Who’s afraid of imported solutions?

We learn from both successes and failures. Yet there’s an interesting difference in how we use what we learn.

If we learn from it at all, failure is focused on driving changes in the programs and policies that have failed, in the form of iteration and adaptive management. Here the principles of “fail fast” and “purposive muddling” seek to embrace the lessons being learned. A recent movement to “admit failure” is laudable for changing the norms around self-reflection and learning; it encourages us to acknowledge the need for a change of course without threatening egos. But my casual observation is that the stories shared are largely about learning in that instance, with few broader lessons.

On the other hand, we are all too eager to take success from one context to another. When a program works — and especially if we have strong evidence for that success — then it becomes a tool in our kit. Once we decide that something has worked, we look for other things we can do with it. As an aphorism, this is the hammer looking for a nail to hit. Academics know this as the problem of external validity. Less rigorously, it’s the problem of reasoning by analogy: this worked here, and there is like here, so this will work there.

Current thinking in the development sector has started leaning away from the transposition of successes from one context to another. The Washington Consensus is the classic punching bag for this, but there are more micro-level versions. Sure, we still talk about “scaling up” solutions in a way that sounds an awful lot like we’re just expanding a success to new contexts, but scalability is generally a feature of fee-for-service activities that have a built-in accountability mechanism (i.e. fees) to ensure the solution is actually applicable in the new context. When those mechanisms are missing, countervailing voices have increasing traction to push back on the blind application of outside solutions.

However, I noticed a weird thing recently in conversations with development professionals who come from aid-receiving countries, and are working in their home countries: many of them are eager to learn from the successes in other countries. Maybe I’ve been hearing this for years, but I just wasn’t listening closely enough. While staff at international organizations and academics at western institutions are increasingly skittish about being solutions-imposers, practitioners in a given context are happy to import solutions.

The evidence base is admittedly thin here — just a notch or two above “things my taxi driver told me” — but suppose for a moment that it were solid. What to make of this?

My explanation is that the concern of international actors over transposed solutions is actually an issue of power. We’ve realized over decades of experience (either our own or studying our predecessors) that we can impose solutions on national actors without trying. As a sector and an international system, we have the power and economic clout to ignore local knowledge, and perhaps to not even notice that we’re ignoring it. We’ve seen the trouble this can cause, and so the self-reflective among us have learned to counterbalance that with an aversion to importing solutions from other contexts.

National actors don’t have that problem. They are at little risk of ignoring local knowledge — or, as they call it, “knowledge.” They are embedded in government institutions or national organizations that are better positioned to adapt external knowledge, selecting the principles and practices that can be best leveraged for the communities they serve.

Drawing from other contexts should be a concern for outside actors because of their own power, rather than any inherent inapplicability of outside ideas.

That would suggest the answer lies not (or at least not only) in better methods for assessing the external validity of a given success, or bespoke solutions for each context, or even new frameworks for adapting outside practices to a new situation. If there needs to be a rebalancing of power within a given context, then better analytical or research methods alone won’t get us there.

What we need are better funding models, program management, staffing choices, and partnership approaches. Some promising initiatives are moving us in that direction: Local First highlights positive cases from smaller organizations, USAID Forward includes a focus on local solutions throughout its reform agenda, and outlets like From Poverty to Power and How Matters bring great analysis to the issue.

Like so much of development, the uses and abuses of knowledge are ultimately about power and politics. These factors are themselves so contextually specific that the dichotomy of success v. failure misses a lot. Somewhere between transposed successes and admitted failures lies the nuanced case studies that contain real learning, and the fact that the benefits of learning have as much to do with the application of the lessons as with the generation of them.