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Blue Apron-ing of SNAP? Not the best of Silicon Valley, but the worst of international aid

This post first appeared on Medium.

Presidential budgets are wish lists with little chance of becoming a reality. But why would anyone wish to create a vast government-run food distribution program?

That’s exactly what one provision in Trump’s recently submitted budget would do, as outlined by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday.

He described a proposal to distribute boxes of food to people currently benefitting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP — also known as food stamps). At the same time, the government would cut in half the funds currently given on debit cards, which SNAP participants use to buy whatever food they need.

For roughly 38 million people who rely on the program, the net effect would be to dictate half of the food they get, while also creating a government procurement and logistics nightmare.

Mulvaney gave the news a cute hook: Blue Apron for food stamps. A nod to the tech sector, as if he were just bringing a little Silicon Valley disruption to an outdated government program. Branding aside, this proposal defies the latest thinking on how to provide social safety nets, not to mention current trends in the tech sector.

Start by discarding the Blue Apron association. The company’s meal boxes bring fresh ingredients and easy recipes for around $10 per serving. To keep costs in check, the government effort would cut out fresh produce and meat, as well as consumer choice.

Lessons from aid

Eliminating choice and adding in large-scale food distribution sounds less like a tech company, and more like the traditional approach taken by humanitarian relief agencies. Is that a good model for services in the United States? Actually, it’s not a good model in most contexts. The aid sector has been moving away from mass procurement and distribution of goods by international agencies.

Countries on the receiving end of aid have driven much of this change, with government and civil society actors pushing back on the control exerted by international NGOs and donors. Those external actors have had to rethink their roles and relationships to communities they nominally serve, in light of increasing local ownership over aid and development.

The core argument is that people know what they need better than outsiders. But carry the argument for ownership one step further, and you’ll see it shouldn’t stop with national governments or local nonprofits. Why would they know better what a family needs than the family itself? For long-term poverty reduction, groups like GiveDirectly have been working to make direct transfers from donors to families in need a norm as well.

Underpinning this shift is the importance of dignity: People may need support to get through hard times or expand their future opportunities, but they should still be able to make choices for themselves.

A second shift is bolstering the argument: increasing evidence that distributing cash is the most effective and efficient route to positive outcomes for the recipients. For their own work, GiveDirectly has been documenting the evidence of impact. In crisis contexts, the evidence on cash transfers is less robust, partly because research is more challenging in those contexts, but mostly because aid agencies have been slower to just give cash, worrying that recipients won’t find everything they need crisis-struck markets.

What this proposal does

Both factors driving this shift in international aid — the dignity and choice of people receiving aid, and the effectiveness of just giving cash — make the Trump administration’s proposal all the more bewildering. Conservatives lean heavily on the idea that economic choice sets us free. Regulations slashed, programs shrunk, services privatized — all in the name of greater freedom.

That conviction earned the Republican party support from business elites, for whom freedom from government enables their freedom to profit at the expense of others. It pre-dated the Trump administration but sees its fullest expression in the gutting of environmental regulations under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the repeated assaults on the Affordable Care Act, and the clipped wings at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Why would a government-shrinking administration seek to turn SNAP into a food distribution program? Perhaps they believe in the goals of the program but don’t trust poor people to make their own decisions. Demonizing public assistance recipients as lazy and entitled has been a favorite conservative talking point since at least the era of Ronald Reagan, who introduced the image of a “welfare queen” cheating government programs with fake names and living large on the public purse. Conservatives beat the same drum today — with more than a tinge of racism injected into their portrayal of welfare recipients.

Forcing pre-selected foods on SNAP families follows this tradition of painting the poor as undeserving freeloaders who squander their money on drugs and booze. That image is so ingrained in conservative minds that it overrides their alleged disdain for paternalistic government, thereby enabling Republican efforts to add work requirements, drug testing, and other barriers to public assistance.

More cynically…

The potential logistical nightmare suggests another interpretation of this proposal. Relief organizations are moving away from centralized mass procurement due, in part, to its inefficiency compared to market-based mechanisms. So switching SNAP to government-run program could be part of a long-game to justify killing it off. Step one: Promise unrealistic savings from government distribution. Step two: Contract it through the federal government’s byzantine procurement system, racking up overhead and adding in a healthy buffer for private profit. Step three: Wait until costs skyrocket, then make the case for scrapping the program entirely.

Too cynical? Republicans have shown little inhibition about using dishonest arguments to hurt the poor. If there’s a reasoning that would save a goods-based version of SNAP in the face of ballooning costs, look no further than the “America’s Harvest Box” itself: filled with “homegrown” products, it would be a huge revenue windfall for farmers and agribusiness. Again, contradicting Republican orthodoxy on markets and privatization, but aligning with Trump’s transactional politics: he’d take a victory lap to turn the program into votes.

This mirrors a discredited practice from the international aid sector known as “tied aid”, whereby donor countries require aid money be spent domestically on goods shipped overseas. The result is much less food provided for every tax dollar spent, compared to procuring it locally or on an open market, with the extra profit going to politically influential agribusinesses and shipping companies. While most countries have stopped tying their aid, Congress has repeatedly shot down efforts to change the practice: the US continues to require that food aid be purchased in the US, and at least half transported on US-flagged vessels.

Lastly, despite the effort to associate itself with the tech sector, Trump’s SNAP proposal runs counter to one of Silicon Valley’s newest shibboleths: the universal basic income. An old idea, it’s now framed as a response to rising inequality and the threat of job losses from automation. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg have all voiced support; Chris Hughes has written a book about it; Y Combinator is running a test in Oakland.

Basic income’s glimmer may dull as it hits political barriers, but at least it’s moving in the right direction: placing trust in its recipients and respecting their dignity to make their own choices. The international aid sector is bucking institutional inertia to do the same.

As described by Mulvaney, the SNAP proposal goes in the opposite direction. It will probably never come to pass, but then again, many of us thought Trump would never be president. One year into his administration, we’ve learned that we have to fight his backward policies at every turn.

One year on: Building the politics we want to see

Hi everyone: I’ve been aiming to write for larger audiences, both out of aspirations to influence broader debates and because standalone blogs have largely become anachronisms. In August, I successfully pitched a piece to WIRED.com on bringing neo-Nazis back to humanity.

I couldn’t get similar interest from a publication for a more recent piece on how American politics has evolved and where it needs to go next. So I’m experimenting with running it on Medium, a self-publishing site with a built-in audience. If you enjoyed my past writing like “Operating in a world with no truth” (one of the most popular posts I’ve written on this site), please head over to Medium for “One year on: Building the politics we want to see.” I’ve included the first few paragraphs below. – Dave

One year on: Building the politics we want to see

Trump’s tactics of division can help us create something better—but can we pull it off?

We’ve reached the one-year mark. It feels like more, not just because the past year has been so eventful—to use a polite term—but because the assault on our democratic foundations started long before. Last November was when the big one hit. The foreshocks and aftershocks have been daily.

The 2016 campaign had already brought the dawning realization that political norms were crumbling. As a candidate, Donald Trump said things that should have ended his career or, at the least, led his co-partisans to abandon him in defense of their own political futures.

Yet he gained more allies than he lost. His disregard for honesty and decency attracted a sorry bunch: the Breitbarts, 4channers, alt-right, Russian Trolls, spineless former primary opponents, and less respectable parts of Fox News. They mounted up alongside their wild-haired warlord, riding toward a post-apocalyptic politics devoid of natural resources or human relationships, screaming to one another for validation—“Witness me!!” in the Mad Max parlance—as they made their mothers ashamed. Together, they stumbled into a victory that even they didn’t expect.

Politics in America has changed. But if we only fight the changes stemming from the Trump administration, then we implicitly endorse the status quo ex ante. Barack Obama’s administration fought toxic and decaying institutions for the progress it made. We should aim to create something better. Doing so starts with leveraging the core elements of political action that continue to shape the outcome of each political fight. They’re the same core elements that Trump uses.

Hooked? Read the rest on Medium. And then help others discover the piece by giving it “claps” (Medium’s equivalent of “likes”). Thanks!

Photo: #NoBanNoWall protest, New York City, 1/29/17. Photo by Dave Algoso. (CC BY 4.0)

What’s in a title? Would a consultant, by any other name, give the same advice?

Professional identity

I’ve been a freelance consultant for two years and two months. This is my longest tenure at any job in my life. That might just be a sign of the times—the “sharing economy” or whatever—except that I went freelance after a stint of nearly the same length at a small consulting firm. I also worked for a larger consulting company for a bit in the mid-2000s.

At a certain point, I have to admit the truth: that I’m a consultant. That’s more central to my professional identity than any skill or content area. It explains my longstanding habit of leaving jobs after a year or two, as my intellectual/professional wanderlust is only well served by a portfolio of projects and clients. I still keep an eye on potential full-time roles, but the five or six that I’ve applied to in the past two years have mostly been some sort of internal consulting role.

I’ve struggled with this identity because I believe in organizations. Social progress isn’t driven by individuals, but by consistent teams with strong cultures and relationships in their contexts, working toward clear visions with strategies iterated over time, and supported by efficient, established processes. Those are the building blocks of scalable, sustainable change. I’ve enjoyed my roles as an insider, helping to build those organizations. I don’t want to be the fly-in-fly-out consultant, whose four-stage process yields a slick powerpoint (or worse: dense report) of banal advice packaged as stunning insight.

With a few years and a few mistakes under my belt, I’m less worried about falling into that caricature. Each of those building blocks—team, culture, relationships, vision, strategy, and processes—can use an outside boost on occasion. I’ve found the right clients (or more often, they’ve found me). The repeat and referral business provides a solid testament to the value of my work.


Instead, my primary worry is whether I can make this disparate body of work add up to more than the sum of its parts. That’s the only way to generate excess value for clients, beyond the immediate outputs. It also keeps me motivated when business is slow and ensures that I’m learning throughout.

The critical decision I made when I started freelancing was to avoid projects that are basically contract labor. That is: projects that could just as well be done in-house, if not for a short timeline or some bureaucratic hurdle. Those projects are tempting if you want to have internal impact on the organization. But they rarely add up to anything across my own portfolio. They’re only worthwhile as part of more meaningful support to a current client who’s in a crunch.

My value is greater when steering a process that can’t be run as well internally. That’s why I end up facilitating and convening, especially multi-stakeholder coalitions. When a conversation affects organizational interests, there’s huge value in having it guided by someone who has none. Which is not to say that any outsider can facilitate; it takes a certain temperament and skillset as well.

In other cases, I can pull ideas and practices together across a broader network, sifting through the noise and contextualizing for people embedded within organizations. That feeds into some of my research and writing projects. Clients benefit not only from my time and expertise, but also from the range of ideas I can harvest (and challenge) due to my untethered position. (For example: here’s a recent project on organizational agility at Mercy Corps.)

Thinking about consulting this way riffs a bit on one of my earlier professional identities: as an organizer. Both consulting and organizing marshal soft power (especially when working freelance, with neither staff nor budgets) to support others in achieving their goals. Even my writing is an extension of my consulting, as a low-cost way to reach a larger audience with the same set of ideas.

Current portfolio

Embracing this approach means getting more comfortable with wearing multiple hats. Those many hats are also the reason why I haven’t posted here in over four months (the longest break since starting this blog seven years ago).

Right now, those hats include:

  • Core consulting: As described above, and here. (Want to know more? Reach out.)
  • Local activism: I’ve lived in Brooklyn for three years (another milestone: the longest I’ve lived anywhere since high school). That’s made it possible to get involved locally as a constituent and neighbor—rather than as an outsider, which I’ve typically been. That’s needed now more than ever.
  • More writing: I’ve never wanted to be a full-time writer, but sometimes blogging gets too comfortable. So my hiatus here was partially driven by a challenge I set myself to write for larger audiences. That’s yielded a half-dozen drafts that I’ve started to pitch elsewhere.
  • Always be learning: I’m slowly teaching myself Python. Definitely a stretch goal, as programming has never been my strong suit. Fair warning: I may subject you, dear readers, to some of my data analysis projects as I go.

Lastly: I recently launched an initiative called Leaderful to support frontline organizers working across progressive issues and organizations. Local volunteer leaders have been driving a huge uptick in political action across the United States in the past few years, and especially since last November. Most are doing this in their few spare hours, with little or no formal training or support in organizing. Leaderful aims to provide tools and resources to help them be more effective.

The initiative is little more than a blog at this point, with content shaped by conversations I’ve had and what I’ve seen of frontline organizers’ needs. I’m planning to ramp it up in the coming months, and I recently joined Civic Hall’s new Organizers in Residence program (along with a super-intimidating cohort of leaders doing amazing work) and plan to use that experience to build Leaderful into something more impactful. Watch this space.

Advice for international development careers: 6 points (and a few sub-points) for graduating seniors

A few weeks ago, a college senior in Virginia emailed to ask for career advice on starting out in development work. The email:

I had a few questions about how you got your career going. I am a graduating senior… I majored in International Affairs, Economics with a minors Humanitarian Affairs and History. I was fortunate to do some service work in Ghana and South Africa and today I intern for [micro-lending organization]. I am extremely passionate about the subject but as I get ready to graduate I am at a loss of where to start. I am looking at graduate programs in development but I have an itch to get back on the ground. I look forward to hearing back from you and truly enjoy your insight.

Aw, shucks. Unfortunately, since I didn’t move into international work until about six years after undergrad, my experience isn’t directly applicable. Fortunately, I’ve read a lot of career advice (from people smarter than me), seen others make their way through the sector, and navigated my own career successfully enough that I have a few thoughts. Our dear Virginian friend is in a common spot, so some general comments are in order.

To grad school or not to grad school?

Let’s start with that confusion about where to start. The sector is huge with a lot of potential career paths. What you need is not just entry into the sector, but a way to find your path within it. I typically recommend against going to grad school right after undergrad, mostly because grad school is an expensive and inefficient way to do that sorting. Much better to go back to school for specific skills or knowledge, after you have a better sense of what you want to do and can be sure that grad school is worth the investment. (Caveat: This advice holds mostly for generalist programs like development masters or MPAs. Law, medicine, and doctoral programs are special cases.)

So what to do instead?

I’ve got six pieces of advices, with a few sub-points:

1. Build skills, build skills, build skills. Both soft skills (like communication or working cross-culturally) and hard skills (like writing, budgeting, and data analysis). Start with your strengths. Are you good with words? With data? With people? Can you program in python or build a webpage? If you’re not sure about your own strengths (I made it through college without having a clear idea) start asking people who you’ve worked with, so you can communicate it to others. Then find a way to leverage those strengths and build other skills. Any role you take should build skills.

2. Cast a wide net. Your strengths and current skills can be applied in many ways. Don’t get locked into thinking that you have to be working “on the ground”, or that you need to work on policy decisions because those are the most important, or even that you belong in a particular sub-sector. Keep an open mind. Look also at related fields like domestic nonprofits or political jobs. Skills you build in those jobs can be transferrable to international work later—which is exactly what I did. Working in related fields will also broaden your understanding of the many problems afflicting the world (spoiler: US policies and politics are closely intertwined with the problems the international sector seeks to address).

  • (Sub-point) Know your own constraints. You may have your eye on a few particular organizations, and some may have good entry-level roles, but your tolerance for waiting on the perfect opportunity depends on your own finances and personal situation. You can’t re-pay student loans with passion.

3. Be accountable for the work. Accountability is a feedback loop that forces you to improve your skills over time. This is 20% personal and 80% structural. Which is to say: a minor part of being accountable is your personal willingness to decide that you will be the type of person who gets shit done; but a much larger part is putting yourself in roles where someone will hold you accountable for your outputs.

  • (Sub-point) Beware the unpaid role. Many people end up doing a full-time internship or two. It sucks, but sometimes there’s no way around it. If you go that route: be very cautious about internships where you’re just putting in the time. While you’re still in school, internships are great, but avoid making them part of your career path unless you’re getting some real skills and opportunities. If you’re giving away your work for free/cheap, ensure that your work is adding real value so that you get more than a resume line in return. Fellowship programs might be a bit better, but some are just glossy internships or voluntourism—resume builders but not skill builders. (And they’re not even that good for your resume, because a future hiring officer can often see through meaningless resume lines.)

4. Don’t forget that you have much to learn. Let’s assume you’re smart, talented, hard-working. You’ve traveled a bit and you think you know how the world works. I have some terrible news for you. The problem isn’t even that you’re wrong in what you know. The problem is that the world is infinitely more complex and nuanced than you imagine. Your knowledge is correct, but it barely scratches the surface. That will always be the case. Never forget it. Stay humble and stay hungry.

5. Learn to like coffees. Or teas, or beers, or another beverage that can be enjoyed while asking people about their work, their career paths, and what they’d do if they were in your position. You’ll always get the best guidance from people who know you and your work. If you land at an organization, find time to sit one-on-one with as many people as possible. Go to events, sign up for discussion groups, find any excuse to meet people.

  • (Sub-point) Go someplace new. Pack a bag and move to DC, Ghana, South Africa, or someplace else where you have a couch to crash on. Being new in town provides a great excuse for meeting people and building connections.

6. Learn to love the hustle. School is where you learn; work is where you work. Don’t expect that school will have prepared you for the work, or that school somehow earned you a job. If you don’t have something lined up by the time you graduate, don’t worry too much (but do worry a little—the secret to a happy professional life is worrying just the correct amount). Once you’re out in the real world, that’s when you need to start hustling.

Anyone have other points they’d add? If so, hit up the comments below.

An important overall caveat: There are many systemic problems in the way the development sector recruits, rewards, trains, and promotes staff. Some of those problems will work against our dear friend in Virginia, or any other reader of this blog; some problems will work in their favor. The points above aren’t meant to be commentary on them, as there are entire books written on the subject. That said, if you notice biases in the above, please let me know.

In any case, that’s all I have. I know it’s awfully general, but hope it helps. Good luck!

Want to be a learning organization? Hit these six points, but make sure you find the right balance

Much of my client work deals with learning, including the translation of data into learning and learning into practice, the facilitation of cross-sector learning, and the practices of becoming a learning organization. If you’re a regular reader, then you know these are also common topics in my writing. I’m a big fan of learning.

So keep that in mind when I say the following: Learning means a lot of different things, and you shouldn’t try to do all of them at once.

Taxonomy for organizational learning

In working with development and social change organizations, six types of learning turn up as the most important. I don’t always talk about them in this way with clients (better to use their language, rather than my own) but here’s what I’m usually keeping an eye on:

  1. Individual and team: Building the skills and knowledge of your team, including at both the individual level as well as the relational/joint skills of how a team works together (such as internal communication and team culture).
  2. Refinement-focused: Using monitoring or other data to understand your immediate impacts and what’s working, and then improving your approach based on those findings.
  3. Reflective mode: Taking broader stock of your approaches, opening the door to questioning your fundamental assumptions and radically changing your strategy or even your goals.
  4. Context sensing: Understanding your operating environment (e.g. political opposition, cultural norms, economic trends, weather patterns) and tracking changes that might have implications for how you work.
  5. Within context: How others (e.g. coalition partners, private sector actors, government agencies) are learning, even if that learning never makes it back to you.
  6. Cross-context: Learning across unconnected efforts, e.g. by using research findings from another country to inform your work, or learning in collaboration with those working elsewhere.

Two important things to note about this taxonomy. First, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Refinement-focused and reflective mode learning (often referred to as “single-loop” v. “double-loop” learning) feed into one another. Similarly, context sensing can help you make the most of cross-context learning, as you adapt external lessons to the challenges you face. Every social change effort involves a combination of these types of learning, often in overlapping ways.

Second, the relative priority of these types may vary greatly depending on the nature of your work, context, strategy, or team. For example, in relatively stable contexts, context sensing becomes less important. If you’re implementing a well established and highly evidence-based approach, cross-context learning may be very important at the start but less so as your work continues. With a more pioneering approach, reflective mode learning becomes more important.

What could go wrong? Timing and prioritizing

Many organizational leaders worry that they’re underutilizing all these types of learning—and some feel an urge to jump-start them all at once. I’ve often found myself saying: actually, you’re doing much of this better than you think you are. You just don’t always see it, either because it happens informally or because it doesn’t bubble up to the executive level.

Surfacing and formalizing those existing learning factors can help you augment them, but it can also undermine them. The idea of an OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act) can help us see why that is. In general, you want that loop moving as quickly as possible, but you’re still subject to the rhythms of the world. Contrast:

  • You might be able to iterate your outreach or advertising messages very quickly through some form of A/B testing, as your actions yield quick observations that can be easily processed into new orientations and decisions. That’s refinement-focused learning.
  • On the other hand, the strategic impact of your work may take months to manifest into observable data, and distilling those observations into new orientations and decisions may require wrangling a number of stakeholders. That’s why reflective mode learning takes longer, regardless of how good your monitoring systems might be.

Trying to drive the cycles faster can undercut learning across multiple dimensions if you end up raising expectations and over-incentivizing certain types of learning. For example: Excessive data collection for refinement-focused or context sensing learning can lead to data fatigue (by those submitting data) and data drowning (by those trying to make sense of it). Individual and team learning takes time to percolate into programmatic changes; expecting short-term outcomes will undermine the case for long-term investments in this area.

Meanwhile, reflection workshops (for reflective mode learning) or commitments to externally sharable learning products (for cross-context learning) risk identifying lessons even where none exist. Few things are more frustrating than reading some lengthy research or learning report—always in an unwieldy PDF—only to realize that it adds nothing new to the general body of knowledge, and was only published to burnish the implementer’s brand or satisfy a grant requirement.*

Cautioning against over-incentivizing learning seems odd when many leaders are more worried about the opposite problem, i.e. the active barriers to learning. If you’re having trouble getting started at all, then by all means: just start cranking away. But once you have a bit of speed and start getting over those barriers, you’ll find that generating new data, ideas, and insights is only helpful if you have an effective sorting/selection mechanism.

So if you want to better leverage learning in your work, think in terms of timing and prioritization. Which forms of learning will have the greatest impact on our work? Look for the bottlenecks and also the systemic leverage points where learning can lead to adaptation and greater impact.

Photo: Early morning cricket in western Nepal. Dave Algoso, 2017.

We go high, Trump-era edition

[Note: Apologies to email subscribers who received an earlier draft in their inbox. I accidentally hit publish too soon.]

One of the 2016 campaign’s most enduring lines—from either side—belongs to Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

At the Democratic convention in July, it resonated as a counter to the baser appeals and divisive campaigning on the Republican side. Over the summer, it became a popular call-and-response at rallies. The First Lady would say: “When they go low…” And the crowd would shout back: “We go high!” By the fall, she tacked on a GOTV message: “How do we go high?” Crowd: “We vote!”

It was a good line. It worked for the campaign, insofar as good campaign lines matter, but the election is over. What does that line represent now?

In the transition period, we’re seeing new lows: a cabinet full of the uber-rich, many staunchly committed to undermining the agencies they’ll lead; white supremacists and conspiracy mongers staffing the White House; an attempted partisan power grab in North Carolina (which may no longer be a democracy); a spike in hate crimes after the election; a president-elect who seems disconnected from the reality and gravity of the position he’s about to take (which a majority of Americans don’t think he can handle); a dangerous flirtation with nuclear weapons policies; and, of course, the general tide of nepotism, conflicts of interests, and potential corruption that has everyone googling “emoluments clause“.

In the face of this, can we “go high” in the Trump era? The Democrats are coming to terms with being an opposition party at most levels of government. This is manifesting in a reconsideration of policy priorities, leadership elections, and some speculation about the next national elections.

However, the line was never about policies or even strategies. It was about values—a deeper fight that we need to have. Deciding what it means to go high requires answering a pair of related questions. First: What do we accept as the new normal going forward? Normalization is at stake in media framing and politicians’ rhetoric. Do we maintain our outrage over every norm violated and every absurd tweet? Or do we let some things slide, triaging to the most important?

Second: How does the opposition fight for what it believes in? Several pieces have been written about how Democrats need to fight like Republicans. Liberals and progressives are too soft, the argument goes; they need to go for the jugular and not worry so much about being criticized in the press or turning off their opponents’ supporters. The party rallying version of: “They’ll like us when we win.

With those questions in mind, going high means a few things. Start by staking out the norms as we wish to see them. Not a reactionary defense of the status quo ex ante, under which corporate media was a bigger problem than fake news, politics was inaccessible, politicians were unaccountable, and executive power was too concentrated in the presidency. Those were all norms too; we should welcome seeing them smashed against the rocks. The forces that are reshaping these norms and their accompanying institutions won’t be held back. To stop Trump from channeling them toward his ends, we need to channel them toward ours.

That means fighting, but not like Republicans. It’s always easier to tear down a system than to build one up. Tactics that undermine people’s faith in democracy and government are a fool’s bargain. We don’t need a “Breitbart of the left” or better Democratic gerrymandering. We need checks-and-balances, as in the old days, but also 21st-century channels for citizen participation and open governance. We should always be pushing forward to what’s next and better.

Focus on substance, as it affects real people, not style. Attention is limited; Trump would be happy to distract us with shiny objects and fake controversies. We need focus. The line gets blurry when the president-elect takes to twitter, but a good guide: typos and exclamations (“Sad!“) matter to the future of the republic about as much as ill-fitting suits; what matters much more is the undermining of media institutions, citizens receiving death threats after Trump bullies them, or the dismantling of the social safety net.

Finally: Keep making progress where it’s possible. That means going local, extremely local, if needed. Organize in your congressional district around the federal issues (the Indivisible Guide has some good advice); track all of your elected officials at every level on social media, sign up for their newsletters, set up Google Alerts, and show up for their events; put every 2017 election date (including primaries) in your calendar now; and find the others who are already organizing in your area.

Most importantly: show up, in person. Solidarity is catalyzed by personal relationships, not retweets.

One month later

I spent November 8th working at the polls. Not getting out the vote, or even monitoring the vote, but simply part of the electoral administrative machinery: keeping the lines orderly at PS 269 in East Flatbush, helping voters check in and make their way to the booths so they could cast their ballots. There was something reassuringly dull and technocratic about the process that capped the absurd political dramas of the prior year.

I got home late and stayed up later to watch the news coverage. By the time I went to sleep, it was pretty clear what the outcome would be. I woke up to the confirmation on Wednesday morning. I was disappointed, of course; and surprised, like many, because I believed the polls and analysis that said Clinton would win. But I wasn’t surprised by the idea that it could happen. I wasn’t shocked. All the signs were there.

In the past month, my news consumption and social media commentary have both been excessive. However, with the exception of a lengthy Facebook post the morning after the election, my writing output has been minimal. I tried to go into listening mode. I wanted to see what people smarter than me thought. I talked with old friends and former colleagues, including several who I’d lost touch with in recent years.

More than anything, I’ve been looking for that overarching analysis that would explain what happened. The signs were there and we shouldn’t be shocked that Trump won, but the details of how it came together matter. Unfortunately, most of what passes for analysis is just a one-off data point that confirms some particular interpretation: exit polls say X or the vote swing in these counties suggests Y. We should always be skeptical of explaining complex phenomenon with monotone stories.

Naturally, differing interpretations will persist for decades, as any given story serves one political interest or another: just look at how differently the right and left talk about the Reagan administration. And my academically minded friends will point out that the course of the events will be argued well into the history books.

Fair enough. In the meantime, I needed something actionable. The closest I’ve seen to this broader analysis is a piece titled: “Everything mattered: lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election” (the article also has a great list of links to those single-explanation analyses). The short version: many factors came together to result in a Trump victory; we can’t ignore any of them as we chart a path forward.

We’ve seen a flood of attempts to chart that path. That’s what my morning-after Facebook post tried to offer, prematurely. Again, many smarter people have offered their thoughts. While the stream of that commentary has subsided without any single consensus—which it doesn’t necessarily need—the transition process has required activists, politicians, journalists, and others to start acting anyway. Politics waits for neither final analysis nor perfect strategy.

Having tried to digest as much analysis and commentary as possible, I returned to my morning-after post with an effort to update it. The list of priorities below is my current thinking, one month after I worked a very long day to help people play their most tangible role in the democratic process. If we want that to mean anything, we have many longer days ahead of us.

1. Alliance and protection

As disappointed as I may be in the election’s outcome, I sit in a privileged position. Many others are personally threatened by the machinery of the American state and by the private acts of fellow citizens in ways that I’ll never have to experience. In the past month, the worst elements of American society have felt emboldened, leading to a spike in hate crimes and a meeting of white nationalists in DC. We’ve seen no sign that a Trump administration will stop encouraging those elements. Things will be far worse when the administration controls levers at the NSA, FBI, Justice Department, ICE, and other agencies.

To counter, support to national organizations like the ACLU has also grown dramatically in the past month. Protection will also require support to and alliance with the communities that are most under threat. Leaders from those communities need to be given the mic. In the rush of journalists to report on the Rust Belt and rural America, they can’t lose sight of those places where immigrants, minorities, and marginalized groups are going to bear the brunt of a Trump administration. And those of us who have privilege within this system have to be willing to show up—physically—when needed.

2. Fixing the news media

I wrote a longer piece on fake news and post-truth politics at the beginning of October. Much more has been written about it since the election. There have been positive signs (e.g. Zuckerberg acknowledging the problem, advertisers pulling support from various fake or incendiary sites, skyrocketing newspaper subscriptions) and negative signs (e.g. Trump tweeting lies and attacking mainstream outlets, feckless Republicans unwilling to challenge him on basic facts). I don’t have much to add to my earlier analysis, beyond emphasizing that the problem is bigger than just fake news swaying votes. At the core, this a problem of public discourse and whether people from different communities are able to have a conversation. It’s a multifaceted problem that’s been festering for years; the election exposed it dramatically, and now we need to deal with it.

3. Base building and local action

The mechanics of the Democratic party are geared toward national elections. Massive operations drop into swing states every four years, and the main entry point for many activists is to donate or volunteer to GOTV. The party’s much-lauded technology and data advantages surely move the needle in these elections, but they obscure a deeper problem: mobilizing voters is much harder if they aren’t first organized.

I confess to being one of those unorganized voters. I’ve lived in nine or ten places over the past 15 years, but have never deeply engaged in local politics beyond what was required for my job. I haven’t shown up for community meetings like I could, or voted in most local elections, or even known what issues are important to many of my neighbors. I’ve also been very hesitant about getting involved in party politics. Partisanship is anathema to how I see the world.

People like me are a problem for two reasons. First, countless opportunities to move progressive policy forward at the local level will struggle when people aren’t paying attention. And second, working on these local opportunities builds power to make change at the national level.

Being organized means building the base: getting people involved in the way their children are educated, the way their communities are policed, the way economic development is promoted, the way their environment is protected. It’s an education and relationship-building process first, and only then can it be about mobilization through phone calls, protests, or voting. And, critically, it’s a leadership development process: these are the pipelines through which community leaders become city council members, state senators, cabinet secretaries, and presidents.

Some institutions still exist to do this organizing, but others (like unions) have faded in their power. For urban knowledge workers like myself, our closest analogue is Facebook or Twitter—a very poor substitute, despite what the tech evangelists may claim. You have to actually show up, physically, to work with your neighbors on the things that matter in your community. From there, you build the bonding social capital to tackle even larger problems.

4. Bridge building and outreach

America has a social cohesion problem. It’s amplified by the “filter bubbles” of online social networks and the hyper-partisanship of our political system, but it starts from the real world. Start with a basic human tendency to see the world in terms of “us” and “them”, compound it by differing cultural values, then add fissures around career and educational opportunities, and allow for geographic self-sorting. The result: we’re more fragmented than ever.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that it mostly lies outside the political realm. Fights over political power will always involve some amount of division. No amount of new messaging, inclusive policies, or better organizing will overcome that. If we want to build cohesion, it has to happen in win-win spaces like culture, media, economics, or education. It has to provide opportunities for contact and collaboration. The bridging social capital built can then be transferred to the political realm.

Within the political realm, don’t forget: There are many Republicans who aren’t happy about the Trump takeover of their party, and many more will become disaffected when he fails to deliver on his vague promises.

5. Responding strategically

The national level will be unfriendly to progressive causes for at least two years; so will many state houses. We have to take policy victories where we can, but a lot of effort will need to be devoted to mobilizing in response to threats as they arise. These will succeed more to the extent that the above steps have been taken: again, organize then mobilize.

The transition period has already sparked responses, both strategic and reactionary, as we see news coverage and objections made to various appointments. We need to sustain this into the confirmation processes and, more importantly, into the legislative process. We’ll lose many of those battles, but we can win some and use the losses to prepare for the mid-term elections.

6. Reforming the system

The American political system has many problems: the rural bias of the Electoral College, the gerrymandering of Congressional and statehouse districts, the influence of money on elections and lobbyists on policy-making, the executive power of the president, etc.

These are features, not bugs. None of these are mistakes. They’re all deliberate choices made to increase the power of those who already have it. If you want to change what people do with their power, you have to build countervailing forces and then change the system within which power operates.

Most reform victories start at the local level before working their way up. If you don’t like the national politics, start by getting involved where you are.

Digital news: a better format is possible

Here’s a Friday afternoon idea for you to chew over: How much different are digital news articles today from what they were twenty years ago? Or what print news articles were fifty years ago?

We get them faster, on screens, and with better visuals and video integration. The headlines are snazzier. But the core information being conveyed is still done in a written format that hasn’t changed much since the time when reading a daily printed newspaper (or weekly magazine) were the only options.

That format is so obvious we barely notice it: new information is packaged into an article that tells us what happened (who, what, where, etc.) and gives us just enough background and context to understand it. More thoughtful publications might give more/better background, but they’re all limited to a certain extent. When something new happens or new facts emerge, then another story gets written. Only in a very rapidly evolving situation, like an emergency, will a digital news outlet publish an update to an existing article every few hours; eventually that article stabilizes and they write a new one.

The persistence of this format seems like a big missed opportunity, if only because we don’t consume news the same way we did fifty years ago. Now, when we read a news story and want to know more, we don’t need to wait for the next article. Instead, we either go looking for another news story (for the latest) or we go to check wikipedia (for the history).

What if we combined both of those in the same digital format? A news/encyclopedia article, providing breaking news with substantive background and context on that news. It would show up in your news feed (or email inbox, or twitter alert, or wherever you currently get news) when there was a development, but instead of heading to a new article, you’d be sent back to essentially the same page, now with updates. You could expand and collapse sections as you want more background on the history, actors, context, geography.

