Doing Development Differently: Report back from two mind-blowing days at Harvard

Spent an intense two days at Harvard last week, taking part in a ‘Doing Development Differently’ (DDD) seminar, hosted by Matt Andrews, who runs Harvard’s ‘Building DDD logosState Capability’ programme and ODI. About 40 participants, a mixture of multilaterals and donors (big World Bank contingent), consultants and project design and implementation people, and a couple of (more or less) tame NGO people like me (here’s the participants list).

The purpose was to learn from success, based on 15 short (7m) filmed presentations, which are all online, and ensuing discussions. The premise of the meeting was that there is something like an incipient movement around DDD. As you would expect at such an early stage, it is fragmented and messy (people using the same words to mean different things, lack of clarity on what is/is not included, overlap with other initiatives like the Thinking and Working Politically crew etc), and clearer on what it is against (linear thinking, tyranny of the logframe etc) than what it is for. So this meeting aimed to try and clarify terms and ways of thinking, and build something like a community of practice and consensus among adherents.

The main focus of the discussions was how to bring about institutional reform, in particular of the state – the theme covered by Matt’s great book. So lot’s about civil service reform and that kind of thing. But they had some outliers – I spoke about our work supporting grassroots Women’s Leadership Groups in Pakistan. The common elements that emerged from the case studies include:

Iteration: Place lots of small bets, ‘fail fast and cheap’ (a research assistant running off with $20k to have a sex change operation definitely takes the biscuit), make sure you have realtime monitoring and feedback, and mechanisms in place to let you learn and adjust the programme as you go. This is the antithesis of ‘spend 2 years designing the perfect project, and then roll implacably out’.

Success is based on relationships. Your key people have to be deeply immersed in the culture (either because they are local, or at least have lived there for decades rather than years). As an outsider, it’s only when you start getting invited to the weddings that you know you have a chance of understanding what is really going on.

Deep study of the system, based on continuous observation and listening. In Nicaragua, UNICEF sent public officials out to try and access the public services they were administering, and even made the men carry 30lb backpacks to experience what it’s like being pregnant! This is all about immersion, rather than the traditional ‘fly in, fly out’ consultant culture.

networks-200_r3Quick wins are vital to build momentum. Low morale is often a major obstacle – state officials resigned to the impossibility of change. So showing quick results both builds confidence, and gets the big bosses excited and supportive.

Brokering is often more important than delivery. A lot of the work involves brokering discussions between different state bodies who seldom talk to each other, or between donors and governments who are at loggerheads. Facilitation skills are crucial.

Incrementalism: This approach favours lots of small steps, going with the grain of existing institutions, rather than big bangs or shock therapy

So what are the problems with such an approach? In terms of making it function in the current aid environment:

First, it is heavy on staff and salaries – building relationships, mentoring and coaching etc takes time, tricky if the donor is determined to shift lots of money fast.

It is often necessary to try and ‘get the cash off the table’ so that officials’ eyes are on finding solutions to problems, rather than dazzled by dollar signs. Options include pushing it into ‘payment by results’ (I was struck by how far the World Bank has moved on this), having no money anyway (an NGO speciality) or making it clear from the beginning that big contracts are not on offer.

complexity signResults are a ‘perennial problem’. ‘We’re best when we are invisible’ said one speaker, but how do you demonstrate results while being invisible? Interesting discussions on whether we need to develop new metrics to measure trust – an equivalent to the private sector’s obsessive monitoring of brand loyalties. In any case ‘unless we can demonstrate value for money, this wave may pass’.

Who in the aid business stays anywhere for 10 years? Not if you want to develop your career, anyway. Success seems to involve handing over power and control to local staff or partners – something the big donors seem to find rather difficult.

But I have some broader concerns, which echo some of my worries about elements of the ODIs Africa Power and Politics Programme. Namely, what are the politics of all this? For all its talk of understanding context, politics etc, the overall discussion felt extremely technocratic. Understanding politics appears to be mainly of instrumental value in that it helps you implement a reform programme more effectively, but there was little discussion on who decides the content of the programme. So are we talking about tweaks or transformation? Is everything win-win, or are there sometimes conflicts because someone loses out? Does it matter whether we apply these approaches in an autocracy or a democracy? Apparently not. A few times I raised the issue of power and social justice, and how it distorts relationships and policy choices, but should be at the centre of what we do, but this was largely shrugged off – I’m starting to realize how gender advisers must feel.

