Wednesday 18 February 2015

ODI goes retro: the backlash begins

Back to the future with ODI

David Booth of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) yesterday published a think piece which essentially questions the relevance of governance to developmental progress. Positioning himself as the little boy pointing out a naked emperor he draws on recorded history and one or two other writers in support of his argument, which is basically that economic progress happens first – everything else happens afterwards. He neatly tries to take apart the consensus, momentum and progress that has been made throughout the post-2015 marathon, during which citizens have consistently and in overwhelming numbers expressed their desire to see open, transparent, accountable and responsive governments, in the form of five ‘myths’.

This, to my mind, is a retrograde argument that belies where it comes from: from where I am standing it’s part of a backlash from those who would prefer that ‘international development’ (define that how you will) remains essentially an economists playground, and should be pursued through an economists, technical approach. All that governance, power and political stuff is just too messy, you see. Wouldn't that approach have worked by now, though? 

At the heart of David’s piece, in my reading of it, is the idea that ‘development’ is essentially economic growth alone. It is clear throughout his argument that David conceives of development as being solely about economic growth rather than, for example, political institutions. In fact he specifically dismisses them. So with such a narrow definition of development it becomes possible to make the case he does. Or does it? What sort of economic growth are we talking about? 72% of the world’s poorest people live in Middle Income Countries. In other words even when you have economic growth as measured by GDP you do not necessarily achieve equitable economic growth and, thus, the majority of people remain poor. And, in situations where violence is routinely used by elites, very vulnerable. Without a politically engaged and aware population, who are able to hold their governments to account through robust political institutions, that situation will not change any time soon and the glaring inequalities it creates and perpetuates will contribute directly to the potential for violence. Which will disrupt growth. Now how much “development” have you achieved? One of the reasons the World Development Report of 2011 linked jobs, security and justice was for precisely this reason – development is political as much as economic, and to pretend otherwise is a recipe for repeating the errors the report was concerned with, which has left over 1.5 billion people in conflict affected states as poor and vulnerable as they ever were at the outset of the MDG era. 

Now I’d like to respond to each of David’s ‘myths’, as he puts them, as a contribution to the debate.

1 Good governance is important for development.

David here disputes this basic premise and states:
"The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round".
To make this case requires you to perform the not inconsiderable feat of ignoring recorded human history. The richest countries in the world achieved that status not through a focus solely on a set of economic goals, least of all goals imposed by donors, but through centuries of contested political ideas in which groups of people fought and died for rights, and elites sought to deny them. The context in which they did that might have been economic: for example the industrial revolution, but the battles themselves were about power and politics. The political happened in tandem with the economic, not in sequence. What emerged in the West were constitutional democracies, within which that economic growth and the emergence of the rule of law took place. And that is precisely the aims of those living in the states most affected by the absence either of good governance or economic progress and scarred by endemic violence, as can be seen by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. Far from perfect, the New Deal nevertheless for the first time redefines ‘development’ as being as much about a participatory journey towards growth, between State and citizen, as well as a partnership of equals between donor and recipient. A similar definition is made by the Open Government Partnership.

2 Governance improvement is a good entry point for developmental reform.

David’s view here is apparently that this is bunkum too. Instead of focusing on governance, which he describes with a flourish as a ‘ghetto’, he states:
“All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand”.
He goes on to cite the excellent Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation line of thinking from Andrews, Pritchett and Barder as evidence of what actually works and argues that policies, not openness, hold the key to progress.

My response to this is straightforward: not only do we know that institutions and norms change slowly (the World Development Report of 2011 talks in terms of 30 years for example), but we also know that pursuing the sort of technocratic approach to ‘development’ David seems to be proposing we continue, characterised by economic policymaking which ignores political contestation, social movements and endemic resource capture by elites will perpetuate poverty and increase the likelihood of violence. Evidence? Try the direct link between structural adjustment programmes and violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Or perhaps the fraying of social fabric in other countries, as political elites take full advantage of liberalisation. Sadly, we are not short of similar examples. And the beauty of the PDIA idea is the notion that practitioners should respond flexibly to challenges and changes as they arise, rather than ploughing on regardless because that’s what the donor logframe says. My point here is that the role of open, inclusive and legitimate political institutions are a critical enabling factor which cannot simply be ignored, as they largely have been to the detriment of the poorest by the old development paradigm David seeks to defend.