And it could all be personalized: cookies used to ensure that you see the new aspects of a story first, because it knows how up-to-date you are. You wouldn’t have to skim an article for the new stuff, nor would you have to go somewhere else for the background. Like a personalized intelligence brief.

This would be more than just a format change. The role of journalists would shift, potentially freeing more time to seek and verify what’s new, with less time writing to explain what’s already understood.

It would also undermine the ad-driven business models that many news sites are desperately trying to maintain, because it wouldn’t be constantly driving readers to new articles. In contrast, a service like this might be valuable enough to secure subscriptions at sustainable levels.

Is this crazy? Is digital news is missing a big opportunity here?


Image: Double Octuple Printing Press (in the public domain).

Goldilocks facilitation, or the practice of mediocrity

Enough U.S. politics for a while. Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I’ve facilitated several workshops recently, and I’ve also had the nice opportunity to be a participant in a few others. It’s great to see other facilitators at work, as everyone brings a different style and toolkit to the practice. Sometimes half the notes I’m taking in a session are about facilitation ideas rather than the conversation.

Increasingly, I’ve tried to question my model of what the workshop space is and can be. Workshops get a lot of flak for being overly rigged talk-fests, with experts expounding and participants making long comments disguised as questions. Little gets said or done that wasn’t expected. In fact, the only reason anyone showed up was for the coffee/lunch/pub conversations. Duncan Green recently had a post on the enraging aspects of academic conferences (namely, panels) and while he was talking about a slightly different sort of event, many of the criticisms translate over. Obviously I try to steer clear of those sorts of workshops (either running them, or attending them).

The workshops that I find most valuable have the following characteristics:

  • Concrete objective to create something, e.g. a vision, strategy, implementation plan, etc. The objective needs to be something more concrete than “sharing ideas” or “getting people together” to be productive, and should be something that participants couldn’t achieve in one-on-one conversations. This objective both creates the justification for the workshop and guides the other design choices.
  • Agenda designed for the participants. Conversations, breakouts, panels, exercises, or games are crafted to move participants toward the objective, potentially in a non-linear way, by combining their expertise and perspectives. This typically means that formal presentations are limited, perhaps used as framing and to spur ideas but not as the core of any sessions. If there’s information that everyone needs, put it in the pre-reading.
  • Equity among participants. Effective conversations and exchanges require that participants can come to more or less equal footing, at least within the workshop space. If power differentials exist outside the room (e.g. donors/grantees, management/staff, gender, language fluency, etc.) or participants distrust one another, then you need to find ways to mitigate those factors.
  • Deliberate adaptation. If you could predict the flow of the workshop, there wouldn’t be much point in holding it, right? Deliberate adaptation means building in contingencies and potential pathways from the start, so that you can pivot as needed.

Those characteristics can play out in many different ways. How should we think about the overall approach to workshop facilitation?

My go-to metaphor is about space: the facilitators create and structure a space—physical as well as conceptual—which the participants have to fill it (see past posts for more). Generally speaking, you want to keep those two roles separate. That said, I’ve found that impassioned participants will often want to take control of the agenda and shape the space; an adaptive workshop should make that possible, but both the facilitator and participants should aim to revert to their original roles once the course correction has been made.

As a corollary to the space metaphor, I’ve started to think about the facilitator’s role in Goldilocks terms: provide just enough guidance, but not too much; bring in just enough outside expertise, but don’t let the participants off the hook for providing content of their own; respond to participant pushback just enough, but don’t let someone hijack the agenda; be creative and have just enough fun, but get serious when needed.

Or, put another way, facilitation is a practice of mediocrity. Which is to say:

  • You need to be just prepared enough that you can guide a conversation, but being over-prepared locks in your thinking and reduces your ability to be responsive; better to get a full night’s rest than sweat over the final details.
  • You need to be just knowledgable enough on the issues to be on equal footing with most of the participants, but not so much that the group looks to you for expertise; better to have them looking to one another for ideas.
  • You need to be just charismatic enough that you can grab everyone’s attention when you need it, but un-charismatic enough to lose that attention when you stop talking; better to disappear into the back of the room when the conversation gets going.

What does that mean for overall models? The alignment is the most important part. Alignment among the objective, the participants, and the approach, especially. If someone asks you to facilitate something and immediately starts describing the sessions, the first thing you need to do is hit the pause button and ask them to rewind to the overall objective. If there’s not a transparent agreement among those organizing the workshop on what they want to achieve, then you can’t have alignment on the rest.

One particular caution: If the event is primarily about the ability to communicate that the event happened or about getting known names on the stage, then that’s going to constrain everything else you do.

A few more concrete tips:

  • Write a narrative of the workshop before you start designing sessions—i.e. everyone starts agreeing on A, we’ll get them to point B by the end of day 1, so that we can start in on C at the beginning of day 2, etc. That lets you break down the questions (“how do we get from A to B?”) and check if you’re on track throughout (“whoops, looks like we won’t get to C until halfway through day 2”).
  • Always have a facilitator’s agenda that you keep separate from the participants agenda. For me, I’ll write out almost-verbatim how I’ll introduce each section, describe the task, etc. It’s a great way to spot potential holes in the narrative. Also, because you’ve already thought about what you’re going to say, you can devote more mental bandwidth to reading people’s reactions.
  • Always have a team, whether that’s a full facilitation team, participants who are ready to step up at certain points, or just some people you already know who can help you read the temperature in the room.
  • Don’t get enamored with any particular format, game, exercise, or framework. The effectiveness of panels, breakouts, fishbowls, post-it sorting, two-by-twos, ignition talks, think-pair-share, popcorn-sharing, unconferences, or any other approach depends entirely what you’re trying to accomplish and who’s in the room. Context, as always, matters.
  • Avoid the temptation to get clever or complicated. Intricate exercises with lots of moving parts that take 10 minutes just to explain to participants are high risk. Sometimes less is more.
  • Be cautious of the “session we have to have” and the push to squeeze in a particular speaker or topic. Interrogate why that needs to be part of the workshop; there might be a great, unarticulated reason why it will help the group to accomplish the overall objective, or there might just be political reasons—which is fine, but better to clarify that among the workshop organizers at least.
  • Keep the focus on the participants. Yes, there are institutional goals, constraints, and egos that you need to satisfy. Focus on the people in the room, and you’ll find ways to achieve those other objectives as well.

Photo credit: Me, taken at the TA LEARN workshop (expertly facilitated by Chris Michael); Rio de Janeiro, Nov 2015.

Is the Republican party coalition crumbling before our very eyes?

I’ve tried to write a post on the American election several times in recent months, but the zigs and zags of the campaign have made it hard to find a vantage point for offering anything more than a reaction to the absurdity du jour or an update on the horse race—a role which many other blogs are much better suited to provide (e.g. see FiveThirtyEight, Monkey CageSabato’s Crystal Ball, or Vox).

However, yesterday marked just four weeks until Election Day. If I have anything useful or interesting to say about this political circus—other than the overly philosophical take in last week’s post—it’s now or never.

Unstable electoral coalitions

The major lens through which I’ve been viewing this election is the maintenance and stability of electoral coalitions. Party politics is all about bringing multiple interest groups together under a big tent. Different electoral systems shape this process in different ways, but America’s preference for winner-take-all elections tends to encourage two major parties (a phenomenon known as Duverger’s law).

Given the multitude of issues and opinions that are part of the political discourse, any grouping under two tents will inevitably cram together actors who don’t agree on much of anything. In contrast, a proportional system makes electoral success possible for smaller parties with more focused agendas, relieving the party of the need to manage internal contradictions; those conflicts play out in parliament instead.

Through this lens, one clear fact of this election is the fracturing of the Republican coalition. It might not lead to the complete destruction that some commentators are gleefully predicting, but it is definitely a re-alignment.

Understanding this story means starting at least as far back as the 1960s, with Nixon’s “southern strategy“—a successful effort to bring the solidly Democratic southern states into the Republican fold by appealing to racism against African Americans. It marked the beginning of an alliance between business/fiscal conservatives and hardline social conservatives.

Countless books and opinion columns have sought ways to explain this coalition between two groups that agreed on very little in policy terms. From the left, it looked like conservative values voters were being duped into voting against their economic interests. From the right, there were appeals to fundamental values like freedom that are supposedly shared across the coalition.

I take the more pragmatic view that everyone votes for their own interests as they themselves see those interests, even if others might not recognize them as such. Some people’s rational self-interest may be in voting to support policies that maintain their own dominance in the social hierarchy and slow the cultural changes that they have trouble understanding, even if those social policies are paired with economic policies that hit them in the wallet.

That sort of contradiction is exactly what politics is about. It’s a productive tension that allows two groups to both fulfill their highest priority goals. Some people may not even see this as a compromise. The human tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance through re-interpretation leads us to accept the creative explanations offered by media outlets and pundits whose own interests lie in the promotion of this coalition. Fictions like “tax cuts for the job creators” and “trickle down economics” reduce the dissonance.

Cracks starting to show

The tension between the two stayed in balance for decades, but nothing lasts forever. The business side has done quite well out of the coalition, of course, as public policies from tax to trade to social services have done much less to mitigate widening inequality than they could. The benefits of economic growth (and the recent recovery) accrue to the wealthiest.

The social conservative wing has fared worse in the deal: the arc of history is moving against many of the issues they hold most dear. To get “values voters” to the polls, the Republican establishment has long stoked their worst instincts: xenophobia (anti-immigrant and anti-muslim efforts), racism (the birther conspiracy), homophobia (anti-gay marriage efforts), transphobia (NC’s “bathroom bill”), misogyny (nearly everything they’ve ever said about Hillary Clinton), anti-government hysteria (gun rights), and so on. These aren’t the only values held by social conservatives, but their very divisiveness makes them more politically useful.

Social conservatives have sensed that they’re losing the cultural and political debate on most of these issues. What’s worse, the business side of the coalition has grown increasingly uneasy with the values espoused by its partners—an inevitable outcome given that social exclusion is bad for business.

The strains have wrenched the coalition since the late 2000s saw the rise of the Tea Party, but their revolt was mainly directed at the coalition’s brokers: the Republican party establishment itself, which has also done quite well in the deal. Off-cycle voter turnout has meant more control of the House (18 of the last 25 years) and Senate (12 of the last 25), and even more so at the state level: currently Republicans hold both legislative majorities and the governorship in 23 states, while Democrats hold the trifecta in only 7 (the other 20 states are split). The Tea Party tried to seize control of that power structure, but have proved themselves to be more obstructionist than anything else.

The cracks started to really show when the presidential primary added new pressures. The Donald is a unique candidate, no doubt, but he’s been exploiting conflicts that have existed in the party for decades. He’s fanned the same reactionary conservative flames that the party establishment long stoked, without any of the inconvenient decorum that kept the fringe hardliners wondering whether the party was truly committed to the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that it had merely hinted at for years. That fringe heard Trump’s call.

He drew them further out of the woodwork with an appeal to trade protectionism as his campaign’s core economic issue. Trade isn’t the only factor behind the job losses and inequality that have the public in such an anti-establishment/anti-elites mood; but unlike technological change or business concentration, opposing trade dovetails nicely with the xenophobia of being anti-immigrant and globally aggressive. His economic policies add fuel to the fire.

However, trade protectionism also defies the Republican orthodoxy and the so-called “free market” principles that are necessary for keeping the other half of the coalition in place. That suited Trump just fine for the primaries, as he could campaign with a combination of personal wealth (probably less than he claims, but still not insubstantial) as well as the free media generated by celebrity status and over-the-top behavior. In a divided field of candidates appealing for party member votes, he only needed to convince a small fraction of the country to support him.

In the past week or so, it’s become clear that this combination will not be enough to get him through the general election to the White House: the forecasts and prediction markets are swinging hard against him. His lack of personal discipline and unwillingness to listen to political professionals (say what you want about the establishment, but they know how to run a national campaign) have put him on the path to defeat. Even the recent leaks on Trump’s taxes and sexual assaults are only the triggers and excuses for the Republican establishment figures to distance themselves; the deeper cause lies in their desire to not crash and burn along with his campaign.

Collapse or re-alignment?

The GOP post-mortem analysis on this election can almost be written already. It will be a fitting sequel to their 2012 autopsy, which included the finding that the party needed to widen its base, especially by reaching out to minorities. The party utterly failed to accomplish that, and in the process they’ve discovered that years of thinly (or not so thinly) veiled rhetoric against immigrants, minorities, women, etc. have left their social conservative base extremely unhappy with the idea of accommodating those groups in any way. So unhappy that they want to throw the whole establishment under the bus.

There are lot of jokes being made that this election will be the last for the Republican party. They certainly won’t do well, but even a rout doesn’t translate into the dissolution of a party. Party elders and supporting institutions (lobbyists, think tanks, media, etc.) are maneuvering to keep the coalition together. There are voters who straddle the two wings of the party, or who have loyalty to the party for other reasons.

What will result is a shuffling of the coalition. The election is like a loud, public re-negotiation of roles and responsibilities. The fact that the establishment largely lined up behind Trump for a while suggests that there’s little reason to believe it will reject his supporters. The new Trump coalition will continue to be part of the party, but not its core. It isn’t large enough to win a national election, though it can still be successful in particular jurisdictions and loud enough across the country to influence the terms of debate. Business interests will continue to support the more palatable candidates in the coalition. At the end of the day, money cares most about its own influence and interests.

The Republican coalition’s new footing will depend a lot on what happens across the aisle. The Democratic coalition is not without long-standing tensions, e.g. between labor and environmental interests. There is even a parallel tension to the one straining the Republican party, with centrist Democrats in the Clinton mold drawing more corporate money into a party whose grassroots activists view the private sector with skepticism at best, and antagonism at worst.

In fact, as the Republic coalition will need an election cycle or two before it returns to full strength, I would expect an increase in business money seeking other channels for influence and strengthening the hand of centrist Democrats. Meanwhile, the reduced competition from Republicans will reduce the need for Democrats to accommodate others within their own party. This could actually increase the chance of a schism within the party, with the Sanders/Warren wing on the rise. They kept the conflicts from boiling over in the primary, in part due to the more conciliatory personalities involved and in part due to the fear of Trump. But never discount the possibility of tensions resurfacing in unexpected ways.

Operating in a world with no truth

Dear readers: This is a somewhat different post than normal. It addresses a question that’s been on my mind for years (decades, really) but which seems more relevant and urgent this year: how do you operate in a world with no truth? The resulting essay is perhaps too long, overly philosophical, and more American-centric than typical for this blog, but it’s hopefully interesting nonetheless. – Dave

1. Multiple realities

Politicians and pundits like to talk about “two Americas”: often referring to the split between the haves and the have-nots, but often also the split along partisan or ideological lines. That latter division is more pronounced than ever. Americans are not merely divided in their policy preferences, but seem to be living in two different, irreconcilable worlds.

In one of them, a former Secretary of State offers a hopeful, if somewhat flawed and uninspiring, continuation of the country’s recovery from recession and war. She is all that stands in the way of authoritarianism, mainstreamed racism, and an oddly isolationist form of warmongering.

Meanwhile, in the other world, a reality television star and real estate businessman provides the only hope for stopping America’s descent into chaos and poverty in an increasingly hostile world. He would overthrow the corrupt elites who dominate politics, bring back the jobs that they traded away, and ensure that we win again. Oh, how we would win.

The people living in these two realities are incomprehensible to one another. Witness last week’s Presidential debate, where one candidate casually ignored the other’s attacks with the statement: “Well…I know you live in your own reality.” The audience laughed. Unfortunately, plenty of other people live in that same reality with him.

The people in both of these realities are equally baffled by those living in a third, where undecided voters have barely started paying attention to the election and haven’t been able to make up their minds—despite the planet-threatening consequences seen by those in the first two realities.

Actually, there’s a fourth reality and a fifth, populated by voters who are upset with their chosen candidates for any number of reasons, but who hate the other candidate enough to pull out all the stops in defeating him/her. Then there are the sixth through tenth realities, where people are either too young or too old to recognize how the world has changed (a portion of millennials and baby boomers, respectively) and unable to factor that into their decisions. Somewhere there’s a reality where voting for a third party makes sense. The differing political worlds number in the dozens, at least; maybe hundreds.

But let’s not get carried away. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts—one hopes? We can all interpret the world differently so long as we’re working from a core set of common data—right?

Don’t be so sure. Many people, including the elite media organizations, have woken up to notice how Americans are living in wildly divergent political realities. They’ve dubbed it “post-truth politics”, and it’s not a uniquely American phenomenon: authoritarian regimes with more complete control over domestic media are even better equipped to construct alternate realities, scaring citizens with foreign boogeyman and drumming up support for the government, as needed.

The obvious antidote is to be “pro-truth”. However, while “post-truth” might be an accurate description of what’s happening in some of these realities, there’s a more general problem that permeates the worlds of even those of us who believe we are pro-truth: truth doesn’t exist, and it never has.

2. Constructed truth

We like to imagine that the border between truth and opinion is defined by objectivity: things are true if they’re true; truth is what’s really real; truth is what exists even when you’re not looking at it. Everything else is perception, opinion, interpretation, or conjecture.

That’s a metaphysical explanation. It works fine in the abstract, but in daily life, metaphysics isn’t much use.

In daily life, the border between truth and opinion is guarded by a simple principle: verification. That’s the sine qua non—the only necessary-and-sufficient condition—for identifying something as a truth. That principle is baked into the scientific method, which builds on previous findings to deduce new possibilities, then seeks data (observations) to verify or refute those. Journalistic and legal truth work in largely the same way: multiple witnesses, DNA testing, and video footage can corroborate a story. Until then, it’s just a story—an unverified opinion. Truth must match with other facts, other observations, other truths.

The verification principle of truth likes to imagine itself as a technical, objective process. But potential truths are not assessed on their own merits; they’re verified in relation to those that have already been accepted. The current stock gets priority in regulating the incoming flow. That means mistakes can build on mistakes, as we select new truths for entry and interpret based on what we’ve already accepted—a form of confirmation bias.

There’s a further feedback loop in how your stock of truth shapes your assessment of the messengers of potential truths. When your truths diverge from someone else’s, your natural reaction is to become skeptical of anything new they have to say. Trying to parse why they understand the world differently is cognitively hard. Instead of taking on that challenge, we drift toward trusting the people, sources, and interpretations that align with what we already know—like a second-order confirmation bias that trusts certain messengers more than others.

This drift toward sources we trust makes truth a social construct: we build a truth community that sees the same world as we do. The feedback loops drive initial differences in truths or interpretations into increasingly divergent world views. Over time, what any of us consider to be truth is correlated to our circumstances and relationships.

3. Fragmentation of worlds

This would be all fine if we lived in truly different worlds, interacting only with those who held the same truths or only with others in inconsequential ways. Small fragmentations of truths hardly go noticed; at worst, they provide fodder for lively conversations with our extended family members.

But when our worlds overlap and combine, as they do in the formation of a common polity or economy large enough to achieve anything of substance, then our truths may come into greater conflict. These conflicts over truth can quickly become conflicts over power. Truths are used to build power and power is used to shape truths, demonstrated most bluntly by the history of Christianity.

Medium-sized fragmentations can be drivers of progress, as a truth community works to build power and convince the wider society of its truth. Phrases like “speak truth to power” hold this idea: all concentrations of power create (and are maintained by) their own systems of truths, which other truths can disturb. Whether it’s the “real” truth that’s spoken to the powerful, or simply a differing truth, doesn’t matter as much as whether the truth spoken is collectively verified and validated by a larger group. Oppression is the act of silencing voices and truths to maintain private power; building countervailing power ensures that pro-social truths invade on those concentrations of power.

What America faces today may be a larger-scale fragmentation. When aligned with social, racial, economic, religious, or other fissures, large fragmentation of truths can become fault lines for civil strife, violence, and war. There’s probably a way to tell the history of every civil war as a conflict between two (or more) distinct truth communities, who lived in such different worlds that they were unable to speak to one another in a language other than violence. To extend on Clausewitz: politics is the reconciliation of conflicting truths through power, and war is the continuation of that conflict by other means.

America’s fragmentations of truth are an order of magnitude short of causing civil war, but other forms of violence at the border between truth communities are very real: hate crimes at an African-American church in South Carolina and against Muslim Americans, and clashes during at least 20 of Trump’s rallies.

4. Current drivers

Fragmentation of truths in various degrees have always been part of any society. What American media commentators are noticing this year is a confluence of mutually reinforcing factors.

The first factor is, of course, the internet and social media. The cost of connecting with like-minded individuals has dropped so dramatically that anyone can find their truth community. This works for pro-social causes (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, in my view) as well as for the crackpots (anti-vaxxers, “men’s rights” movement, etc.). Add in the filter bubble effect—which is confirmation bias in algorithm form, showing us information uniquely shaped by our preferred truths and communities—and you’ve also created the possibility of efficient micro-targeted broadcasting: i.e. new media sources that don’t need to appeal to a broad audience, but instead can feed on and feed into specific truth communities (like the “alt-right”-enabling Breitbart News). These sources build audiences and capture revenue from exactly that audience, while driving it to become increasingly disconnected from other realities.

The second factor is a loss of trust in the previously dominant mediating institutions—those organizations that were both the media for distributing truths and the mediator among differing truth communities. The problems that news broadcasters and major daily newspapers face today are not limited to their lack of tech savvy or the inherent inefficiencies of journalistic integrity; their bigger challenge is dealing with a shift away from a world where they were the gatekeepers of truth, toward to a world with a very porous border between truth and opinion. They can still produce and distribute the news, but they’re just one voice among many.

In some ways, the media’s interpretation of its own role contributed to this: for years, mainstream media has often confused being unbiased with being balanced. Journalists should be unbiased in reporting, as close to neutral as possible on disputes, and without any vested interests in the outcomes. That may often mean teasing out the nuanced positions, interrogating the evidence, and highlighting any conflicts of interest behind those in the dispute. Unfortunately, being unbiased often gets replaced with being “balanced”: finding two sides to any issue, giving them equal time, and acting like a lazy boxing referee who simply monitors the fight. That approach promotes a false equivalency for viewpoints that lack verifiability—i.e. are barely even considered true by those promoting them. Hence we end up with corporate-backed climate deniers presented on equal footing with the scientific establishment.

This connects to the third factor: the undermining of other sources of shared truths. Specifically, the disparagement of science, academia, and even basic statistics (including public opinion polls as well as government data) has reduced the number of common verification points. When scientifically documented truths about climate change, pollution, or evolution are called into question because they challenge politically powerful truths, the social benefits of scientific knowledge are undercut across the board.

The fourth factor, stemming from the previous three, is the elevation of opinions and stories to the same level as truths and facts. Opinions and stories are fine for what they are, but in the public discourse they play a more dangerous role than merely fragmented truths—i.e. truths verified with reference to other sources—because they are unconcerned with verification. Think about the advice that political, charity, and consumer marketers be “storytellers”, and how the resulting stories are usually short on facts but high on emotion and “truthiness” (the quality of feeling true in your gut).

The final factor is generally more hopeful: the (painfully slow) crumbling of white supremacy and patriarchy in America. Oh, it’s still alive and well, as evidenced by the Tea Party, the “alt-right”, and the Trump campaign. But this week in the Vice Presidential debate we saw a pair of white men from traditionally conservative states talking about race relations, criminal justice reform, community policing, and implicit bias on primetime television. Though no one uttered the words “Black Lives Matter” and talk is just talk anyway, this is nonetheless a small step in dismantling the dominant truths that have supported oppressive power structures for centuries. In parallel with other social progress and the demographic trend toward a majority-minority country, the truths experienced by socially marginalized groups (which have long been dramatically different from the truths experienced by those with power) are better able to claim their space in the struggles over power. Counterintuitively, that’s both a sign of progress and a cause of fragmentation.

These factors didn’t quite come in this order. In fact, the confusion between bias and balance, loss of trust in media, and undermining of shared sources of truths were all pre-cursors to the splintering of truth communities, long before low-cost publishing platforms and Facebook’s algorithms drove the wedges deeper. The space created for pro-social counter-narratives has been a constant factor, but often below the surface.

However, regardless of their order, there’s no doubt that these factors have driven the truths farther apart, even while the current election creates a contest over political power that brings those differences to the surface. This is potentially a toxic brew.

5. New normal

The “post-truth” nature of the world shapes all of our realities, not just those who follow proto-authoritarians or lurk on conspiracy-fueled message boards. In fact, if we look at politics in countries that never had the same dominant media authorities, there are reasons to think that fragmented truth is the historical and global norm. The authority of mainstream media in 20th-century America may have been an outlier or even a mirage. If truth has always been a social construct, then the current fragmentation is more likely a regression to the mean rather than something entirely new.

What to make of that? Staring at a world with many truths but no truth would make one question whether truth has any value at all.

Truth matters, but not in the ways we typically assume. The social nature of verification is both a weakness and a strength. It means that building truth is intertwined with building social cohesion. Truth matters because it’s a necessary step in the iterative process of building inclusivity and social capital, upon which everything else we do together is built. It gives us common agendas and common understandings for making progress on the things that matter.

What we need is not stronger statements of pro-truth to beat back falsities or truthiness, but stronger capacities to build shared truths across communities. That means finding ways to speak the same language, to verify truths in terms of other people’s realities rather than our own, to pierce filter bubbles (or at least soften the boundaries between them), and to place previously marginalized truths on equal footing with others.

Big media outlets won’t regain their monopoly on truth, and no other institution will take on that mantle, but we may not need or want them to anyway. Corporate media’s stranglehold on truth may have kept the crackpots at bay, but it also reinforced existing oppressive structures. Social media feeds can carry stories on the national prison strike and Dakota Pipeline protests to people who wouldn’t see the same stories on CNN. Smart organizers leverage that to promote social justice.

If we can also use these forces to build common verification points, then we might not be able to stop the fragmentation of truth, but we can at least learn to live with it. We can turn it into something that facilitates progress rather than drives violence. That may not be inspiring or idealistic, but in a world with no truth, it’s the best we can do.

I made fun of Google Maps for giving me directions to Nepal. Then I went to Nepal.

Back in May, I was wandering around DC trying to get to the OpenGov Hub—a co-working community space located near McPherson Square in DC. I grabbed my phone, opened Google Maps, and discovered that it wanted to give me transit directions to another place called the OpenGov Hub—but in Kathmandu.

As I had never been to Nepal and had no reason to think that I would ever visit, my first reaction was to feel better about the prospect that computers would soon become smarter than us and take over the world. My smartphone was reassuringly dumb. I also thought this warranted a snarky facebook post. To wit:

OpenGov Hub directions in DC

Lo and behold, three months later, I happened to travel to Kathmandu for a project with the Open Contracting Partnership. You win, Google Maps. As long as I was in town, I figured I should stop by the OpenGov Hub. Ever the magnanimous future robot overlord, Google Maps was very helpful for finding my way:

Kathmandu Open Gov Hub

I somehow managed to communicate those directions to a taxi driver. Like many taxi drivers, he had no use for such artificial intelligence. He merely needed me to find the landmark nearest to the destination. (Note to self: Old school taxi drivers will be great allies for navigating urban areas during the resistance against the machines.)

Traffic was great. Kathamandu is very good at traffic. As in, good at having lots of it.

Kathmandu traffic

Once at the OpenGov Hub, I found a great community of open government reformers and like-minded organizations—and in a beautiful office space, too. I’ve written elsewhere about how shared infrastructure helps lower the barriers to working extra-organizationally. They don’t all have to be as tech-oriented as places like Nairobi’s famous iHub; Kathmandu’s OpenGov Hub (and the larger hub in DC) show the value of bringing together thematically similar organizations.

OpenGov Hub Kathmandu

They even have some expansion plans, with a second floor under renovation as they continue to add new members. Hopefully the AI in my phone that dictates my future will let me visit again someday and see how they’ve grown.

Many thanks to Narayan and Samita for showing me around.

OpenGov Hub Kathmandu expansion

/ / travel & fieldwork

Creating Fit-for-Purpose Peacebuilding Evaluation: Three Key Investments (guest cross-post)

The following is a cross-post from friend-of-the-blog Andrew Blum; it originally appeared on the PeaceLab2016 blog. Beyond being a generally insightful post, I’m sharing it because a lot of the “adaptive learning” talk can tend toward the abstract, too much about principles and not enough about practices. I’m as guilty as anyone, especially when blurring lines across the aid/development sectors. Adaptation gets usefully concrete when you focus on a particular function and sector—in this case, M&E in peacebuilding—and from there you can abstract again. –Dave

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes for conflict prevention programs need to be adapted to their unstable and fluid contexts. Donors should build closer partnerships with implementers, provide adequate resources for (shared) data collection, and develop indicators to make credible long-term claims.

In this post, I will address the following question: how do we develop strategically and politically relevant monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes for conflict prevention and peacebuilding programs?

Keeping in mind the specific needs of larger donors, I will assume here donors want two things: demonstrably more effective programs, and the ability to demonstrate accountability in the way program funds are used.

Conventional M&E is unfit for conflict scenarios

Since both peacebuilding and M&E are big, sometimes sprawling, topics, I want to focus on one particular issue: the context in which peacebuilding programs take place. These contexts are, by definition, unstable and fluid. This fact is obvious, even a truism, but its implications for how we design M&E systems are large and often go unacknowledged. For programs to stand a chance of being successful in these contexts, organizations have to implement their programs in a flexible, adaptive way.

A traditional M&E approach – that starts with a finalized and static project design, monitors inputs, activities and outputs during program implementation, and concludes by conducting a large-scale evaluation after the program is completed – is ill-suited to this type of fluid, rapidly changing context. What is needed instead are M&E processes that accompany the project throughout its implementation. M&E that creates continuous, evidence-based learning and feedback loops to guide implementation, inform shift strategy, and track progress toward the project’s goals, even as these goals may evolve.

What does this mean for donors? What changes should be made to create new, fit-for-purpose M&E systems in conflict contexts? In answer to these questions, I would argue that donors should focus on three kinds of investments.

Build a true partnership between donors and implementers: adaptation with accountability

In a 2014 online piece for Foreign Policy, I argued that, for peacebuilding programming, donors need to demand a different kind of accountability from implementers than for more traditional development programs. Specifically, they should ask each implementer the following three questions:

  • What results did your program achieve?
  • How did you program adapt to the context in which was implemented?
  • What evidence do you have that defends your decisions regarding how the program adapted?

Using these questions acknowledges the unstable nature of conflict environments and allows for flexible implementation of projects. It does so, however, in a way that still allows donors to hold implementers accountable. In effect, donors are saying to implementers “please, adapt as needed, but show us with evidence how and why you are adapting.”

Working in this way requires a different and closer relationship between donors and implementers. If I had to guess, I would say donors spend roughly 80% of their time on a project prior to it launching (designing the solicitation, reviewing proposals, conducting due diligence, and so on) and only 20% actually monitoring and overseeing a project. This type of model will not work if we want to create effective programming in conflict contexts.

Instead, donors need to build a true partnership that involves closer interaction throughout the course of the project. This in turn requires investment both in the time and effort it takes to establish trust and build a deeper relationship (for instance, trips to donor headquarters for country directors), and for the effort it takes to gather and use evidence to justify shifts in programming strategies. Effective, accountable programming in conflict areas requires creating more rapid feedback loops, where evidence is continually used to adjust program strategies.

Invest in data collection and analysis for evidence-based adaptation

Effective, accountable programming requires feedback loops, and feedback loops require rigorous and cost-effective data collection. If we expect implementers to respond flexibly to fluid, unstable conflict contexts, there must be rigorous data collection throughout the project, not just at the evaluation stage, as is often the case.

Investing in data collection should take two forms. First, project budgets should include more resources to implement effective data collection. If we are asking implementers to move beyond simple input/output tracking, resources need to be provided to support this shift.

Second, donors should invest additional resources in “public goods” that create general capacity for effective data collection. Given the nature of data collection that is required, and the difficulty of collecting data in conflict contexts, it is unrealistic to ask each implementer to create their own fully-fledged data collection and analysis capacity. These public goods could include, among other things, shared data collection tools and technology, shared data collection capacity (for instance, a pool of trained enumerators), common monitoring and indicator frameworks, and common data sharing, analysis, and visualization platforms.

For instance, at my previous organization, the United States Institute of Peace, the United States Agency for International Developmentprovided resources for an effort, called the Initiative to Measure Peace and Conflict Outcomes (IMPACT), to develop a common monitoring framework and data collection strategy for all US government funded peacebuilding work in the Central African Republic. This effort is an experiment, but if it proves successful, it will provide one model for how we can move beyond individualized project monitoring to more shared data collection and analysis approaches.

Make credible long-term claims: what is the cholesterol of peacebuilding?

To justify their funding, donors need to show that their projects are creating meaningful results. The difficulty is that short-term monitoring data cannot demonstrate larger-scale impact. On the other hand, larger-scale evaluations that can provide evidence of broader impact are often ill-suited to rapidly changing conflict contexts. To demonstrate a way out of this dilemma, it is useful to use a health-related analogy. Put simply, peacebuilding needs to find its cholesterol. Imagine a program that is designed to reduce heart disease. One way to do this would be to implement the heart disease prevention activities and then wait 30 years to see if rates of heart disease are less than would otherwise be expected. Studies like this are not unheard of, but not common. Instead, the medical field has developed risk indicators for heart disease, like cholesterol. As a result, they are able to measure a decrease in cholesterol in the shorter term and make credible claims about a decrease in the risk of heart disease.

It is often said that donors should take a long-term approach to peacebuilding. However, it is not politically feasible for donors to adopt the “act-and-wait-30 years-for-results” approach. Instead, donors should keep the long term in mind, but invest in either conducting and/or leveraging the type of research that allows them to make credible claims in the shorter term – the same kind of claims that cholesterol allows doctors to make.

The good news is that a strong, evidence-backed consensus is emerging on what the cholesterol, or cholesterols, of peacebuilding might look like. This consensus is crystallized in Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals. It provides at least the promise of making credible long-term claims – like “our program has increased people’s security and access to justice, therefore, we have decreased the risk of a return to violent conflict” – based on shorter-term monitoring of results.

To realize this promise, donors need to invest in two types of research. Again, the cholesterol analogy is apt. The first type of research would improve our ability to assess and measure interim results, like access to justice. This type of research would improve our ability to credibly make the shorter-term claim – our program improved access to justice. The second type of research would improve our understanding of the mechanisms by which improved access to justice leads to less chance of violent conflict. This type of research would enhance our ability to credibly make the longer-term claims – by increasing access to justice we have decreased the chance of violence in the future and improved the chance of building a more peaceful society.

