract management. This naturally reduces the extent of technical resources required in country offices.

All the same, it is important to consider the issue of staff motivation. When development professionals land jobs in big multilateral or bilateral agencies, how do they see their own role? Do they see their role as being efficient administrators of programmes, or are they keen to make a personal impact on the design and execution of programmes they manage? If it is the latter, staff would want to focus on programmes, and try to leave the bulk of the administration to somebody else – which wouldn’t quite work in the scenario that I describe above. One would have to navigate this carefully, creating alternate ways to boost staff morale. Ultimately, this ties into developing a shared organisational vision, mission and work-culture.

On balance, there would seem to be a pretty strong argument for donors to invest in more (and better) Contract Managers. I by no means fit the profile of a contract manager, or an administrator – so I can already hear a chorus of voices loudly protesting this suggestion. As I said earlier – it’s probably true that we need both contract managers and programme managers, but perhaps, the balance of power should tilt towards the former. The retinue of technical experts, researchers, statisticians, communication experts, etc, all have a place of their own – but perhaps are best placed in support functions (at headquarters) that help core contract managers deliver on their responsibilities. Contract managers will be experts not only in drawing up and enforcing contracts, but also have advanced budget and financial management skills.

What of donors that have a strong policy and advocacy focus, you ask? Won’t they need strong technical leads to further their agenda? Yes, that is true, but unless on their own, they form the dominant focus of an agency in a country, the above formulation should still hold. Also, fears of donors removing themselves farther from the reality of implementation if they are staffed increasingly by contract managers is not entirely unfounded, but is certainly not an unresolvable problem, and therefore a risk worth bearing.

As donors and their operational contexts evolve, and as the modalities of development cooperation changes, the strategic choices donors make about how they operate and how they are staffed will continue to evolve.


PS: Two small examples that hold meaning in the context of this post (or perhaps I am being entirely facetious)

  • DFID introduced its Smart Rules last year – a broad operating framework focused on programmes, intended to support DFID staff in improving programme delivery. Out of the 37 mandatory rules listed, I could find no more than 5 that refer directly to designing development programmes, or managing the complexity of their operating environments
  • I find it interesting that USAID is headed by an ‘Administrator’ – perhaps an absolutely honest descriptor of what that position entails, or perhaps entirely misleading – what do you think?

Living with the ‘results agenda’, redux

Craig Valters’ Devex post, based on yet another newsworthy ICAI report, seems to have somewhat revived the debate over the ‘results agenda. The criticism is sharper, castigating DFID for the “unintended effect of focusing attention on quantity of results over their quality” – but also one that clearly implies that the ‘results agenda’ is not well-understood or widely shared within donors like DFID. Focusing on ‘results’ cannot mean a divorce from long-term outcomes. What ICAI describes sounds more like an outputs agenda that is transactional (what your money can buy) rather than transformative (the good change).

The consequence of this bean-counting is that complex problems risk being ignored: donors and the partners they fund will tend to focus on projects, rather than systems. Also, genuine accountability along the aid-chain takes a hit due to a general break-down of trust between the different actors. So what can we do about this?

Invest in staff: The response to the criticism of the ‘results agenda’ cannot just be an argument highlighting the importance of results. The response needs to demonstrate ways in which the results agenda can positively influence development work and focusing on the mechanisms by which the multiple actors in development can come together in making this happen. Donors that adopt the ‘results agenda’ (or the value for money agenda, for that matter) need to invest time and resources to ensure their staff fully understand the implications of this agenda, the mechanisms through which it is to be implemented, and most importantly, its limitations. It is possibly redundant to state that ‘context matters’, but it really does. As donors continue to trim down staff, it places greater emphasis on their ability to manage projects and contracts with implementers in ways that are accountable, and yet retain the flexibility necessary for development work. 

Use your existing toolkits better: Have logframes become the blunt hammer in our pursuit of results? Probably. I personally don’t mind logframes as a concept, but detest the way they are usually used. Ideally, a logframe development exercise should reveal the level of complexity of a project design. Those working on it realise during the process that the outcomes that really matter are often misfits in a logframe, because there aren’t clear baselines, nor are there objective and accurate measurement techniques. If a project logframe is then drawn up primarily to satisfy a contractual obligation, it usually sacrifices this complexity and settles for outputs and outcomes that can be easily counted. Donors must resist the temptation to do this.

Fight for political space: Bilaterals are under particular pressure to ‘perform’ in the eyes of their domestic constituencies. Multilaterals are under less pressure, but that distinction may soon blur as donor country citizens start demanding more from their respective contributions to pooled funds. This therefore calls for greater savvy to fight for greater political space. Smart communication is one way. Being honest about the distinction between ‘outputs’ and ‘outcomes’ is probably too much nuance for a domestic audience, but remains important nevertheless. International aid assistance, whether channeled through the Foreign Office or through a dedicated department should be able to resist being pushed around by a tabloid press. Ok, not entirely clear how this will be achieved, but clearly, one must try fight it as much as possible.

Create room within: Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or a sub-national government, 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 Doing Development Differently (DDD). In the DDD workshop at Cambridge, Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and while he agreed that it is at the root of many problems, he encouraged participants to come up with ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities such as Payment by Results for instance. We need a concerted push towards creating room for flexible approaches within the classical aid bureaucracies.