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.


Politics of Evidence @ IDS

IDS just concluded its ‘Politics of Evidence’ conference – thankfully having moved from the ‘big push-back’ to ‘the big push forward’.

My friend Heather has a summary here. Loving the typical IDS-speak that seems to have dominated the conference!

Waiting for an update here from Ros

Now, if only a conference such as this could be held closer to the field – where the politics of the evidence plays out…

Naveen Patnaik’s eventful UK trip

Last week, word spread that Naveen Patnaik and his entourage were cancelling a talk at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex. There were about ten news articles on this and being an IDS alum, this caught my eye of course. Apparently, a couple of rights groups and students had decided to ask a few uncomfortable questions during the proposed talk.

Then there was a longer HT article that decried the air of secrecy that surrounded the Odisha CM’s meetings in the UK – not just with members of the UK government (which might be sort of understandable), but also with reearchers from IDS.

secrecy surrounds a meeting Patnaik had on Monday with researchers from Sussex University’s prestigious Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which is partly funded by DfID. After Patnaik cancelled a lecture at IDS, allegedly to avoid being questioned by activists and students, three researchers headed by the school’s director Lawrence Haddad, trooped into London to call on Patnaik.

“Two other researchers (apart form Haddad) who are experts on nutrition attended the meeting. I can’t provide you with their details,” said an IDS spokeswoman. “Nutrition was the main topic, and discussion also touched on education initiatives to keep girls in school and cash transfers to poor households. I won’t be able to provide you with any further information.” In an extraordinary act of secrecy, she refused to give the names of the two other researchers from the institute, which takes a keen interest in India and has programmes for Indian scholars and civil servants…

Its unfortunate that Naveen Patnaik chose not to take on the protestors and clarify his position. Odisha, in parts, does seem to be making a move on, although the government has been slow on dealing with mining licenses and rehabilitation and resettlement of affected communities. Large-scale development projects involve tough decisions, something the UK government seems to understand, going by their statements on the issue. At the same time, the rights groups have a right to engage governments in a debate and demand answers to their questions. I have to say, once again, that Naveen Patnaik should have been game for a open debate.

Second, did the Odisha CM feel cornered in the UK – a country that funds large-scale development projects in Orissa? Did this aid empower the rights groups to adopt a harsher tone with Odisha than they would normally? If yes (and I honestly don’t know if it was), what does that say about the power a donor country exerts over the recipients – not necessarily the hard power that the donor governments themselves exert, but the soft power exerted by other actors rooted in the donor country?

All in all, an eventful trip for the Odisha CM, which I think slipped from the news given the attempted coup that he had to rush home to quell. But this is just another instance of bad media and PR management by yet another prominent Indian political leader.

Also, here is the IDS Director Lawrence Haddad’s blog post on the issue

Simon Maxwell on Robert Chambers

Simon Maxwell mulls on the future of ‘development studies’ here. This post is not on that subject. One of the links in the article is a tribute to Robert Chambers written in 1993, worth reading in full, many times over and from time to time. Some excerpts –

…Robert’s vision of poverty is not the poverty of simple GDP figures or poverty lines.  He has focused always on the individuals who underly the statistics: on their isolation, their powerlessness, their vulnerability to shocks like illness, their coping strategies. He has emphasised that the poor are found mostly in environments which are complex, diverse and risk prone, the so called CDR environments.  He has reminded us that there is a pronounced seasonal pattern to poverty in the developing world. It follows that when Robert Chambers has sought solutions to poverty, he has focused not simply on increasing income, but rather on the empowerment of the poor, on a reduction in their vulnerability, on helping them to exploit the diversity of their environments.  In brief, Robert has sought, on behalf of the poor, secure and sustainable livelihoods…  

…The second theme in Robert’s work that I wish to stress follows from the first.  It is about “listening” and the importance of empowering poor people themselves in seeking solutions to their poverty.  This theme emerged early in Robert’s work, in his research on indigenous technical knowledge, and in the question “whose knowledge counts?”. It was developed in his work on rapid rural appraisal and is now the dominant theme of his work on participatory rural appraisal.  This represents an astonishing contribution to development studies, which is beginning to revolutionise the way that research is carried out…

…Robert has argued that the role of the state is not to provide simple, technical solutions to poor people, but rather to provide opportunities and offer choices.  This is exemplified in his work on agricultural research, where he argues that what farmers need are not “packages of practices” prescribed by agronomists, but rather “baskets of choices” from which they can choose…

Robert continues to inspire generations of development students and professionals. Here is Ravi Kanbur on Robert

Stories in development

‘Instead of encouraging researchers to find out what matters to people, what their cares and concerns are, how they see their lives and what is happening in those lives that development can do something about, they seem to value only that which can be counted.