The time is ripe for new approaches

In my experience, there is enough frustration about the current state of monitoring and evaluation for peacebuilding that donors and implementers are willing to experiment with new approaches. The Global Learning for Adaptive Management collaboration between the United States Agency for International Developmentand the British Department for International Developmentis one current example. As these experiments are launched, donors will need to move beyond the thinking and reflection stage and find concrete things in which to invest. The best place to start? Invest in partnerships, in data collection, and in research.

Andrew Blum, PhD is the Executive Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justiceat the University of San Diego. Formerly, he served as Vice-President for Planning, Learning, and Evaluation and a Senior Program Officer for Grantmaking at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington DC.

Why is it hard to hire for learning roles? 3 early hypotheses

Folks: Learning is hot right now. At least, in the aid and development sectors. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) teams are now monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). Strategy departments have become “Strategy and Learning”; research departments, “Research and Learning”.

Learning feeds into real-time adaptation, longer-term strategic shifts, and broader sectoral changes. It makes M&E meaningful as something more than donor reporting and gives practical purpose to research.

It’s a promising employment area as well: Devex has 684 job postings with the word “learning” in the title. That’s fewer than have “monitoring” (1,309) or “evaluation” (1,237)—but I’m fairly sure learning has been on an upward trend from a few years ago.

All that said, I’m having trouble squaring the learning boom with the fact that several organizations I know are really struggling to hire learning staff. I’ve had several conversations in recent weeks about the challenges of finding the right fit.

My sample is too small and most of my data too anecdotal to explain why, but my early hypotheses are:

  • Not enough people interested: Learning roles aren’t as attractive to job candidates, perhaps because the function is not yet defined enough to have a clear career path.
  • Not enough people qualified, likely because the job is defined too broadly: Most learning roles sit at the intersection of M&E, research, communications, management, and strategy. Few candidates have experience in more than one or two of those, so there are not enough qualified candidates in the pools.
  • Not sure what they’re looking for: Organizations aren’t sure how the learning role connects to the rest of their work (it’s often a newly created position) and so it’s hard for hiring mangers to picture how any given candidate will fit in.

Is anyone else experiencing trouble hiring for learning roles? If so, I’d be curious to hear more about it—in the comments below or by email.

Pictured: TA LEARN workshop in Rio.

Adaptation is more than flexibility

Change actors of all stripes face a tension between the certainty needed to act at scale, and the uncertainty inherent to change at any level.

On the one hand: The world is full of injustices and problems, many of them systemic and impacting people’s lives across contexts. A moral imperative drives us to address these problems. Doing so at scale—in fact, doing anything at scale—depends on our ability to plan, prioritize, allocate resources, coordinate, and control. Whether within an organization or across a sector, these functions require us to make assumptions. They require some degree of certainty.

On the other hand: The world is complex, opaque, and never fully knowable. Most of our social goals—like justice, equality, development, freedom—are not levers we move directly, but rather are emergent properties of the interplay of policies, interests, structural constraints, and a whole lot of history. An action that we think will advance one of those goals may fail or backfire, for reasons that were impossible to know in advance, and perhaps only slightly clearer in retrospect. Some amount of uncertainty is inherent to social change.

The drive toward certainty shows up in systems and practices like strategic planning, budgeting, gantt charts, logframes, and outcome indicators. The inherent uncertainty appears as these tools often fail, and we find ourselves changing course.

The tension between these two often leads to well-meaning calls for more flexibility. Grantees want donors to be more flexible in budget lines, communities want NGOs to be more flexible in project goals, and everyone wants government to be more flexible in everything.

But working flexibly isn’t enough. What we need is to work adaptively. Both flexibility and adaptability acknowledge the uncertainty of progress and allow for changing course. The difference lies in how and why those course corrections take place.

Working adaptively means building in systems for probing and sense-making from the start (e.g. feedback loops, frequent monitoring, capacity for analysis/synthesis). Such systems proactively seek to learn and understand, rather than merely reacting after reality intrudes on the plans. Working adaptively also means having mechanisms in place to make those changes deliberately, through shifts in tactics, programs, resourcing, staffing, and more.

This cycle might operate at different rates depending on the work: daily, weekly, or monthly iterations and pivots for micro-changes; monthly or quarterly for tactical shifts; quarterly or annually for strategic shifts. More frequent if the context is shifting too.

This idea—that adaptation is more than flexibility—isn’t new. But without a clearer articulation of those systems (for probing/sense-making) and mechanisms (to make deliberate changes) it’s all a bit academic.

Fortunately, there have been a few efforts to make this more concrete. In fact, there have been many efforts: in a post co-authored with Alan Hudson of Global Integrity on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog, we tried to informally map a few of those efforts to promote more adaptive work in the aid, development, and governance sectors. The post (a few weeks old now) is here:

(The Monty Python joke was Duncan’s suggestion, because of course it was.)

Separately, I’ve been supporting a joint effort between Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee to share lessons and practices from six case studies of working adaptively in some challenging contexts: emergency relief in Syria and Niger, Ebola response efforts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, market systems development in Uganda, and health systems development in Myanmar. This report may be one of the best articulations to date of those systems and mechanisms that distinguish adaptation from mere flexibility. You can find it here:

More on these efforts, and others, as they evolve.

Problems are systemic, but solutions are specific (and frustratingly incremental)

Right now, as I type, I’m watching the Senate Democrats filibustering live. They’ve been going for about 10 hours so far. If you see this blog post tonight, you can watch live as well. Go there for at least 5 minutes, especially if you’re an American and have been following the political discourse in the aftermath of the Pulse club shooting in Orlando last weekend.

The filibuster is led by Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, whose first speech on the Senate floor in April 2013 discussed the Sandy Hook school shootings in his home state. 37 other Senators having spoken as well. They’re arguing for prohibiting gun purchases by those on the terrorist watch list, and for implementing universal background checks for gun purchases.

Somehow, despite majority support by Americans and even among gun owners, these measures can’t even get to a vote in the Senate. The Senate Democrats have been holding the floor for nearly half a day just to get a vote. Will it succeed? I doubt it will, at least in the near term. Will it be a turning point for gun control in the country? Maybe. Is it political theatre? Absolutely.

I’m deeply cynical about American politics. This year, more than ever. We have institutional lock-in (and the Senate is the prime example) that prevents real action, while tensions, inequality, and injustice simmer underneath. Not surprisingly, they bubble over—especially when they are stoked.

Yet watching this is strangely inspiring. I’ve been watching for almost two hours (despite owing deliverables to several clients tonight—sorry). These people are smart, passionate, and articulate. They show commitment. Dare I say it, they show leadership. This is action, in an institution and profession where talking counts as action.

What’s next? At some point, when the exhaustion starts to creep up, they’ll decide they’ve done enough to control the news cycle and frame the story. They’ll have underlined one more strong example of how our institutions and politics have failed us. They’ll go home to sleep, and then hopefully wake up refreshed and re-committed to finding other arenas for the fight, until they can make a policy change. If they can keep a bit of the leadership they’ve found, then the fall election will be one of those arenas.

No one imagines that this minor reform is enough to end gun violence in the United States. There are a half-dozen other issues wrapped up in our country’s mass shootings (which occur almost daily): not just gun controls, but gun culture; our collective inability to take mental health seriously; homophobia; xenophobia; domestic violence; racism; political power of the NRA; mass media reporting; and more.

This problem—like all the difficult ones—is systemic. But solutions are specific and progress is incremental. This is one small drop of a solution. Eventually it adds up to a bucket.

Want to do more? Check out Everytown for Gun Safety and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Three books worth of blogging (plus ten rules)

Posting here has been sparse recently. I’ve been to three recent events and have slowly clawed out of my reading backlog (thanks in no small part to Pocket—unsolicited endorsement), both of which have sparked a dozen post ideas. But those will likely remain half-drafts for a while longer.

Until then, I have a minor milestone to mark: Last month marked six years of blogging.

Six years wouldn’t be much of a milestone except for two facts: 1) This is also my 299th post; and 2) I have written nearly 188,000 words on this blog. Maybe 15% of those words have been block quotes from other sources, so it’s probably only 160,000 words of original content. That’s an average of 535 words per post and just under one post per week over the past six years.

Some idle google searching suggests that a typical nonfiction book clocks in between 50,000 and 70,000 words. So by length, I’m somewhere into book three. (It’s a trilogy! A New Feed / The Day Job Strikes Back / Return of the Blogger?) Fortunately, blogging doesn’t require the same level of coherence or consistency as writing a book, let alone citations.

Interest in individual blogging seemed to peak a few years ago. Many of the blogs I follow have gone dormant; if new voices have popped up to take their place, I haven’t come across many of them. Meanwhile, institutional blogging seems to have gone up: more organizations and companies are figuring out how to say something interesting and relevant on a regular basis, and learning how to relax the control over institutional voice that often throttles such efforts. Maybe those two are linked, as a successful individual blog gets you hired to run an institutional blog, so you stop having time for your own?

I’ve never been interested in blogging as a job, but it’s been indispensable for my career. It’s a channel for clarifying my own thinking on issues that are related (however tangentially) to my work. That becomes a reflective practice, helping me see how my own thinking evolves. It’s also an accountability mechanism for making solid arguments, because what you write is out there for everyone to see. And it’s a powerful way to connect with like-minded people: an important segment of my professional network is composed of people who I first met through blogs, twitter, or other social media.

I’m still an evangelist for the practice. At least once a month, I find myself advising someone that a blog would really help their career. Apparently I’m a terrible recruiter, as none of those people have started blogs.

Perhaps my evangelism isn’t actionable enough. With some reflection on six years and three books of blogging, here are the implicit rules that have guided my writing. I make no claim to their general applicability. There are many ways to blog and other frequent/long-term bloggers in related fields follow completely differently rules. But maybe these will be helpful to some.

Guidelines to blogging the Dave Algoso way (in no particular order):

  1. Write for yourself first. If you can’t find some reason to enjoy the writing—because it helps you process ideas, because you’re improving your writing, because it’s cathartic, because you have a big ego, because of some combination of those—then it will be very hard to keep up with it.
  2. Fit your blogging around your day job. Capture ideas for sharing later, especially when you have the reflective space to generate them (long flights, early mornings, and vacations account for 80% of my blogging time). Write about work when you can, but cautiously. Save sensitive stories until they can be safely anonymized (often years down the road). Don’t push the envelope; your “in real life” relationships and work outputs are more important than your blog.
  3. Scope your content to your interests—and then push to related issues and make connections as you can. You won’t learn anything (and neither will your readers) if you stay focused on what you already know. Don’t be afraid to wade into an area where you’re not the expert, but…
  4. Have the self-awareness to know when you’re branching outside your core areas. No one reading your blog expects you to be an expert on every topic, but they do expect you to respect the expertise of others.
  5. Nothing you write needs to be your final word on a topic. Pick an argument with someone smarter than you, even if you’re wrong. Do your homework and be as close to right as you can. In the end, say something interesting—again, even if it’s wrong.
  6. Don’t make the same argument twice (unless it’s on a different site with a different audience).
  7. If your writing starts to feel stale, write for other blogs or sites. It will force you to think about audience, tone, and style in new ways.
  8. Be a self-editor. Write, then come back to it later when you have some distance and can give it a critical eye. Take every opportunity to have someone else edit your work, whether for the blog or other writing. Learn from that.
  9. Read. Read other blogs, read magazine, read books. Take advantage of free books for book reviews, if only as a commitment mechanism to read more books. (Then remember that the author will almost certainly read your review and tell you what you got wrong.)
  10. Nothing matters as much as the content and the ideas. Pay some attention to design, layout, even SEO. Avoid typos and try to follow some principles of good writing. But if you screw all of that up while managing to make people think or giving voice to something that’s on their mind, then they will still respond, share, and come back for more.

More books on complexity than you can shake a stick at—plus a mea culpa

Last month, Duncan Green was kind enough to post my overly ambitious multi-book review on complexity thinking in development on his From Poverty to Power blog. It covered three books: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity; and Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development.

It was a bit much to cover three substantive works in a single review, so naturally I left a fair bit out. This follow-up post is my attempt to do slightly more justice to the topic.

But first, a mea culpa: I ended the review post with the observation that only a few of the examples in these books stem from complexity thinking; rather, the approaches developed separately and then their effectiveness was explained in complexity terms. I’ve floated the same point before, distinguishing between complexity-relevant practice (i.e. where we can explain methods in terms of complexity) vs. complexity-informed practice (i.e. where we proactively design work based on complexity thinking). I see a lot of the former, but not enough (yet) of the latter.

In responding to my post, Ramalingam made the case that this was a bit of an unfair characterization of the practice to date—and in retrospect, I think he’s right. More of the examples from his book were designed with complexity in mind than I gave credit. In fact, several of the other authors (Burns, Worsley, and Boulton) also chimed in to note that they appreciated the review overall, but that I had somewhat missed the mark on that point. See the comments sections on the post for more.

This is a happy mea culpa though, as the practical upshot is to say that complexity thinking is shifting development practice somewhat more than I had previously thought. Perhaps the authors and I can still agree that we’d still like to see it shift more?

In any case, let’s turn to a few of the interesting stray points from the books that didn’t make it into the larger review.

Navigating Complexity (Burns/Worsley)

I referred to this book as the most practical guide to complexity in development, and a good pick for program designers, evaluators, and managers (as opposed to the other two books, which are a bit more strategically oriented). Burns/Worsley move quickly through a history of other approaches to development (big pushes, technical focus, institutions, rights-based, etc.) and complexity thinking itself, in order to focus on the practical implications.

They describe successful approaches to change as relying on participation, learning, and relationship and network building, which together allow us to understand the system dynamics better and generate appropriate interventions with ownership by stakeholders; ownership then leads to sustainability and scale. (Everything in italics is a concept that they discuss in much greater depth, so if any piqued your interest, you should read the book.) I like this framework because—although it might make Burns and Worsley cringe—you can turn this into a quick rubric for assessing a project or approach, based on how well it incorporates each of those elements.

The core of the book focuses on three approaches that build on these concepts: participatory systemic inquiry, as a planning tool; systemic action research, as a structured process that integrates learning and action; and nurtured emergent development, as an organic approach to building a social movement for change (explained with examples like community-led total sanitation).

They also have a great discussion of the nature of power in development and participatory processes, and a conclusion section that nods toward the political nature of development and the need for adaptive management.

Embracing Complexity (Boulton, Allen, Bowman)

This book was much more wide-ranging, in a way that makes it hard to give full due in any review. As mentioned in my other post, this book was written by a team that deeply understands the science of complexity, as well as the debates within that field. The result is an great journey through the ideas, easily followed by non-specialists, but which still may be more detailed than some readers want.

For those who embrace the journey, the chapters on complexity in the social world, management, strategy, international development, and economics are chock-full of insights and advice. For example, I took the following away on complexity-informed research processes: trace situations over time; include multiple-perspectives and opportunities for meaning-making; follow emergent, unexpected phenomena; explore causes; explore around issues; stay free from the need to define initial hypothesis; balance uniqueness and general applicability.

Similarly, on complexity-informed change management: understand the context and history; ensure broad stakeholder engagement; agree on a broad approach to change and create a general plan, but keep a contingency budget for experimentation; design pilots within the broad approach (small bets, anyone?); refine and iterate; allow a degree of local customization.

The chapter on development draws on work that Boulton did with Oxfam around programs in Kenya. It advocates for considering how interventions take account of the systemic/interconnected aspects of the context, how they pay attention to path-dependency, how they customize and experiment within context, and how they look for and respond to tipping points in the wider environment. One of my favorite takeaways was the idea of a new definition of “baseline” assessments: paying better attention to the starting point in a richer way, identifying contextual and historical factors and how each might relate to the intervention.

Aid on the Edge (Ramalingam)

I won’t share as much on this book, as it came out a few years before the others and has been subject of more reviews. This one is somewhat heftier than the others, though those who are familiar with the sector may be able to skim over the critique of how aid currently works (the first third of the book), instead focusing on Ramalingam’s description of complexity (second third) and its implications for the sector (final third).

What I think Ramalingam’s book does very well is make the case for changing the sector’s broader thinking, as well its accompanying approaches and toolkits. He notes the need to: “move from ‘experiments’ as a tool to ‘experimentation’ as a mindset.” The idea is echoed in points made in Boulton et al. about complexity being as much a worldview as a science.

So now what?

The question facing an interested practitioner is: okay, I’ve got the mindset, I’m in the zone; now what tools do I use? As J. asked in response to my previous post:

Tomorrow morning, when I sit down at my desk to manage a team of unruly aid workers, tasked with implementing a diverse portfolio of grant-funded activities in an ambiguous legal context, HQ riding my ass for an updated strategy document that no one will ever read… and knowing everything in those books: Which email do I send first?

The answer, unfortunately, is a big fat: “it depends.” Increasingly, that toolkit is being built out under a variety of headings: PDIA, Doing Development Differently, adaptive management, adapting development, adaptive learning, “collaborating, learning, adapting” (CLA—USAID’s preferred acronym), “science of delivery” (the World Bank’s framing, though it’s approached more as craft than science), and on and on. The differences are often shaped by the differing institutional contexts from which they emerge. Not all of the practice is complexity-informed, but all of it is complexity-relevant.

From where I sit—as a consultant who gets to be connected to a variety of these efforts, but often in small ways—these different approaches to fundamentally the same questions are starting to converge. People from different institutions and sub-sectors are starting to talk to one another. The changes are bubbling up into bureaucratic rules and operational procedures and hiring practices and more. I remain, as always, cautiously optimistic…

How peacebuilding and opening governance can work together

I had a guest post on Global Integrity’s blog last week, based on a recent event in DC. The teaser:

It takes two: What happens when the open governance and peacebuilding communities work together?

Governance reform is a nearly universal need—even the world’s oldest democracies still struggle—yet the need is greatest in fragile states. However, external support for governance reform often takes a back seat in such places. Where the social contract has broken down and the institutional capacity of the state to deliver goods and services is nearly non-existent, ending or preventing violent conflict is often seen as a more pressing concern. What if that didn’t need to be a trade-off, and instead we found ways for governance and peacebuilding to support one another fragile contexts?

That question was at the heart of a conversation in DC last month. The hosting organizations were wide-ranging: Global Integrity, Saferworld, the OpenGov Hub, and Development Gateway. There were also representatives in the room from a handful of other NGOs, plus a few donors, and a smattering of consultants. The topic: “Openness in Fragile Environments.”

As Saferworld’s Chris Underwood pointed out, this was explicitly a gathering of two tribes. Though there were some participants who blurred the lines between governance and peacebuilding, we were largely drawing from two different analytical frameworks, types of expertise, and even sets of experiences.

Continue reading: “It takes two: What happens when the open governance and peacebuilding communities work together?”

(With thanks to Alan Hudson for comments on an early draft.)

Complexity and development: still more theory than practice?

Yesterday I gave a guest lecture to John Gershman’s politics of development course at NYU’s Wagner School (mostly MPA students). The topic: how the development sector puts complexity thinking into practice. Prepping and giving the lecture helped me put together some thoughts on how the topic has evolved since I took that very same course about six years ago.

In recent years, there have been at least three major books that address complexity in development work: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos (2013); Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development (2015); and Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity (2015). I’m currently working on reviews of the latter two, but in the meantime, I drew from all three for the lecture. As a simple indicator, that amount of literature on the topic suggests increasing interest and relevance.

All three books mix theoretical frameworks and practical cases. For the most part, the theory draws from fields outside aid/development work. That’s not surprising, given that complexity thinking has roots and applications across a wide range of disciplines: ecology, physics, mathematics, etc. Naturally, that thinking and the accompanying toolkit are way ahead of what the development sector puts to use. (Agent-based modeling, anyone?) I’ve heard more than one development professional express that it seems like the complexity concepts are still struggling to have a major impact on development practice.

However, I would argue that on the practice side, there’s actually quite a bit happening that aligns with complexity thinking but that isn’t put in those terms. You might call it complexity-relevant, though not complexity-aware, practice. That comes out in the books: e.g. Burns/Worsley use complexity to describe the effectiveness of community led total sanitation, even though that approach wasn’t designed as explicitly complexity-informed; same goes for the positive deviance approach, the history of which Ramalingam discusses in his book.

My lecture included case studies of projects that I’ve worked on directly, and I also touched on another project outside my own experience. Complexity thinking can help to explain the successes and struggles of these projects, even though few (if any) of the people working on the projects were thinking in those terms at the time. (The “Doing Development Differently” case studies are great examples of this.)

It seems that complexity theory and complexity practice are out of sync in the development sector: theory got out ahead with a boost from the unrelated disciplines where it first developed, but it turns out that practitioners are muddling their way to approaches that can be explained by the theory. Practitioners in the sector are simpy responding to the complexity they encounter in their work, even if they lack the analytical frameworks for it; they are also incorporating the complexity concepts that have made their way into popular intellectual culture (e.g. tipping points, feedback loops).

Complexity thinking has gotten its toeholds in development by explaining some of this complexity-relevant-but-unaware practice (both successes and failures). If there’s a next stage, it may be the explicit application of the theory to create new practice, or at least to significantly adapt current practice.

I suspect that requires an institutional home: a place where the practice can be developed intensively enough for it to evolve. Although a range of smart people work in this space, it seems like they do so from within larger institutions (donors, think tanks, NGOs, etc) that aren’t equipped to give it the focus needed.

Or maybe I’m wrong? Is there some organization or team out there explicitly translating this thinking into practice? And will I have something more concrete to share with the next crop of students who are subjected to my rambling thoughts?

Vague norms and specific proof

I’ve fallen off the blogging wagon in recent months. Whenever that happens, I find the best way to get back on is to post something small and easy. Fortunately, I had a bit of inspiration from a client’s recent blog post on intrinsic/normative arguments (“X is good in itself”) versus extrinsic/instrumentalist arguments (“X is good because it accomplishes Y”)—specifically as they relate to open governance and progress in that sector. It sparked some thoughts on the value and utility of arguments based on intrinsic value and extrinsic utility.

So as part of my effort to get back in the habit of blogging, here’s a simple thought for today: Principled arguments about the intrinsic value of something—whether that’s open governance, rights, justice, etc—can only make sense at a vague level. Extrinsic, practical, empirically grounded arguments are needed to define the details.

For example: There’s a principled argument to be made for progressive taxation, but there’s no principled argument to be made for a top marginal tax rate of 40% v. 60%. That argument has to be utilitarian, and can be at least modeled if not tested. Likewise, there’s a principled argument for equal access to education, but there’s no principled argument for the structure of private v. public provision of education services. That argument can only be made empirically, perhaps by comparing education outcomes in various institutional, economic, and political contexts to draw useful conclusions.

Policy conversations get muddled when we mix the two, e.g. grounding policy details in normative rather than empirical arguments (e.g. the Republican presidential candidates’ tax plans). And the thorniest political challenges emerge when there are arguments about conflicting intrinsic values (e.g. freedom v. security). At that point, empirical arguments are largely useless and progress is nearly impossible. This has confounded many an evidence-based advocacy effort. 

What about self-interest and in-group-interest? They may seem unprincipled, but these are actually a form of intrinsic argument: they are rationally self-contained and require no justification in outside principles. So again, you can’t overcome them with facts. You only overcome them by changing the context, i.e. with power.

There’s more to be said about the political interplay of intrinsic and extrinsic arguments—especially as they relate to issues like rising inequality or white privilege, which are grounded in self-interest—but let’s leave it at that for now. Here’s to a 2016 of increased writing.


Learning and adaptation depend on relationships (report from TA LEARN, part 3)

I got to spend a few days last week at the the third TA LEARN workshop, hosted by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). Around 70 practitioners, researchers, funders, and the occasional consultant gathered to assess and advance the state of practice on transparency, accountability, open governance, and related issues. Here’s the third in a series of three takeaways.

In the two previous posts, I wrote about how learning is adaptation and learning must be user-owned. As obvious as the second point may be, it’s often undermined by power and funding structures in our sector. “Learning” is often oriented toward the extraction of knowledge for use elsewhere, and practitioners only see it reflected back to them through future RFPs, rather than being able to generate, own, and act upon it themselves.

Righting the balance depends a lot on how the various actors work together, which brings me to the final point.

Takeaway #3: Learning and adaptation depend on relationships.

Not data. Not the brilliance of the practitioner. Not a lack of funder bureaucracy. Rather, the personal relationships among the various partners are the critical enablers of learning and adaptation. Those relationships shape the open sharing needed to gather insights, the joint interpretation needed to decide on changes in direction, and the collaboration needed to put that new direction into action.

The funder-implementer relationship is the most noticeable and the most controversial. Although that relationship is shaped by formal processes of grant applications and reporting, those merely set the guidelines and constraints. In example after example shared during the TA LEARN workshop, the personal relationships between the individuals at various organizations seemed to be more important than the formal elements.

This echoed a theme from the various conversations on “doing development differently” and “adaptive management”: savvy  coalitions can work adaptively even within projects funded by bureaucratic institutions like the World Bank and USAID. Trust and communication among the actors can create the willingness to massage institutional barriers and navigate constraints.

Think about it this way: Adaptation often means changing the project’s results framework, timeline, budget, and more. That requires the funder’s program officer to overcome some amount of bureaucratic inertia. Is the program officer more likely to do that for: project A, whose leadership she knows personally, has met on several occasions, and has chatted casually with over coffee outside the confines of official meetings; or project B, which has no tangible meaning to her beyond a quarterly report in her inbox? All other things being equal, human psychology suggests A.

Fortunately, there are also policy shifts that can loosen those constraints more generally, making it easier for more projects to fall into category A. Earlier this year, Jenny Ross of INTRAC (with support from TAI and the Hewlett Foundation) did some great research on how grantmaking practice supports or hinders grantee learning, highlighting challenges of grant timelines, project silos, inflexible reporting, and lack of prioritization.

Of course, the funder-implementer relationship is not the only one that matters. The TA LEARN conversations also turned to the differing roles played by NGOs, community-based organizations, grassroots activists, and social movements. The personal relationships involved there matter greatly as well, especially as the various individuals find ways to work together over time.

Closing thoughts on TA LEARN

We ended the third day with some discussion of TA LEARN’s future trajectory. In line with the above, I think those relationships built last week (and in the previous workshops) may be the greatest value-add of this space to improving the sector’s practices. Transparency and accountability actors can only improve if we adapt, can only adapt if we learn, and can only learn if we know one another.

Looking beyond our little sub-sector, I think the transparency and accountability community may be ahead of the curve in some ways. Compared to the rest of the development sector, I’d argue that this particular corner better understands adapting programs, navigating complexity, and tolerating ambiguity—simply because the nature of this work leaves it no other choice.

For more reactions to TA LEARN:

Learning must be user-owned (report from TA LEARN, part 2)

I got to spend a few days last week at the the third TA LEARN workshop, hosted by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). Around 70 practitioners, researchers, funders, and the occasional consultant gathered to assess and advance the state of practice on transparency, accountability, open governance, and related issues. Here’s the second in a series of three takeaways.

Yesterday, I wrote about how learning is adaptation. The development sector increasingly talks about creating “learning organizations.” The best indicator that an organization has learned is not whether individuals within that organization have learned anything, but rather, whether the organization itself has adapted.

Which suggests a related question: What sort of individual learning lends itself to organizational learning and adaptation?

Takeaway #2: Learning must be user-owned.

During one breakout session, it became clear that real-time learning in programs hinges on putting the “users” of that learning in the driver’s seat. If organizational learning is adaptation, then the users of learning are the ones who must implement that adaptation. That certainly includes program staff, but probably also a range of partners. These learning users are the best positioned to gather various types of data, interpret and understand it, decide what to do next, and put those decisions into action.

User-owned learning is another lens for thinking about local knowledge. It’s not enough to simply respect local knowledge (aka just “knowledge”—full stop). That’s merely the first stage of user-owned learning enlightenment. The second stage ensures that lessons drawn from that knowledge are reflected back to those who provide it, rather than extracted for use elsewhere and never heard from again. The third, most enlightened stage, allows space and encourages (local) knowledge to develop into its own learning and adaptation, led by the same actors who brought that knowledge to the table.

This may seem obvious, until you remember that much formal “learning” in our sector is outsourced to donor-dispatched researchers or fly-in-fly-out consultants who have limited engagement with program staff or partners. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as learning for other people. Hiring someone else to learn for you is like paying another student to write your essay: you might get away with it at first, but the professor’s questions during class will reveal that you didn’t put in the work. Likewise with organizational learning.

To the extent that researchers or consultants are involved, they’ll better facilitate user-owned learning (and perhaps be users themselves) if they have ongoing relationships with the other actors.

Which brings me to the final takeaway from TA LEARN: learning and adaptation depend on relationships. More on that point soon.

Learning is adaptation (report from TA LEARN in Rio, part 1)

Sorry for the radio silence in recent weeks. Take it as a sign that I haven’t quite figured out the secret to freelance work/life/blogging balance. Fortunately, I had a chance to take a break last week. I headed down to Rio, glanced briefly at the beach, and then spent three days in a hotel conference room. Huzzah. (On the plus side, it was one of the least conference-room-like conference rooms I’ve been in.)

I was there for the third TA LEARN workshop, hosted by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). Around 70 practitioners, researchers, funders, and the occasional consultant gathered to assess and advance the state of practice on transparency, accountability, open governance, and related issues.

In particular, the workshop focused on learning in transparency and accountability work. While that learning takes many forms, I would broadly place it in two categories:

  1. Learning about transparency and accountability. I.e. what’s the state of practice, what’s generally working or not, what evidence do we have or (more often) lack. This sector confounds many of the standard tools of development evaluation and learning (indicators, attribution, etc.) so having dedicated space to dive into the nuances of what we’re learning is critical.
  2. Learning for transparency and accountability. This is the more concrete, real-time, and context-dependent learning that happens in the midst of programs or campaigns. This learning drives changes of direction, but offers fewer lessons about broader practice. Though useful in any sector, there’s a strong case to be made that this form of learning is an order of magnitude more important in accountability work: the unknowable/shifting aspects of governance and the political nature of change limit the utility of advance planning, thereby increasing the need for ongoing learning. In other words: when broader learning is harder, ongoing learning is critical.

The workshop tackled these forms of learning with varying success. I feel like we hit the mid-range on both of the above: we exchanged solid ideas and experiences, but we neither crafted a grand manifesto nor did we trade tools and tips at the most concrete, tactical level.

For me, the most interesting conversations were around the second category: ongoing, real-time learning. I had three main takeaways. In the interest of digestibility, I’ll save #2 and #3 for later posts.

Takeaway #1: Learning is adaptation.

What does it mean for an organization to learn? This questions was posed by a fellow participant one evening over dinner (where the most interesting conversations at many conferences occur).

In one sense, learning happens at multiple levels: individuals learn new skills; an organization learns that its strategy needs to change; the sector learns to support or abandon particular approaches. But in another sense, learning only happens at one level: the individual. Databases of PDFs and “best practices” are not learning. Organizations are made up of people, so an organization only learns if its people learn and are able to put that learning into practice in the organization.

For example: A program manager or campaign organizer may learn that a certain mobilization approach doesn’t resonate with their constituents. If she’s able to ditch that approach and switch to another, we can say that the organization learned. However, if something forces the organization to continue using that approach—e.g. because the project indicators are unchangeable or the approach utilizes a flashy tech tool that’s great PR—then individual learning fails to translate into organizational adaptation. At that point, what sense would it make to say that the organization has learned anything?

So the sine qua non of organizational learning is adaptation. And as a corollary, adaptation is the best indicator that learning has occurred. If you’re going to hold someone accountable for learning, look for their adaptation.

See also reflections from Global Integrity’s Alan Hudson and TAI’s Brendan Halloran.

And stay tuned for takeaway #2: learning must be user-owned.

Putting entrepreneurship in context: review of Elmira Bayrasli’s book

Entrepreneurship is the kind of endeavor that we place a pedestal. It carries a mystique. The same way that being an artist, joining the clergy, or writing a book mark unique career paths, creating a company seems to transcend normal livelihood choices.

Being an entrepreneur sets someone apart in our rhetoric, but not in practice. Far from being a solitary activity, it is a career more integrated with the world around it than most. In building teams, finding customer bases, navigating regulators, forging supply chains, and much more, entrepreneurs interface with more aspects of society that many other professions.

These interactions make entrepreneurship incredibly dependent on its context. How an entrepreneur builds a company is shaped by political institutions, cultural norms, talent pools, and customer expectations. While technological or design breakthroughs may spring from brilliant minds in relative vacuums, entrepreneurs create businesses in quite the opposite.

This dynamic is well illustrated in a new book, From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places. The author, Elmira Bayrasli, profiles seven entrepreneurs building businesses far from the accelerator programs, business schools, and venture capital funds that typify technology entrepreneurship in the United States.

Each of the seven cases is crafted around an entrepreneur, a context, and a challenge. The first focuses on how Bülent Çelebi built a technology company called AirTies in Istanbul. The major challenge he faced was developing a talent pool and company culture that would be willing to take risks and innovate. These characteristics are in the groundwater in Silicon Valley, but he had to dig deeper to find them in Turkey.

In a separate case, Shaffi Mather created a private ambulance service called Dial 1298 in Mumbai. He faced the challenges of corruption, from the moment he tried to register the phone number through to managing the service’s drivers.

In Pakistan, Monis Rahman created two collaborative spaces that challenge the global perceptions of Pakistan: a matchmaking site called Naseeb, and job site called Rozee. The latter was initially created simply to fulfill the recruitment needs of the former, before taking off in its own right.

Other chapters profile an energy efficiency company in Mexico, a technology manufacturer in China, and a mobile payments platform in Nigeria.

A bit of an outlier case focuses on Yana Yakovleva, who co-founded a chemicals company in Russia the mid-1990s. In 2006, she ended up in jail after resisting extortion efforts by the police. After her release, she moved from entrepreneur to activist, creating an organization to protect the rights of businesses and entrepreneurs. Though a key enabler of economic growth in most countries, the rule of law is under constant threat in Russia.

Each story is an instance of Schumpeterian entrepreneurship—i.e. those that cause creative destruction and lead to new markets. Smaller scale entrepreneurship of local businesses or self-employed hustlers are deliberately left out. This is a critical analytical choice. We muddy our understanding of entrepreneurship’s importance when we blur the lines between local businesses and industry-changing enterprises. Bayrasli focuses on the latter.

