Where are the examples of good donorship in complex systems?

Everyone loves a good scapegoat. When faced with trying something exciting, risky or new, the temptation is to say ‘they’ won’t let us. In the World Trade Organization I’ve heard developing country delegates argue that there is nothing they can do to stop the tide of imports, even when the WTO rules have lots of wiggle room to allow poor countries to protect their vulnerable communities (at the start of the now-dormant Doha round I was part of an attempt to develop and publicise that flexibility through the so-called ‘Development Box’).

Those WTO days came to mind in recent conversations about how to work differently in complex, unpredictable systems. Whereas accountability in simple predictable contexts can be demonstrated by reporting that you have done what you said you would do, accountability in complex unpredictable programmes is about ‘adaptive management’, tweaking the work as you learn more about the system in which you are working, or in response to events. As Keynes once said ‘“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

So much for the theory, but when discussing all this with the people who actually, you know, do stuff, I have been struck by how many of them say ‘thiscomputer_says_no is all great, but the donors won’t allow it.’ Is that really true? At least sometimes, donors are not the problem; we (as in NGOs and other recipients of aid spending) are.

My favourite example is the Chukua Hatua programme in Tanzania, (which I’m visiting again in a couple of weeks – v exciting). DFID had set up the Accountability in Tanzania (AcT ) programme, managed by KPMG. They approached us and said (I paraphrase) ‘here’s £1m to do something innovative on accountability.’ But our first problem was that the Oxfam computer said no – it demanded all the usual outputs, outcomes etc, and for several months we had a problem even accepting DFID’s cash.

When we finally defeated the computer and took the money, we developed an evolutionary approach (try lots of things, consciously select the best and scale them up). But KPMG were not convinced by our theory of change. We had a bit of a wonk showdown between rival ToC nerds (I was Oxfam’s pointy head). They decided our ToC was fine, and got particularly excited when we described it as ‘developmental venture capitalism’, at which point they gave the project another £0.9m (never underestimate the importance of co-opting the right language).

Once convinced, someone from AcT became part of the project discussions – no more’them’ and ‘us’, and DfID started working with us on new ideas, such as getting citizens, especially women and youth, involved in the process of drafting a new national constitution (referendum February 2014). DFID has also adapted the model in Somaliland. So much for inflexible, box-ticking donors.

tajwss logoAnd elsewhere? Another of my favourite programmes, the Tajikistan Water and Sanitation Programme, relies on the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)’s willingness to agree 10 year funding (much longer than the usual project timescale for what could easily be portrayed as a ‘talking shop’ (but has proved remarkably productive). Solutions emerge, in Matt Andrews style, from the forum, but cannot be foreseen and put into a standard funding proposal. The Swiss can live with that.

A quick email exchange with a few evaluation gurus produced some other thoughts:

It’s all about individuals: Ros Eyben’s work on how skilled aid workers learn to ride two horses (aid bureaucracy and real world) simultaneously applies here. Donor fund managers and others can either tick boxes, or use the flexibility that always exists within the rules. Regular contact with the partners on the receiving end can help them work out what needs to be done.

Confidence: If you aren’t sure of your ground, whether as donor or recipient, it’s much easier to play safe and tick the boxes. Assertiveness in suggesting changes to the plan is much harder – how do we support staff to acquire it? You’d think it would be easier for larger INGOs to push back, but only if their internal processes allow them to do so (see ‘computer says no’). And who is supporting smaller local organizations to be more assertive with donors?

Staff shortages and incentives: Ideally, the donor would accompany the programme on its power and change cycle, adapting reporting requirements as the programme evolves. But that runs up against some pretty big obstacles – it complicates the effort to prove value for money if cash donated for one thing is then used for another. But also the cult of low overheads means donor agency staff are under huge pressure to disburse large wads of cash, which leaves little time for getting to know and understand any one programme.