‘There’s nothing so real as a well-told story. Stories captivate, drawing the reader into a world in which they are totally entangled until the story releases them. The most powerful stories linger in the imagination, leaving something changed in their wake.’

Andrea Cornwall points out that it is not that development does not need numbers. ‘Counting the number of people living with AIDS, the number of women dead or maimed because they were denied safe abortions or the number of people unable to access safe water can make policy makers pay attention to issues they might otherwise not make a priority.’

But, she said: ‘It is time to speak back to the folly and the arrogance of those who try to reduce the complexities of life to proxies and metrics, and create with their numbers the emperor’s new clothes.’

This is Andrea Cornwall, on the Story project

Counter ‘audit culture’: but be sure to get the message right

This was the theme of an event at IDS organised by the PPSC team recently. The participants were concerned about the increasing emphasis on measurable results, which they felt was sometimes at the cost of focusing on ‘social transformation’. According to them, the problem is

Eyben says there are many reasons for the new funding environment which, she argues, fails to recognise the complexity of development and risks losing the voices and knowledge of local actors.

These include supporters’ and taxpayers’ lack of appetite for complex messages; increased pressure for quick ‘wins’ to demonstrate that aid works; and a belief that challenges such as high levels of maternal mortality in many developing countries are solely technical problems for which straight-forward technical solutions can be found.

The group identified the following as the way forward – 
·   Building ‘counter-narratives’ that emphasise accountability to those for whom international aid exists.
·   Developing innovative communication channels in order to better communicate with the public the complex nature of development.
·   Developing different methods of reporting, so that the requirement for aggregated numbers at Northern policy level captures the character of programming in complex development contexts.
·   Collaborating with people working for change inside donor agencies.
·   Re-claiming the term ‘value for money’.
·   Enhancing organisational learning and reflective practice to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and approaches.
·   Scrutinising the role of big business in development aid and its impact on discourse, quality and accountability.
Working in the measurement industry, I can see how this can horribly go wrong. Is the PPSC advocating a return to the time when development interventions were primarily ideology-driven, with results being secondary? I do not think so. What they are pushing back against, is the tendency of aid agencies aiming for what is easily measurable and in turn, ignoring programs that cannot be measured as easily. Worse still, they may be ignoring sectors that don’t lend themselves to easy evaluations, such as justice systems or taxation. 
I wonder if the challenge should not be upon us to come up with a more versatile tool-kit of evaluation methods? We cannot be method-driven, neither in research not in implementation – and  that itself is not a new idea. But with events such as this, that push back on measurement, one needs to be absolutely sure the message doesn’t get muddled in the rhetoric. 

Measuring improved sanitation?

Context matters!

…definitions of ‘improved’ are contested and controversial and do not take into account cultural and local perceptions of what works or not. Many toilets built in the course of Community Led Total Sanitationinterventions would not count as ‘improved’ because they may just be pits in the ground, and not with slabs or pour flushes. Similarly shared toilets/ latrines do not count as ‘improved’ (although governments like Ghana decided to consider the installation of shared sanitation as an improvement). Measurement of MDG progress is by averages which say little about regional variations and variations between socio-economic group or by gender

And some advice for donors

…donors also need to think outside of the MDG box in a more joint up way and break down conventional sectoral barriers. Water and sanitation need to be mainstreamed in wider development, public health and poverty reduction efforts. A village woman in Kenya does not separate out health, water, sanitation and livelihoods concerns. She also knows that school sanitation and an accessible water source will help keep her teenage daughter in school. But policy makers still cling onto their sectors and remits, ignoring the multidimensional aspects of the MDGs and how joint up they need to be on-the-ground 

From IDS