What results is a picture of entrepreneurship that highlights the personal histories of the individuals involved in each company, but with more nuance than the cults of personality surrounding many tech titans. The teams immediately surrounding the entrepreneurs get their due treatment, as do the broader networks. In fact, the importance of the returning diaspora bringing networks and skills shows clearly in several of the chapters.

The emphasis also lands clearly on the institutional and historical contexts for each enterprise. With a style that makes this as much foreign affairs as business book, Bayrasli takes detours into China’s economic history, levels of mobile access in Nigeria, and public service expectations in India. The larger forces driving such contextual factors can dictate the fortunes of entrepreneurs. Even when creating something new, history matters.

Where the book falls short is extrapolating broader lessons and trends about entrepreneurship around the world. This is admittedly a tricky balance: the move from evidence to recommendations trips up many nonfiction authors. Still, some amount of insight for policymakers, investors, or entrepreneurs themselves would have been welcome. Bayrasli leaves readers to make their own inferences.

That minor complaint aside, From the Other Side of the World makes a worthy addition to our understanding of how entrepreneurship happens. Putting a human face on it and placing it in context allows us to take the activity off the pedestal and to better understand its role in the world. For those wanting to promote it or pursue it, read this book.

More on organizational learning

Several folks reached out in response to the last post, on learning and adaptation. It seems like establishing and promoting learning processes within organizations is on many people’s minds. In that light, a few followup thoughts:

1. Types of organizational learning

We should all be familiar with the idea of individual learning styles—visual, auditory, tactile, etc. There are parallels in organizations: some learn by seeing proof and incorporating academic evidence into organization-wide processes (analogous to visual learning); others learn in more fluid conversation with the sector, with lessons absorbed by individual staff members as part of their own professional development (call that auditory); and others learn by doing, drawing lessons primarily from their own work and the feedback loops within it (tactile).

Variations and combinations of these abound, but the broader points about learning styles apply: different organizations learn in different ways; and different types of learning serve different organizational priorities.

The term “learning” may actually be a bit problematic, if we conceive of a hierarchical relationship between the “knowers” and the “learners”—the professional analogue of schoolchildren at desks. This model might apply to the incorporation of academic findings (on, say, the effectiveness of humanitarian cash transfers) into programmatic work or policies. In such cases, there are “knowers” separate from the “learners”; your challenge as an organization is to learn from those who know.

However, the most critical learning in organizations involves discoveries that aren’t verified by any sort of external authority. This learning is inherently internal. It is uncertain (managers must make daily decisions based on incomplete evidence, with less “rigor” than academics); tacitly held by staff (often without mechanism or opportunity to be stated explicitly); and relevant only to that organization’s context and work.

This suggests a corollary to the classic distinction between known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns: in organizational learning, there are the somebody-else-knows and the nobody-else-knows. We bring the former in from the outside, and generate the latter internally. Learning what others know is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a learning organization. You have to generate new learning internally as well.

2. Beyond indicators: Iterative visualizations and aggregated narratives

In August, I had a chance to attend a good conversation at USAID about measuring systemic change. Measuring systemic change is central to understanding the impact we’re having, but systems are so hard to measure at a single point in time that tracking change with any kind of rigor can seem impossible.

One of the insights from the USAID event (hosted by the agency’s Learning Lab, naturallyLocal Solutions Community and Local Solutions team) was that approaches to measuring systemic change fall into three broad buckets. One is the use of relevant indicators. Important, but not as interesting as the other two:

  • Iterative visualizations. Showing systems graphically helps us to understand them more quickly. It also allows a certain flexibility and uncertainty through the visual presentation of relationships and processes—in contrast to words, which often lead us to specify elements more precisely than we’re able (or couch them in caveats). Similarly, iterating on visualizations over time shows us how the system changes (again, without the pressure to articulate that change precisely). Imagine how a social network analysis might change over time. (More examples from the event here.)
  • Aggregated narratives. Drawing on methodologies like Most Significant Change (MSC), the insight here is that the individuals impacted are their own best judge of how and whether they’ve been impacted. MSC is a participatory and indicator-free way to have program participants (beneficiaries, users, etc.) articulate what changed for them personally; those insights can be aggregated to form a more complete picture.

For any organization pursuing broader systemic impacts, learning about how the system has actually changed (and learning to influence it more effectively) requires some combination of these.

Coincidentally, I just came across a great primer on visual thinking that is especially good for the non-visually inclined.

3. Connection between learning and Theories of Change

ODI’s Craig Valters put out an excellent blog post and report on theories of change in development. It resonated with themes from the DDD conversations: e.g. the idea that the specific tool you use isn’t as important as how you use it. It doesn’t matter quite whether you’re filling out a ToC, logframe, or something else, so long as you’re doing it in a reflective, inclusive, and iterative process.

Similarly, the outcome of the process isn’t as important as the process itself. The practice of regular theorizing is more important than the theory created at each stage—with obvious parallels to the idea that plans are useless but planning is essential. That said, future learning and adaptation over time hinge on how well you capture the theory at each stage for future assessment (perhaps through iterative visualizations).

Third, Valters does a useful breakdown on learning that parallels the questions we should always ask when someone talks about accountability: learning for whatby whom, and in what ways? In particular, we need to avoid the tendency to think that learning is done at some central location, using data gathered from the fringes and then distributing implications outward. The most important learning may be that done by those at the front line of any given effort, and efforts to capture or measure those might actually undermine them.

Finally, there’s an obvious tension between the accountability of the results agenda (often confused with accountancy, as Valters notes) and the prerequisites of learning (openness, willingness to fail, flexibility, and so on). The two are not necessarily in conflict, and the political imperatives are such that learning is unlikely to supplant results in any case. However, the two could co-exist more effectively than they do. This will be helped by a growing body of evidence demonstrating the importance of learning for improving results.

4. Adaptive learning for accountability and open governance

Global Integrity has put the idea of adaptive learning at the heart of its strategy. Over the past several months, the aforementioned Alan Hudson led the team at Global Integrity through a very open strategy process—to the point where he actually tweeted a link to their evolving strategy in Google Docs and invited the world to comment. This aligns well with the values of an organization committed to accountability and transparency, but it’s still an uncommon move.

In any case, it looks like I’ll get to spend some time working with them over the next few months in refining what that strategy means in practice. That’s where the rubber really hits the road: I can opine all I want on a self-hosted blog, but the market dictates that I also help actual organizations do actual things. Yikes!

From M&E to L&A: Improving what we measure and why

I had a chance to catch up with Alan Hudson yesterday, and the conversation brought me around to an idea that I’ve been trying to articulate for a while. Though admittedly still a bit abstract, here’s the idea.

We’ve made monitoring and evaluation—grouped together as M&E—a core expectation of any social or development effort. As I’ve argued before, M&E essentially serves a management function by supporting decisions at either the program/project level (for monitoring) or at the policymaker/donor level (for evaluation).

At any level, the practice is synonymous with merely tracking and measuring. You operationalize the practice by creating an M&E plan, hiring an M&E officer, and producing M&E reports. And that’s all well and good—I should know, because I’ve been that officer and written those reports.

However, both in M and in E, what we really care about is not the numbers that show up in the report. What we care about is what the numbers tell us and what we do with the numbers. This started to come out at last year’s M&E Tech conference, which focused heavily on the idea of feedback loops. It was an important recognition that the whole point is the changes that come about from M&E.

Put another way: what we really care about with M&E is what we learn and how we adapt in response to that learning. The next logical step would be to de-emphasize monitoring and evaluation as operational functions, replacing them with learning and adaptation: moving from M&E to L&A.

To make this concrete—perhaps for someone looking to apply complexity thinking, DDD, and related agendas in their work:

  • First, jettison the requirements for an M&E section in your project proposals and plans; replace that with an L&A plan.
  • Second, frame that plan around organizational processes and culture, rather than the research methods and indicators.
  • And finally, don’t hire M&E officers who think like researchers; instead, hire L&A advisors ones who think like consultants.

An important caveat is that L&A in practice would only create a first-order feedback loop, where information becomes available to inform a self-motivated change. A second-order feedback loop occurs when the information actually compels the change through some form of accountability. LA&A: learning, adaptation, and accountability. But I suspect that may be a bridge too far for much of the social and development sector.

Multidimensional empathy: a half-serious analytical framework

Progress requires action. Action in any form—political, commercial, charitable, religious, etc.—requires crossing the divisions that exist in the world. Crossing divisions requires trust. Trust requires empathy.

Therefore: Progress requires empathy.

Roughly, that’s the thinking behind the use of empathy as an analytical category and practical instrument in the social impact space. Empathy appears in a variety of ways: fundraisers use it to unlock donations; designers build it with end-users; advocates leverage it to spur political action. In all cases, it aims to create a connection between individuals across some kind of divide.

On its face, empathy is a good thing. The world is better off when you consider the pain someone else suffers alongside your own. We become less nationalistic, less parochial, and more willing to cooperate.

However, empathy can be misapplied. A crude use of empathy leverages caricatures and misrepresentations—think photos of emaciated children—to provoke emotional responses. These are effective when raising money, while undermining long-term understanding. Positive caricatures do their own form of damage, as when designers make heroic assumptions about their end-users.

These misapplications have sometimes been called false empathy, but as in most of life, it’s a matter of degrees. Understanding the nuances of empathy, in its more and less honest forms, requires disaggregation along two axes: symmetry and blend.

Symmetry: Unilateral v. reciprocal empathy

Meaningful empathy requires some amount of two-way connection. It requires both give and take. Contrast two versions: 1) unilateral empathy experienced when viewing a heart-wrenching photo of a natural disaster or even reading a detailed news story, where the “objects” of empathy do not even know they are playing that role; and 2) a reciprocal conversation you have directly with someone impacted by the same events. While neither gives you complete understanding, you are moved and drawn in by the latter in a much more honest way.

Social media has lowered the barriers to all of these connections, but broadcasts (think Kony 2012) still have more reach than conversational exchanges. Attempts to simulate a two-way exchange (e.g. giving the audience a proxy voice in the story, or providing letters from sponsored children) can spark more empathy, but it’s questionable whether it involves better empathy.

Better empathy means allowing some form of feedback loop—especially critical in design processes—and also leaving a piece of yourself behind. Exchange programs, living in unfamiliar places, and other immersive experiences allow the building of lasting relationships that are the epitome of reciprocal empathy.

Blend: Emotional v. intellectual empathy

It might seem obvious that empathy is always emotional, but there is a less stirring form of understanding that deserves equal billing. Intellectual empathy is the ability to comprehend someone else’s viewpoints and opinions, even when their premises, methods of reasoning, and conclusions may be very different from your own.

“I don’t see how anyone could possibly think…” is the surest indicator that intellectual empathy is missing, and partisan politics is its largest black hole. Otherwise intelligent people find themselves unable to wrap their heads around the logic of political opponents. However externally flawed someone’s analysis may be, there is always some amount of internal logic to it. Intellectual empathy is the ability to see that logic.

While we might take the symmetry of reciprocal empathy as unequivocally better than the unilateral form, the emotional v. intellectual divide calls for a balance. Emotional-only empathy lacks self-reflection and facilitates simplistic responses. Intellectual-only empathy risks a form of cold calculation that de-humanizes; it’s the empathy of early ethnographers, studying their subjects but unwilling to relate with them as equals.

Efficient empathy

Empathy doesn’t occur naturally in the quantities needed to make the social progress we want. So the sector manufactures it. However, when manufactured or induced for a specific purpose, empathy struggles to be honest. It gets caught in the goals for which it was manufactured, leaning heavily toward the emotional and unilateral variety. The manufacturers will point to market pressures, the demands of efficient production, and the fact that reciprocal empathy doesn’t scale. These are valid points, as far as they go.

In the case of environmental pollutants, we use regulation to reduce externalities. Is it time to regulate empathy pollution? Or maybe organize a consumer (donor) boycott of inorganic empathy? At a minimum, we can look to empathy innovators who demonstrate the market demand for more honest forms.

Of course, there’s no such thing as perfect empathy. Reciprocity and a balance of emotional/intellectual won’t fully bridge divides. We never truly understand someone else’s experiences. But we can get a lot closer than we currently do.

Followup on social enterprises: roles in a market/ecosystem

My SSIR post seemed to get a fair amount of attention, which is always nice. But of all the retweets and shares, my hat goes off to Jennifer Lentfer for picking out one of the most critical lines of the piece. To wit:

It’s a point worth underlining. A social enterprise can drive better management and process improvements by capitalizing on its ability to focus—an ability that’s hard to find in larger organizations with broader agendas. If we’re thinking like capitalists or economists, this is a competitive advantage for the social enterprise. Anyone interested in furthering social impact might conclude that social enterprises are the best investment. (And this is more or less what’s happened in the past decade, though rarely put in those terms.)

But if we’re thinking about the social impact space as an evolving ecosystem—creating variations, selecting them, and replicating them for further variation—then we’d be more interested in the roles played by a focused social enterprise in the broader system. That might make us more critical of investments in social enterprise, except to the extent that they serve those roles.

I replied to Lentfer’s tweet and then Ian Quick chimed in with the logical extension of that point:

What if, indeed.

There’s an analogy to be made between the social impact funding space and crude natural resource management. Sometimes we use too much fertilizer, which seeps into the waterways and causes algae blooms. Sure, we grew the plants we wanted, but we also ended up with all this other stuff and it’s killing the fish.

You may notice a parallel to my post a few weeks ago about social movements v. social entrepreneurs. When we consider only the single thing we’re funding or supporting right now, we miss the bigger picture. This results in both unintended negative consequences and missed positive opportunities.

What’s so special about social enterprise?

I had a post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s blog last week. After years of wondering why everyone’s so crazy for social enterprise, I think I finally get what’s unique about the approach. And it has little to do with revenue or financing.

No teaser here, just jump to the full piece if you’re interested: “Doing Less, Better.”

Social movements v. social entrepreneurs

David Callahan wrote a great piece on Inside Philanthropy yesterday, describing how the rise of funding for social entrepreneurs hasn’t been matched by a rise in funding for social movements. (HT Rakesh Rajani)

Callahan points to the fundamental shifts in values and discourse that have happened as a result of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, LGBT rights organizing, Black Lives Matter, and the “new labor movement” of low-income worker organizing. In contrast, he asks, what social entrepreneurs have orchestrated significant change in the United States in recent years?

He notes that conservative donors like the Kochs get the importance of movement building, and he takes progressive philanthropists to task for not doing the same. Here’s the key part:

So why is philanthropy so fixated with social entrepreneurs and so uninterested in social movements? A bunch of reasons.

First, most philanthropists and foundations are ideologically centrist and temperamentally conservative. They just aren’t so comfortable backing social movements, which take strong stands and work to create a ruckus.

Second, the new philanthropists coming on the scene, often from business, may be too optimistic about the role that specific innovations can play in solving social and economic problems. While such innovations can be a huge game changer in the spheres of technology, medicine, media, and finance, the complex social or economic problems that society confronts are often too entrenched to be affected by discrete breathroughs. Rather, change in these arenas require deeper shifts in norms and consciousness, the kind of shifts that often only social movements can bring about.

Third, many of the big liberal foundations that you’d imagine would back social movements often think about change in a technocratic way—as opposed to focusing on influencing underlying values. That mindset can be traced back to the pragmatism of the early Progressive tradition, and much has been written on its influence over modern liberal philanthropy—which has an excessive faith in evidence and rational problem solving.

(Full post here.)

Callahan is quick to point out that this it’s not an “either/or” choice. We need both movements and entrepreneurs.

Where I would differ is to say that’s actually an issue of “yes/and”—i.e. funding specific interventions or approaches can be done as part of a movement. For example, there’s unquestionably a school reform movement in the United States, and the organizations spearheading it are the very ones who are executing it: charter school networks, Teach for America, and host of education-related enterprises. The fact that Bill Gates acknowledges a lack of dramatic change is no strike against education reform qua movement. Most movements fail to make dramatic change, until suddenly they do.

In my mind, the question of “movements v. entrepreneurs” is mostly about two things:

  • Aggregation: Are funders and other support systems increasing the likelihood that many social enterprises together form a movement? The narrative of the transformative power of a single intervention doesn’t help, nor do funding competitions and prizes that discourage cooperation, nor does a focus on the entrepreneur (rather than the enterprise) which brings in many aspects of ego that run counter to movement building.
  • Risk: Movement funding is unpredictable. It’s hard to measure its impacts, and hard to attribute successes. This puts it on uneasy footing in a sector that’s increasingly focused on greater accountability and metrics.

Underlying both of these is a tendency toward the apolitical. The technocratic approach to social change doesn’t recognize the importance of politics. Other philanthropists may simply be institutionally afraid of politics, either for legal and tax status reasons, or because of the potential ramifications for corporate donor brands. Entrepreneurship is comparatively safe. It’s sanitized, yet still hype-worthy in a way that makes everyone involved feel good.

Similar dynamics play out at the global level as well. Donors like USAID and others struggle to understand what mass movements (such as the Arab Spring, the Color Revolutions of the 2000s, or going back to the Philippine’s People Power revolution in the 1980s) mean for their goals and work. Politics is also a factor here, made trickier by national boundaries. So funding tends to flow to large implementation projects or targeted interventions, but not movements.

That’s a larger topic, though, potentially for another day. If you’re interested, I’d recommend a recent book: Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? (edited by Mathew Burrows and Maria Stephan).

Photo: People’s Climate March in New York; September 19, 2014.

Financing the Sustainable Development Goals: maybe $11.5 trillion is not enough

The UN’s Financing for Development Conference is happening in Addis Ababa this week. It’s the first of three events this year that could set the global development agenda for the next decade and a half. It’ll be followed by final agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York in September, and (hopefully) an agreement on climate change in Paris in December.

UN estimates put a price tag on the global development needs that will come out of the New York and Paris meetings: $11.5 trillion a year. (We can dissect the math if we like, but the sum probably stays within an order of magnitude; more here, which I confess I haven’t read.)

Addis Ababa kicks off the trio of conferences with an obvious question: How’re we going to pay for all this?

There’s a general recognition that the answer isn’t “more aid”. OECD official development assistance last year totaled $135 billion; that’s barely 1% of the projected needs. The World Bank and other multilateral banks provided $127 billion in financing last year; again, barely 1%. And the world’s largest private foundation had giving around $5 billion; less than 0.04% of the projected need. Adding other foundations and private giving won’t shift the needle much either. Aid will continue to be a drop in the bucket.

The bulk of the financing will come primarily from three channels:

  • Domestic resources: This shouldn’t be surprising. We already know that most development is not international development. Most development is incredibly local or at the most national, and so most development financing is as well. That $11.5 trillion estimate includes local tax revenue spent on schools and health clinics (SDGs 3 & 4), even if that money never leaves the city level.
  • Government borrowing: The international lending market is getting crowded. The Bretton Woods institutions are joined by the New Development Bank (aka “BRICs Bank”), the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, sovereign wealth funds, and increasing access to private capital markets by national governments. The trouble is often not access to finance, but allocation, execution, and anti-corruption to ensure that the funding promotes development.
  • Private investment: Foreign direct investment can create jobs and grow into domestic tax bases—or exploit workers, destroy the environment, and avoid taxes through sweet-heart deals. The devil is in the details. Of course, increasing domestic direct investment is also hugely important.

In other words: Taxes and markets, just like always.

And what does $11.5 trillion get you? Look closer and you’ll see why the total gets so big. Essentially, that number is what it will cost the world to achieve health, education, justice, gender equality, good jobs, clean water, reduced inequality, ocean conservation, and all the other 17 goals and 169 targets of the SDGs—regardless of whether that activity and its funding are channeled through donors, governments, or private sector actors.

Just as the SDGs aggregate all “development” activity under their umbrella, we’re aggregating a range of capital flows under the “development finance” heading. No one intends to actually bring these capital flows together, just as no central body will exist to direct achievement of the SDGs.

Financing for development is not ultimately about committing new resources to promote activities in the Official Development Sector. Most true development occurs outside that sector. Rather, it’s primarily about two things. First: Redirecting and reshaping all financial flows so they better promote those historic processes of pro-social development and sustainability everywhere. And second: Better accounting for the positive flows that exist and ensuring they’re effective.

Hence the inclusion of domestic revenue mobilization and targeting, as well as stemming illicit financial flows and tax-dodging, in the broad agenda of development finance. Taxes and markets, only better.

That’s hugely ambitious. But if that’s your ambition—to increase and account for all funding that promotes the SDGs regardless of whether those spending the money even know it—then why stop at $11.5 trillion? Here’s a comparison point for that big number: global GDP is somewhere around $80 trillion, so financing for the SDGs is estimated at around 15% of global economic activity. Yet the SDGs put forward a positive vision for nearly every aspect of economic and political activity, from clean energy production to food security to full employment. Doesn’t that leave the other 85% actively detracting from human progress? As long as we’re redirecting flows, how about we redirect all the flows?

Of course, the SDG process lacks the power or even the incentives to accomplish that. So it aims to redirect 15% of global financial flows in pro-development directions, and will be lucky to get a third of that. The work will continue over the next decade and a half, as activists and agitators of various stripes keep inching it upwards. As 2030 approaches and we debate the Transcendental Development Goals, we’ll shoot for 50% and maybe we’ll finally get our 15%.

Be a language teacher: a new management metaphor

Management comes naturally to few people. It’s an extension of a common ability to organize effort towards an outcome, but with a mix of communication, analysis, risk assessment, and (even) empathy that makes the practice notably less intuitive.

Yet over the last century, we’ve increasingly organized ourselves in structures that require management as a function and professional practice. People must somehow learn to be managers, and understand what managers mean to them, in a wide variety of contexts.

This leaves a gap between individuals’ natural proclivities and increasing organizational needs. There’s not enough natural supply to meet growing demand. At the macro level, we fill that gap with graduate schools, in-house trainings, sink-or-swim learning by new managers, or simply privileged access to positions of power by elites (though this last one is admittedly suboptimal). At the micro level, we do something far more interesting.

We fill the gap with metaphors.

Few practices are as abundantly draped in metaphor as management. The manager takes on other professions as the conductor or engineer; sports roles as coach or quarterback; mechanical functions as hub or driver; or, somewhat oddly, as the workplace mother or father. (Similar metaphors show up in describing organizations.)

The metaphors serve two functions. First, they help a new manager to imagine him/herself in a more intuitive role. How do you work with staff? Well, they are players on the team and you are the coach! It doesn’t matter if you don’t actually know how to coach, conduct, or be a hub; the metaphor brings a sense of familiarity. This familiarity is reciprocally useful to those being managed. It creates a reference point for the relationship.

Second, metaphors create useful ambiguity. Management deals in uncertainties. Clearly defining roles might restrict an organization’s ability to handle new and unforeseeable problems. Speaking in metaphors leaves space for interpretation and new meanings, in business as in poetry. An individual manager can flex the supply of management to meet new demands.

Is there a best metaphor for management?

Not really, but some may be more useful than others, depending on your context. “Translation” has always been one of my favorites.

Being a translator means ensuring user needs are turned into technical specifications for the developers, and also that the developers’ needs are understood by the finance and operations teams. Each profession has its own discourse, reinforced by time spent with others speaking the same language. The manager needs to help each understand what their work means for one another.

There is also a linguistic and cultural component. Even if the whole team speaks English, there are many versions of English. A phrase like “that will be very hard to do” could mean the task will take time, or it could be someone’s way of refusing to do the task at all. Splicing the difference requires sensitivity to power dynamics, indirect communication styles, and personalities.

The metaphor of translation is especially useful in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams, where diversity can be powerful but the possibilities to talk past one another are high. Careful listening skills and questions are a manager’s best tools.

However, the translation metaphor is outdated.

I’ve increasingly started to amend it. Being a translator places a manager in the middle of the conversation. In a world of increasingly horizontal and decentralized relationships, this is inefficient and potentially adds distortions.

A better metaphor is the language teacher. You may need to occasionally provide direct translation, but it should be done with the aim of helping team members learn each other’s languages. Conversations should largely occur without your involvement.

This new tag will challenge everything you know about writing.

The World Bank’s blog posts have started carrying tags showing you what’s “tweetable”: a link on a specific sentence or pull quote within the post, which drops that sentence directly into a tweet alongside a link to the full post. (Here’s a recent post that uses it several times.)

It’s a small variation on the standard practice of tweeting a post title, but the aesthetics of “tweetable” are pretty terrible. On the World Bank site, it looks like you’re reading a used textbook, with a sentence highlighted by its previous owner and stamped with a twitter logo. Because the tag isn’t universal, RSS readers like Feedly and Newsblur don’t recognize it; the code just shows up as the text “[[tweetable]]” before and after the sentence that you’re actually trying to read.

But worse than the aesthetics—which surely will be fixed before long—I fear that this tag is a bad omen. I fear that this is the future of writing.

Tagging specific sentences for social media sharing will inevitably (even if unconsciously) influence writers’ choices. It has the potential to break down the cogency of a piece, with sentences crafted for their sharing potential rather than their relevance to the overall argument. While the best long articles take readers on a journey, tweetable summaries are like popping into the tourist spots and avoiding the rough terrain where real discovery happens.

Not that this is a completely radical departure from current practice. With rare exceptions, writers always have some concern for how widely their work will be shared. Novelists want good reviews, academics track citations, and most bloggers want more audience rather than less. Writers respond to market incentives of some kind.

However, what we’ve seen in the past decade is a hyper version of that. Buzzfeed and Upworthy are the trailblazers, taking us into the brave new world of clickbait headlines. Social media metrics for all publishers focus on views, shares, and comment volume—none of which indicate comprehension. Along the way, we’re losing the value of what’s being written. In theory, we read to learn, and we share to help others do the same. In reality, we often share as a demonstration of how well connected we are.

The arrival of the “tweetable” tag is one more step along the social-mediafication of writing. Seeing it appear first on the World Bank blog is especially worrisome. That iconic institution undoubtedly needs to make its research outputs and insights more accessible, but reducing them to fragments strips away their real value.

What can we do about this? Do writers have the probity to resist this trend? No. We are weak. We are not writers without readers, and so we will do whatever it takes to reach an audience. And if we don’t, then you will surely stop hearing from us, as other writers replace us in your social media feeds.

Therefore it rests on you, dear readers, to save us all. Resist clickbait. Make your own judgement when summarizing an article you share. And remove the “RT ≠ endorsement” disclaimer from your twitter profile, because retweeting is always an endorsement: even if you disagree with the author’s views, you are at least tacitly saying that this piece is worth reading.

Or if you want the social media version: No tweeting without reading.


Always in design mode

I recently finished reading Ezio Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social InnovationIn it, he puts forward an abstract description of the “design mode” as a combination of three things: a critical sense turned on reality, a creativity to posit a new state of affairs, and practical sense of what it takes to turn the current state into a new one. He contrasts this with a “conventional mode” that sticks with reality as it currently exists.

In this sense, everybody designs. From everyday choices about what to have for breakfast or how to celebrate your birthday, to the more complex designs of websites, clothes, buildings, public services, jet engines, business models, systems of governance. Design is a universal human activity, like storytelling or putting things in categories.

What makes some designing more complex (and more likely to involve professional training) is a function of several factors:

  • amount of space and time the design output occupies (three-dimensional objects v. flat graphic designs; objects that must last v. those that are term-limited; etc.);
  • number and diversity of users (easier to write an email to one person than a similarly impactful newsletter to a thousand; easier to design a service for a homogenous group than for a mixed community with various needs; etc.);
  • ability to keep others from interfering with the design (i.e. co-design is always tough);
  • degree of uncertainty involved (harder to design when there are unkowns);
  • amount of meaning invested in the output.

This is a bit of a caricature, but as an illustration of the principle: the simplest design task is something with two dimensions and no expectation of longevity, for yourself alone, with no uncertainty, and that has no meaning. What fits that bill? A doodle in the margins of your notebook. At the other end of the spectrum, the most complex design task is something that covers a lot of space, must last in time, serves a large and diverse group, must be co-designed with them, in the face of unknowns, and where the output has significant meaning. In other words: social and governance systems.

Though not quite put in those terms, this idea is at the center of Design, When Everybody Designs. Manzini is the founder of DESIS, an international network of university-based design labs promoting sustainability; however, he makes clear that “design for social innovation” is not strictly about design for positive social impact. Rather, he’s interested in a broader view of design for new ways that groups of people work or cooperate together. He’s also more interested in informal or small-scale social systems, rather than the formality of governance. His examples range from a collaborative housing program in Milan to a food cooperative in Brooklyn to a storytelling project in south India. Each provides a different view on how individuals have approached their relationships to one another with intentionality and leveraged technology, space, services, or just social norms to shift those relationships.

The challenge of design for social innovation is captured in the factors of design complexity listed above (which are more my own inference than a checklist provided by Manzini). The book uses a core distinction between “expert design” (by those trained in formal design methods) and “diffuse design” (by everybody)—arguing that cultural and technological shifts have made diffuse design common, thereby shifting the role of experts. Notably, the lack of control that the “expert designer” has and the number of uncertainties present in design for social innovation require greater attention to designing coalitions, programs, and frameworks within which design projects can take place. The projects then serve to test and advance the broader frameworks.

The book introduces a number of interesting distinctions and nuances for thinking about how design interfaces with social innovation. One bit I appreciated was the call for a middle-path between two extremes: “big-ego design” on one end, where design is thought to be the imprint of an especially talented person on the world (perhaps seen most clearly in architecture or fashion); and “post-it design” on the other, where the expert designer is reduced to a process facilitator or administrator, merely capturing the ideas of a co-design process.

These sorts of distinctions can provide reflection points for your own practice, whatever that may be, whether you’re an “expert designer” or simply someone who approaches their life and impact on the world with intentionality. However, given that these are reflection points, this book is not so much the introduction promised in the subtitle, but rather an elaboration on the thinking and values behind design for social innovation. That’s more valuable to someone already familiar with it, rather than to someone completely new: imagine you’re being walked through a city you’ve visited before, now accompanied by an expert local guide who points out how each piece fits together and describes the history of the neighborhood; the nuance would be less meaningful, and perhaps even overwhelming, if it were your first time there.

At times, the book struggles with its own abstractions. Manzini is philosophical about the role of design in human history and its potential for our collective future. He has a tendency to glide over the top of practical concerns. Concrete examples are used throughout, but ineffectively. I often got the impression that he was describing an example based on what others had written about it. Many examples felt disconnected from his analysis, and a skeptical reader is left unconvinced of their real-world impact. That ultimately weakened his overall narrative.

The book’s tendency toward abstraction and big picture concerns reminded me of how many professionals try to apply their crafts to the higher order questions, beyond the issues on which their tools were forged. There’s some logic to this: particular disciplines can only be created around narrow scopes, leaving a no-man’s land between them; that’s also the space where society’s biggest challenges lie. We need all of those disciplines—design, and also economics, and politics, and technology, and ecology, agriculture, anthropology, and more—to shape our broader progress through history.

Disclaimer: The MIT Press was gracious enough to provide me with a review copy of Manzini’s book.

Two more posts elsewhere

Recently I’ve been more focused on external posting. This blog gives me too much freedom sometimes, while external sites force me to think about style and audience a bit more.

So in case you didn’t see them:

Five ways to indoctrinate young development professionals into better practice

There’s a joke in Brian Levy’s recent book Working With The Grain that World Bank staff hail from one hundred countries, but only ten universities. It might be less true elsewhere in the sector, but there’s little doubt that many development professionals—regardless of whether they now work at NGOs, donors, government ministries, social enterprises, or as independent consultants—passed through a relatively small number of institutions of higher learning.

That fact makes these institutions potential leverage points for changing how the professionals in the sector think about and approach their work. It might be the long route to change, but it could be change that sustains itself.

Cauam Ferreira Cardoso and I started talking about this at the recent Doing Development Differently workshop in Manila. That conversation led to a piece in Devex: “Teaching the next generation of development professionals.

The core of the piece offer five principles for teaching development education differently. They are:

  1. Development work is multidisciplinary and multidimensional.
  2. Exposure is a fundamental part of learning and—just as importantly—unlearning.
  3. Understanding identity, privilege and personal biases matter.
  4. Adaptive development takes adaptive management.
  5. Development work demands individual self-care and personal resilience.

See our piece on Devex for more detail on each—and why they matter.

Mainstream or Silo: Where to put a new organizational priority?

An evolving social sector constantly adds new priorities, issues, and interventions. In their worst forms, these shows up as over-hyped trends or the proliferation of targets. But a more generous view on this phenomenon sees a learning sector and an indicator of human progress: we tackle needs that were previously unrecognized, adapt as new problems arise, and wield better tools against challenges old and new. New priorities mean we’re ultimately doing more.

Mobile technology, climate adaptation, human-centered design, urban resilience, impact evaluations, microfinance, participatory methods, working politically: these are all things that didn’t exist in the sector, until one day they did, for one reason or another. And then they spread.

The spread of a new priority presents a unique challenge for any organization that works on multiple issues or has a broad agenda. Various market and non-market pressures will occasionally encourage adoption of new priorities, methods, and frameworks. This impacts foundations, bilateral donors, multilateral institutions, NGOs, contractors, and even governments. The cynical view calls this mission creep, but again, there’s a generous view that sees organizations adapting and responding to their various constituents.

How does this response occur within a given organization? It usually leans toward one of two extremes:

  • Siloing gives the new priority its own organizational home, budget lines, technical specialists, and so on. The quintessential example is the “innovation unit” that every large NGO and donor has created in some form or another.
  • Mainstreaming blends the new priority into existing and better-funded work. This approach is often suggested for cross-cutting issues like gender or governance.

Both responses have their detractors and advocates. The term “silo” is rarely used with a positive management connotation, as it suggests a barrier to collaboration. However, like their agricultural namesakes, they can serve a useful protective function. They create organizational buffers. Siloing can also serve an added signaling function: nothing tells internal and external stakeholders that X is a priority like appointing a Chief X Officer.

Mainstreaming is slightly more popular, but it’s often associated with watered-down checklists that accomplish little. An initiative without an organizational home risks going adrift, with no one responsible.

As is usually the case with organizational questions, this is not about which is better. Rather, it’s about the conditions under which a particular blend of each is optimal. How can we approach that question in a meaningful way?

An organization’s ability to successfully execute on a new priority depends on two factors: the type of support within the organization; and the nature of the practice. Let’s take each in turn.

Factor 1: Support. Who supports it? And do they actually understand it?