And then there was a fascinating conversation about the tyranny of ‘The Project’, but that will have to wait for tomorrow.

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15 Responses to “Doing Development Differently: Report back from two mind-blowing days at Harvard”
  1. Marcus

    Hi Duncan. Really great to hear about the DDD initiative. The things you list as how to do DDD resonates with what we are promoting in market systems development. Here the focus is not so much on institutional reform or grassroots development, but developing more inclusive markets. Your list perfectly matches with what is being discussed in market systems development: iteration, relationships, system analysis, brokering and adaptive management (incrementalism). The problem the field faces are also rigid donor requirements, logframes, etc.

    And also similarly, power structures aren’t talked about as much as they should be. So far, most projects are looking for win-win solutions that work for businesses but bring more income/jobs to ‘the poor.’ But I think that if we want to get sustainability and resilience right, we need to talk about power as well.

    More on market systems development on the newly launched BEAM Exchange: We hope to be a place where similar discussions like the one described by you about DDD can happen.

  2. Paddy Carter

    I don’t think talking about really understanding what’s going on is consistent with the fashion for complexity theory.

    Also I would like to read more about what putting what you think needs to be put at the centre of what we do, means.

  3. David Jacobstein

    As a proponent of both thinking & working politically and doing development differently, I’d be quite curious to get your take on the difference between the two, which you hint at. It seems to me that although they have similar prescriptions for what to avoid – linear thinking, cookie-cutter “best practice” methods, context-free expert knowledge – they situate the challenge of development differently in a couple of important ways.

    TWP seems to argue that sticky development challenges require alterations in power balances or coalitions within society, and understanding the landscape is part of sorting out where to put donor funds/influence to appropriate leverage points, changing framing of issues, and connecting potential allies to achieve change. Relationships matter, but those among local stakeholders are paramount. Importantly, they view the legacy of that change as empowered people as much as what those people achieve.

    DDD seems to argue that sticky development challenges require a more collective approach to problem solving that puts developing country governments in the driver’s seat, and setting donor programming to work for and with those local leaders more deliberately. Donors together with country stakeholders will learn together, iterate and adapt, and insert external and local knowledge as needed to achieve change. Relationships matter, especially those between donors and local stakeholders. Quick wins can build momentum and set down a path toward addressing more robust challenges over time, while the process of collective action can break down divides and foster trust required to tackle bigger challenges.

    I find a lot to appreciate in both, and it may be that DDD work is an example of applied working politically when done well. I also like that the DDD model doesn’t put too much emphasis on donor analysis, as distinct from how the problem is understood locally – really shifts the donor-recipient country power dynamic if taken seriously. That said, I would worry that if DDD practitioners do not have their own understanding of the political dynamics and desire to use their heft in support of giving voice to those without, they will always be in a cycle of quick wins that does not change structural aspects of power relationships that may be root causes of many challenges. And I also fear that it sets up the role of donors and host governments to create reform spaces and invite others in, which is helpful but leaves aside questions of a sense of agency by various stakeholders and a willingness to look to claimed spaces rather than just invited spaces as arenas of reform for development.

    It seems that there could be real power in a synthesis of the two, as well as some clarity among proponents of where their emphases and approaches differ. Would love a post from you on how you see the overlap and differences between them!

  4. Leni Wild

    Thanks for the report back and its great to see the reactions and interest in comments too.

    My reflection on “the politics” is that many of the case studies I listened to talked concretely about how they worked politically to get things done – and, sometimes, to challenge power and to bring people (or users) much more centrally into problem-solving (see Natalia Adler, Zack Brisson and Jamie Faustino’s presentations for just a few examples from the Storify). Maybe its about moving from talking about “the politics” to actually demonstrating how you work on them or to change them, and who should lead this? It feels like there is definitely a shared agenda here.

    And a final note – I’m not sure about adding another acronym into the mix (i.e. DDD), so any thoughts on how to communicate some of this going forwards?