If we are to get better at working in the messy realities of complex economic, social and political systems, we have to take the donors with us. That means working with the good guys, being assertive, and collecting and amplifying examples of good donorship. Please add your own (only genuine candidates – please minimise the level of sucking up to donors!).

Or of course, we could always carry on behaving like Dilbert.

dilbert auditing

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10 Responses to “Where are the examples of good donorship in complex systems?”
  1. Kate

    The Tanzania example seems to involve a donor approaching a trusted NGO partner, where it probably feels safer to be open and flexible. Just giving long-term funding to established organisations would exclude a lot of NGOs and other actors. Any thoughts for how you build flexibility/complexity into the standard donor funding round? – when some applicants might have no track record with the donor and they need a basis for judging between different proposals. Usually application forms want targets and specific activities. Is it enough to redesign forms and guidance (e.g. encouraging a research component), have long inception periods, money for ongoing M&E etc? (And then follow that up with flexible practice from grant managers, as you describe in Tanzania e.g. asking what changes are needed rather than why the NGO has built only 30 out of the target 50 latrines.) Or does it need a completely different approach to allocating funding? I was involved in reworking application forms for a small donor and didn’t know how to deal with this, so any thoughts welcome!

  2. Adam

    Thanks Duncan for another great blog!

    Sadly if only securing the AcT (DFID) support was that easy! I was involved in the inception of the programme, and they certainly didn’t approach us to fund our programme. In fact to the contrary, we had to work hard to convince them of the added value of supporting an international organisation and that we had the dynamic, innovative thinking they were looking for.

    To AcT’s great credit they set an ambitious challenge to Tanzanian civil society – they wanted to only support programmes that:
    a) reached at least 1 million people;
    b) led to a truly step change in impact.

    AcT’s approach and thinking was quite revolutionary for the country and donor landscape at the time. They challenged us and other organisations to ‘raise our game’, and explore new ways of thinking and working. So great credit to AcT and DFID for taking this approach.

    For instance, on the scale side, we immediately had to think outside of the (sometimes traditional) NGO training/workshop ways of working, and look at how we could truly reach scale, e.g. by seeing who was already reaching scale and if/how we could ‘piggy-back’ on them (like commercial advertising or product packing?), and this meant drawing on inspiration from outside of the development sector. This also meant potentially partnering with non-traditional allies, such as mobile phone companies, advertising firms, etc.

    AcT were also keen to pilot the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach, which was new to our regional programme at the time.

    But definitely agree that once AcT agreed to support us, getting over our internal system requirements was fun!

  3. Thanks for writing this, it’s good to get some mixed (I believe nowadays it’s called) truthing on this. I have to mention though that the multiple horse riders, in my experience, are more common than you imply. I’d expect to see a difference in people’s perception of the rigidity based on where and whether they “do stuff” as ‘managers’ or ‘specialists’ perhaps.
    I’m convinced there’s a lot to win if project designs and reporting forms could be better adapted to reality. However, I would like to point out that in the process of developing these, we need to keep in mind that it’s not just about ways of thinking, working and seeing processes. There’re different legitimate needs at different stages. One of which is some degree of formula approaches.
    On a side-note, I’m reminded of Jean-Pierre Olivier deSardan’s Anthropology and Development:
    Understanding Contemporary Social Change
    from 2005 in which he makes a similar point in the introduction (Un-gated summary).

  4. George

    Duncan, This post made me think of the recent work by Tim Harford, profiled in his book Adapt, and some of the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb on his Anti-Fragile concept. Both seem to promote approaches to ‘development’ that respond with adaptative methods to complex and unpredictable environments/conditions. Both authors refer to various case studies, that may be useful to look into. In some senses, both authors promote adaptive approaches linked to learning (and also the process of trial/error and good practice promotion) – so supportive of your comments. In my work on climate change policy and practice in the UK it strikes me we face the same challenges – how to plan and manage interventions on complex and long-term challenges.