Project management textbooks preach the importance of executive-level support for any new initiative. The executive can access resources, open doors, and provide cover. This smooths organizational change, but executive support isn’t the only starting point—something had to occur to generate that executive support, after all—nor is it the end point. Beyond the executive, widespread acceptance at the mid- and junior-levels is equally relevant.

Don’t assume that support implies understanding, at any level. If a priority has hype around it or a charismatic executive behind it, there might be a lot of excitement from people who don’t really know what it is. That’s frustrating if you’re trying to get attention for a different priority, but if you have the hype on your side, you might as well use it.

Factor 2: Practice. Does it have an established practice? And is it teachable?

An established and teachable practice has a set of frameworks, tools, and techniques that allow it to be mainstreamed. Some priorities and issues are too new to have a clear practice associated with them. For example, real-time monitoring data might fall into that category: a lot of people think it has promise, but even some of its practitioners question what it actually involves.

Other priorities might have established practices, but obstacles to learning by other professionals may hinder mainstreaming efforts. This could be because the practice is too technical (e.g. some aspects of ICT4D), or requires too much tacit knowledge or craftsmanship (e.g. PDIA or development entrepreneurship). This kind of practice is only teachable over a very long timeframe.

So where to put your new priority?

At a general level, a priority is well placed in a silo if it has concentrated support within the organization and is either still emerging or highly technical. It can move to the mainstream if support is distributed and the practice is both established and teachable. (See the lower left and upper right quadrants in the diagram.)

mainstream or silo matrix


That leaves two ambiguous areas: an emerging or technical practice that already has distributed support (upper left), and an established and teachable practice that has only a small set of supporters (lower right).

These quadrants are the routes from silo to mainstream. Path A builds support first, then turns the practice into something others can adopt (evangelize then templatize). Path B consolidates and refines the practice first, then educates others on what’s been learned within the silo (consolidate then educate).

Even in explaining why some priorities belong in silos, it’s hard to escape the norm that drives toward mainstreaming. If there’s one insight this framework provides to counter that tendency, it’s that priorities need both distributed support and teachability in order to be mainstreamed. Otherwise, they’ll have greater organizational impact in the silos.

(Of course, you can flip this to inform the dark arts of management: if you don’t think a new priority is worth pursuing and you’re also pretty sure it lacks distributed support in the organization, go ahead and mainstream early. Then watch it fizzle away.)

What about the sector as a whole?

Moving up one level of abstraction, the sector as a whole also has its own version of silos: usually smaller organizations that pioneer new methods. A few microfinance institutions, most famously Grameen Bank, developed their approach long before microfinance became a priority for the entire sector. Building Markets started driving local procurement in humanitarian aid in 2004, and later saw it become a priority for global aid agencies, such as through USAID Forward in 2010. IPA and J-PAL did the same for RCTs. The list could go on.

These priorities are eventually mainstreamed as they get picked up by larger organizations—especially donors, which can serve as nodes in the sector—or as these smaller organizations grow. If a forward-looking executive at a larger organization wants to stay ahead of the curve, keep an eye on smaller organizations for new work that can gain broad support and be teachable to others. Those will be tomorrow’s priorities.

Photo: Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Healthier feedback sandwiches

You’re familiar with a “feedback sandwich”, right? It’s a fairly simple management tool for giving someone feedback: you start with something positive, then point out the area for improvement, then end on something positive again. The negative feedback is sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback. Simple.

I learned how to use this tool in an early job. Effective people management is a difficult thing to learn, because it sits at the intersection of knowledge, habit, personality, and context. You can’t read a few things in a classroom and then go manage well. Like a craft, management is a practice best developed through something closer to apprenticeship or coaching. The feedback sandwich is one of the few techniques that can be easily taught and broadly applied; most of management is more nuanced.

Which is why I was surprised to discover that the sandwich has quite a few detractors. See, for example, “Ban the Feedback Sandwich,” and, “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines Your Feedback.” The detractors tend to characterize the approach as some combination of manipulative (because it seeks to manage the recipient’s feelings by easing them into the feedback) or confusingly indirect (because the “real”/negative feedback gets buried). From my experience as a manager and trainer, this stems from a basic misunderstanding of the technique.

Positive feedback serves more than a cosmetic purpose. Most importantly: Positive feedback is honest. Everything in the world has both good and bad aspects. If you watch a failed presentation and only point out the bad things that your colleague did, you’re doing a disservice to what actually took place. Something went well, I promise.

If fidelity to reality isn’t enough for you, think about positive feedback’s other critical functions. First, as a manager, you have a vested interest in seeing positive behavior continue. You’d better recognize it or risk seeing it squeezed out of the picture. Second, recognizing positive contributions builds credibility with the feedback recipient. It demonstrates empathy. It shows you were paying attention and thinking critically, rather than simply looking for something to criticize.

Where I think the sandwich’s detractors have a good point is on the sequencing. I don’t think the order matters as much as the metaphor suggests. An open-faced sandwich (or feedback pizza?) can work just as well. What’s important is that both aspects are there. I still generally try to end on a positive note, but that has more to do with the long-term management relationships I try to cultivate, rather than the specifics of that piece of feedback.

In fact, the long-term relationship is important context for the feedback sandwich. This is a quick snack, not a complete diet. It’s the two-minute feedback you give after a meeting or when reviewing a first draft. It should not be your only feedback channel or format. You could imagine an hour-long performance review being structured in the same way (20 minutes positive, 20 minutes negative, 20 minutes positive?) but I don’t think it’d be a very useful structure. Longer conversations can take advantage of the luxury of meandering routes.

Finally, note that the technique is infinitely adaptable. Much like the infinite culinary variations of the sandwich (burgers, tortas, bánh mì, paninis, etc.), the technique should be adapted to context. This is also the point where an apparently simple technique borderlines on management craft.

Photo: Julien Sister

Next up…

For the past few years, it’s been my privilege to help build and lead an incredible team at Reboot. However, like all good things, my time here is drawing to an end.

What’s next? I’m not entirely sure. Every job is a chance to have an impact on the issues you care about, as well as to develop skills and capacities for future work. I’ve learned an incredible amount in my time at Reboot, but the work here is still very close to my nose. I need the distance of a week or two before I can figure out how it best applies for impact in the future.

Saying that you’re not sure what’s next runs counter to standard career advice. You’re supposed to define your goal and then achieve it. When a recruiter asks about your ideal job, you describe whatever role you’re applying for. However, having been on the interviewer side of those responses, I can tell you that they aren’t terribly enlightening answers to receive. False certainty isn’t helpful.

What I know is that I’ve been lucky enough to talk with a few very smart people about interesting opportunities. Some of them have even mentioned possibilities that hadn’t occurred to me, but which are very intriguing. I’ve also received encouraging words from professionals who have a lot more experience than I have. I’m jumping into this next phase with some uncertainty but also excitement.

Most importantly for you, dear reader, is that I’m not above using my blog network to figure out how I can best apply my energies going forward. If you read this blog and think, “gosh, that guy seems like he’d be a tolerable person to work with,” then learn more about me here or here, and consider dropping me a line: praxis (at) algoso.org.

Pictured: Road (loosely defined) and career metaphor near Eldoret, Kenya.

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.

Manila connections?

This weekend I’ll be heading to Manila for the next iteration of the Doing Development Differently conversations. Luckily, I’ll be able to stay in town for a few extra days after the event. I’m planning to spend the time connecting with people and organizations doing impactful, innovative, and otherwise interesting work in and around Manila.

If you know of someone I should meet, please let me know. You can either leave a comment below, email me (praxis@algoso.org), or tweet me (@dalgoso).

And if you have any recommendations for Manila—neighborhoods to see, restaurants to try, etc.—those are also appreciated.

Operational models: Adaptive management in Northern Karamoja

In chipping away at my “reports to read” pile, I found an excellent one from Mercy Corps and Engineers Without Borders Canada.

Navigating Complexity: Adaptive Management in the Northern Karamoja Growth, Health, and Governance Program” provides a great case study of how adaptive development ideas play out at the program management level. It earned kudos right off the bat for giving a clear definition of what it means by “adaptive management”:

(i) a high level of experimentation, where some initiatives will work while others will not;

(ii) excellent monitoring processes feed a continual flow of information that sheds light on the operating environment (e.g., gathered from successful and failed experiments); and

(iii) the ability of the organization to change strategies, plans, and activities rapidly in response to this new information.

(Emphasis mine.)

The Growth, Health, and Governance (GHG) program had a few general principles and concrete practices that enabled this. On the side of principles: Efforts to have a light touch, stay largely facilitative, and be “invisible to the end user.” Managers focused messaging to their teams around flexibility, allowing dissent and creative tension, admitting failure, and critical thinking. All of this requires greater emotional intelligence and soft, staff-coaching skills from development managers. (more…)

Your brain: a user’s guide

I just finished reading Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Although there’s a lot written about “big data” for industry or research, this was an interesting look at what managing information flows means for individuals. Despite the title, many of the insights are timeless.

In the interest of being organized and not overloading you with information, here are a few big takeaways:

  • Efficient multitasking is a myth. The neuroscience behind this is convincing. You can only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a form of rapid and frequent switching among tasks, and the act of switching bears a cognitive cost that largely outweighs the perceived efficiency. The result is the illusion of productivity.
  • Externalize everything. Create to-do lists, take copious notes, set calendar reminders. The more that you put into external systems you can trust, the more of your brain you free up to be present for whatever task, conversation, or experience is in front of you. If you catch yourself thinking, “Oh, I need to remember XYZ later,” take that as a sign you should be writing it down. Yes, you will probably remember XYZ just fine, but in the meantime, that thought will be occupying valuable mental space.
  • Embed information in your physical space. I’ve never been one to think much about how my desk or home is arranged, but Levitin makes a compelling case for the value of keeping yourself organized. He frames this in terms of cognitive ease, rather than aesthetics: store objects in the places where you’ll need them (e.g. your toothbrush next to the bathroom sink, spatulas next to the stove) or create intuitive categories when some form of filing is needed (e.g. keep stamps, envelopes, and your checkbook together since they’re all things used for paying your rent). When things don’t fit into a category, it’s fine to have a “junk drawer”/”miscellaneous” file.
  • Sleep is really really really important. Beyond the clear dangers of exhaustion (contributing to major disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill and hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents each year), missing sleep reduces cognitive performance in more subtle ways. These show up in tests even when the subjects are unaware of them. Sleep is critical for memory consolidation, mood regulation, and longer term health. And it’s not just about quantity, as quality of sleep matters as well.
  • Daydreaming is also important. Our brain goes into a different mode when its allowed to “float” around an issue, as opposed to being forced to derive an answer. That floating is similar to daydreaming. It’s responsible for creative problem solving as it allows less obvious connections and insights to surface.


On the non-flatness of the world

My work involves a lot of conversations with people around the world. These are sometimes one-on-ones or larger meetings, sometimes with external partners/client or just with our internal team. Depending on the group and locations represented, I might be meeting in-person or by phone, skype, google hangout, or webex.

And at least once a week, I’m struck by the following thought: Thomas Friedman lied to us. He wasn’t the only one, of course. We’ve been hearing variations on the theme of “the world is flat” since before Friedman’s 2006 bestseller, though he did an especially good job of articulating the idea that improved communications would reduce the effective “distance” between parts of the world.

Yet every week, I get a reminder of the role that physical location plays in business communication. The clearest reminder is the time I spend on a skype or hangout saying, “Hey, sorry, did I lose you? Okay, you’re back now. What was I saying just before it dropped?” It’s not even a function of where you’re calling from, as I’ve encountered good connections in Nigeria and terrible connections in New York. (more…)

Nudging the World Bank (and the sector) farther along

I have two new blog posts over on Reboot’s site, both focused on different aspects of the 2015 World Development Report: Mind, Society, and Behavior. If there’s an overall framing for both, it’s that the report shows the progress that we’ve made in our thinking across the sector, but it also represents how much farther we have to go.

The first post—The Wonk’s Guide to Irrational Humans—looks at behavioral economics, design, participatory methods, and adaptive programming. From the introduction:

Every year, the World Bank’s World Development Report offers a detailed look at the state of knowledge around a single development topic. While recent reports focused on topics like jobs, risk, or gender equity, this year’s edition, titled Mind, Society, and Behavior, reflects the growing attention being given to human decision-making in development. Among wonks, it has been called the “behavioral economics World Development Report.” In reality, it is broader than that, yet narrower than it could be.

More here.

The second post—The Wonk’s Guide to Economics without Politics—tackles the sector’s perennial shortcoming of letting economic thinking trump political analysis, as well as considerations of power and human agency. A key excerpt:

Development sector professionals have an amazing ability to wish politics away in our analysis and action. Despite the importance of interest groups and contested space to historical outcomes, we are reluctant to include these political factors when thinking about our own work in the present. We have to work harder to see these blind spots. Any analysis of promoting change or sector learning that ignores these factors impoverishes itself.

More here.

(Image credit: Reboot)

Evidence gap maps, ambient accountability, and more things I learned this week

I’ve had an interesting week of new things. More on those in a second.

First, a shameless plug: I have a new post about the intersection of design and behavioral economics over at Reboot’s blog. It’s mainly a response to the 2015 World Development Report, with some praise, some critiques, and some new ideas thrown in. (Stay tuned for a sequel, focused on politics and power, in the next few days.)

Okay, now on to the new things. I was able to spend some time this week at interesting events and reading, mostly while on trains to or from those events. I came across several new ideas along the way, so I thought I’d share a few.

1. Evidence gap maps: Knowing what you don’t know

On Thursday, I got to sit in on a discussion of evidence for peacebuilding initiatives. It’s a topic I’ve always found interesting because peacebuilding efforts are incredibly difficult to evaluate. (more…)

Operational models: Entrepreneurship v. Organizing

I rolled out of bed earlier than usual last Thursday morning to take part in a twitter chat organized by ODI. The topic was: “how to be a development entrepreneur.” (Check out the recap on storify.)

Given that it was at 5am in New York (the other participants were in London and Manila), I knew I probably wouldn’t be at my sharpest. That said, it gave me a nice incentive to finally finish reading two recent ODI reports in preparation: “Development entrepreneurship: how donors and leaders can foster institutional change” (co-authored with the Asia Foundation) and “Adapting development: improving services for the poor.” Both are highly recommended, but I found the first one especially interesting.

Entrepreneurship or organizing?

Development entrepreneurship, as the report describes it, is an operational model for thinking and working politically on development reforms. The report briefly describes a few of the model’s successes in the Philippines, explained with various principles from management literature. The operational model includes management tools and funding modalities, distinguishing it from things like PDIA, which is more a set of guiding principles than specific processes. This is significant because you need a model and tools in order to tackle questions of scalability and replicability.

I found the “entrepreneurship” framing curious. (more…)

Introducing Praxis / What is this blog?

I’ve started blogging more again in the past few months. Call it a new year’s resolution, if you like: the holidays gave me a chance to reflect on what this blog has meant to my own evolving thinking and professional development.

In scanning my own archives, I realized two things. First: I need to keep blogging as a commitment mechanism to keep learning. And second: I really don’t like using the name “Find What Works” for my blog.

I chose the name while sitting in a coffee shop in the Lower East Side almost five years ago. At the time, I didn’t expect this blog to ever have a real readership, so the dominant criteria for the name was free availability on a simple blogging platform. Hence, findwhatworks.wordpress.com was born.

A year ago, I grabbed the .org version of my last name as a nice professional home on the web and redesigned the layout a bit, but kept “Find What Works” as the name. Today, I’m ditching the name too.

Introducing: Praxis. (Formerly known as “Find What Works”.) (more…)

/ / blogging

Goal-oriented v. Strategy-oriented

I’ve had several jobs where I’m in a position to read a lot of CVs and cover letters and talk to a lot of job candidates. There are certain phrases that I’ve learned to just gloss over because they’re so generic that they say little about a given candidate. The worst offender? “Goal-oriented.”

Here’s how I interpret that term: Being goal-oriented means you run marathons, climb mountains, smash sales records. You set a goal and then you do whatever it takes to hit it. In the process, you’re not distracted by pain, exhaustion, or shiny objects. Giving up would lead to an identity crisis. You just get it done.

Here’s why I have a problem with that: Goal-orientation lacks flexibility and nuance. (more…)

Seven lessons for an evolving facilitation practice

Standing at the front of a room, all eyes are on you. The group might have only five people, or more than fifty. They bring a range of perspectives and knowledge and maybe a broadly shared goal, though it might be subject to different interpretations and personal interests. You have no formal authority in this situation. You’re just somehow the person at the front of the room. Your task is to bring them together, forge a common goal, and make productive use of your time together.

In a word: Facilitate.

Many of us have found ourselves in variations on this scenario throughout our work. It could be an internal meeting with team members who know each other well, a workshop with a loose coalition of partner organizations, or an open-door session filled with community members. The situations vary, but the core question is the same: How can I help this group come to a meaningful outcome? (more…)

Technology and structural discrimination: thoughts on a recent discussion

I had a chance to spend a morning last week at a roundtable discussion on technology and structural discrimination, as part of the Technology Salon events. The conversation brought together activists, organizers, technologists, and few international development types like myself, though many in the room blurred those boundaries.

Technology provided a filter for the discussion, but it was a loose filter. A wide range of topics still seeped through. In fact, our discussion moved in circles a bit. Each element raised inherently relied on others. That’s the problem with structural and systemic issues, as every problem or solution raised can be immediately and quite legitimately trumped by another—”Ah, but the real problem behind that is…”—until we eventually come back to the same problem. (more…)

Building the X of Y

Entrepreneurs share something in common with artists, architects, poets, and other creatives: the ability to envision something entirely new and then make it real. We reward these pursuits with social status and financial reward (sometimes) because they make the world a better place to live (usually). But the real marvel is not the improvements they create, so much as the ability to envision them in the first place.

This aspect is so valued in the arts that we use the word “derivative” with disdain. A work that derives itself from another is inherently less worthy. As a rule, works should be entirely new and original. To the extent that they borrow from others, it should be only to provide grounding and accessibility to the new elements that will give something unexpected to the audience.

Upon closer inspection, this rule has some flex. It turns out that not all creation is creative. True originality is rare. As T. S. Eliot put it: Good writers borrow; great writers steal. (more…)

On my mind for 2015: behavioral economics, design, complexity, and more

Last January, I kicked off the new year with a surprisingly popular post on the “hype cycle” in development. The conceptual framework looked something like this:

Hype Cycle for Development Ideas

And I took a stab at placing development concepts along it; check out the original post for more.

For 2015, I considered an update. However, for better or worse, I’m not sure it’s changed dramatically enough to bother.

In its place, here are a few of the things that seem important to the development discourse at this juncture in time. This comes with the big blaring caveat that my methodology (such as it is) consists of reading development blogs and reports, talking to other people in the field, and then writing what seems plausible to me. Take from it what you will.

So without further ado, what’s on my mind for 2015:

1. Behavioral economics and user-centered design principles are being mainstreamed in development approaches. Increasingly, I see old and stodgy development institutions talking about these approaches (e.g. see the recent World Development Report). And they are often talked about together, which makes sense from one perspective: they’re both about understanding the intended beneficiaries of aid as real living people with needs and thoughts and cultural norms and capacities and constraints and all those other nuances that make us human.

But there’s a tension here too: behavioral economics aims toward the universal (using RCTs, statistical analysis, etc. to articulate lessons and mechanisms that work across contexts) while user-centered design aims towards the particular (using ethnographic and qualitative approaches to craft solutions for a particular problem or user group). Even while motivated by similar values—both could be called “human-centered”—they have very different toolkits.

Looking forward, the trick will be combining these two approaches in a deep way. I’m not convinced anyone has done that yet. But if you can build a better methodological mousetrap… Well, you’ll spend half your time just trying to explain it, but you’ll be onto something.

2. Complexity demystified, but also underutilized. The ideas of complexity science have found purchase in a wide range of fields, from evolutionary biology to computer science to military strategy. These ideas have started to creep into development thinking, most notably in the form of a book and a few financing mechanisms. I can’t turn a corner without hearing a problem described as “wicked” or system described as “complex adaptive”. I’m as big an offender as any.

Yet despite this, I don’t see ways that complexity science has dramatically changed development thinking beyond a few general insights. I could attribute this to ossified institutional structures that generally resist change and new thinking, but I think there’s a deeper problem of fit between the methods of complexity and the context/constraints of development. That’s not necessarily insurmountable—complexity concepts express themselves quite differently in each field—but it suggests a need to indigenize the tools to our sector’s challenges and needs.

3. The values of adaptation and tailoring to context are becoming operationalized at institutional levels. Between the Doing Development Differently manifesto and the Global Delivery Initiative, several pockets of smart people at large donors and development organizations are trying to figure out how to improve the way those institutions design and run their programs. I’ve been lucky enough to join a few of these conversations, which might inflate my perceptions of their future impact. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic.


/ / complexity, research

Architecture and programs, objects and spaces

I’m halfway through a pretty fascinating book that I started over the holidays: Why We Build: Power and Desire in ArchitectureIt’s leading me to think a bit more about space and structure, both physical and programmatic.

Why We Build makes an interesting point about how designing buildings involves exerting a certain kind of power over the future users and inhabitants. The architect’s choices can serve to constrain and dictate future uses, even as they attempt to serve those same uses. Of course, human ingenuity and intent can confound the architect’s intent—a plaza or parking lot can become a market or place of worship—though within limits set by the permanence of the structures.

I’m reminded of a few lines from the Tao Te Ching:

Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

The same goes for nonphysical architecture, such as programs or management practices. For example, I’ve often described effective facilitation (whether of a workshop or meeting) as an effort to create space, which you then expect the participants to fill. Like a good architect, this takes a certain amount of trust in the participants and willingness to give up power. And like Lao Tzu said, you get paid for the structures you create, while the real usefulness comes from the space you leave.

How many development programs focus on the structures and objects being built, but neglect the spaces that they are creating?

Case studies as a tool for sector learning

How does a sector learn? What drives totally new practices, how do we verify and validate lessons from them, and which channels and mechanisms lead to their dissemination and iteration? These questions—which blur the line between knowledge management, academic research, systemic change, advocacy, and program evaluation—were on my mind last week.

I was in Berlin for a two-day workshop as part of the Global Delivery Initiative launch. This gathering followed loosely on an October gathering at Harvard, which I discussed on Reboot’s blog. The October event shared some high-level case studies and articulated principles for doing development differently—which was then distilled into the “Doing Development Differently” manifesto and is building toward a community of practice. (more…)

Monitoring-and-Evaluation versus Feedback Loops

A lot of people (on twitter and elsewhere) seemed to like my recent post on Monitoring-and-Evaluation versus Management. That post was a response to the M&E Tech conference in DC two weeks ago. I made the case that the technical specialty of “M&E” in the international development sector is simply part of basic management in the private sector. We only split it off in development because our sector tends to think little of management in general.

It sounds like the idea resonated with what others see in their work, so I’ve got another takeaway from the conference to share. Maybe you won’t like this one as much.

The conference involved a lot of discussion about feedback loops. I love the systems thinking this implies. For a tech-oriented conference, the connection to engineering concepts was intriguing.

In the realm of M&E, we seem to focus on two particular feedback loops:

  • First, as discussed in the previous post: The loop between project outputs/outcomes and management decisions. Tightening and clarifying management information systems can support these feedback loops, helpig us to better manage our programs and organizations.
  • Second: The feedback loop between beneficiaries (participants, customers, end-users, communities, etc.) and implementers/donors/governments. These feedback loops can inform funding decisions and broader strategic choices.

However, the M&E/feedback-loop discussion strikes me as thin because it focuses mostly on information flows. M&E feedback loops give us information to make better decisions. That’s feedback in a conversational sense, but not an engineering sense. These information loops stop short of forcing a change. The real value of feedback should go beyond informing a decision-maker; it should actually ensure that a better decision gets made.

A few of the commenters on the last post made related points. Michael Eddy and others pointed to the systemic incentives facing development managers, while “cbentl2” noted the need for more inclusive and participatory decision-making frameworks. In other words: While big data, mobile data collection, better analytics, etc. might give us a better understanding of what’s needed on the ground, a decision-maker can still face alternative incentives. They can still make the wrong choice. Information is not the only barrier.

I think of this as the distinction between information feedback and power feedback. We can address information feedback through better M&E and tech. Power feedback takes something else. It’s all about politics, accountability, organizing, institution-building, and, well, power.

“Action almost never achieves its purpose.”

It’s hard to think about the new war against ISIS without being reminded of the contingent nature of history: America finds itself in a war again because of what it did (or didn’t do) last time around. And its political decision-making apparatus has decided, once again, that it has no other option.

We can dispute the wisdom of that decision and debate the likely repercussions, but what’s clear is that any decision will have unknown repercussions down the line. We can’t imagine that there exists an action now (or ever) that can put the world in a “stable state” such that the international system just goes into maintenance mode, with no further major action needed. That’s not how history works.

I was thumbing through a book of Hannah Arendt’s writings that I found on a neighbor’s stoop. The following seemed apropos:

Wherever men live together, there exists a web of human relationships which is, as it were, woven by the deeds and words of innumerable persons, by the living as well as by the dead. Every deed and every new beginning falls into an already existing web, where it nevertheless somehow starts a new process that will affect many others even beyond those with whom the agent comes into direct contact. It is because of this already existing web of human relationships with its conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose.

The absence of a maker in this realm accounts for the extraordinary frailty and unreliability of strictly human affairs. Since we always act into a web of relationships, the consequences of each deed are boundless, every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction, every process is the cause of unpredictable new processes. This boundlessness is inescapable; it could not be cured by restricting one’s acting to a limited graspable framework or circumstances or by feeding all pertinent material into giant computers. The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness and unpredictability; one deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation. In acting, in contradistinction to working, it is indeed true that we can really never know what we are doing.


Monitoring-and-Evaluation versus Management

I’m at the M&E Tech conference in DC today. It’s two days of discussion on how to better use technology for monitoring and evaluation of development projects—and, relatedly, how to monitor and evaluate the use of technology for development projects. So ICT4M&E as well as M&E for ICT4D. Got it? Cool.

We’re barely done with the second session but I have a quick reaction: We’ve talked a lot about the need to put more time and money into M&E. It’s a perennial issue in development, even ignoring the technology dimension.

What’s always struck me as weird about the “spend more on M&E” argument is that the whole idea of M&E is totally unique to development, aid, nonprofits, and the broader social good space. M&E doesn’t exist in the private sector. Why is that? (more…)

Slow march for the climate: Now that you’ve got everyone, what are you changing?

I spent last Sunday at the People’s Climate March in NYC. By most reports, it was the largest climate action in the US ever. Over 300,000 people from a broad spectrum of affiliations showed up to support the cause. I found myself marching with the labor contingent, which meant I was surrounded by fewer greens than blues and reds (hotel workers and nurses, respectively). Other sections of the march had representatives from the front-line communities most impacted by climate change, from faith groups and scientists, from the classic environmental organizations, and more. Thousands marched in solidarity events in other cities.

So the organizers achieved the second half of their tag line: “To change everything, we need everyone.” It was big and it was inclusive. But what about the first half: What did it change?

The march itself could have been a metaphor for the policy situation. We all walked a winding mile through midtown Manhattan—from Central Park, through Times Square, and ending a couple avenues west of Penn Station—and it took over two hours. It was painfully slow. When my friends and I reached the end, we found no closing rally, no stage with speakers, and no one even asking us to sign a clipboard. We just encountered some folks with megaphones who said, in short, “This is the end of the march. Thank you for coming. You can go home now.” So we dispersed down a side street, found a bodega, and had lunch. (more…)

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/ / misc

Everybody is accountable to somebody

There’s something incredibly valuable about concepts that cut across fields and contexts. They help us grapple with unfamiliar territory, facilitate reasoning by analogy, and spread lessons that can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Accountability is one of those concepts. We use it in the context of government services (social accountability), political advocacy (holding leaders accountable), donors (accountability to beneficiaries), management (executive accountability), and so forth.

Yet for all that we use this concept, it’s terribly vague. Many advocates will be quick to point out that accountability is multi-dimensional and multi-directional: accountability is to someone, for something, through some mechanism. It is rarely singular. In any given system, multiple accountabilities exist and shift over time.

The vagueness itself is not a problem. We have odd gaps and inconsistencies in how we use other terms like “power” or “justice”—meanings across fields are only consistent at the abstract level. We can’t conflate them at the analytical level.

But the vagueness does leave us open to confusion. One of my least favorite uses is when we describe a lack of accountability. We do this in a variety of contexts. It’s a wonderful way to characterize a situation, system, or individual that is equal parts sweeping, easy to grasp, and totally inaccurate.

Truth is: Everybody is accountable to somebody.

An unaccountable dictator is still accountable to a small coterie on whom he relies to execute his will and protect him from challenges; those individuals are accountable to him, and to others, in turn. An unaccountable bureaucrat (one of the anti-government conservative right’s favorite punching bags) is hired by someone, constrained by rules, and responsive to new policies. An unaccountable company executive (one of the anti-corporate liberal left’s favorite punching bags) is similarly responsive to a board, market forces, and his personal circle.

If we say someone is not accountable, we actually mean that they lack enough incentives to do the things we think they should be doing, and are instead responding to other incentives.

“Lack of accountability” is a characterization that has political uses. If you want to spur people to action, then describing a lack of accountability might be useful. But if you want to figure out the action that needs to be spurred—which hopefully you’ll do before trying to spur others—then you’d better have a more nuanced understanding of the accountability system that you’re facing.

Does it matter that it’s never technically accurate to describe a lack of accountability? Maybe not. But like so much rhetoric, hopefully understanding it can help us to use it better and to inoculate ourselves against its use by others.

Is America finally talking about police militarization?

If so, then that might be a small silver lining on the tragedy in Missouri this week. I was worried that it was just my social media feeds — which admittedly skew lefty and political — but a wide range of major news outlets and various politicians from liberal to libertarian are chiming in as well. There’s been a sharp reaction against the police equipment deployed, the tactics used, and the general approach taken by law enforcement. While the first one is the most photogenic, the other two are the most appalling.

There are promising signs that the situation in Missouri is improving. Even if it does, I suspect that “Ferguson” will become a byword for police overreaction in coming years. It’s not like we didn’t know this was an issue before, and there have been plenty of tragedies in recent years. But as is so often the case, the issue doesn’t spur a general reaction until the right (wrong?) mix hits.

I know I’m going off on a tangent, but I can’t help wondering what would be enough to put a similar media/public focus on the penal system and the privatization of prisons. It’s a simmering issue that’s eating away at our country, and especially minority communities. In a political system that only responds to crisis and tragedy, what would it take?

While you’re pondering that, I was also curious what the NRA had to say about recent events. After all, this is exactly the kind of situation for which they claim the Second Amendment must be vigorously defended. I thought maybe they’d be encouraging the residents of Ferguson to take up arms against their authoritarian government. As of this writing, there’s nothing on their website, and the NRA twitter account has not deigned to even retweet any news about the events.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all traded unicorns?

As you might already know, one result of the famous Bretton Woods conference of 1944 (which established the post-WWII global economic order) was to set the US dollar as the currency for global trade. Apparently economics giant John Maynard Keynes (being a Brit) was actually in favor of creating a new global currency, rather than using the dollar.

What I just learned is that Keynes had several potential names in mind for this global currency. One of the names on the list: unicorns.

The economics of a single global currency aside, I think we can all agree that international relations would generally be a lot less contentious if all trade were done in unicorns. A few recent headlines would read, “Unicorn steady despite safe haven run before fed meeting” and “Foreigners complain about the unicorn but keep buying it” — how could that not make the world a better place?

Inbox zero (but to-do list gazillion)

One of my favorite productivity tips: Use a tool for what it does best.

Inboxes receive messages. To-do lists track tasks. If you’re using “flags” or “stars” in your inbox to track tasks based on the relevant emails, it’s like putting messages in your to-do list. Or using scissors to tighten a screw.

Don’t do it.

I just reached zero unread and zero flagged messages in my inbox. Mostly, I achieved this by shifting things from my inbox to my to-do list. My workload didn’t actually change much, and yet it became more manageable.

Weird how that works.

/ / misc

Strategy is as strategy does

When I was in undergrad, I took an analytical writing course that focused on war and conflict. It was an odd mix: though we used essays and articles related to war as prompts, and the instructor was from the international relations department, our feedback and grades were based more on writing ability than on content knowledge.

Even still, that course was my first introduction to the concept of strategy. Strategy has long been tied to the military and international relations, and the metaphors of strategy remain closely linked to the metaphors of war. In writing for that class, I quickly learned that strategy provided a useful analytical category for understanding why certain actors behaved the way they did—even if a strategy wasn’t explicitly stated, but rather inferred from how events unfolded. I also learned how easy it is to abuse and misuse that analytical category by shuffling tactics, plans, and other tools into the same deck. (more…)

You get a new org chart, and you get a new org chart! Everybody gets a new org chart!

It takes a special kind of development geek to get excited about something like the organizational structures of donor institutions. Accountability and voting shares? Sure. Policy priorities and disciplinary paradigms? Even those are just one step removed from impact.

But organizational structure? Yeesh. Crucial issues such as social protection or global health get reduced to boxes on an org chart. It sounds about as dull and dehumanizing as the sector gets. Still, just as procurement policy is more important than it seems, the way that big institutions organize themselves to channel resources and accountability has real-world implications.

So it’s been interesting that three big players are currently undergoing restructuring of some sort. The World Bank’s shake-up has grabbed headlines and will involve significant staff cuts. It seems like staff reductions will also accompany UNDP’s restructuring, though the reductions will fall more on HQ than regional offices. And finally USAID has launched its Global Development Lab — a new entity that pulls together several previously existing units along with new ones and outside partners — without clear impacts on staffing.

Why would you restructure a massive donor institution? Organizational structures create pathways for interactions, communication, decisions and resources allocations. Structures are key determinants of what gets done, so if you want to shape what gets done, start with the structure.

In other words: form follows function.

Though “restructuring” is used as a management euphemism for cost-cutting and down-sizing, there can be real benefits besides efficiency. For example, bringing new units together can prompt communication and collaboration that leads to greater innovation — which is exactly what USAID hopes to gain from its Lab.

Yet organizations rarely move to restructure unless a crisis hits, budgets shrink, or the operating context (market) changes dramatically. Without such outside forces, it’s hard to generate the political momentum to overcome entrenched internal interests. That’s why these restructurings such unique opportunities: organizational positioning and effectiveness intersect with personal politics in ways that could determine the future of the sector.

