Can ‘Doing Development Differently’ only succeed if aid donors stay away from it?

Another day, another seminar on Adaptive Management/Doing Development Differently/Thinking and Working


Politically (let’s save words by just calling the whole thing DDD). This one was held under the Chatham House Rule, so no names or institutions. There was an interesting mix of academics and contractors – private companies who increasingly run the big contracts for DFID and other donors, and a few lightbulb moments in the discussion:

Firstly, how come DDD has become such a Thing when it seems to swim against the institutional tides of the aid business? It emphasizes systems thinking, uncertainty, learning by doing/failing and giving priority to local knowledge – that is, to put it mildly, a poor fit with the aid biz’ preference for control, logframes, risk minimization, and predictable, tangible results. At first it seemed like some kind of quixotic backlash against the forces of evil, but it seems to be getting traction all over the place – any theories as to why/how that kind of mainstreaming has happened?

One aid trend which on the face of it seems to run counter to DDD is the shift to outsourcing – DFID and others run multi-million pound contracts through a plethora of largely faceless management consultants and contractors, like Adam Smith International, who periodically get taken to task for profit gouging, poor performance or dodgy dealings. Not all management consultants are the same, but at the gold digger end of the spectrum are some companies who only want to maximise profits and minimise costs – they seem ill suited to the world of DDD, with its focus on uncertainty, deep curiosity, suspicion of blueprints, preference for experimentation, accepting and learning from failure etc. To be fair, at the other end of the spectrum are some contractors who do not seem solely motivated by $, and who are doing some serious work in the DDD area – Palladium, OPM and Abt are examples.

On the Fence
On the Fence

But a more fundamental challenge to the role of aid in DDD came from some of the Harvard crew (oops, there goes Chatham House. Sorry), who work directly with a range of governments to help pursue ‘Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation’. One speaker described its core principle as ‘always give the work back to government – it’s a coaching role, not us doing the work’.

In that model, academics may fly in to help, but they do so at the invitation of the government, and ideally, the government funds and owns the work. Riffing on my much-overused analogy of projects as linear cake recipes, the speaker said ‘PDIA accepts limits to how much we can understand about the system, which is why the cake has to be in hands of the people’. Move over Marie Antoinette.

If you introduce donors into that arrangement, ownership is diluted, and donor priorities and processes take over – the donors provide the recipe, and at best, the government gets to decorate the cake. A nice line from a TWP person: ‘Thinking politically comes naturally to many (in government, civil society etc); working politically less so. People breathe politics, then put it to one side when they talk to funders.’ See this great paper by Graham Teskey and Lavina Tyrrel for more on that.

One example: the vast majority of donor activity assumes the problem is largely known in advance – aid is siloed into education, health, infrastructure, governance etc, with calls from donors for different aid agencies/consultancies to bid for contracts. But PDIA works on the basis that you initially spend a lot of time helping local players clarify and understand the roots of a given problem, which may not look at all like what you start out with (you think the problem is poor quality education, but it turns out to be dodgy electricity or roads, or poor health among kids). Yet Aid doesn’t do agnosticism and finds it hard to hop between siloes. Tricky.

An even more fundamental challenge was raised in terms of systems thinking. The underlying model is of an external intervention into the status quo – the intervention is seen as external to the system that is being intervened in. That is questionable – donors may be only a minor perturbation of the system, in which case seeing them as separate may be a good approximation, but as soon as they start to have impact, they become part of it. Quite apart from the politics of meddling, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in external interveners trying to understand/influence endogenous change as a separate thing from themselves.

So a purist might say ‘keep external roles to a minimum, aid donors stay away, and let local actors lead’. That has two

Not Good
Not Good

massive flaws:

  1. Yes, some governments can fund some of the PDIA style work, but many can’t – if you buy the argument that aid is still needed in many countries, then is there a way to politically sterilize it, taking it away from all the dictates of donors? One option might be to channel it through third parties, like the UN or World Bank, but they are hardly politics-free either.
  2. PDIA-style approaches start with being invited in by someone senior in government, who wants to sort out a problem. But what about governments that don’t want to reform? Can donors tiptoe around the accusations of meddling in internal affairs and support critics, opponents and future leaders with different views? Is that where DDD meets civil society support?

