Is this the best paper yet on Doing Development Differently/Thinking and Working Politically?

Some of the old lags have reacted to all the hype around TWP/DDD with ‘any aid worker worth their salt knows that all ready – what’s new’?’ODI2cover1-508x675

An outstanding new paper from Jaime Faustino and David Booth takes up that challenge in one particular context – advocating reforms in the Philippines – that has much wider implications. Jaime works for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines, and has become something of a TWP celebrity. At the ODI, David has been an influential voice in rethinking governance work. Their paper is crisply written, full of concrete suggestions, and thoroughly engrossing.

Their focus is ‘development entrepreneurs’ (DEs) – not grandstanding politicians, or Tahrir Square type revolutionaries, but the usually-invisible reformers working within the system, in this case to introduce substantial reforms in education, taxation, civil aviation regulation or property rights (I’ve covered some of these stories in a previous post). The paper is aimed at the big bilateral agencies, but has clear implications for NGOs too.

Here’s how the authors summarize the role of DEs

‘Their focus is on identifying objectives that are technically sound and politically possible. Technical soundness is assessed in terms of:

1. Impact: The likelihood the measure will change the incentives and behavior of people and organizations sufficiently, so development outcomes improve;

2. Scale: The prospects the reform will spread well beyond the initial project site; and

3. Sustainability: The likelihood the reform will continue without additional donor support.

becoming-an-entrepreneurExperience in the Philippines suggests, in addition, there is particular value in aiming for reforms that are ‘self-implementing’ in the sense that they lock in new market dynamics or patterns of behavior. This is most likely to be achieved by measures that alter the incentives of politicians, officials, firms and/or citizens without requiring them to redefine their interests or values in a fundamental way. In addition, the selected objective needs to be politically possible, meaning there is a reasonable prospect of the change being introduced, given the prevailing political realities.

The second distinctive feature of the model is the use of an entrepreneurial logic that encourages iterative ‘learning by doing’. Navigating through complex development challenges to discover possible pathways to reform must involve a great deal of trial and error.

Entrepreneurial logic involves making a series of small bets instead of seeking large all-or-nothing opportunities. Decisions at each stage depend on educated guesses, drawing on an equal combination of science, the results gained with small bets and imagination. This involves embracing error as a vital source of learning and the willingness and ability to adjust to new information in a dynamic environment.

Part of the attraction of the DE concept is that it builds on a lot of research and experience in the private sector. Jaime and David summarize ‘five principles of entrepreneurship’, each of which raises important challenges for NGOs (summarized in the square brackets):

1. Bird in Hand: An acceptance of how the world is, what resources are at their disposal and whom they know. [NGO angle: tension with normative/transformational agenda – too much acceptance of status quo here?]

2. Affordable Loss: Recognition that failures and setbacks are part of the process of finding and determining the ‘winning formula’. Instead of making large bets at the start, entrepreneurs make a series of small bets. Based on feedback and assessment, further actions are taken. [NGO angle: who absorbs losses – partners, NGOs or their funders?]

3. Strategic Partnerships: Understanding that collaboration, working with others, is essential for success. Entrepreneurs build partnerships with self-selecting stakeholders. By obtaining these commitments from key partners early on, entrepreneurs reduce uncertainty and co-create with interested partners. [NGO angle: that doesn’t sound very inclusive – what about voices that are not already at the table? And what are implications for attribution and proving impact?]

4. Leveraging Contingencies: Awareness that new developments and surprises can be turned into opportunity. For entrepreneurs, the correct response to surprises is ‘adjust and embrace the change’. [NGO angle: a big challenge – see you can’t take a supertanker white-water rafting]

5. Pilot in the Plane: Entrepreneurs tend to focus on activities within their control. ‘An entrepreneurial worldview is based in the belief that the future is neither found nor predicted, but rather made.’ [NGO angle: when you’re small, fewer things are within your control – the danger is that seeking to be in charge reduces your ambition by making you focus on easily measurable impacts, rather than ‘riding the wave’]

The key to this way of working is failing and learning faster – can NGOs do speed?

DEs are leaders, but of a different sort from the national Big Men (Kagame, Meles) who I’ve previously criticised David for being too keen on. Above all, Mike Tysonthey work in small teams (the paper quotes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: If it takes more than two pizzas to feed the team, it is too big). They add some fascinating suggestions (see box) for the kind of skills that a team needs to bring together.

What can external supporters (aid agencies, INGOs etc) do to help/not hinder Development Entrepreneurs? The paper recommends backing ‘intermediary organizations’ with the skills to spot and support DEs (which probably means cloning Jaime), and spending more via flexible grant agreements. ‘As one development entrepreneur put it to us, ‘We are going to do this anyway, so giving us resources is a bonus and makes it a little easier.’’ I suspect that was Jaime too. Maybe the next paper should be entitled ‘where there is no Faustino’……

And my favourite quote of the paper (and 2015 thus far): ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’ – from Mike Tyson (and he should know).