And you thought that getting a new org chart would be boring.

Summer reading list: back to paper

I’ve become less enamored with my kindle recently. Maybe because I hauled a few boxes of old books out of storage and put them on shelves — which was made possible by moving into a new apartment that’s large enough to have shelves, and the fact that I don’t plan to move again in the near future. Being surrounded by actual, physical books inspired me to pull a few of these antiquated devices off the shelf.

Despite my evangelism of the kindle as a travel device, for someone who grew up reading on paper, there’s definitely a tactile element to reading that improves engagement and comprehension. It’s simply a different experience. (Oddly, I feel none of the same attachment to writing on paper. I think there’s a tiny sliver of us who were raised to read on paper but write on computers. I’m sure the younger generations feel little hesitance about using the electronic medium for both?)

In any case, with my love of books rekindled (as it were), a bit of insomnia a few weeks ago led to an amazon binge and the following summer reading list:

  • Why Nations Fail. Acemoglu and Robinson. I actually started this one on kindle, but I switched to paperback. I’m on track to finish it this week, with a review coming shortly after that. I’ve got some critiques, but my short assessment is that this should be required reading for anyone working in development, along with the more standard canon of Easterly, Sachs, and Collier.
  • Peaceland. Autesserre. This is an ethnography of aidworkers and peacebuilders in conflict zones. I’m a chapter into it and so far it’s pretty fantastic — much like Autessere’s previous book on the DRC.
  • Unruly Americans. Holton. This was sitting in a box unread for a couple years, but caught my eye as. It promises to be a good look at the politics and personal motivations of America’s Founding Fathers — with a particular focus on how their elite views clashed with those of average “unruly” Americans.
  • Great by Choice. Collins and Hansen. After three chapters, Collins’ latest work is failing to impress. I’m sticking with it because I’m a fan of Good to Great and Built to Last, but I’m starting to think that there are diminishing marginal returns of reading multiple books by a given author — like you’ve already seen their best ideas. (I experienced something similar with the third Malcolm Gladwell book I read, and the third Nassim Taleb book as well.)
  • Creating a Learning Society. Stiglitz and Greenwald. One of the perks of blogging is that I got a review copy of this one. As you can see from the photo, it’s pretty hefty. Let’s see if it lives up to the weight.
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour.  Melanie Mitchell. I’m not sure how this one will register. It looks good, but might be a bit too introductory level.

Did I say “summer” reading? This might take me into the fall…


/ / books & events

Capacity, institutions, and relationships

The World Bank blog had a great post last week that takes an interesting view on one of development’s shibboleths: capacity building. Rich Mallet breaks down the concept a bit and notes how, in practice, it usually involves resources and technical training. But he draws on some work by ODI and others to argue that:

capacity is a relational concept. That is, capacities are developed through social relationships, and the nature of those relationships has profound consequences for the ability of an agent, an organization or a system to get things done.

(Emphasis mine.)

I don’t think I’ve seen it put quite this way before, but the framing resonates. The capacity of a system hinges on the social relationships within it. Mallet looks at the national, district and community levels, focusing on cross-sector relationships, the relationships between service providers and users, and the relationships within bureaucracies. This last one is especially interesting.

More generally, I see relationships as critical to understanding capacity at the organizational and institutional level. After all, that’s what we’re usually talking about under this heading: building capacity of a given organization, whether that’s a government bureaucracy, an NGO, or something else. The term “capacity building” has become synonymous with workshops and technical trainings, because we often assume that the capacity of the institution is just the sum of the capacities of the individuals within the institution, or maybe because we see the capacities of individuals as the greatest constraint to the capacity of the institution, even if we see other factors as relevant. Or maybe just because trainings are easy and everyone likes free lunch.

Making use of the relational nature of capacity in order to build an organization’s capacity means thinking harder about how organizations actually function. Big changes that restructure org charts or reallocate budgets seem dramatic, but they only deal with the formal, documented processes and systems of an organization.

The informal channels of influence and discourse are just as significant in determining outcomes. These informal elements are all about relationships — where people have lunch, how someone got hired, who used to work where, etc. So much of an organization’s capacity lies in these informal networks. Yet they are typically opaque to outsiders and even many insiders, which can mean they get ignored or assumed to be unimportant by change agents.

Understanding the relationships that exist requires a much deeper embed with an organization than a mere skills needs assessment of staff. And changing those relationships takes much longer than a day’s workshop.

Zooming out from healthcare to systems thinking

I’ve written about health systems in a few other places recently: a post on Humanosphere talks about health systems in general, and a post on Reboot’s blog looks at lessons from governance reform. Both posts were sparked by a recent event hosted by the Center for Global Development, Population Services International, and others.

One of the big takeaways from the event was the need for the global health sector to renew its focus on health systems strengthening. Experts from several organizations and donors acknowledged the successes of disease-specific approaches in recent years, but highlighted how enabling environments and system-level interventions hold promise for improving health outcomes across multiple conditions. Thinking about systems is important in global health and, more broadly, international development.

However, there are several distinctions to be made as we zoom out from health to the systems surrounding it. At the risk of being pedantic, I want to slice up our thinking into four levels. (more…)

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. (more…)

Information v. knowledge economy

The crux of the label we use to describe an economic paradigm is that it usually points to the main driver of value: industrial, agrarian, etc. For the last few decades, we’ve tried several ways to describe the current economic paradigm. Two of the most prominent terms that still find use in the daily commentary of pundits are “knowledge economy” and “information economy” — and they’re used almost interchangeably.

What’s odd is that the two terms have completely different meanings. Read more

External conceptualization and spatial ideation through compact multichromatic adhesives

Flip charts. Dry erase boards. Slide projectors. Plasma TVs. We have lots of ways to display information for groups of people. Lots of ways to move it around in real-time as well.

But somehow we keep coming back to tiny, colorful pieces of paper.

That’s right. I’m talking about sticky notes.

You may have noticed that I’m no stranger to the sticky note methods. Though equally adept with flip charts and no slouch with dry erase, I’ve noticed that sticky notes have a strange symbolism and power that’s out of proportion with their size. Why is that?

question sticky


Moderating the hype around development ideas

When I presented the hype cycle for development ideas in a recent post, I didn’t bother to identify the causes or underlying dynamics that drive the cycle. I presented Gartner’s framework, applied it to international development (with some adaptations), and everyone reading nodded along. “Yep, that makes sense.” No proof needed.

That I could get away with this is telling.

The easy translation of Gartner’s framework from the tech sector to other fields — not just international development — suggests that there are deeper structural forces at play. Some combination of how the media covers trends, promotional feedback loops, and basic human optimism means that we’re susceptible market bubbles (dot-coms, housing), inflated expectations for incoming presidents (google “disillusionment with Obama”), and probably more  faith in movie adaptations of books than is ever warranted. Each peak is followed by a crash, and then right-sizing. Maybe. The specific dynamics vary, as we see with development. (more…)

Randomize all the things: grad school and junior faculty posts edition

This morning’s thought experiment is inspired by a recent conversation with a few colleagues about grad school. These particular colleagues went to a certain snooty uptown Manhattan institution; I went someplace a bit more downtown (but, frankly, still pretty snooty).

Here’s the problem: Whenever I give advice to young professionals on career paths and grad school, my evidence base is limited to my own experience and these sorts of conversations with friends or colleagues. Basically it’s only observational, anecdotal, and potentially idiosyncratic. But today’s aspiring development practitioners demand evidence-based educational decisions. (more…)

Coming clash of ideas?

Looks like previous post on the development ideas hype cycle stirred some interest. There are still the “so what” questions — how individual actors should respond to the hype cycle, what systemic actions the sector could take to moderate the volatility of it, etc. — but I’ll leave those for another post in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up on my blog reader backlog and came across a great Duncan Green post that’s relevant to the question of how ideas change the sector. Wrapping up a series of observations on the future of aid, Green notes the increasing role of complexity thinking in aid. But he foresees a coming conflict:

…currently, the operating model of aid funding and evaluation is highly linear – there seems to be every chance of a titanic intellectual clash between the results community and the complexity thinkers. My gut feeling is that the complexity people will lose, because the results people have the ears of the funders – it is therefore important that political scientists and others abandon any lofty ‘it’s all too complex, and measurement is futile’ attitudes, and start helping the results people move from a self-defeating insistence on attribution to a ‘plausible/good enough’ narrative of change. In terms of metrics, this means learning to ‘count what counts’ in terms of empowerment, agency, governance etc.


Hype cycle for development ideas: 2014 edition

The “hype cycle” is a wonderful conceptual framework for understanding how technologies move from initial invention to widespread application. The basic path is simple:  whenever a new technology comes along, it usually gets hyped to the point of inflating expectations about how much it will revolutionize your life, then reality will sink in and we’ll all be disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises, after which it finally rises to a level of productivity.

Visually, it looks like this:



The technology firm behind the concept, Gartner, releases annual reports covering over 2,000 technologies in multiple industries. Most of the report is proprietary (read: expensive) but a summary graphic does a nice job of placing various technologies along the cycle. E.g. “consumer 3D printing” has gotten so much hype that it’s about to slide down the trough of disillusionment, while “speech recognition” has just crossed into the plateau of productivity. See below.



I like the key too, as each technology will move along the cycle at different rates. I’m not entirely sure what research methodology or analytical process was behind this, and obviously there’s a lot you can argue with about the placements, but I find it to be a useful framework. (more…)

Translation and multilingual workplaces

Anyone working internationally has encountered a multilingual work environment at some point. It brings unique challenges and power dynamics. Translation in such a context can become a contentious practice, though often it’s treated as a mechanical — and not political — exercise.

11bellos "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?" by David BellosI’ve been thinking about these dynamics as I recently finished reading David Bellos’ fascinating book on translation: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. The book lays out a dozen dimensions of a practice that many of us take for granted as part of our professional lives. (more…)

Time constraints in governance reform practice

The Kennedy School event that I mentioned previously included an interesting panel about new practice in governance reform. It featured Peter Harrington of the Africa Governance Initiative, Jennifer Widner of Innovations for Successful Societies, and Nadim Matta of the Rapid Results Institute.

One theme that spanned their presentations was a focus on short-term, rapid changes: Harrington on Liberia’s 150-day post-election plan, Matta on his work to give 100 days of “extreme autonomy” for government staff to innovate, and Widner on case studies of reform efforts that have targeted “big results fast.” They all aimed at quick pushes that kick the governance capacity up a notch, with the hope of knock-on effects down the line. (more…)

Role of diaspora in development

I snuck out of the office last week and pretended to be an academic for a day at an interesting event at the Kennedy School. The focus of the event was recent work on governance reforms, including Matt Andrews’ book. The various talks and panels sparked several draft blog posts, which I’ll hopefully get out over the next week or so.

One quick response I had to the event was on the role of returned diaspora members as institutional change agents. The standard aid sector discourse on the diaspora focuses on remittance flows. Those flows are critical, of course. However, by returning home, many members of the diaspora often contribute talent and energies to the development of their home countries that far exceeds their cash contributions. Jennifer Brinkerhoff presented her work on the topic.

Although Brinkerhoff was mostly focused on high-level policymakers and institutional entrepreneurs, I’ve seen similar effects throughout the aid and development sectors. Some of the most effective staff members that I’ve seen at international organizations at any level — as my colleagues, supervisors, or direct reports — are national staff who went overseas for graduate school or for a few years of work, and then returned home. They bring an insider/outsider perspective that allows them to truly operationalize development values like local knowledge and partnership. (more…)

/ / books & events, research

How to be a macromanager

No one likes being micromanaged. And few people even like to be a micromanager. The whole thing seems like a waste of time.

But the crime of micromanagement is about more than just inefficiency. It’s about an inability to make your own decisions, a loss of empowerment, a distrust between micromanager and micromanagee. Wasted knowledge and expertise, underutilized processing power, and an accountability vortex.

The better way is called macromanagement. In five easy steps:

  1. Hire the right people.
  2. Talk to them about the goals and strategic direction.
  3. Pay attention to the result.
  4. Talk to them about course corrections.
  5. But otherwise stay out of the way.

Well, steps one through four are easy. That last one is the hardest.

Not even a title comes to mind

A few folks have asked for my take on the recent attack in Nairobi. I was living there last year. More than one of this blog’s posts were written at Westgate’s Artcaffe. My interest in the politics and security of Kenya is more than passing. It seems weird that I’d have nothing to say here.

But I’ve stayed out of commentary for two reasons. First, my facebook feed is a testament to the personal impact the attack had. That impact was far larger on many of my friends than it was on me. I’m not tackling the issue directly because I don’t know how to pay proper respect, acknowledging tragic loss while avoiding the weird impulse that seems to compel people tangentially impacted by tragedy to publicly tie themselves to it. In short: I don’t know how to deal with death (does anyone?) and so I’d rather not attempt to do so in front of strangers on the internet. No offense.

Second, in the wake of any sudden event with geopolitical significance, there’s a massive amount of mistaken information followed by corrections and rumors followed by more rumors, all feeding into speculative analysis and interpretation. I’m particularly dumbfounded by the discussion of what the attack says about al-Shabaab: was this a desperate strike made by a weakened group near the end of its life, or a demonstration of growing tactical capacity and a portent of worse things to come? Lots of smart analysts disagree on this seemingly basic question. I’d rather not add to a fundamentally premature and incomplete conversation.

Maybe this will change at some point in the future. Until then, I just want to use this space to express my condolences and sorrow to all those impacted by this event. You are in my thoughts.

“Purposive muddling” and the limits of institutional reform

I’ve spent my last few flights reading The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development, by Matt Andrews. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding of why so many institutional reform efforts fail to accomplish much, and how those that succeed are different.

The book is distinguished by the depth of its analytical backing and the thoroughness of its framework. Andrews marshals a broad body of research to carefully build the case for an emerging approach to institutional reforms. If that sounds intriguing – congratulations, you’re a development nerd! For everyone else, proceed with caution: this book is not for the lay reader with a casual interest in government effectiveness. Andrews is an expert on this topic and he’s writing for those who do this work for a living. The result is not light beach reading.

Current reform limits

Andrews documents the struggles of donor-supported institutional reforms in developing countries. Such reforms seek to improve governance across a variety of sectors: security, public finances, health, education, etc. However, they rarely have the intended effect of strengthening the target institutions. Instead, the efforts incentivize mimicry of international “best practices” but fail to account for context. In short: the institutions look better without actually being better.

Dissecting the many failures and inferring lessons from a few successes, Andrews outlines a better approach to institutional reform.

Better way through PDIA

PDIA stands for “problem-driven iterative adaptation” – though I prefer Andrews’ alternate formulation of “purposive muddling” for its simplicity. Still, it’s worth breaking down his acronym.

The idea of being problem-driven means that, rather than focusing on the solution being implemented, reformers should focus on the problem being addressed and then seek small incremental steps that move in the right direction. It’s worth highlighting one critical question that some other reviews of this book have glossed over: whose problems do the driving? The book brings some nuance to the development shibboleth of “ownership” with the concept of multi-agent leadership. Clearly, reforms will struggle if they target problems that are only seen as such by outside actors; yet having an internal champion may also be insufficient. Andrews makes the case (in the book and elsewhere) that a range of lower-profile actors throughout the reforming institution must be involved in the problem definition and search for solutions.

The iterative nature of PDIA emphasizes the need to tinker, try new things, and see how they work. Those who think in terms of design research principles should find this intuitive: good design isn’t about a perfect definition of the solution in advance, but rather about a process of iterating toward the optimal outcome. We humbly acknowledge that we’ll fail along the way.

Finally, adaptation ties in the longer-term need to promote adaptive capacities within institutions. Reform processes should not simply lead to an improved institution, but to an institution which has its own mechanisms for continual improvement and response to a changing environment. (It’s a critical component, though the book fails to give it quite the depth of support that the rest of the framework receives.)

Beyond “context matters”

The importance of context is a common observation in development. It’s almost become a cliché – which is a good sign, if you ask me, because it means that we’re ready to go a level deeper. After all: if context matters, how do we actually take appropriate account of it?

Andrews underlines the importance of context in explaining past reform failures. Then he takes us to that deeper level by teasing out how successful consideration of context differs from failures. Prior analytical work (needs assessment, political economy analysis, and so on) doesn’t always improve contextual understanding, as it often proves (in retrospect only) to be the wrong kind of analytical work. Some projects even succeed without much in the way of prior research.

The key lies in flexibility. Projects that successfully account for context do so throughout the course of the project, rather than just in advance. These projects are driven by the problems being addressed, which remain rigid even as milestones, goals, and technical content are adjusted. This allows reformers to reveal and muddle through significant elements of context as they proceed.

Even more importantly, context is not simply a constraint on change. It’s also a target of change. Politics, institutional norms, and other elements of context are precisely what reforms aim to change. A problem-driven learning approach will lead reformers to address these elements as their role in obstructing reforms becomes apparent.

Here’s how Andrews describes it:

Reforms should focus on the disruptive problems that emerge in particular countries, and designs should allow contextual complexities to reveal themselves while addressing these problems. This requires an approach to institutional reform that acknowledges its endogenous nature and seeks to develop and implement designs actively through a problem-driven incremental process in the context, with local agents occupying the driving seat. This is proposed as the only way in which contextual factors can be effectively accounted for in institutional reforms.

PDIAing the development sector

The final chapter turns PDIA on the development sector itself. After all, bilateral and multilateral donors provide significant inputs to both successful and failed reform efforts. These outside actors structure many of the incentives that encourage poor practice: the “projectization” of aid, the international acclaim that encourages isomorphic mimicry, etc.

Andrews sounds a hopeful note that a 2008 report from the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group could serve to disrupt the development sector’s approach to institutional reform. He’s also cautious given the strength of the dominant logic. More work is needed to force reflection on the current approach. This book contributes to that. The entrance of new players (an anthropologist running the World Bank?) could also shake things up.

A story without characters

Throughout the book, I noticed a conspicuous absence of characters – that is, descriptions of the individual people involved in the reform processes studied. The absence has both stylistic and methodological ramifications, but that’s more than I’ll get into here. Head over to Reboot’s blog for the full story on that.

Summing up

PDIA isn’t an entirely new approach. Andrews admits as much. Elements of it exist throughout current thinking and practice in the development sector. You also see overlapping principles in other fields: designers value iteration, as mentioned; community organizers know problems must be locally defined; and corporate managers know that any change process requires buy-in throughout the organization.

Where this book succeeds is in pulling the pieces together into an analytical framework, and supporting it with an evidence base strong enough to ensure that its implications for development practice are taken seriously. It represents a big step toward better practice.

Related posts:

Full disclaimer: Many thanks to Matt Andrews for graciously providing me a review copy of the book, and apologies to him for the six months it took me to post this review! I ended up buying a Kindle version so I could read while traveling. I’m sure my views would not have been tainted in any case!

Smart targeting: Reframing the ethical questions around RCTs

Randomization with learning is better than haphazard implementation without learning.

RCT proponents use variations on this refrain to defend against ethical questions about randomization. While I’m sure there are people who are troubled by the very thought of randomization, I’ve never met one of them. Most practitioners I know have larger questions about the efficacy and politics of RCTs than about the ethics. The ethical issue is a bit of a straw man: I see the defense far more than I see the critique. I’m getting tired of it, so I’ve decided to actually make the critique — but from the other direction.

In its most common form, the defense rests on an implicit assumption that the program (intervention, distribution, whatever) was going to be conducted in a haphazard manner among a larger population (people, households, whatever) than it could possibly serve. So why not spend a little bit of the funds to randomize and study the impact? The ethical tradeoff is a few people unserved, but massive learning that could lead to wiser program decisions in the future. In most cases, that’s a net positive.

Proponents often put a cap on the argument like so:

Let me be blunt: This is the way the Heifers of the world fool themselves. When you give stuff to some people and not to others, you are still experimenting in the world. You are still flipping a coin to decide who you help and who you don’t, it’s just an imaginary one.

Or like so:

That’s why we do experiments – because we want to know the best way to help the poor. Don’t Heifer International’s donors want to know the same?


But what if we remove the implicit assumption? What if we reframe the ethical comparison from “haphazard selection into the program” and instead recognize that NGOs and service providers often have very specific reasons for working with the individuals they do? Instead of spending funds on a randomization study, they take steps to target their work better: at those who need it most, or who stand the greatest chance of benefiting, or who can be served the most cost effectively, or who have been identified by the community, or who simply have to be served for some broader political or cultural reason.

This is what it means to respond to context in programs, and it might be at odds with randomization.

Despite accusations that they’re evidence-less or careless in this targeting, many NGO staff and donors incorporate the latest academic research into their program designs. Are RCT proponents suggesting that implementers should be less rigorous in their program design and targeting so that the pool remains large enough to have people left out, and then randomize?

If you use a well-targeted program as your ethical comparison — rather than lazily implying haphazard administration as your baseline — then it’s no longer merely a question of learning-or-not. It becomes a question of how-much-impact. And that’s an ethical question worth arguing over.

Reboot is hiring

REBOOT_logo_RGB_transpMy recent posts about staffing and growth didn’t just come out of nowhere. They were prompted by a lot of internal planning that Reboot’s been doing recently. The practical upshot of which is: we’re hiring.

In New York: Freelance Web Developer, Interaction Designer, Director of Research & Design, and Associate.

And in Nigeria: Country Representative, Program Manager, and Program Associate.

Reboot is a pretty unique organization that takes a human-centered and multi-disciplinary approach to governance and development projects. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and the ideas I write here resonate with you, then you have a sense of what I mean.

And if you’re a regular reader who’s crazy talented, cross-culturally comfortable, a keen navigator of complexity, familiar with the current approaches but reflective enough to see their flaws, willing to chart out something new, and driven in a roll-up-your-sleeves-jump-in-the-trenches way to get it done… then you should be working for us.

The posted jobs are diverse and the skills are varied. We pull talent from a variety of sectors and value uncommon career paths: development and aid, sure, but also design, policy, tech, finance, consulting, academia, and more. We’re looking for people who see beyond disciplinary and sectoral boundaries. We mix analytical and creative, empathetic and number-crunching, deliberate and agile — not necessarily in each staff person, but across the whole team. It’s one of the reasons I love working here.

There’s more on the site, of course. If you have questions, you’re welcome to reach out to Reboot by email (see the relevant job posting) or Twitter. You can also contact me. I’m happy to answer questions from interested candidates, though I’ll warn you that my availability for coffees/skypes is limited by travel, connectivity, etc.


(P.S. Standard disclaimers apply: Although I’m posting about Reboot and I mentioned the heavy alignment between what I write on this blog and Reboot’s approach, my posts on FWW in no way reflect official positions of Reboot. Etc. etc.)

Growth as a staff retention strategy

I wrote last week about how your people are your organization’s most important asset. That’s why recruitment, retention and staff development are critical functions in an organization.

But at least recruitment — undervalued as it often is — has an organizational home in the HR department. Retention, development and promotion? They don’t exist anywhere. No one owns them for the organization. An old boss of mine used to refer to the heartbeat principle: if there’s no person who owns it (whose heartbeat depends on it) then it probably won’t happen.

Good managers think about the retention and development of their direct reports, but organizations struggle to support this. No one wants to hear about retention until the problem reaches a pain threshold, long after it’s had negative consequences on output. There are few resources available in most organizations and nowhere to turn for help.

Sadly, there are legitimate reasons for this under-emphasis on retention and staff development. In the short-cycle project world that characterizes much of aid and development, retention is hard to plan beyond the end of the grant or contract. Staff have grown to expect a new assignment in a year, give or take, feeding into a cycle where they don’t invest in the organization and the organization doesn’t invest in them. Meanwhile, a well-intentioned effort to reduce reliance on international staff can (in some labor markets) drive poaching of national staff. (Of course there’s a broader trend across sectors toward shorter-term positions and career paths that jump organizations.)

The much-maligned HR department.
The much-maligned HR department.

Can we do anything to give retention and development more prominence? At a personal level, managers can choose to care more about their people. Organizations can strive to make it part of their culture. And motivated staff can seek out what they need from their supervisors or HR. These sorts of measures are helpful.

However, these solutions lack structural or strategic backing. They aren’t tied to the first-order drivers of an organization’s success. That makes them flimsy and easy to sacrifice in a pinch.

What if the organization felt more pain from the loss of good people? One approach to this lies in growth: new projects, new business, new locations. This is premised on the idea that the best people want to see progress in their careers. If they’re doing the exact same job two years later with no upward motion in sight, they get bored and start looking for something new. That’s why I keep referring to retention and development as if they’re the same thing. They aren’t quite, but I see them as very closely linked.

Someone first pointed out the growth-retention link to me at the same job where I learned the heartbeat principle. It was a publicly traded, mission-driven company. That’s a rare combination. For-profit, sure. But why go public? Other than the obvious fact that quite a few early executives earned a big pile of cash from it, there’s a mission-driven aspect to it as well: shareholders demand returns, returns require growth, growth provides new opportunities for the best staff, new opportunities demand development, development promotes retention, retention maintains current business.

The company had a built-in accountability mechanism that drove a focus on retention and development.

There are still hurdles. Growing fast is dangerous too. I know at least one popular social enterprise that stretched its systems to the seams with rapid growth and ended up with high turnover. Managing that growth is also difficult for small organizations when business growth and capacity growth come in different-sized chunks. For large organizations, the problems lie more in the question of where to find that growth after the obvious avenues have been filled.

So let’s qualify things to say that well-managed growth can drive the retention and staff development necessary to have high impact across both current and future business. It doesn’t happen naturally though. If it’s both deliberate and opportunistic, growth can be a retention strategy.

Your people are your organization

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about staffing and organization growth. Our world is full of organizations of all kinds: NGOs, contractors, churches, orchestras, football teams. They have different goals, methods, structures and all — but they have some common constituent elements.

What makes up an organization? Here’s how I break them down in my head:

People — your staff or members

Physical assets — computers, cash, land, or other items you own or can access

Processes — policies, practices, and systems that allow you to accomplish something

Perceptions — how others see you (including your reputation and relationships)

These categories aren’t hard-and-fast. You might include work culture, or see that as a combination of people and processes. Other observers (like accountants) might see different categories entirely. For now, let’s work with these.

The relative importance of each element will vary by sector and organization. For example, an agricultural business likely finds physical assets and processes to be far more important than perceptions and people. A political campaign would have a different take.

Another way to think about the question of importance is to ask: How difficult is it to increase or replace each component? Each can be built over time or lost to decay. We should value the ones that take the most effort to build and maintain.

For aid and development organizations, the order of importance then looks something like this: people, perceptions, processes, physical assets. The people are the most critical component for any kind of high-skilled work, but even more so in a sector where tacit knowledge of context and external relationships (perceptions) are important. Those are hard things to replace.

Take all the computers away, throw the policy manuals in the garbage, and we could be back at 90% capacity in a few months. But if you take away our people, or even if you replace them with equally skilled outsiders who lack the relationships they’ve built — then we’re in trouble. The lag on output will be palpable. Your people are your organization.

So why doesn’t it always feel that way? Why are HR and recruitment — not to mention retention — so undervalued in the sector? I’ll share my theories in a future post. In the meantime, why do you think that’s the case?

Something on the internet changed and I’m very upset about it!

Google Reader closed today. Most of the world won’t notice, but a lot of people I know are waking up this morning, seeing this…

reader gone

…and thinking the same thing:

Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.

Back when Google killed Reader’s sharing feature in favor of Google+ (which has totally taken off as a result), I discussed the obvious truth of free internet products: if you’re not paying for it, then you’re not the customer. You’re the product.

I’ve tried several alternatives in the past few months. Unfortunately, with Reader no longer available for back-end syncing, you can’t mix-and-match anymore. Previously, I used Reader itself for online desktop reading, Feeddemon for offline desktop reading, and an independent app for reading on my phone. Now I have to pick one.

I piloted the following in-depth:

  • Feedly (pretty layout options, but all sacrifice looks for functionality)
  • Netvibes (nice layout, if you choose the “reader” view rather than the default widgets, but no Android app yet)
  • Old Reader (designed explicitly after Google’s product, so it should be familiar, but it also lacks an Android app)

I also glanced at a handful of others.

Ultimately I’ve chosen Newsblur. It has the best combination of features given my high-volume and high-mobility reading habits. The layout doesn’t waste space, is functional with just enough polish, uses all the keystrokes from Reader, and even has some clever additions. For example, the ability to switch between seeing the “feed” content and “text” content is helpful for those annoying sites that don’t put their full article text out over their RSS feed (I’m looking at you, Foreign Policy). And of course, Newsblur has an Android app.

Most promisingly, it has a sharing feature that mimics the original Reader’s function. Still haven’t quite figured it out though. That’s the downside. Newsblur is still a bit buggy.

The final upside? It costs $24/year for full features. How is that an upside? Because I’d rather be the customer than the product. That’s the cost of a book or two, and I spend more time reading RSS content than reading books. I hope the Newsblur team is working around the clock to capture the Reader refugees and keep us happy. From what I’ve seen, it aspires to be more than just a Reader replacement — it offers something better.

When development evaluation gets too honest?

For anyone who’s ever written a methodology section, treading the thin line between acknowledging limitations and completely undermining the findings….

There should be a development/RCT/M&E version of this:

Dye? Or survey sample?

…or because access was limited by the logistically challenging environment (read: muddy roads).
Too easy: donor funding, government cooperation, when the interns came in the summer? Take your pick.

More here.

“Men now live think and work at express speed.”

Thought for the day: People like to say that change is occurring more rapidly and the world becoming more complex than at any previous era in history. But what if our predecessors were saying the same thing during those previous eras in history? What does that tell us?

Chronocentrism, late 1800s/early 1900s edition:


/ / complexity

Ideas borne out of experience (Yes, I’m reviewing J’s new novel)

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, MisfitIf you read aid blogs, then you’ve seen other reviews pop up for a certain novel: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen a book reviewed on so many aid blogs. Perhaps it’s because the author is one of our own, though few have met the man himself: the anonymous J. You may know him from twitter, AidSpeak, the now-closed Tales from the Hood blog, or your local coordination meeting.

This is J’s second foray into fiction. The story follows Mary-Anne, the young aid worker from Disastrous Passion, as she earns her stripes in Ethiopia. As always, J strives to show the human side of aid work: achievement and isolation, corruption and cultural misunderstanding, temptation and drinking and smoking. Other blogs have summarized the plot, so I won’t delve into it.

What I appreciated is how this book situates ideas in their context. Some ideas result from reading and synthesizing academic studies. Others result from lived experience. These are the latter. If you’ve read J’s other (nonfiction) writing, then the ideas will be familiar: ill-conceived project plans, tensions between field and headquarters, lack of accountability or reward for performance, and so on. As the characters struggle to respond to the opportunities and absurdities they face in ways that align with their values, their understanding of their situation shifts and the ideas surface.

The novel shines when plot points force a character to see things differently, as when Mary-Anne considers leaving fieldwork for a job in Washington, DC. Missionary etc. struggles at these points too. Mary-Anne and the other main character — the more experienced Jon Langstrom — spend countless pages at a bar discussing their professional challenges. In these scenes, Jon does a lot of monologuing, in sections that could have been pulled straight from one of J’s blog posts. It makes for slow reading, but worse, it underutilizes the ability of fiction to really change a reader’s perspective. The novel set out to show us how the aid industry works, but often it just has Jon Langstrom tell us instead.

One final point worth making. As the WhyDev boys legitimately asked: Who is the audience for this book? The jargon, acronyms, and technical references would make it mind numbing to the casual reader. It’s clearly written for the industry insider or young professional. If that describes you, then this could be a nice distraction during your next long flight. On the one hand, the beauty of e-publishing is the ability to write for such a small audience. On the other hand, mass audiences will have to wait a bit longer for an accurate representation of the aid industry.


Caveat: J sent me a free copy of the book for review. Also, I’m more of a non-fiction reader and the only other novel I’ve read in the past few years was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which may have set an unreasonably high bar for this one.

Politics and design thinking: more in common than you think

Last week, USIP’s Andrew Blum wrote a great piece (on Tom Murphy’s A View From The Cave) about the limitations of design thinking when it comes to politics. Blum makes the solid point that design thinking works best when a certain amount of consensus exists around the problem that’s being addressed. For political issues, which are all about contested power and disagreements over values, such consensus is elusive.

Design thinking has found its entry points into political issues with narrow targeting. Blum’s example is the Atrocity Prevention Challenge. It focuses on information-gathering as a way to prevent violence, while essentially ignoring (or making unstated assumptions about) how the gathered information actually translates to violence prevention. The narrow targeting is necessary to apply design methods, but it constrains the overall impact that can be made.

However, I think there’s hope. Design thinking can take many forms. Like any discipline, it includes a range of methods and frameworks that can be applied to a variety of problems. Because politics itself lies at the intersection of so many aspects of human activity, political analysis must pull from a wide variety of disciplines. Design thinking has the potential to contribute to that.

There are several natural overlaps between design thinking and political analysis. I see these overlaps in my day job at Reboot, where we apply principles from design (as well as other fields) to inherently political issues like governance, accountability, and institutional development.

Chief among these overlaps is a human-centered approach. Design calls them “users”, while political terms vary based on where you’re sitting — “targets” or “constituents” perhaps. Regardless, both fields recognize individuals as the primary decision-making unit. If you want to design a better smartphone, you need to truly understand how users will interface with it throughout their day. Likewise, if you want to sway political decision-makers, you need to understand the various pressures and incentives competing for their attention and action. Empathy is critical in both cases.

Another area of overlap lies in multi-disciplinary understandings of context. Understanding how a user might interact with a product or service requires a mix of disciplines — psychology, linguistics, aesthetics, anthropology, and even biology, depending on what’s being designed. Political analysis requires an understanding of similar disciplines, with an even heavier reliance on economics, governance, conflict, rhetoric, and often ethnography. Both require analytical processes to capture insights from across multiple disciplines, synthesis to understand how they relate, and horizontal thinking to consider unexpected outcomes.

Finally, the iterative and adaptive nature of both fields is obvious. You see this built into design with practices like prototyping, and you hear it in phrases like “fail fast.” In political action, adaptation is equally critical. Think about pilot-tests for new initiatives, trial balloons floated to gauge support, or the recently coined “problem-driven iterative adaption” approach.