In other words, a good seminar, that left me with lots of questions to ponder.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


8 Responses to “Can ‘Doing Development Differently’ only succeed if aid donors stay away from it?”
  1. Larry Garber

    You hit the nail on the head with your last point. The underlying contradiction of PDIA is the assumption that a government invitation requesting PDIA connotes a commitment to reform. PDIA consultants, therefore, must make an up-front determination as to whether they respond regardless of perceived commitment or they respond only if they make an assessment that the commitment exists. And even if the commitment in principle, or among the government official issuing the invitation, there may still be objection to initiating the type of broad assessment that is essential to PDIA, or opposition from other than the reform-minded minister. Hence, the need for political thinking, which does require more of a judgment by the external actor and more of a willingness to engage, as you suggest, broader elements of society than just the reformist minister. And as you suggest, an ideal subject for a broader seminar discussion.

  2. Mark Wentling

    All very confusing and difficult to sort out. Much of the confusion could be dispelled if donor agencies could return to their roots and do their work themselves, working directly with host governments, and not rely so heavily on contractors and NGOs to design and implement the activities they fund. As long as host government institutions are not strong and competent enough to manage their country’s development processes, it will be difficult to achieve the progress we all seek.

  3. Steve Golub

    Duncan, I fully agree with your critical analysis and questions, and with Larry’s good comment about the underlying contradiction and related matters. To my mind, one key question you pose is: “But what about governments that don’t want to reform?” The issue becomes even more challenging in that even if there is a given minister or official who’s somewhat committed to reform, or at least not opposed to it, there may be many other individuals and government institutions who may deliberately block it or simply stymie it in terms of the corruption, patronage, gender biases, bureaucratic perspectives or other influences that determine how they go about their work.

    But the challenge goes far beyond how government officials do or do not relate to PDIA or whatever the latest flavor of the month is in development discourse. I’d suggest a seminar/discussion that addresses the elephant in the room: The political economy of how international development organizations (broadly defined here to include bilaterals and multilaterals, but also international NGOs and not lease the consulting firms that increasingly dominate the field) operate. This crucially determines how aid does and does not work, regardless of whether it is PDIA.

  4. pjevans

    coz tonight we’re gonna PDIA like it’s 1993…

    Is there an echo here of the huge excitement and belief in Participatory Rural Apraisal (and its cousins) in the early 1990s, which generated a lot of energy and support but ran up against the hard limits of donor and government realities, and so never quite changed the world as we thought it would? Possible echoes include… numerous names and different variants, enthusiasm getting in the way of more critical evaluation, specialist consultants telling us how to do it, and ultimately a brilliant idea that never quite broke out of the niche…

  5. Having worked in aid delivery for some 40 years, I believe I have a good grasp on what this is all about. In the 60’s aid delivery was focused on trying to give developing countries what they might want since using Africa as an example, it was considered that they did not know what they wanted. This saw the disasters such as in Tanzania the WB inspired policy that for development everyone had to live on a road. Many countries were also pushed backward by aid funding superfluous and outdated European equipment. The argument was always put forward that aid did not have to be cost-effective but at least it kept the locals at home and provided a link for dialogue and in Africa, to mitigate Russian influence. Agencies such as FAO did try and actively help because they themselves did not have money so had to get it from other agencies. Then you saw the emergence of the Japanese sponsored ADB wanting to establish their credibility in Asia while at the same time promoting Japanese business interests. By the 80’s you started to see the consolidation of the large consulting companies which in many cases simply became job shops reacting to policies laid down by the donors. These policies are meant to be country inspired but in many cases are simply donor instigated. This can be demonstrated by looking at the large number of environmental and greening projects being followed into countries who don’t yet even have basic plumbing. Consulting companies simply have to follow the money to get the jobs and to get them, even when hired to design projects, they need to be cognizant of what the donors want. From this one could conclude that the aid cycle is donor-driven rather than left to the country itself, best proven by my recent case where Belgium Technical Assistance removed the government’s experts on a project (including me) to replace them with their own by threatening to withdraw aid. Hard to usually prove but this time I managed. The bottom line in aid delivery is as per Australian policy, give as part of your foreign policy and your friends, so let them have some say in what they really want. Other donors seem to as in the Belgium case, only want to give for what they want and the consulting companies just have to adjust accordingly.

  6. Jeremy Astill-Brown

    It sounds as though you had an interesting session thinking about difficult issues. But I confess that I feel moved to respond – and presumably to invite criticism on my own head – because I don’t think your piece is up to your usual high standards.