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15 Responses to “Is this the best paper yet on Doing Development Differently/Thinking and Working Politically?”
  1. Ken Caldwell

    Is the idea of development entrepreneurs really so new?

    Ashoka ( has been spotting and supporting development entrepreneurs for over 30 years, and have written some great stuff about what they have learned along the way.

  2. David Booth

    Ken, thanks, but you won’t find our paper is making big claims for novelty. What we do claim is that ideas of this sort have made less headway in development than in several other fields of human endeavour; that the development business keeps forgetting what it “knows”; and that even if it is the case that everyone knows that blueprint planning doesn’t work, this is still by far the dominant practice.

  3. Daria Ukhova

    Thanks for sharing this, Duncan. I don’t know, if the authors have done it already elsewhere, but I think it also would be interesting to see whether the role of DE’s in what we call ‘restricted contexts’ is even more important. In Russia, work with DE’s is basically at the core of the advocacy strategy.

  4. Nanci Lee

    Great article. At the Coady Institute, we talk about going where the energy is. The tail wagging the dog.

    A friend of mine who was an environmental activist for years just entered the provincial government here. She has a beautiful addition to the dog metaphor based on her observations of working inside bureaucratic and political realities. “You have to get (or support) the tail wagging WHILE keeping the dog from sitting on it.” Another good basis for a paper.

  5. Jaime Faustino

    I have a comment on Duncan’s idea “Maybe the next paper should be entitled ‘where there is no Faustino’……”

    Others have and always will be there — Ken’s point on Ashoka argues along those lines. One of the central arguments of the paper is that development entrepreneurs and those who work with them (“program intrapreneurs” in donors and intermediaries) only emerge and become visible with the right lenses and modalities. If you let out contracts you tend to attract the “follow the rules” types who will produce outputs but not necessarily outcomes. If you let out grants that encourage creativity and innovation, you will more likely attract ‘entrepreneurial” types.

    The good news is that soon there will be more evidence of others working this way beyond the Philippines! With funding from DFAT, the Asia Foundation has three on-going experiments in Bangladesh, Mongolia, and Cambodia testing the principles of the model. Here is an example of the promising work in Bangladesh: And ODI has on-going “action research” tracing the reforms efforts. I hope Duncan will share those when published.

  6. Joe Ryan

    The paper by Mr. Faustino and Mr. Booth addresses the current state of an art — using foreign development assistance to support local leaders in their efforts to improve public policy — that has a long history. The authors are hugely qualified to speak on this. One risk of focusing on the most recent discussions, however, is becoming enmeshed in the confusion that has developed around the term “political,” as in the “working politically” locution.

    “Political” alternately means “public” and “partisan.” Economic policy deals with the public interest, not partisan interests, while “democracy aid” tends to include, at least on one end of the spectrum, engagement of official development assistance in partisan affairs, up to and including covert “assistance” and regime change.

    Those who would prefer “political” in the “public interest” sense confront an environment in which they may find that funding for public policy work is less available from “Economic Growth” sources and more predominantly available from “Democracy” sources. (For two reasons: the progress that has been made in poverty reduction and the geopolitics of the Berlin Wall-Iraq era.)

    I say this to counsel caution and to suggest the use of clarifying language. Where Faustino and Booth say, “development entrepreneurship is one such model,” they might have situated DE more explicitly in the “political” spectrum. (This is not to say that debate on matters of public interest does not engage partisan interests also.)

    On a more positive note, I support the authors’ emphasis on entrepreneurs, leaders, and even “elites” (section 1.1) as keys to fostering institutional change. This importance should lead us to ask where those leaders come from: from where they “are distilling their frenzy,” as someone once put it. I suggest that their professional education is an important, even vital contributor to their career productivity. I wonder if Mr. Faustino and Mr. Booth agree.

    If so, then we should be sure that we are investing as we should in local professional education institutions and programs.

  7. Jaime Faustino

    Joe Ryan’s suggestion that “we should be sure that we are investing as we should in local professional education institutions and programs” makes alot of sense.

    But I’d like to suggest donors moving further by explicitly encouraging their partners to incorporate the political dimension in their programs. I have seen two advantages. One is that the analysis gets sharper and deeper. In our cases, researchers who engaged politically developed much clearer insights of the barriers to introducing reform and were able to craft policies that directly addressed the binding constraints. A second advantage, as argued in the paper and by many others, is that combining the technical and political dimensions can likely increase aid effectiveness and ultimately improve the lives of millions.