    • Tomas Bridle

      Leni makes a very valid point about the abundance of acronyms and the need for effective communication, but I draw the opposite conclusion… DDD is a better term than TWP. Its speaks to a broader audience. It describes an outcome rather than a process. It resonates with other agendas and approaches. It doesn’t produce the familiar flinching at anything “political”. And alliteration always makes a better acronym. Language and presentation are especially important when advocating for broader adoption of PEA, TWP, DDD, etc approaches within donor agencies whose own political economy lines up against that kind of change.

  5. Søren

    I can’t let this opportunity pass. So, apologies in advance to those getting a bit tired of my endless banging on about institutional theory.

    I think the missing link to politics and power is hidden in the unconscious acceptance of a contemporary take on institutions that doesn’t fully catch the dynamical complexity of institutions. Allow me to block quote from Avner Greif:

    “Successful reform requires much more than a change of rules; it requires creating new systems of interrelated institutional elements that motivate, enable, and guide individuals to take particular actions. Reform must first empirically identify, rather than assume, the transactions that are important for improving welfare, as they depend on local conditions and institutions.

    Such considerations entail recognizing that institutions are not rules, that institutional development is a sequential process in which past institutional elements matter, that an institution’s implications depend on various conditions, and that different institutions are better in different circumstances.

    ..we have to recall that the very same cognitive, coordinative, normative, and informational factors that make institutions important determinants of behaviour forestall devicing institutional reforms. Given a particular context, it is difficult to know what institutions are beneficial or what the long-term implications are of introducing new institutional elements. (…) An institution that represents a better fit with existing ones may be easier to implement, but it may reinforce other institutions that are better undermined.”

    (Avner Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy Pp402-404

  6. Arnaldo Pellini

    Hi Duncan, nice article. One quick question, since here in Indonesia we are working on a theory fo change for the Knowledge Sector Initiative: do you think that iteration, building trust and relationships, brokering, quick wins, etc. fit with the a theory of change approach?

  7. Kartik Akileswaran

    I lean more toward Leni’s interpretation–many of the cases that were presented were inherently about people (insider and outsiders) and organizations engaging with local processes, structures, etc. to actually try to do things. What is this other than politics? I suppose what you’re getting at is a clearer articulation of strategies of engagement? That would be helpful, but I don’t think its absence suggests that the small-p politics aren’t front and center in the examples that were given.

    I do agree, however, that the meta-politics around who decided what to do in these cases was not a topic of discussion, which is related to your point on power/social justice. Personally, I very much appreciated your efforts to raise the issue of power, although I’m not always sure how to approach the topic in the abstract. I suppose it would have gained more analytical leverage/salience if we had discussed reform losers, working in different political systems, etc. to a greater extent.

    I also wanted to pick up on David’s comment above–I too would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how TWP and DDD compare thus far. Reading David’s second paragraph, it seems to me that if you took out the “TWP”, it would be hard to know which group–TWP or DDD–he was referring to.

    Thanks for the write up!

  8. Jindra

    Dear Duncan, delighted to be updated on DDD… especially building more country-led development. As am hoping that participants take centre-stage, that we stop thinking of development only from our 1-5 year project-based assistance’s perspective but from the continuum of peoples’ lives. Why don’t we calculate projects’ economic benefits/ the Return on Investment to participants (crudely put, the ‘bang for the buck” of our projects in their view)? Why don’t we have communities evaluating our projects value to them in terms of sustainably being able to feed themselves, be more democratic, what they were able to self-sustain? While initiatives like USAID Forward are starting to channel funds directly to local organizations, how are we in the west trying to put ourselves out of a job by training local NGOs to supplant us, for instance, or support capacity/ create systems in Ministries to take over all but our funding? Lots of questions – an exciting initative!!

  9. Dil

    This is a great article, and really interesting to hear the themes being discussed within DDD. There’s some great bottom-line business style approaches here, but a lot of it doesn’t really feel radical or like doing development differently, it’s just how it logically should be done i.e. real time monitoring so you can adjust as you go. Having spent the last eight years in east africa, my gut reaction is many development organisations (especially the locally grown ones and small/medium sized orgs) are moving faster in this direction than the larger ‘supermarket’ style INGOs. All that said, it would be great to pick up grassroots models and examples of where DDD is enabling local organisations and grassroots movements to accelerate their results.

  10. Claire Hughes

    Hi Duncan. You mention the high management costs associated with a DDD approach. From experience, I completely agree that this is the case! Have you come across any good literature which discusses this in more detail? Many thanks.