Abstracting a level: the link between these two fields is that both grapple with complexity in a pragmatic way. When they’re at their best — avoiding the lofty idealism of political rhetoric or the techno-utopianism of designers — both fields find ways to act and create progress in a confusing world. They both avoid the detached analysis-paralysis of academia and the temptation to build grand theories from simplistic assumptions (I’m looking at you, rational-choice theory). Politics and design both live in the messy middle.

These similarities suggest that the methods of one could be useful to the other. Design thinking can supplement political thinking on problems such as public service delivery or institutional governance. Blum is right that design thinking, as it’s currently applied to narrowly circumscribed topics, does a disservice to political issues. But I think we can broaden the scope a little bit.

Bridging the divide

I just realized that I passed my three-year blogoversary a few weeks ago. I guess I celebrated by not posting in over a month?

My blogging volume has an inverse relationship with my degree of employment: I wrote most regularly as a grad student or when I was between jobs. Sadly, it’s not just my blogging output that slows when I’m working. My intake drops off as well. My blog reading switches to skimming and my book reading gets squeezed into plane rides, if I’m lucky.

Duncan Green recently pondered the disconnect between the quick pace of work and the slower pace it takes to read a development book. It’s part of a larger divide that exists between academics on the one hand, and practitioners and policymakers on the other. (Though the latter two have a divide of their own.)

I feel like discussions about bridging this divide often focus on how to make research more digestible. While I appreciate the briefing notes and such, it seems a bit unfair to put all the burden on our academic cousins. Maybe those of us on the practitioner side need to carve out a little bit of time to actually read once in a while? Because right now, even a 4-page briefing note seems daunting if it’s not directly relevant to my work.

I’ve had plenty of jobs that claim to value professional development and learning opportunities, but when push comes to shove, long-term learning falls in the important-but-never-urgent category — and it just doesn’t happen. This outcome is compounded by short-term jobs and career paths that cross organizations: why would an employer want you to invest time in learning that will only become relevant for your next job? (Or worse: that might help you get that next job!)

Does anyone know of any organizations that have managed this successfully? Any tips? Is it just a question of organizational culture and personal commitment, or are there specific policies or practices that help?

Rather than fight these forces, another approach might work with the grain. People switch jobs every few years? Great. Why not create a short-term position within a think tank or research group for someone who’s normally more of a practitioner? Kind of practitioner’s fellowship. It would provide the think tank with practical grounding, and provide the practitioner with an opportunity to reflect and learn before returning to the daily grind.

Delivering Development: learning about complexity from a few cases

Delivering-developmentI just finished reading Ed Carr‘s excellent book Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future.

The book is anchored in Carr’s field research in Dominase and Ponkrum, two villages in central Ghana, over the span of a decade. From there he goes up to the global level, and back again to all the other places he refers to as “globalization’s shoreline”. Along the way, he does more than merely generalize from the cases; rather, he uses them to illustrate just how complicated generalization can be. I appreciate the approach. That said, combining detailed case studies with big global analysis always runs the risk of feeling disjointed, and Carr runs afoul of that line once or twice.

On the whole, Carr packs a lot into a slim volume. Here are a few of the interesting ideas that stood out.

1. Archaeology and multidisciplinarity.

In my writing and work, I’m a big advocate of multi/cross/inter/pandisciplinary thinking. (I think I just made up that last one. That’s how out-of-the-box I am.)

But Carr one-ups me with ease, because I had never even considered the applicability of archaeology to development until I read this book, especially the chapter titled: “Nothing has always been like this.” Now I feel a bit dumb for ignoring the field before. In Ghana, he and his team found evidence of global trade in graves from the 1800s; mapped rising and falling populations based on abandoned structures; and made inferences about shifting consumption habits from waste pits dating to the 1960s.

These were not random observations or merely interesting tidbits. Carr connects these findings with historical records on when certain roads were built or when the British arrived, creating an overall narrative of how development and globalization have impacted these villages over centuries. His conclusion: Their condition today is not an absence of development or globalization (as the problem is often framed in development discourse) but rather, it is a direct outcome of development itself.

2. Lateral thinking about complex effects.

Carr builds on his multidisciplinarity with lateral thinking, though I don’t think he ever used that term.

To give one example: Following a road improvement in 2004, Carr found the residents of Dominase and Ponkrum excited about the new economic possibilities. He expected diversified livelihoods through wage income and trading, though most would continue farming as well. This would necessarily mean switching to lower-maintenance crops, with staples (maize and cassava) replaced by trees (orange, palm, and coconut). Tree crops are a longer-term investment because of the time needed to mature. Carr thought this might lead to social disruption in the local land tenure practices, in which the head of each family lineage distributes land to the male household heads each year. Longer-term investments would make that system untenable. That could undermine the power of those family lineage heads.

So from a better road to livelihood opportunities to crop switching to new land tenure practices to degrading authority structures.

That is lateral thinking in a nutshell. Of course, Carr discovered that he was totally wrong in those predictions! To understand what really happened requires an understanding of intra-household gender relations, which he had neglected in his initial thinking. You’ll have to read the book for the full story. The takeaway here is a theme I come back to often on this blog: everything is more complex than it seems.

3. Critique of participation.

In what could be a stand-alone essay, Carr spends a chapter dissecting the challenges of actually following through on the promise of “participation” in development. From the methodological challenges (e.g. pre-defined response options in multiple-choice surveys) to institutional constraints (e.g. those facing Millennium Villages or the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers), many interventions have talked more about participation at the high level than actually achieved it on the ground.

Efforts to further promote participation might actually be counter-productive, as they often involve standardization of verifiable methods. That runs counter to a basic fact about participation: it must reflect the context and uniqueness of the intended participants.

4. “Development is impossible, at least if we conceive development as raising people’s standard of living to that of the advanced economies.”

I turn now to the most sobering idea in the book. The above assessment springs from a simple accounting: the planet doesn’t have the resources (petroleum, water, etc.) for everyone to consume and behave in the way that most in the “developed” countries do. Carr elaborates on this a bit, but his elaboration is unnecessary. All of us working for international aid and development organizations already know it to be true. So do the Sachs, Easterlys and other academics who study and write about development.

Carr argues that we need to figure out what this means for the promotion of development. His note of optimism is the standard one: human beings are endless innovators. We tinker, we try new things, we find solutions. There is incredible promise in that concept.

However, it’s not a satisfying end to a book. Like many thinkers who analyze and shed new light on a major problem, Carr seems compelled to propose a solution. His comes in the form of an information network to connect communities living at globalization’s edge with one another, and with experts around the world, to promote flexible and locally appropriate solutions. He follows it up with a visioning exercise to portray what two different global futures — one business-as-usual, and one “outside echo chamber” — would mean for Dominase and Ponkrum.

The outcome is another great demonstration of lateral thinking. Unfortunately, his proposed network concept is thin on the details of how it would actually work, but still very ambitious in what it’s meant to achieve. It leaves the reader with a juxtaposition: the vague proposal on the one hand, and the highly specific outcomes ascribed to it (and described in the visioning exercise) on the other. The result is unconvincing.

Despite that criticism, the principles behind them are fantastic: enabling true participation, allowing flexibility, promoting locally appropriate solutions, placing decision-making power in the the hands of those who know the problems best. Delivering Development successfully pulls together a number of threads to make the case for those principles. If we’re smart, we’ll find ways to weave those into all of our thinking.


Many thanks to Ed Carr for arranging to get me a review copy of the book. I hope he accepts this public apology for how long it took me to actually post a review. If you want more of Ed’s original thinking, you should be reading his blog and following him on twitter.

“Go with your gut”? Just how useful is intuition in a complex situation?

Thinking, Fast and SlowI recently finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Four stars out of five. It’s a fascinating book full of insights from decades of research, interspersed with anecdotes about how those ideas developed over time. Great for the non-specialist. It’s also long, weighing in at 500 pages. Read it — but learn to read quickly.

I won’t try to summarize or draw general lessons here (plenty of other reviews have done so already). I just want to highlight one idea that stood out as I’ve been thinking about management and decision-making in contexts of complexity: the flaws of confidence, intuition and expert judgment.

Much of the book explores biases in human reasoning, especially the quick judgments we make (using what Kahneman calls System 1, in contrast to slower and more deliberate reasoning of System 2). Yet these quick judgments can also be powerful, especially when they come from experienced professionals. The standard anecdote to illustrate this is the story of the firefighting commander who pulled his team out of a building just moments before it collapsed, based on the intuition that something was wrong. Such examples come from the research of psychologist Gary Klein, and have been popularized by writers like Malcom Gladwell.

So on the one hand, we have the successes of intuition. On the other hand, the failures of cognitive biases. What distinguishes the two? In a chapter on expert intuition, Kahneman recounts his work with Klein to find the border between intuition’s pitfalls and promises.

When to trust intuition: Not confidence, or even experience, but context too

Based on Kahneman’s other work on cognitive biases, he and Klein knew that one’s confidence in a belief is poorly correlated with the belief’s accuracy. We tend to be confident in stories that come to mind easily (availability heuristic), regardless of how strongly the evidence supports them. Many studies have shown that experts in a variety of fields are just as susceptible to this as laypeople. Someone’s experience and technical knowledge are insufficient reasons to trust their intuition.

To dig deeper, Kahneman and Klein worked from a psychological model of recognition-primed decision making. In this description, intuition results from a process of recognizing patterns and similarities to past situations that have either been experienced directly or learned from others. (Of course, not all intuition is about a quick decision made in a collapsing building. Often it arises as a “gut instinct” influencing a more deliberate analytical process. It serves different ends but operates similarly in both cases. In both cases, one of intuition’s strengths is to quickly weight different types of data from different sources into a coherent judgment. “Thinking fast” is about the speed of the thinking, not the tempo of the situation we are in.)

However, this model can only lead to valid intuitions under certain conditions. First, a regular and predictable environment is needed, and second, prolonged practice allows an expert to learn these regularities. Here’s how Kahneman summarizes it:

Memory also holds the vast repertory of skills we have acquired in a lifetime of practice, which automatically produce adequate solutions to challenges as they arise, from walking around a large stone on the path to averting the incipient outburst of a customer. The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. When these conditions are fulfilled, skill eventually develops, and the intuitive judgments and choices that quickly come to mind will mostly be accurate. (p. 416)

This means the context matters. In an irregular or unpredictable environment, we should always be skeptical of intuitive judgments (including our own). Firefighters, chess-players, doctors, and even athletes face repeated situations that are fundamentally orderly enough to be predictable and allow the acquisition of skill. Political commentators and stock brokers? Not so much. Nassim Taleb explored similar ideas in his analysis of the financial industry in Fooled by Randomness: expertise is often an illusion better explained through chance and survivorship bias.

For better or worse, this line of reasoning takes us toward the pessimistic view that intuition is basically useless in situations of complexity. I’m not sure if I fully believe that.

Can complexity science help?

A 2008 working paper from ODI (h/t Harry Jones) mentioned that complexity concepts and related tools (such as agent-based modelling) can provide support for intuition. Complexity tools serve to make situations more navigable, helping us to study and understand them in ways we couldn’t before. I think the gist of the argument is that we can combine the insights of complexity tools with our intuition in a given situation. This leverages the strength I mentioned above: intuitive judgment allows us to combine data of multiples types/sources and make decisions when more rigorous analytical models might be impractical.

However, the tools and lenses of complexity science stop short of actually simplifying situations that are otherwise complex. We never get the regularity that (according to Kahneman and Klein’s model) our intuitions need in order to become trustworthy. So if we’re going to use complexity tools to guide our intuitions, we still need to proceed cautiously — or perhaps not at all.



Here are a few other excerpts from the book that readers of this blog might appreciate. I especially like this bit about how organizational processes and bureaucracy might lead to better decisions — precisely because they force slow decisions. Of course, the quality of the output depends on the design of the process. The image of organization-as-decision-factory is one I may use again:

Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures. Organizations can institute and enforce the application of useful checklists, as well as more elaborate exercises, such as reference-class forecasting and the premortem. At least in part by providing a distinctive vocabulary, organizations can also encourage a culture in which people watch out for one another as they approach minefields. Whatever else it produces, an organization is a factory that manufactures judgments and decisions. Every factory must have ways to ensure the quality of its products in the initial design, in fabrication, and in final inspections. The corresponding stages in the production of decisions are the framing of the problem that is to be solved, the collection of relevant information leading to a decision, and reflection and review. An organization that seeks to improve its decision product should routinely look for efficiency improvements at each of these stages. The operative concept is routine. Constant quality control is an alternative to the wholesale reviews of processes that organizations commonly undertake in the wake of disasters. There is much to be done to improve decision making. One example out of many is the remarkable absence of systematic training for the essential skill of conducting efficient meetings. (p. 417-418)

(Emphasis added.)

On the topic of complexity, I could have written a whole other post on this bit about the “knowability” of the world:

I have heard of too many people who “knew well before it happened that the 2008 financial crisis was inevitable.” This sentence contains a highly objectionable word, which should be removed from our vocabulary in discussions of major events. The word is, of course, knew. Some people thought well in advance that there would be a crisis, but they did not know it. They now say they knew it because the crisis did in fact happen. This is a misuse of an important concept. In everyday language, we apply the word know only when what was known is true and can be shown to be true. We can know something only if it is both true and knowable. But the people who thought there would be a crisis (and there are fewer of them than now remember thinking it) could not conclusively show it at the time. Many intelligent and well-informed people were keenly interested in the future of the economy and did not believe a catastrophe was imminent; I infer from this fact that the crisis was not knowable. What is perverse about the use of know in this context is not that some individuals get credit for prescience that they do not deserve. It is that the language implies that the world is more knowable than it is. (p. 201)

(Emphasis added.)

Make networking easier with a more specific elevator pitch

“Willing to do anything” is a badge of honor among the professionally itinerant. It’s a strength and also an affliction, most commonly found in grad students, young professionals, and those suffering from career wanderlust. What it means for your career prospects and skills development depends on your own path. That might be the subject of another post.

Today I’m interested in what it means for your networking and job hunting. Say you’re searching for a summer internship or your next job. You’ve met someone who’s well-connected and willing to help. He asks the obvious question: “What are you looking for?” You freeze. You should have a quick pitch ready to go, but will it be good enough?

The most common mistake I’ve seen in these quick pitches is to be too general. Grad students are the worst at this (no offense, I was there myself once). You have a general skill set and you really are willing to do anything! Maybe you’ve got some experience in M&E but you’d be happy to learn what you need for another role, or you’ve worked in Ghana but would be interested in another region. You know that there are limited positions out there, and you don’t want to rule any of them out. Hell, you’ll be happy just to be employed. So the general thrust of your pitch is to say, “I will take whatever you’ve got!”

The problem with this? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. He has a mental contact list with dozens or even hundreds of entries. He might be willing to make a few connections for you, but how is he going to narrow down his list when you asked for “anything”? That’s a mentally hard thing to do. You can make it easier by giving him the filtering criteria. Then a few obvious contacts will come to mind. He’ll also be more willing to put you in touch with them, because he’ll be more confident that he won’t be wasting his contact’s time.

To improve your pitch, start with some context for what you want, narrow things down a bit, and then open it up at the end. I’ve found the following structure to be helpful for my own conversations:

Context: I’ve done A and B before, and I’d like to do C eventually…

Specific pitch: …so I’m looking for D or E right now. Any advice or contacts you have would be appreciated.

General: Of course, I’m also looking to build experience in general, if you’ve heard of other interesting opportunities.

Obviously, that’s not a script. Put it in your own words, with variation depending on whether it’s a conversation or an email. The only risk is that you miss out on a few general connections, but you’ll end up with better ones and maybe more in total anyway.

The broader principle here is to make it easier for people to help you out. (See here for more along the same lines; h/t Alanna Shaikh.)

P.S. Bonus tip: This applies to fundraising and sales as well. A pitch to “just give whatever you can” may be less effective than a specific pitch to “give $X a month” — even if the latter is too high, it provides an anchoring point and makes it easier for a potential donor to say, “No, but I could give $Y instead.”

Matatus in Brooklyn and telenovelas in India

Last night I caught up with a high school friend over dinner in Brooklyn. I learned two fascinating new things about the world.

Matatus in Kampala

First, when I mentioned the 14-passenger vans known as matatus that are so common in East Africa (and elsewhere), she told me that Brooklyn has something similar. They’re known as “dollar vans” — and apparently they are as ubiquitous as they are illegal. One journalist writes:

This is the paradox of Winston’s work: While he is fully licensed, insured, and inspected, his vans are prohibited from doing the one thing they really do — picking up passengers off the street.

David King, from Columbia, quips that all dollar vans are 100 percent illegal (because they work the curbs), but some are 200 percent illegal (because they don’t bother to get licensed in the first place). Winston says police don’t cite the unlicensed vans, which eat into his business, but do go after the licensed ones for the curb infractions. “The law gets made up as you go along,” Winston says, adding that the pink cellphone ad on the van is both an attempt to make a little money as he cruises up and down Flatbush, and a trial balloon to see whether there’s a specific law prohibiting advertising on the vans. Later, one of the 500 or so completely illegal vans pulls up beside him, and in friendly Jamaican patois, Winston accuses the driver of being a terrorist. “It’s not like I hate against them. But I’m running a business and they’re running a hustle,” he says.

More here and here.

I saw something similar when I lived in Chinatown in Manhattan: each morning and evening there were dozens of minibuses, most without any marking in English, taking passengers too and from… I didn’t know where. I just looked them up, and found this yelp review of a service that runs to Flushing.

Takeaway? Informality blooms everywhere, with varying degrees. Public services are complemented by private ones. Everybody hustles.

The other thing I learned came when we were talking about television. I mentioned that telenovelas are shockingly popular in Kenya and Uganda. These are Spanish-language soap operas, terribly dubbed over in English, and broadcast by a South African station (so I assume the shows have an audience elsewhere on the continent). I’ve seen La Tormenta and En Nombre del Amor on Kenyan TV, but I know there are others. Here’s the new thing I learned: apparently India has its own soap operas, mostly in Hindi. They have a similar style — dramatic twists, ridiculous overacting, etc.

Takeaway? Not sure. But I find it interesting that this format seems to work across countries. Does anyone know anything about soap operas as a cultural phenomenon? Even more so, as a cross-cultural phenomenon? I’d curious how they differ across countries, why the Spanish telenovelas are so popular in East Africa, and whether a country like India develops its own for cultural reasons, or just because of market size.

Overdue followup on the roots and webs post

Several folks chimed in on last month’s post about complexity and traditional views of causality. They offered a few links that I have just now gotten around to checking out. (Apologies — it’s been a long month of moving, job hunting, etc.)

I wanted to share a few of the interesting ones:

1. Harry Jones from ODI pointed to a very useful briefing paper from 2011 that lays out the 4-page version of how implementing agencies can react to complexity. Worth checking out even if you have merely a passing interest in the topic. If it leaves you wanting more, Jones also linked to a much longer working paper from 2008 that he co-authored with Ben Ramalingam and others. The latter brings a thorough and systematic framework to understanding what complexity science means for development/aid.

(By the way: Both papers struck me as vaguely familiar — like I read them long ago, incorporated elements into my thinking, and then dropped them from consciousness. For this reason, I’ve started using Evernote again. For those without a similar tool, I highly recommend it.)

2. Pascal Venier pointed me to Robert Geyer and Samir Rihani’s Complexity and Public Policy: A New Approach for Politics, Policy and Society — a recent book whose title is pretty self-explanatory. Looks like it even has multiple chapters on international relations and development. I haven’t read it yet, but hope to soon.

3. Jaime Faustino from the Asia Foundation pointed me to a book (available online) on institutional reforms in the Philippines. The book uses case studies to articulate an operational model of “development entrepreneurship” (a phrase I find a bit grating due to the general overuse of the word “entrepreneurship” — but that’s not their fault). The model seeks to combine technical and political analysis with political action, and to find a way for international organizations to support local leaders in the latter. Interesting stuff.

Got any more? Do share. I can’t always read or respond in depth when people post links or email, but I love to get pointers to new resources and share them with others.

No Ordinary Elections

IRIN News has done a multimedia documentary on Kenya’s upcoming elections. It includes interviews with a variety of civic leaders, activists and artists. Worth checking out. The introductory video is below. Go to the site itself for other videos and resources. (The interview with John Githongo is especially good.)


The other resources on the site include a conflict map (below) highlighting inter-communal conflict over the past year. The general opinion among Kenyans I talk to is that next month’s election won’t bring the same level of violence as 2007-2008, largely because political elites don’t think they can get away with instigating it again. However, there will still be interethnic violence springing from community/county-level conflicts. Devolution may even be making this worse, as ethnic groups vie for control over county governments and the accompanying resources.

(Hat-tip Valentina Baú.)

Forget about roots and embrace the webs: What complexity means for our traditional views on causality

Our tools for identifying cause-and-effect in the world are matched by a particular view of how causality works. Ideas from complexity theory are forcing us to update our views on causality, so our tools must be updated as well. Before getting to the updates, I want to start with some of the tools used under a more traditional, linear, and simple view of causality.

Old tools 1: Root causes and growth diagnostics

There’s a process used by many consultants called root cause analysis. The basic structure works like so: Start with whatever problem you want to solve, then break it into constituent parts and causes. Go down another level, breaking those causes into their own causes. Keep going until you hit the “root cause” — and you’ve found the thing you need to address.

Many years ago, I worked for a consulting firm that applied this analysis to particular organizations and their management’s concerns. At this relatively simple and self-contained level, it’s a useful tool. The inputs were both qualitative (e.g. interviews with executives) and quantitative (e.g. benchmarking data). The analytical process was largely inductive. The output was displayed visually as a tree diagram. It looked something like this:

Root cause or growth diagnostics?


Except that this particular diagram came from a slightly different sort of analysis.

A few years after that consulting work, I found myself in grad school learning about growth diagnostics in international development. This approach shares a fundamental insight with the root cause analysis that I had used before, which is this: there may be many shortcomings in an economic system, but growth faces certain binding constraints which should get priority for reforms. The concept of binding constraints isn’t revolutionary — think of bottlenecks in a production process — but creating a framework for applying it to entire economies turns it into a very powerful tool.

One strength of growth diagnostics is that it considers each case individually. The approach is often held in contrast to the one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions of the Washington Consensus. Like root cause analysis, growth diagnostics brings order to the problem in question and guides our thinking on possible solutions.

However, it is still largely a one-way, top-down exercise. Dani Rodrik described a successful diagnostics exercise as, “moving downwards in the decision tree, rather than upwards or sideways.” And in a growth diagnostics handbook, Hausmann et al. noted that:

Growth diagnostics goes from a very aggregate outcome, such as the growth rate of an economy, to its potential causes. As such, it is a top-down approach. (20)

Keep in mind that this is a root cause analysis diagram, and as such should be read from top to bottom, and not side to side or from the bottom up. (56)

(Emphasis mine.)

It starts from the big problem, then moves down to its causes. Only then are solutions considered. Another paper Rodrik wrote on the topic encapsulated this thinking in the title: “Diagnostics before Prescription.”

This top-down thinking is a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it orders the analysis in a convenient and ultimately powerful way. However, there’s no reason to think that a binding constraint, once identified, will yield to any policy or programmatic efforts. I saw the same thing when applying root cause analysis to organizations.

At the scale of national economies, political interests are frequently responsible for the binding constraints. Hausman et al. acknowledged this, but offered little guidance on how the diagnostics approach should deal with it. Diagnostics is generally focused on economic factors. You could extend the same type of analysis into political factors, but then it would be individuals and interest groups who are at fault. The analysis could no longer remain technocratic as the conclusions become contentious and (surprise) political.

For example: Suppose you traced one cause of low growth to high transportation costs, which are due to poor infrastructure in most areas. And further suppose that the poor infrastructure was due to political elites favoring other areas, or corrupt officials/contractors siphoning off money. Those problems won’t yield to mere policy fixes. And I guarantee that analysis won’t be gratefully received by national leaders who were simply waiting to have their eyes opened to the problem.

These are the weaknesses of growth diagnostics: lack of policy guidance and inability to grapple with politics.

Old tools 2: Intervention points and RCTs

Fortunately, the backers of growth diagnostics don’t claim that it’s the final word in analysis. The Hausmann et al. piece called diagnostics a “natural complement” to the more bottom-up approach of cost-benefit analysis on particular projects or policies. And in another piece, Rodrik called for pluralism, admonishing development economists for often believing in the “one right way” — whether a universal fix or a universal way of learning.

For example, he described how the “macro” of growth diagnostics relates to the “micro” of randomized control trials:

Ideally, diagnostics and randomized experiments should be complementary; in particular, diagnostics should guide the choice of which random experiments are worth undertaking. Any developmental failure has hundreds of potential causes. If the intervention that is evaluated is not a candidate for remedying the most important of these causes, it does not pass a simple test of relevance. (16)

I like how Rodrik framed the relationship between the two methods. Diagnostics starts with the big problem and works downwards, seeking root causes and areas for possible solutions. On the other hand, RCTs start with interventions and work upwards, rigorously testing their impacts on bigger problems. If growth diagnostics seeks root causes, then the parallel concept for RCTs could be called intervention points.

When the dust settles, those two should be exactly the same: we’re looking for interventions at the root causes of poverty, poor health outcomes, hunger, and more. As a framework, intervention points strikes me as more intuitively useful than root causes — ultimately we’re interested in impact, bettering lives, doing things — but let’s keep in mind that these are basically one and the same.

The strength of RCTs is that they pin down these intervention points with a large degree of certainty. The method does this by controlling for all factors other than the intervention being tested. Those other factors are stripped away in the analysis. That leaves us with a pretty clear idea about the causality for that intervention point. However, causality isn’t the same as explanation. While establishing an intervention’s causality is helpful in some regards, it doesn’t tell us much about whether we should replicate that intervention in another context. To answer that question, we need to understand how and why it worked. We need an explanation. Some RCT proponents claim that repeating the study in different contexts will bolster the external validity of the results, but there’s increasing recognition that RCTs must be matched with other methods.

Political factors pose a major challenge to RCTs as well. Even for relatively straightforward interventions, local politics have the potential to cause unintended consequences that would confound measurement of the results. For explicitly political interventions, the situation is even worse, as contextual factors become central to the program’s execution and impacts.

So even if we pin down one causal consequence at an intervention point, we still lack certainty about other consequences and what they mean for the intervention’s applicability to another context.

The challenge: Politics, complexity, and the rootlessness of causality

Both RCTs and growth diagnostics share a blind-spot when it comes to politics. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, as these methods are promoted by economists. There’s also a much deeper shortcoming that these two approaches share. The complementary nature of diagnostics and RCTs lies in their symmetry (top-down vs. bottom-up) as well as their simplifying tendency: both strip away the complexities of reality in an effort to isolate certain factors.

This is highlighted in the very term root cause. We use this term all the time, but no one really believes that the causality behind something can be traced back to a single root. Not for a specific event, and certainly not for complex social phenomena. Not only are causes multiple, but feedback loops make them circular: poverty is caused by lack of education is caused by government failure is caused by low government capacity is caused by lack of tax base is caused by poverty. We went from poverty back to poverty in five steps. That chain could also include health outcomes, agricultural production, violent conflict, or countless other factors. (NB: The negative framing doesn’t matter to this. You could do a positive version too: increased earning potential is caused by better nutrition is caused by new seed varieties — and so on.)

If you were to display this visually, it wouldn’t be a tree with roots. It would be a web. Actually, it would be a multidimensional mish-mash of overlapping feedback loops and tenuous but very real causal links between countless ill-defined nodes.

In fact, it might look something like this:

afghanistan stability-coin dynamics


In 2010, this chart quickly became emblematic of the US military’s reliance on PowerPoint. The New York Times ran it under the headline, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.”

More importantly, for our purposes, it underscored the complexity of US engagement in Afghanistan. The full version of the slide deck is even more bewildering. General McChrystal saw it and noted: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” We all laughed about this muddled depiction of the Afghanistan conflict. Although in our honest moments, we silently worried that even this diagram was a simplification.

Yet none of this stops academics, advocates and journalists alike from discussing social problems as if causality were linear and identifiable. Find your own examples: just google the phrase, “root cause of…” followed by your favorite social issue or topical news story (e.g. HIV epidemic, financial crisis, Syrian conflict, whatever). Our language gets especially confused when we refer to something as being “both a root cause and a consequence.”

As I said above, what we’re really looking for are intervention points rather than root causes. But while that framing is more future-oriented, it still assumes that an intervention will have known consequences. In a complex causal web, that’s not a valid assumption. In the real world, causality doesn’t work like that.

Of course, there’s utility in the simplifying approaches of growth diagnostics and RCTs. All methodologies simplify the world to make it understandable, just as all narratives emphasize certain elements of the story while excluding others. In some situations, that simplification offers us enough to act. The critical step is to be cognizant of the limits of our knowledge — to know what we do not know. Methodological pluralism is needed for that. It must extend beyond diagnostics, RCTs, and even economics. We need other tools as well.

New tools: Grappling with a complex causal web

The world is incredibly complex. I could tell you that it’s “more complex” or “changing more rapidly” than ever before, but I don’t think that’s true. Pundits and consultants waive their hands and say “increasing complexity!” because it sounds cool and because it frightens audiences and clients into coughing up the cash. I’ve seen no evidence that this idea is anything more than chronocentrism at work.

Yet the world is still incredibly complex. It’s just as complex as it’s always been. The difference now is that we have more tools to grapple with that web of complex causality. We are complexity-enabled in ways that we never were before.

The tools fall into five broad categories:

1. Availability of data: Digital interactions have dramatically increased the amount of data available for analysis. Major corporations that do a lot of business online have the most, due to customer purchases and behavior. Other companies and organizations will catch up eventually. A lot of claims have been made for how Big Data will revolutionize analysis. However, it doesn’t seem like there are accepted methodologies for analyzing Big Data yet, so availability alone might not be enough. Big Data might lead to research risks like cherry-picking, false precision, stripped caveats, or a technocratic veneer on deeply political results. Still, Big Data has potential.

2. Processing power: I won’t belabor this point, since growth in computing power is a well-known phenomenon. The complexity-enabling aspect is that researchers can process the Big Data, and also build more detailed and nuanced models of reality. There is also a human side to increased processing power due to communication systems. Just as better computer chips allow faster digital data processing, better communication systems allow faster human data processing. Learning ultimately results from human and organizational processes. Computers crunch numbers but only people can give them meaning. We do that best through discourse with other people, and communications technologies are making that easier.

3. Interdisciplinary approaches: Methodological pluralism within economics is gaining ground, and so are interdisciplinary approaches. Whereas previously we relied on the different disciplines to strip away complexity on their own narrow topics of interest, now we see that the walls between disciplines are very porous and that this allows us to grapple more directly with complexity. Physicists are helping to explain traffic jams, design thinking is tackling international development problems, and the entire Freakanomics franchise is built around the application of economic methods to other topics. Collaboration across fields is yielding new possibilities for understanding the complexity we face (though improvements in university structures and funding could accelerate this).

4. Analytical frameworks: Complexity science itself offers a powerful lens. Concepts like emergent properties, feedback loops, and non-linearity help us understand events like the Arab Spring or shifts in ecosystems. As the complexity lens is applied to more problems and situations, we may see new analytical frameworks that incorporate complexity concepts. We’re already seeing this in disaster preparedness/recovery with the idea of resilience, which may have its own frameworks as it matures. In development more generally, maybe we’ll see a replacement for the dominant logical-framework, which is so ill-suited for describing complex programs.

5. Organizational and operational models: The last piece of this will be new ways of doing things — which is what this was all about in the first place. Some early efforts are underway. For example, Owen Barder and Ben Ramalingam describe cash-on-delivery aid as a complexity-aware approach; though I disagree with them on whether COD aid qualifies, the point here is that complexity thinking can change the way we address problems. Another example: promoting resilience may also involve new ways of organizing government or civic associations, or new funding mechanisms for recovery.

Some of these tools are in place, while others are still progressing. We’re leaving behind the days when a simple view of causality was the norm. These changes will cut across sectors. A new paradigm is emerging for international development in particular, with elements from the old one and influences from other fields being integrated. We’re developing the tools that will open our eyes and let us see the world as it is. Once we do that, there’s no telling what it will mean for our understanding and our impact.


Related posts on Find What Works:

A few links on Big Data for Development

The idea of Big Data for Development (or “BD4D” — you saw it here first, I’m coining it update: um, nevermind.) seems to be gaining momentum. The practice of mining large datasets has been around in private business for a while, as large corporations use sales records or other data to better understand customer behavior. I’ve voiced my skepticism about how quickly these practices will transfer over to contexts of low connectivity, computer literacy, automation and organizational investment.

However, even if those barriers and data quality issues are overcome, it sounds like others have serious concerns about the principles and political implications of BD4D. Here are a few links I’ve gathered while brushing up on the subject:

  1. Big data and development: “The second half of the chess board” — Wolfgang Fengler sounds a hopeful note for the potential of BD4D.
  2. Lies, Damned Lies and Big Data — David Hales issues a warning that the rush to use Big Data may be “data rich” but “theory poor” — with scientific as well as ethical and political implications.
  3. Big Data for Development: From Information to Knowledge Societies? — Patrick Meier reviews a recent academic paper and its conceptual framework, but worries about the de-politicizing nature of Big Data Analysis.
  4. Beware the Big Errors of ‘Big Data’ — Not about development specifically, but Nassim Taleb warns about the dangers of cherry-picking: “Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.”
  5. Big Data for Development: Challenges & Opportunities — A paper from UN Global Pulse. I’ll confess that I haven’t read it in detail yet. From a quick skim, it’s probably a useful resource. However, it looks like it stops short of discussing the political implications. (h/t Monitoring and Evaluation News)

What I learnt from looking behind The Global Journal’s Top 100 NGO ranking

[Note from Dave: The following is a cross-post from Tobias Denskus’s excellent blog, Aidnography. Given my critiques of the Global Journal’s Top 100 NGO list, I thought it only fair to host an alternate take. Many thanks to Tobias for sharing this.]

It is probably fair to say that The Global Journal’s Top 100 NGO ranking had a bit of a bumpy start. When it launched the first edition in 2012, Dave Algoso’s critical post and editor Jean-Christophe Nothias’ harsh critique quickly dominated the virtual perception in the aid blogosphere. So when the second edition was published in January 2013, vaguely hinting at “innovation, impact and sustainability” as key new criteria to assess NGOs, I was sceptical and mentally preparing for more critical comments. Luckily, the researcher in me won over the potentially ranting aid blogger and I sent out some messages to a variety of organizations featured in the ranking as well as the editorial team asking for more details on process and methodology. I received open and positive feedback all around and one 20 page methodology paper, a couple of email exchanges and a 25 minute phone conversation with one NGO later, a much more nuanced picture had emerged about the ranking, learning processes and the space for discussions the ranking could facilitate further.