  8. Steven Rood

    A quick clarification and a comment.

    The clarification is that Jaime Faustino often disclaims that he is the development entrepreneur and asserts that he manages in a sensitive and productive way development entrepreneurs and their activities. (It is possible that DEs work for a donor, but then the accusation of “political” interference [in Joe Ryan’s 2nd sense] is more likely.)

    The comment is that of course it is possible to have development entrepreneurs working on contract. The Asia Foundation in the Philippines won the USAID COMPETE economic reform contract precisely because it recruited (as staff or as sub-contractors) many of the DEs who had been involved in previous cooperative agreements and grants. As a contractor, it is USAID who is out in front, but lots of the same tactics to get results are possible (with the political cover that these are explicitly approved by the Philippine government). Of course, the fiscal and administrative arrangements are considerably more convoluted, but we did want to stay in the economic reform space.

  9. Blair Glencorse

    Many thanks Duncan, for an excellent post on what is a very useful paper. At the Accountability Lab ( we’ve been working for several years on a model to support what we call “accountapreneurs” or citizens with creative ideas at the intersection of accountability and entrepreneurship. The idea has been to help these people build effective tools for accountability, and the communities around them to make them sustainable (particularly in “difficult” contexts- the likes of Liberia, Nepal and so on). Much of our thinking corresponds very closely to that of Jamie and David- in that we look for citizens with good ideas, commitment to change with limited resources, and the potential for high impact. We act as an “incubator” for their ideas- some work and some fail (“small bets”), but we learn lessons and look to scale-up the ones that look like they work and can be sustained over time. We provide support in flexible ways (everything from design of tools, to thinking through social media to brokering key relationships) and encourage collaboration (through monthly, oral “accountability collectives”).

    We’ve learned a number of things that are perhaps not entirely new (re: the reinventing the wheel issue) and perhaps need a longer forum for discussion- but revolve around issues such as: building trust through listening; the importance of non-financial resources; the need to build like-minded communities; and the need to “walk the talk” ourselves on issues of transparency. We do feel that grant-making in this space needs to shift somewhat from the “specific” to the “emergent” and there is a discussion to be had about taking more of a venture capital approach to funding- for transparency and accountability at least.

    Jamie- your new research sounds very interesting and we’d be very happy to chat about our experience if that would help at all.

  10. David Booth

    Blair, Thanks for this interesting additional connection and example of the feasibility of working in a more entrepreneurial and locally led way.
    It brings to mind an important feature of the model that Jaime has developed in the Philippines which sets it apart from many other attempts to do things differently in development. It tries (and succeeds) to get significant improvements in development outcomes through specific reforms that, in an important sense, don’t require the leopard to change its spots. Unlike huge numbers of donor and NGO-supported initiatives in the ‘governance’, ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ fields, this model assumes that it is probably impossible to get fundamental, durable changes in the way country systems work in the short or medium term, however desirable that might be. Crucially, it rejects the idea, which has little basis in historical experience anywhere, that the ONLY way to achieve breakthroughs in development is to get better governance, more accountability etc FIRST.
    For that reason, some of us believe that it is time for the innovative thinking about ways of working that has been taking place recently to ‘get out of the governance ghetto’ — that is start with developmental reform objectives and work entrepreneurially on those without making many prior assumptions about the sorts of relationships and process changes that are likely to help in getting there. In this context, I wonder if the Accountability Lab work would be more productive – and more genuinely entrepreneurial – if it were less bound by the need to be working on accountability.
    NB, this is not a criticism of your work, but a general concern I have (as someone who comes to development through governance),one that has been increased by the refreshing experience of interacting with Jaime.

  11. Pete Vowles

    Great blog – I look forward to reading the paper.

    Its also really interesting to see the other recent ODI papers on adaptive programming today and see this agenda moving from the niche of governance to wider development practice, with much read across to the WDR 2015.

    Huge interest in this in DFID.

  12. Blair Glencorse

    David- many thanks and I agree- it is hard to change these dynamics, particularly in the short-term; and we should be thinking about all of this within a broader developmental approach. The governance ghetto is certainly not a place to be stuck. One way we’ve been approaching this, though, is rather than asking the whole leopard to change it’s spots, as it were, but to look at how to “name and fame rather than name and shame”. That is- look at individuals or groups who are finding pathways for change, and work outwards from them to try and create broader circles of accountability, rather than trying to fill the giant gaps that exist (which seems to be what most of development tries to do). This seems to be more feasible because it is somewhat more politically palatable. Our recent Integrity Idol TV show in Nepal ( was a first step in trying to be creative in at least identifying individuals within a system who we might be able to work with further.