[Re-posted from the ESID blog]

Two weeks ago Harvard Kennedy School and ODI co-hosted a very particular kind of workshop, entitled “Doing Development Differently”. I say particular because I have not attended anything similar in my years as a grad student or researcher: the list of participants was small, largely a self-selected group mixing incredibly qualified veterans and refreshingly energetic newcomers; the format of sessions was heavily geared towards interaction, so that everyone felt like a contributor; the pace of debate was relentless, with real space for reaction and accumulation; and the point of it all was not simply to share knowledge or pad a CV, but to build a community and even lay down the foundations of a manifesto. Credit for all this must go to the three individuals who led the experiment: Harvard‘s Matt Andrews, and ODI‘s Marta Foresti and Leni Wild. Reacting against the unfortunate trend of getting the “usual suspects” of aid together for yet another session of group therapy, they conceived and successfully executed a different model for informed policy debate.

The new normal

So what is “Doing Development Differently”? At its core, it is a different way of imagining and carrying out development interventions. Contrary to what some powerful narratives about “dead aid” or the “tyranny of experts” would have you believe, development assistance can work – indeed, it very much does – but it tends to do so outside of the strictures of conventional development programming. At the workshop we learned from over a dozen cases of innovative interventions in which practitioners were not tied to a logframe or a strict plan of timed “deliverables”. Development works instead when the focus is on processes of change and empowerment, context-sensitive interventions, problem-solving and iteration, (re)design and adaptation as part of implementation, brokerage of reform coalitions, and facilitation of collective action. In other words, the tenets of “Doing Development Differently” are those of smart policy everywhere (including our own advanced industrialized democracies).

There is mounting evidence for “DDD” (the acronym that the conveners themselves used): for starters, the cases presented at the workshop are recorded on video, and available online. And I for one suspect that DDD-like activities – albeit under the radar of the donor counter-bureaucracy – are likely responsible for a lot of “results” reported by successful development projects; the trick being that DDD-style flexibility and adaptability is still not kosher in donor agencies obssessed with counting things. As the evidence mounts, proponents of “Doing Development Differently” will have a much stronger case to make. Perhaps they will feel confident enough to fight back against aid detractors who fixate on the shortcomings of what are essentially naively designed and managed projects: we are long overdue for a narrative shift that clearly communicates to the public that ineffective aid is conventional aid, politically blind and obsessed with control, whereas flexible, politically informed, adaptive aid turns out to be effective – more so perhaps than what a conventional logframe or theory of change can encompass, if one even begins to think about positive externalities (something aid controversies have neglected for decades).

Individual desires meet bureaucratic realities

Notice how I tend to write “aid” instead of “development”? I could not shake the feeling – while ensconced in a Harvard meeting room with a group of mostly aid officials and implementers – that DDD perhaps should have been changed to “Doing Assistance Differently”, at the risk of having a rather Freudian acronym (DAD) instead. This community of like-minded practitioners, researchers and communicators is still incipient, but at the moment it is still overwhelmingly Northern, white and even male (diversity is clearly not one of the D’s); a group taling about aid projects at DFID, the World Bank, or some of the larger NGOs and foundations. And this troubles me, because here at ESID we have ventured down the rabbit hole of aid organizations and found a bureaucratic environment not too welcoming of change.

The potential Achilles’ heel of DDD as an emerging community is the fact that it is composed of individuals – entrepreneurial, creative, passionate – who are forced to work within organizations – consistent, predictable, dispassionate. Inevitably as I listened to each of the DDD cases I wondered whether they were instances of organizational innovation or individual personality; the distinction is crucial, because the latter does not imply the former: as part of our research on donor use of political-economy analysis we have come across a number of examples of innovation in development assistance that ceased or was even forgotten in the mists of institutional amnesia as soon as the relevant protagonists changed jobs.

A cautionary tale

Consider the case of the World Bank in Ghana. When we showed up in Accra last year asking questions about how the Bank approaches governance challenges in the country, we were told flatly “You have chosen the wrong case”. This was interesting for two reasons: first, saying “don’t research this” to a researcher will only make her more curious; second – and most importantly – we had seen evidence of very interesting work done by the World Bank in country over the previous years. If one looks at the documentation and speaks to the right people, it is evident that the Bank’s office in Accra had been at the forefront of “Doing Development Differently” in the five or so years leading up to 2012: political-economy analyses were carried out to inform programming, innovative efforts to build local policy networks were built into project implementation, and a platform was created for Ghanaian experts to provide up-to-date, context-relevant analysis to in-country Bank staff. Despite my use of the passive voice, all these activities were animated by a handful of managers working in tandem with sector specialists. For the most part, these innovations had been enabled by funding from the Governance Partnership Facility, a multi-donor trust fund set up to encourage governance and anti-corruption activites across the World Bank’s portfolio.

The minute these individuals moved on to new positions inside or outside the Bank, however, the kind of innovative work that they had been promoting simply stopped. Not only did Bank operational policies not require – let alone encourage – such an approach from its staff: the fact that they had to rely on an externally-financed trust-fund means that the Bank itself was not really that committed to “doing development differently”. The GPF was never a tool for bureaucratic evolution, but a pool of additional resources enabling those entrepreneurial individuals to experiment with lending instruments and approaches. The Facility succeeded in empowering individuals to do things differently in the positions they occupied, but it generated no institutional memory in country offices like Ghana where everything depended on having the right people doing the right thing at the right time.

The GPF experience in Ghana is a cautionary tale for the emerging DDD community: no matter how dedicated and creative, their better instincts will lead to short-lived change if isolated from the broader context of donor reform.

The future is now-ish

Skpetics will always be ready to heap criticism on what’s new and different: where is the politics, asks Duncan Green; how can we link this to broader governance agendas, asks Alan Hudson; and where is the bureaucratic change, I myself ask. However – and this is a very important ‘however’ – this does not mean that “Doing Development Differently” is not the right way to go. Far from it.

Foreign aid and the donor organizations that disburse it are becoming less and less central to development as governments across the world gain access to loans from non-traditional donors like China or issue bonds in international financial markets. Money is not the challenge for development in the 21st century: policy effectiveness is. And effectiveness requires the sort of context-sensitive, flexible, humble and honest process that DDD proposes. That is indeed the future of aid, perhaps even of development. But cautionary tales and critiques coming from us and other quarters serve as a reminder that the path ahead is not easy, and that – to borrow from our own PEA paper – in order to really transform the development community, not only will DDD need to deploy evidence to prove its policy viability: it will also need to fight to establish its political and administrative viability. In the process of transforming development practice, DDD advocates and entrepreneurs may also have to transform development organizations themselves. For this emerging community, therefore, the task ahead may be one of public advocacy and bureaucratic insurgency.