  5. Tom

    Everyone does indeed love a scapegoat – and I’ve learned that one of your favourites is basic project cycle management and in particular the logical framework approach.
    But Oxfam has some great examples where we have planned for innovation, risk taking, and search for solutions within the framework of a project plan agreed by donors. Think ‘My Rights My Voice’ (multi country youth programme, http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/our-work/water-health-education/my-rights-my-voice)funded by SIDA for $14 million where we asked the donor to provide $1 million for learning and innovation. Think DFID PPA (Programme Partnership Agreement, http://www.scribd.com/doc/127189094/Independent-Progress-Review-of-Oxfam-GB-s-DFID-General-Programme-Partnership-Agreement-PPA ), which is flexible finance to enable Oxfam to invest in risk taking, innovation, and other strategic priorities that we determine. Both examples are underpinned by strong project cycle management, theories of change, and robust logical frameworks to satisfy what are really very basic and minimal donor requirements.

  6. Olumide

    Thanks for this really interesting article. I think that there are two parts as you mention – making our own internal systems work for us and also carrying the donors along. With regards to being assertive with donors, I think that we have to evolve and begin new kinds of partnerships where INGOs begin to actually band together to support what works and report that to donors instead of simply trying to keep themselves funded. While I understand that this is not an easy proposition; with donor funding having plateaued in 2010 and going flat since, innovation is required and new kinds of partnerships must develop – with the private sectors, donors and organizations previously seen as competitors.

  7. Kate

    To respond to Kate in the first posting of this string… I would agree that some donor systems are too rigid to create the space for start ups. I see that as either a design problem when the fund was set up or else having a back donor not sufficiently results focussed to see the need for a bit of flexibility in process/inputs in order to achieve higher level results. Whilst AcT was set up to deal with large grants to established ‘blue chip’ national and international NGOs we have had to be flexible or else fail to meet our obligations to gender issues and to marginalised groups. In terms of grant management that has meant creating systems not just for substantial six monthly disbursements, but also smaller quarterly and even in one case monthly micro-management until an innovative new partner organisation could get their systems up to speed. The bottom line is as Kate suggests is one of trust – so that both sides of a partnership know what to expect of each other and how to work effectively.

    … and incidentally I don’t recall anyone wandering into Oxfam and offering them a million pounds. They applied like anyone else!

  8. David

    Another example that has gotten some attention on the West side of the Atlantic is a USAID project in Uganda, the Community Connector, which built into its contract plans for adaptation (“The objectives and intermediate results of CC will be achieved through the completion of a series of programmatic stages, called program modules (PM). Programmatic modules will be rolled out in three phases – an assessment and startup phase, a scale-up phase, and an impact phase. The PM system of program management has been selected in order to facilitate adaptations to the program in an environment of continuous learning. By phasing program rollout and scale-up in modules, the successful offeror, in partnership with USAID and external evaluation partners, will be able to identify program successes and failures, and adapt program approaches in future PMs that incorporate lessons learned.”) You can find more at http://www.leadug.com/?page_id=633.

    The USAID AHADI RFP in Kenya, in competition now, has a similar adaptive structure built into its expectations. So hopefully there will be more examples to add to this roster soon.

  9. Jane Lonsdale

    Biggest learning for me on getting that flexibility from donors is to admit that you’re constantly developing your theories- only ever working from a hypothesis to test, so you’re looking to convince them its based on solid assumptions and ideas worth testing- based on previous learning/ programmes elsewhere etc. But that you fully expect to have to make constant adjustments throughout the programme, then massage their ego by convincing them you’d appreciate their technical input on learning from what is and isn’t working and helping to refine your thinking- they are generally bureaucrats who jump at the prospect of being able to use their brain somewhere closer to reality…particularly if they’re poacher turned gamekeeper- old NGOers who moved into donor world – you can spot them a mile off from their wistful talking about the good old days, and they’re probably still wearing birkenstocks. Worth knowing your donors’ background so you know who is and isn’t worth targeting on innovative approaches.