    DDD has become a thing because orthodox approaches – much beloved of donors – are simply being proved not to be appropriate to anything other than the most mechanistic of processes. PDIA is how people live their lives, and if the goal is to change their behaviour then understanding the problem and working towards the solution makes sense. But there is a tension here for donors. Too often they see what they wish was there, rather what actually is. So PDIA is also a process of learning for donors and implementors. (Disappointing, perhaps, that the learning seems to have to wait until after action is contemplated. But there it is.) Inherent in this, of course, is the question of why people do what they do. And the truth is that motivation comes in many different forms. Just because a meeting is between, say, a donor and a Minister for Planning (or the like) doesn’t automatically mean that the two actually share a common frame of reference or world view. (But both may claim to for the purposes of political expediency.)

    Sub-contracting is a problematic area. But – speaking as a former HMG employee who enjoyed implementing programmes but pretty much had to leave when the work ran out – it was DFID who made the market, not the private sector. To burnish the lamp and then complain when the genie doesn’t turn out to be as benevolent as one had hoped seems a lame excuse to me. The market is what the market is. And even the groups you mention with such affection are motivated by profit. Perhaps – dare I say this – ASI and the like are just more honest? I should say that I have done several DDD like jobs for organisations you might characterise as “profit gougers”, and I have never come under any pressure to meet a sales target. Rather, I have always been given the scope and the means to do what needs to be done – and well.

    I fear that hoping that governments will choose DDD for themselves is the height of naivety. But they might if it was clearer to them that the interests advanced by the donors were more likely to be shared. Too much of the discourse is characterised by patronising claptrap unmediated by a sense of common interest. Donors need to be better at politics, as well as their programmes. (I often find myself in a position of trying to limit the likely damage from programme concepts which are not based on the lived reality of the people they seek to affect.)

    The point about putting PDIA-like approaches to one side at the doorway to the donor forum is, however, depressingly familiar. Working on one failing programme in central Africa, I challenged the staff – all of whom could speak with real insight about the whirlpools and eddies of political life in their country – to bring their insight to work. They replied that they thought their job was to ape the donor’s world view and behaviour, not to challenge it.

    So, champion ownership and criticise the market all you like. But as Jesus is reported by the Bible to have said in the Sermon on the Mount, “ first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

    Can we have less following the herd in this debate and bit more useful and original thinking which recognises the political and practical realities of actually doing stuff?

  7. Michael Fox

    Ordinarily I’m a very big fan of your blog. But this time I can see a number of comments that I find pretty disappointing. Some of these comments are more reflective of a person ignorant of how donors work, rather than someone who is very familiar with the overseas aid/development sector. I don’t think contractor-bashing is particularly helpful either.

    For starters, like many who don’t really get how the DFID’s of this world work, you use the word, ‘outsourcing’, and for some reason do so in a disparaging manner. How could DFID possibly do the opposite and ‘in-source’? DFID and similar donors to not run aid programmes. They fund programmes, and design programmes, but they typically don’t deliver/operate them. You could perhaps make an argument that they could do more designs themselves rather than outsourcing those to consultants (whether independent or part of larger contractors). But don’t pretend for a minute that a decision by DFID to use a contractor to deliver a programme is a choice not to do something themselves (i.e. stop perpetuating the myth of ‘outsourcing’).

    Furthermore, you cast some pretty rough aspersions on contractors, which don’t seem fair on the weight of evidence. Perhaps you forget that most of the people working for aid/development contractors are the same people who work for donors, multilateral agencies, and even NGOs like Oxfam. I’ve worked in this industry quite a while, across all these types of organisations, and I don’t see some massive divide between a bunch of money-hungry contractors, and a set of angelic, well-meaning not-for-profits. The vast majority of people in this industry, no matter which organisational type they work for, are all interested in bettering the situation of our fellow human beings. It’s high time we all stop disparaging each other’s motives and methods.

    • Duncan Green

      Point taken Michael, but on the last para, I still believe there is a fundamental institutional difference btw for profit and non profit organizations. It’s not about whether people are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s about the institutional pressures and incentives, which are different in different sectors. Organizations driven by a profit motive are more likely to try and maximise profits. Seems like a no brainer to me! The discussion then should be in what situations (eg what kinds of project design, or sector) does that urge to increase profits undermine the end goal of aid?