3. High levels of transparency, accountability, participation and competition sustain economic development.

David disputes this on the grounds, essentially, of a lack of evidence to prove the point in the developing world. I would gently counter that the rule of law, low corruption and participatory governance structures would seem to have rather a lot to do with the economic growth of the richer countries of the world.

4. Southeast Asian lessons about agriculture are non-transferrable because the Cold War is over.

David makes a point here that I don’t fully understand. Perhaps greater minds than mine, do.

5. African regimes can’t do problem-driven, adaptive development.

David rebuts this idea, and I agree with him. But I can’t help noticing a straw man in the room. Who is arguing this anyway? In fact, on the subject of African voices why don't we hear from Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank:
"Deliberate policies to reduce inequalities and promote inclusion are now needed more than ever before. It is time to focus on people’s expectations: decent work, a living wage, access to basic service, more democracy, and accountable governments...Governance is now one of the cornerstones of economic development. Good governance, in its political, social, and economic dimensions, underpins sustainable human development and the reduction of poverty, in that it defines the processes and structures that guide political and socio-economic relationships"
Rather a different take on things from an African perspective.

Lastly I take issue with David’s argument on an unashamedly moral ground. He states:
“…human well being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems”.
This is a pernicious argument of the sort we've seen before from the old school of development. I don’t claim it is made with malign intent but the effect is sinister. Quite apart from it being disturbing for a comfortable Western research institute to casually dismiss the hopes of the poorest to have the fundamental rights we enjoy in a cast off comment; the more dangerous implication of this argument is that we should carry on as usual, seeing ‘development’ as purely economic and people’s rights as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. Music to the ears of strongmen and repressive governments everywhere. One of the reasons, perhaps, why citizens of developing countries have consistently, and in overwhelming numbers, placed good governance as among their highest priorities. This can be seen from the MyWorld survey, the High Level Panel process and the UN Thematic Consultations among others. That this has been reflected in the work of governments in the Open Working Group is to my mind one of the more inspiring aspects of the last few years. Citizens voices, calling for good governance, apparently being heard.

You have to wonder at the motives of those who propose to ignore them.

Monday 9 February 2015

Can chaos & collision lead to the co-creation of innovative ideas?

Nathaniel Heller has charted the recent transformation of Making All Voices Count, drawing comparisons to debates raised in Steven Johnson’s latest book, which discusses the sources of ideas and the conditions that give rise to ideas that fuel innovation. Heller argues that the fundamental change Making All Voices Count, for whom I work, has made in its approach to creating these ‘idea friendly’ conditions echoes Johnson’s thinking about the need for less rigidity, more flexibility and the creation of spaces in which ideas and their owners collide. It’s a form of chaos, which leads ultimately to co-creation. Heller states that other Grand Challenges, the family of which this programme is part, should be:
“…watching these before-and-after results like a hawk”. 
No pressure, then.

The story so far 

The story of this programme thus far is one of generating a collection of grantees who do innovative and unusual things to tackle age old governance problems. But it is also a story of realising that in order to tackle the unique sets of circumstances, challenges and drivers of change present in each of the countries where we work, we ourselves needed to adapt more to those contexts, rather than expecting others to fit into our model. Sounds obvious, but it is rarely done well in large, multi-country programmes – even after the principle of local ownership was finally agreed upon in Busan

Put that story together with our determination to find these change-makers in some of the hardest and most marginalised places in Africa and Asia and you can see the danger of simply relying on open calls and the language of technical solutions, or fixing feedback loops: all of this real life stuff is quite messy and the hard fact is that there are no quick fixes or silver bullet solutions that fit neatly into a logframe. Good governance, in its broadest sense, is about a citizen participation in a transparent contest of ideas, and the implementation of those ideas by institutions which are viewed as legitimate. However, just as perceptions of legitimacy are mutable, so the manifestation of good governance is different in every context, which takes us back to the question of how we can best support localised co-creation. 

