Our bandwagon is a jeepney: A few thoughts on DDD in Manila

There were a range of interesting conversations at last week’s “Doing Development Differently” workshop in Manila. I know a number of people will be writing about it from various angles. I have at least three related posts jumbling around in my notebooks, but here’s a quick sketch of the results from one of the closing sessions.

The event ended with a good so-now-what session. In other words: we’ve got a manifesto for doing development differently and we’ve started to deepen and broaden our understanding of the practice—so now what?

We talked about a few operational aspects, namely:

  • Adaptive use of traditional tools. I was in a breakout group that held a brief debate on the relative merits and demerits of log frames, theories of change, results frameworks, or whatever-have-you. We quickly decided that how you use the tool matters more than which tool. Any number of methods for displaying your reasoning can work well as long as you allow your reasoning to evolve, and incorporate a number of voices and perspectives in that evolution over the course of your work.
  • Landscape sensing. Again, we debated the uses and abuses of political economy analysis, stakeholder mapping, real-time monitoring data, etc. We settled on the principle that DDD in any form requires an ability to sense the landscape as you go. Similar to what Lant Pritchett et al refer to as “crawling the design space” or how an entrepreneurial model would think about finding a market. Again, the specific method doesn’t matter so much as having a method.
  • Sustained partnership. This idea didn’t get fleshed out as well, but we were trying to capture the better forms of partnership that exist, especially between donors and grantees. A number of the best DDD examples involve donors who engage deeply and over long timelines to support reformers. They hold regular calls with their grantees to provide support (e.g. making helpful connections) and to reduce the reporting burden later on (i.e. you don’t need a 50-page quarterly report if you already know what’s going on).

Reflecting on these elements later, my mind keeps coming back to the classic management trope of alignment (which I discussed in a recent post). The specific tool or method you use for each of aspect of your work might not matter as much as how they all line up together.

We also explored a few models for how DDD efforts relate to typical development efforts. This came in three flavors:

  • Bolt-on DDD. A larger, more traditional program might have an adaptive or evolutionary component added onto it.
  • Parallel/twinned programs. Two parallel programs tackling related challenges, one of which is being run in a more DDD way.
  • Manifesto as design guideline. This might just be the full mainstreaming of DDD ideas, where they become a set of criteria or checklist for assessing all programs.

Finally, there was talk throughout the meeting about how this agenda can have influence. How do we get beyond a small inner circle that has joined these conversations—the bigger though diffuse set who follow them from afar—in order to create change? A few of the ideas surfaced include:

  • Messaging by target audience. There’s good reason to craft some simplified (but not dumbed down) core messages, tailored to each audience. What does DDD mean for donors? What are the lines of research for academics? Where does M&E practice go? Or development education?
  • Articulate problems in sectors/themes. We talk about DDD across sectors, though with a lot of focus on governance. Can we better drill into what this means for health? For gender? For tech?
  • Hold flagship DDD event with high profile champions. This built on a idea floated by David Booth earlier in the day that the development sector doesn’t change in response to evidence; it changes in response to fashions and trends. Therefore, the reasoning goes, we need the ideas to be cool in order to have an impact. Create a bandwagon effect.

For my part, I’m skeptical that a bandwagon effect can be achieved without simultaneously undermining the principles at the core of DDD. Though if we’re going to have a bandwagon, let’s at least make it a jeepney: cobbled together, dirty and loud, but with color and style like nothing else!

More on these efforts coming soon, here and through other channels. Check out the hashtag #differentdev for updates. Many thanks to the organizers at the Overseas Development Institute and The Asia Foundation.

Photo taken by me in Manila.