So what has Making All Voices Count done to adapt? We’re pursuing a context-led approach, working to thematic country plans which have been written by people who live in the countries whose contexts they are analysing. This approach provides for a rolling process of granting and engagement, which aims to broker partnerships between people and organisations that would not ordinarily collaborate on governance issues, and to strengthen initiatives that are already transforming the relationships that ordinary people have with those in power. This is hard work, but the dividends so far are encouraging. 

We’ve started to find projects that fit into the ‘positive deviance’ mould – the idea that someone, somehow determines a new way of getting around an age old problem, usually by doing something that deviates from the norm of what has gone before. There is a real debate to be had here about what conditions create and build on positive deviance (a holy grail that anyone working in development would love to get their hands on) and indeed whether there is a common set of conditions that work across different contexts.

Logframes v reality 

Heller quotes Johnson’s magnificent metaphor of a “rich primordial soup” which conjures images of primary components floating together. I prefer a more prosaic take on things, which builds on the (by now well established) understanding that local people can analyse their challenges and solutions better than any outsider, and that a one-size-fits-all approach from a donor agency to something as complex as governance is likely to fail. Human progress is simply not that simple. 

What we can do is learn to leave our logframes and our rigid frameworks at the immigration desks and adopt an approach akin to the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation line of thinking. This is the idea that, as a programme, your strength lies in your flexibility and ability to adapt to circumstances as they evolve. Assumptions, theories of change and expectations, particularly when formed from afar, rarely survive the complexities of real life. The history of great inventions teaches that innovation is likely to come from adaptations of plans, as much as from plans in their original form: in other words, Plan D is quite often better than Plan A. 

This is why I believe Making All Voices Count is a genuinely exciting programme and one which has the potential to be a pathfinder for others in how we source and support innovation that makes both governance and government more participatory, transparent and effective. To find and shape those projects, we work to create spaces in which to broker those conversations between unusual partners and in that sense encourage the sort of collisions Heller cites from Johnson’s analysis. We also want to capture the learning generated by those projects we support as they seek to co-create new ideas in the ‘chaos’ that we are prepared to work within.

Parents at a school, Turkana, Northern Kenya 
Why is this important? 

Later this year, a new set of SDGs will be unveiled in New York, of which governance looks set to be a key part. The failure to include any element of governance in the MDG framework led, in the view of the 2011 World Development Report, to the poorest and most vulnerable being left behind. This is a significant shift: there was a reason why politics were left out of the MDGs, and that is because powerful vested interests would really rather not be held to account. The extent to which the inclusion of governance in the SDG framework actually addresses the relationship people have with their governments will depend largely on their detailed implementation in countries and communities. Failure to grasp that nettle will mean some countries will proclaim their adherence to international standards – the popular trick of passing regulations without actually implementing them is apparently not getting old – some international institutions will continue to define ‘governance’ in technical rather than practical terms, and all the while good governance will fail to actually materialise. 

In real terms, this means continuing to hear stories like that of Amina, a mother of three from Tanzania, who told us how an education official had sold her place at nursing college to a politically better-connected student. Or experiences represented by the bridge pictured at the head of this article from a slum in Dar es Salaam. Residents told me that officials were super efficient at collecting taxes but had not fixed the bridge in years. 

There is already some fascinating work on how data itself could contribute to the monitoring and support of SDG implementation, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the champions of change can be found within governments and business, as well as organised civil society and wider communities. As a programme, we hope that what we learn from our own approaches – guided by context, grounded in hard reality, flexible enough to adapt and willing to tolerate risk – is another contribution to that journey. The innovators are out there, and Making All Voices Count will support them in changing the relationships between government and ordinary people – even if that means fostering a little chaos.