The Global Journal did its homework
The background paper (“Evaluating non-governmental organisations – An overview of The Global Journal’s Top 100 NGOs methodology in 2013″ by researcher Cecilia Cannon, currently based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva) basically consists of two parts. The first part is a more conventional and broader political science analysis about conceptualizing NGOs and evaluation of NGO work. In my academic opinion, this part focuses a bit too much on “traditional” organizations and well-known global civil society debates which does not take the range of innovative organizations into consideration that the actual ranking features. Acumen Fund, Wikimedia Foundation or Root Capital do not really fit into traditional NGO categories and it would be interesting to discuss some of the broader philanthropical changes further.

The second part engages more specifically with the ranking and its criteria and sets the tone on the first page:

By clearly articulating what each criterion is based upon and developing a more focused overall scope of analysis, The Global Journal sought to better address this challenge in 2013. Like any study, there are limitations and room for alterations to the methodology. (p.10)

My main question for this post was how well the methodology corresponds with the aims and objectives of the ranking to “showcase diversity”, “evaluate NGOs comparatively”, “stimulate constructive debate” and “present a range of good NGO practice”. All in all, I believe that the ranking addresses these issues well and with the right mixture of “hard facts” and the necessary openness when addressing contested or hard to define terms like “impact”. I will comment more in detail on the process in the next paragraph, taking NGOs perceptions into consideration as well.

Every theme comes with clearly defined sub-categories and a scale which all contribute to a weighted final score. To me, this looks like good practice for establishing a ranking and Cecilia Cannon also identified some ways to improve them further:

Assessing an NGO on an ordinal scale of 1-20, for example, presents the challenge of differentiating between 20 possible scores against criteria that require some level of qualitative judgement. A smaller scale for scoring would enable less scope for subjective inconsistencies. This would improve the quality of future evaluations and would enable independent reviewers to potentially replicate the results when using the same criteria for evaluation. (p.17)

Most importantly at this point is that The Global Journal clearly asked for external advice, is open for discussions and seems willing to fine-tune its methodology further, given that there will never be such a thing as a “perfect ranking”.

The view from the NGOs: “It felt like a grant application.”
I selected a random sample of 11 organizations from across the ranking, controlling for size, “brand recognition” and location.

Until today, I have received 5 responses (2 large international, 1 medium-sized & 2 small NGOs). Again, these were open and friendly exchanges and a picture seems to emerge as to the amount of information that those organizations turned over to The Global Journal:

They requested a fair amount of due diligence information regarding [the organization], similar to what funders frequently request of us, including financials, our impact data, annual reports, etc. (small NGO A)

We were asked to deliver rather detailed information and documentation based on two questionnaires. The material included all parts of the operation as well as all annual reports – budgets, staff, donors, concrete operations, strategies, accountability set up etc. (medium-sized NGO)

[T]his year’s nomination e-mail did include a link to a lengthy online questionnaire (I don’t have a copy of this, but it should still be online), and a shorter PDF questionnaire (attached). We politely explained that we did not have time to fill out the questionnaires, and referred them to the answers we provided them for the 2012 edition, and to the fairly extensive information publicly available on our website and in our annual report. We also provided them with a selection of photos that they requested. (large NGO A)

Balancing the needs for thorough information with the time commitments of organization is certainly an issue (“it was a week worth of work” (small NGO B) and one of the biggest challenges seems to be to think about how to treat large global players and small local organizations fairly – even if that means that they may be treated slightly differently with regards to the requirements for information. But more importantly at this point, there were no questions about the rigor of the process and everybody noticed the changes compared to the first ranking process.

“The ranking really helped us in gaining international legitimacy and more global exposure.”
In my long conversation with one small organization I really felt that this is a key aspect of the exercise. For well-known global organizations the inclusion in the ranking is probably just one small add-on to their communications strategy and the impact on funding will probably be small at best. But smaller, innovative organizations really seem to get something valuable out of the exercise which for them was the equivalent of a “grant application” or “external evaluation” in terms of time and staff commitment. After last year’s inclusion, the organization was invited to an international conference and introduced as an “expert” in their area and further networking and publishing opportunities arose as well. Future rankings and research may show how smaller organizations also benefit in more tangible ways if they continue to be among the “world’s best” NGOs.

Personal learning: Looking behind the headline pays off as many things are indeed more complicated in development
I am really glad that I made the effort to reach out to The Global Journal and some of the organizations featured in the ranking. Judged against its self-proclaimed aims, the ranking is delivering on many accounts. If the process continues to be treated seriously and at the same time as an opportunity for discussion and learning for the aid community, Cecilia Cannon’s conclusion that:

The Global Journal has made a serious effort to continue to develop and implement a considered and consistent approach. (p.19)

may help to establish the “Top 100 NGO ranking” as a household resource with an approach that many in the aid industry could agree on after its bumpy start.


TobiasDenskusTobias Denskus is a post-doctoral development anthropologist interested in peacebuilding, the ritualisation of aid professionalism & the impact of social media on policy-making and reflective writing. Follow him on twitter or find more of his writing at Aidnography.

Monitoring and complexity

Commenting on a paper about monitoring, Rick Davies notes:

Complexity theory writers seem to give considerable emphasis to the idea of constant change and substantial unpredictability of complex adaptive systems (e.g. most human societies). Yet surprisingly enough we find more writings on complexity and evaluation than we do on complexity and monitoring. …

This imbalance is strange because monitoring typically happens more frequently and looks at smaller units of time, than evaluation. You would think its use would be more suited to complex projects and settings.

Good point. Davies goes on to say that big businesses have started using data mining and analytical tools to better understand customer behavior and preferences. The implicit question is: Why not development organizations? Surely, we face the same level of complexity as, say, a bank or an online retailer.

There’s a lot of value in the idea that Big Data will transform how organizations analyze, understand, and respond to their context. But in the low connectivity and low computer literacy contexts where many NGOs and social enterprises operate, taking advantage of Big Data requires prohibitively high levels of organizational investment. We’re years away from making use of it for daily or even annual decision-making. If we want to apply complexity thinking to development implementation — rather than just research and evaluation — then we need to learn how to monitor and establish feedback loops in a context of complexity but Little Data.

For some insight on that, the paper that Davies posted includes this quote from another source:

The key to learning is not analytical method, but organisational process; and the central methodological concern is not with the isolation of variables or the control of bureaucratic deviations from plans, but with effectively engaging with the necessary participation of system members in contributing to the collective knowledge of the system.

(Emphasis added.)

That line was written in 1981, long before all our talk about complexity in development contexts. It’s still relevant today.

Once again with the top NGOs list?

A year ago, something called the Global Journal published a list of the top 100 best NGOs. It was a terrible idea, as I described at the time in a post titled: “Lies, damned lies, and ranking lists: The Top 100 Best NGOs” (sometimes I have the subtlety of an after-school special). My objection was not so much to their methodology (because they had no methodology to speak of) but rather to the fact that they made the list at all. I don’t believe there’s a legitimate or sensible way to rank NGOs, and I don’t believe that attempts to do so are a net positive for the social sector.

I do believe the rankings are a net positive for the organizations that can tout their rankings and for the publication that ranks them — at the expense of the broader marketplaces for social funding and ideas.

I ended my piece last year with advice for this year’s list: don’t do it. The only response I got to my criticism was a confused and rambling comment from GJ’s editor. I guess ultimately they ignored my advice, because they just released the 2013 list. Sort of. The list itself is only accessible if you purchase the magazine. From the website, there’s little evidence that the methodology has improved. Given the lack of transparency last time and the fact that the whole thing is behind a paywall now, I’m not hopeful that anything is different.

From twitter conversations, it seems that the winners have been notified. They are starting to publicize their rankings. As I said last year, I don’t blame them one bit. I’m happy to see that the NGO topping the charts has questioned the rankings and discussed alternatives on its blog, though the organization’s main site still brags about the result.

In all aspects of life, simple ranked lists are alluring. They allow us to outsource our own judgment. But there are better ways to highlight good work and educate the general public on which organizations are worth supporting.

Pritchett, feedback loops, and the accountability conundrum

Last week I attended a seminar given by Lant Pritchett at the Center for Global Development where he discussed his new working paper (co-authored with Salimah Samji and Jeffrey Hammer), “It’s all about MeE: Using Structured Experiential Learning (‘e’) to Crawl the Design Space.” Thoughts and ideas have been bouncing around in my mind since, so thanks to Dave for giving me some space on his blog so I can get them out of my head and move on with my life.

There first three-quarters of the paper or so could be considered a detailed problem statement. Prtichett and his co-authors note that even development projects that seem simple have numerous different design parameters. Using the example of conditional cash transfers (CCT), they identify 11 different parameters, including who is eligible, the size of the transfer, the frequency of the transfer, etc. And they rightly note that these different parameters can interact with each other, sometimes in non-linear ways.

They argue this is a problem for rigorous impact evaluation (RIE) because an evaluation can only tell you whether a specific combination of design parameters is effective, but doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about other programs designed using a different combination of parameters. Since RIEs are expensive and slow, they can only be used to test a very small number of the possible combinations.

To address this problem, Pritchett lays out a process called structured experiential learning (“e”) that is designed to provide rapid feedback to a program team on what combinations of design parameters are working and not working. This would allow the team to “crawl the program design” space in order to find the most effective implementation strategies. (Caveat: There’s a lot more to the paper, and I am simplifying a great deal.)

So far so good, I am big believer in creating more rapid feedback loops to inform program implementation. I have told my own colleagues on many occasions that what we need on a given project is lot more “M” and not to worry so much about the “E”. Other terms like “evaluative thinking” and the older term “reflective practice” get at similar ideas.

The paper rightly notes that this sets up a tension between the desire to allow programs to learn and adapt on the one hand, and the need for accountability on the other. One person’s adaptation is another person’s flailing about doing whatever they want. Pritchett tries to square this circle through a seven step process that describes what “e” might look like in practice. In Step 4 of this process, the implementer would identify ex ante key design parameters. He uses the example of a teacher training program with three key design parameters: 1) location of the training; 2) content of the training; 3) frequency of the follow-up. In the example, each of these paramaters has two alternatives. As the project is implemented, monitoring information would be analyzed to decide which alternative is superior for each of these parameters and the program would shift implementation toward that alternative.

This is where I get troubled. My concern is that Pritchett is shying away from the implications of his own argument. As noted, in the CCT example, he identified 11 different parameters that can interact with each other in non-linear ways. It is hard to imagine how an ex ante specification of key design choices could do justice to this complexity (even for a relatively simple program). More importantly, it seems entirely contingent on whether or not key design choices are knowable ex ante. The very metaphor of “crawling” a design space implies an exploration. We may only learn about key design parameters as the program is being implemented. Moreover, the design space itself is not static. As a concrete example: a grantmaking program I designed for Sudan had to be radically re-designed as the result of new violence in South Kordofan. The important point here is not that this violence was impossible to predict, as many did predict it. Rather, the issue is that the new violence was not a design parameter. It was a complex reordering of the context in which the project was being implemented.

At the seminar I raised this issue and Pritchett responded that the recommendation to identify key design parameters ex ante should be seen as a practical compromise, an effort to provide a means for donors to allow some exploration while providing them enough assurance that they are still holding implementers accountable. Fair enough. Progress requires compromise. But a nagging feeling remains that if this strategy were actually adopted it would just set up another artificial exercise that fails to acknowledge the real complexity of project contexts and that remains out of synch with the way programs are actually implemented.

I have zeroed in on this issue of adaptation versus accountability because it is one I wrestle with every day. I work in peacebuilding where, as my Sudan example illustrates, adaptation is necessary. But funders of peacebuilding programs still require accountability. When I work with my colleagues on program design, I do push them to develop a clear story regarding how they think the project will work. This sometimes takes the form of a logframe, but the format is less important than the fact that a clear logic has been worked out. I also tell my colleagues that this project logic should not be seen as a prediction of the future, but instead as a distillation of all their current knowledge and assumptions (this is not an original idea, but I have forgotten where I first heard it). As their knowledge changes and as their assumptions are disrupted, their project logic and their project design should change as well.

But the issue remains, how can accountability be maintained in these circumstances? My proposal is that we give up on ex ante efforts to create structures for future accountability, such as logframes that organizations are accountable to at the end of a program, and shift to providing evidence-based, ex post accounts of program implementation. That we shift from, “we did what we promised,” to, “what we did makes sense and here’s why.” Interestingly, this brings us closer to the original meaning of accountability – the requirement that one provide an account of one’s actions.

The question arises here, what remains constant? For a project to be a project, to have an identity, there must be some constant that remains as the project adapts and evolves. Pritchett’s paper is a follow-up to his earlier work on Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). I would argue that it is the problem that remains constant as the project evolves. Reducing corruption in the police force in South Sudan, for instance, is a well-defined problem. This problem that can stay constant as a project evolves over time in an effort to learn the best ways to address corruption.

Under the strategy I am proposing, the project team would then provide an evidence-based accounting for how the anti-corruption project evolved, including why such an evolution created superior results for reducing corruption compared to alternative approaches. Requirements for rigor under this strategy would be the same as under existing strategies, it’s just that the evidence collected would be deployed in different ways.

I am just beginning to think through the implications of such a strategy and I’m sure there are many, many issues that I have not considered. I am very interested in what others think, both how feasible such a strategy might be, as well as whether there are examples of such a strategy being implemented already, either formally, or through more informal interactions between donors and implementers. In other words, is this already happening, but just can’t be openly acknowledged?

Andy Blum is the Director of Learning and Evaluation at the US Institute of Peace. He can be reached at ablum@usip.org or @alb202.

Complexity, politics and management — upcoming posts

My number one piece of advice for new bloggers: Write whatever you would want to read if you weren’t writing it. Later on, you can worry about things like your writing style, scope, target audience, blog layout, etc. But to get yourself started, you have to stick with what you’re interested in writing and make a habit of it.

Well friends, I’ve fallen out of the habit recently. As the year starts, I’ll try taking my own advice in the hopes of getting back into it.

My professional and intellectual interests have always hovered around politicsmanagement and complexity, so I’m trying to focus my writing on those topics over the next few months. My current job offers a lot of food for thought, especially at the micro-level (individual manager or organization) but also at the system-level (aid sector, governmental, international, etc.). I won’t discuss my work directly though. My goal is to learn and process as much as share. I hope the result is interesting.

(Why am I telling you that I’ll be writing about this? Commitment mechanism! Some people start the new year by paying for a 6-month gym membership. I start by telling everyone that I’ll be blogging more. Let’s hope this works better than most people’s gym memberships.)

To kick things off, here’s a brain dump of ill-formed thoughts on the topic. I claim none of them as original.

  • Decision-making in situations of complexity requires checking our biases and also understanding nuance, which can be accomplished only through quantitative data that is informed qualitative data.
  • Induction is as important as deduction.
  • Intuition is unreliable without regular prior experience in similar situations — which is unlikely in a context of complexity.
  • Frequent communication among colleagues/partners is critical, as is direct contact with one another’s work (i.e. get out of the office to see what’s actually happening).
  • People management is hardest: select the right people and then macro-manage them. Give them flexibility within a framework.
  • Micromanaging tends to trickle down. Avoid it.
  • You get what you measure. But because what you measure is never more than a proxy for what you want, evaluation systems must be rigorous yet dynamic.
  • Pay attention to accountability relationships, types of accountability, and networks of accountability.
  • Death-by-committee and the heartbeat principle: In complex situations, it’s easy for individuals/organizations to avoid accountability (just look at US politics). Unless there is one person who is responsible for it (whose heartbeat depends on it) then it won’t happen.
  • Design feedback loops with selection processes.
  • There are no root causes. At best, there are points of leverage.

That’s all for now. You’ll see a guest post soon that relates to these questions, specifically on the topic of feedback loops and accountability. More coming after that.


Related reading: See Ben Ramalingam’s excellent blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos or Owen Barder’s blog, both of which cover these topics frequently. Or check out any of the following past posts on Find What Works:

Could Puerto Rico be 51?

Early Wednesday morning, my social media feeds were full of comments and links on various political topics: The presidential race, of course. The various ballot measures on gay marriage, marijuana and other issues. The historically high — but still pathetically low — number of women who will be in the US Senate next year. And because my friends are huge nerds, there was a lot of commentary on the eerily accurate predictions of Nate Silver, who is suspected of witchcraft but probably just paid attention in math class (while the future FoxNews team sat in the back, doodling on their desks).

Yet despite the help of my tweeps and facebook friends, I completely missed one major election story until just now: Puerto Rico voted on whether it wants to become one of these United States.

The Caribbean archipelago is currently a territory of the United States. Its residents are citizens but have very limited representation in DC. Puerto Rico has had a statehood movement for decades, but this is the first time that a popular referendum has endorsed it. The referendum is not a clear-cut endorsement though: first, 54% endorsed changing the current status; then, in a separate question about what the new status should be, “statehood” garnered 61% out of those who responded to that question — but a third of voters didn’t select an option in that second question, perhaps because they were among those who didn’t want to change status in the first place. So in reality, less than half of those who cast ballots chose statehood.

But never you mind. As we’ve already established, journalists are not highly numerate. Hence the headlines that read:

…and also…

So that’s going to be the takeaway. What’s the practical upshot? My reaction to this runs along two lines.

1. HistoricalAdding a new state can be messy, to say the least. The US expanded constantly during its first century, though often that expansion was brutal and violent. After about a century as an independent nation we split in two, but a bloody civil war maintained the union. We kept adding states regularly until New Mexico and Arizona joined in 1912. Then we took a break until 1959, when we added two more: Alaska and Hawaii. In the half-century since, we’ve held constant at 50.

Today, the expansion of the European Union is peaceful, unlike much of the continent’s history. However, their union might be on shaky fiscal ground. Despite America’s many political disagreements and overall dismal financial situation, at least there’s little doubt that it’ll hold together. So if the Europeans are expanding, why shouldn’t we? Political and economic union has proven one of the greatest engines for prosperity. As long as people want to join, I say we keep it up.

2. Political: In a given moment, history is politics. And it’s the politics of today that will determine whether Puerto Rico actually becomes a state. Congress would have to approve Puerto Rico’s entrance into the union. The politics of that probably depend on which party expects to benefit. Who would win Puerto Rico’s two Senate seats and projected five House seats? And how would Puerto Ricans vote in presidential elections? Republicans know they aren’t too popular with Hispanic and Latino voters. The GOP might be wary of admitting another blue state, but they might be even more worried about further alienating a growing demographic. Meanwhile, Obama has already stated that he will support what the people of Puerto Rico want.

It looks like there might be few opponents to this. But of course, politics is always more complicated than that. Stay tuned, because it’ll be interesting no matter what, and our flag might soon look like this:

Now… how can we squeeze in a 52nd star for DC?

/ / misc

Watching the US election from Kenya

I’m watching election coverage with a few expat friends and colleagues in Nairobi this morning. We’re switching between MSNBC and BBC — where the Brits are having quite a hoot trying to explain the Electoral College. I’ve struggled to explain the same to my Kenyan colleagues. We talk about the US election quite a lot in Nairobi.

For the last week, I’ve actually been toying with the idea of writing a piece on how Kenyans see the US election. Fortunately, someone more qualified already wrote that piece. Here is The Nation’s Murithi Mutiga writing for the New York Times:

The local press has been extolling Mr. Obama’s virtues and offering detailed appraisals of his first term in florid terms that would not be out of place in a Democratic Party convention speech: “Who killed Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq, got the affordable health care act signed, got the credit card consumer registration passed, fought for equal work, equal pay for women and more?” asked one analyst in Kenya’s largest paper, The Nation.

Yet this bullish assessment has been accompanied by puzzlement at how the right wing of the Republican Party has transformed the president’s Kenyan roots into a toxic campaign issue.

Before the 2010 midterm elections, it was common to see placards calling for President Obama to be sent back to his “socialist village in Kenya” at Tea Party rallies.

We were bemused, to say the least. After all, Kenya is anything but a socialist haven. Since independence in 1963, Kenya has been America’s staunchest ally in East Africa.

It’s worth reading in full.

(h/t Sierra V.)

Charity contests: Crowd-sourcing, PR, or accountability punt?

[Note: This was an early post on the blog — from June 2010. I’ve been thinking about this issue recently and might post on it again soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d give this a re-post since the blog’s readership was in the single digits back when it first ran. Date references have not been updated. -DA]

Last year brought a deluge of online charity contests. It wasn’t a new concept but somehow it had suddenly gained traction. Innovative and hip, they were everywhere. Chase Community Giving Challenge was one of the first to make a splash, and Pepsi’s Refresh Everything seems to be the big one right now. Ideablob sought to fund both for-profit and nonprofit ideas (though it was shut down rather abruptly in November). Also worth mentioning is the twist that the Case Foundation put on its contest: America’s Giving Challenge sought to promote small philanthropy by judging competing nonprofits on the number of individual donations (of any size) they could gather, rather than simple votes.

There were also critiques. The Chase competition got a lot of flack for lack of transparency. Kjerstin Erickson posted on Social Edge last year with some sharp analysis on what the lack of information meant for the efficiency of entering contests — from the perspective of the nonprofits that are competing for funds. The costs to win are high, both in terms of staff time and contacts with an organization’s network. Of course, it can pay off for some. Atlas Service Corps is one example. It’s even gained notoriety for its ability to win contests. (Incidentally, the founder, Scott Beale, will be taking part in a Case Foundation chat about online contests later this week.) But I think concerns over efficiency are misdirected if they only focus on the costs to the nonprofits in the competition. From a nonprofit’s perspective, fundraising is only efficient or not compared to other methods of fundraising. There is always uncertainty in fundraising, forcing organizations to make educated guesses on how to spend their time.

I’m more interested in the impact of these contests on the allocative efficiency of the nonprofit market as a whole. This is a perpetual concern: while for-profit capital seeks the highest monetary returns, nonprofit funds attempt to generate non-monetary returns that are not easily comparable. How does the impact of an environmental conservation organization compare to the impact of an after-school sports program? This sort of problem makes it very difficult to allocate funds.

So the question becomes: Do such contests allocate funds efficiently? That is, are the best organizations with the best ideas really winning the contest? This isn’t meant as a critique of the winners. I’ve met Scott and many of the Atlas Corps fellows, and I agree that it’s a great organization. But it seems to me that contest winners are those organizations that are best at “getting out the vote” and rallying whatever supporters they have. It also helps to have an issue that resonates with the young, internet-savvy crowd that is predisposed to using Facebook and voting in such contests (I don’t recall many elder care organizations winning contests). This leads me to doubt that this form of crowd-sourcing can generate better decisions than a traditional philanthropic model in which program officers review grant applications.

Crowd-sourcing is only the idea used to justify the contests. There are other incentives at play. For corporate philanthropy, contests put the brand name in front of thousands of voters. And for donors of all kinds, it makes decision-making easier: you don’t have to answer the tough questions of which causes deserve money if you just let the people decide. The risk is that we weaken accountability by doing this, because neither the donors nor the voters are evaluating any real evidence about a candidate’s impact.

Am I missing something about these contests? Perhaps someone who is more intimately familiar with the philanthropic world can let me know what’s really going on here. I’d be especially curious to hear how the practice has evolved recently. With the exception of the Pepsi campaign, I feel like I haven’t heard much about these contests recently.

Complexity theory, adaptive leadership, and cash-on-delivery aid: one of these things is not like the others

How do you make decisions and manage resources in the face of complexity? It’s a tough nut to crack. Owen Barder recently wrote several blog posts on the implications of complexity theory for development. The whole series is highly recommended reading. I could write several more posts just highlighting all the great insights there, but instead I’m going to focus on my one gripe. (Cause I’m a blogger, and that’s just how we roll.)

First, a short and totally inadequate summary

The overall analytical framework of Barder’s posts resonates deeply. In short: Development is an emergent property from a complex adaptive system encompassing political, economic and social factors. Complexity theory implies that development policy can’t actually create development. Policymakers should instead take a more humble approach, emphasizing dynamic properties like experimentation and feedback. Barder laid out the basis for a “complexity-aware approach” to the results agenda that recognizes the need for adaptive management of complex interventions.

(Got it? Seriously, just go read his whole series — starting with What Is Development?)

But something is amiss…

Despite all the parts that I agree with, something bugs me about the third post in the series (co-authored with Ben Ramalingam). When it came time to lay out the practical implications of complexity theory, Barder and Ramalingam pointed to two ideas that the Center for Global Development (CGD) is supporting: Cash-on-Delivery (COD) Aid and Development Impact Bonds. It felt like a bait-and-switch.

I’ve written previously about my discomfort with COD aid. I think the approach treats a developing country government like a contractor. It increases the government’s accountability to the donor in a way that could greatly undermine whatever democratic accountability may exist between the government and its citizens. In response to my previous post, CGD’s Bill Savedoff argued that the transparency components of COD aid (e.g. publicly sharing the contract) will at least be better than current practice. That’s true. But I remain unconvinced that those components are inherent to cash-on-delivery. If donors and recipient governments were willing to agree to a real level of transparency, those components could be implemented as part of current practice.

One metric to rule them all

In my mind, the defining feature of COD aid is the use of a single metric to trigger disbursement. Before the contract is signed, the various actors involved must agree on a narrow, clearly defined, and measurable metric of success. Then they stake large amounts of money on that metric. This approach locks in the result being sought. The target can’t be changed later, or the whole process would lose legitimacy.

Development Impact Bonds (DIBs) take the COD aid concept a step further by bringing in another set of actors: private investors. Under COD aid, the developing country government fronts the resources needed, while expecting to get cash down the line. Under DIBs, the upfront resources come from private investors, who would then receive payout at the end. The accountability chains are a bit different in each and it will be interesting to see what role the private investors actually play, but the importance of the chosen metric remains the same in both approaches.

Embracing complexity… from a distance…

This is why I called it a bait-and-switch: pegging large sums of money to a single metric is the opposite of engaging with complexity. Rather than embracing complexity, these approaches seem to be avoiding it.

Barder and Ramalingam gave a few reasons why they think COD aid and DIBs are good complexity-aware approaches, including the following:

[COD aid and DIBs] avoid the need for an ex ante top-down plan, log-frame, budget or activities prescribed by donors. Because payment is linked only to results when they are achieved, developing countries are free to experiment, learn and adapt.

There is no attempt to follow money through the system to show which particular inputs and activities have been financed; it is important for governments to learn about whether certain activities are working, but it is futile for donors to speculate about the extent to which those changes would happen without them.

Reading these reasons, it seems like the benefit of these approaches is to absolve the donor of dealing with the complexity. Unfortunately, these approaches offer no guidance to the developing country government and their partners who are implementing under these frameworks. The work itself becomes no easier. Sure, the donor avoids a top-down plan, log-frame, etc. and no longer has to monitor activity as closely, but someone still has to plan and manage the efforts. Someone still has to budget, to put financial controls in place, to hire and evaluate staff, to ensure the effort achieves the pre-defined result — all within a context of complexity.

Adaptive leadership

Barder and Ramalingam offered general principles for what they call “results-enabled adaptive leadership” drawn from evolution theory: variation, an appropriate fitness function, and effective selection. In other contexts, they’ve written more about adaptive leadership (e.g. see this one from Ramalingam). I agree with most of what they have to say on the topic. Where I part ways with them is on the idea that COD aid and DIBs create the necessary environment for this type of leadership. I don’t see it. The agencies operating under one of those agreements would be free from certain donor constraints and reporting requirements, but they would also be locked into the One Big Metric with no flexibility in the goal. I’m not sure that’s a net-positive in terms of complexity-awareness.

My critiques aside, I appreciate the effort to marry complexity thinking with the results agenda. I share Barder’s conviction that the two can co-exist harmoniously. However, I think the correct approach is to inject complexity into our understanding of results, rather than to become rigid on the results and kick the complexity down the line.


Interested in complexity in aid? Then you should definitely be reading Ben Ramalingam’s blog, Aid on the Edge of Chaos. You can also check out other complexity posts on Find What Works.

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” (In which I get uncharacteristically personal.)

For some people, the start of the New Year provides an opportunity for reflection and goal-setting. For me, that always happens on my birthday. That’s today. I won’t share how old I am, but suffice it to say that I’m older than I look and younger than I feel. It’s been a rocky year, both professionally and personally.

I don’t often talk about myself or my own career on this blog, but I’ll share this story. Here’s why: Occasionally I get asked for career advice, and I’m never quite sure what to say. I could give specific tips on networking, cover letters, or grad school. Yet I’ve found that the best insights come from simply hearing someone else’s story and reflecting on how their story relates to my own. So here are the successes and the failures that make up my story. Maybe it will help you write yours.

1. The set-up: a five-year plan

Six years ago, I spent my birthday evening working from a Starbucks on Crenshaw Boulevard. I was out in Los Angeles for a few months to support an advocacy campaign that had no hope of succeeding. It was one of many experiences that led me to believe in the importance of management skills. Too many organizations promote people into management positions based on technical expertise or years on the job, without recognizing that managing staff and other resources requires something more than simply being smart or having seniority.

I knew I had a lot to learn on that front, so I started reading management books. You know, the corny ones you see at the airport bookstore with the words “success” and “excellence” in the titles. Underneath their marketing and a fair amount of bullshit, there are actually real insights in those books. Around the same time, I also started reading books on international development and aid issues. With both sets of books, there are diminishing marginal returns: the first few blow your mind, but ninth or tenth are only mildly interesting. There’s a limit to how deep the pop literature can go on any given topic, even if the authors are the luminaries in their field. No matter how many books you read, there would be more to learn.

So I resolved that I would give myself five years to learn. That might not sound radical to my friends in academia, but I have always deeply identified as a practitioner, a do-er, a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-jump-in-the-trenches…er. Of course, good reflective practice calls for you to learn as you do. The change I made was to switch the priority. Maybe a learning-to-doing ratio of 80/20. Just for five years. Then I would put the priority back on doing.

2. The follow-through: grad school and international development

My first step was to get a job with a company that provides management and strategy consulting to universities. That might not be an obvious first step, especially since I have only a passing interest in university management. However, I knew that this type of consulting provides skills that would be applicable throughout my career. I also knew that universities are incredibly complicated institutions, with lessons for all public service organizations. My colleagues in that job were some of the sharpest people I’ve ever worked with. We argued for hours to decide how we should advise our clients on staff management, resource allocation, and accountability issues. We grounded our arguments in quantitative data, but we also saw the limitations of such data. We had to make decisions in the face of ambiguity, not just tolerating but actually reveling in the complexity of the problems. That thinking has proved invaluable in the years since.

I hit a ceiling in that job, largely because I lacked a graduate degree. I eventually left the company with a plan to continue my learning in a more formal environment. I still wanted to develop management skills, but I also wanted to match those skills with content knowledge on issues that I cared about. I applied to a dozen schools, both MPA and MBA programs. I let a very good GMAT score go to my head, so I shot high. I got a humbling series of rejections that left me with fewer options than I had expected.

I suspect that the rejections had something to do with my meandering career path: environmental policy research, fundraising, political organizing on governance reform, management consulting with universities, and more. When writing application essays, I struggled to explain the diverse set of skills and perspectives that I gained from these various roles, or how they would relate to my future career. So at the same time that I applied to grad school, I decided to focus my career path. With each new job, I had been taking a gamble that my skills would transfer over. My employers were taking a gamble too. I realized that I could do more if I didn’t have to re-explain myself each time. I decided to focus on international development, specifically governance and peacebuilding issues.

In the end, grad school worked out even better than I imagined. The program I chose offered me everything I needed and more, as I recently discussed with our alumni office. It also opened doors that have been critical to my career.

One of those doors led to my first international work experience. I knew that a degree wouldn’t be enough. I had worked six years domestically, but that would mean little to recruiters in many international organizations. It’s the classic Catch-22 for any young professional: you can’t get the job without the experience, and you can’t get the experience without the job. I applied to the Peace Corps and considered taking a leave from grad school to do the two year service, but Peace Corps’ recruiting process was so mismanaged that I withdrew. Instead I applied to overseas internships for the summer. I got no responses. I eventually worked my own networks to land internships in Uganda and Kenya. The former came through a classmate’s contact; the latter came when a visiting speaker mentioned an interesting project, so I went up to her after the talk and asked how I could be part of it. Though I had to largely self-fund for the three months I was in East Africa that summer, I considered it another cost of the education.

As much as I loved grad school, I was happy to finish it. I went for the skills, knowledge, contacts and credential. With those secured and only a year left in my five-years-of-learning, I was eager to get back to work. I returned to Kenya for several months on a short-term contract.

3. The punchline: This roller coaster of a year

That short-term job ended last year, the day before my birthday. Rather than seek another position in Kenya, I went back to New York for personal reasons (which won’t be discussed here, as there’s a limit to how personal I’ll get in a blog post). I spent my birthday on a plane. For the next few months, I was unemployed and living in Brooklyn. I spent the holiday season trying to enjoy the city — running in the park, climbing at the rock gym, and sitting around in various cafés — while cranking out cover letters and thinking about what would come next.

In January I started get some traction on the job hunt. I was lucky to receive an offer for a position back in Kenya. I started making preparations to move, which included declining another interview request, notifying my networks that I was no longer looking, and moving out of my apartment. Then I learned that there was no funding for the position I had been offered. I was told that it would come through “very soon” so I should just be patient. With my other options dried up, I returned to Kenya anyway and started work in February. I lived a transient life on my friend’s couch. My frustration at the lack of funding grew, while my trust in the people who had offered me an unfunded job fell. So I withdrew from that project and re-started the job hunt in earnest.

It wasn’t long before a previous employer offered me a new role in knowledge management. I started that position in mid-March. A month later, in mid-April, I got pulled over to assist with a crunch on one of our other projects. I’ve yet to move back to my original position. My current role has been a huge step up in terms of responsibility. It has also been incredibly stressful and taxing. I’ve been “in the field” frequently, which can be exhausting. I’ve had to learn new skills quickly and manage relationships with a variety of stakeholders. It’s been years since the last time I had to push my abilities to the edges like this. It’s also been years since I’ve been this happy with my professional situation.

There’s probably a need for a bit more balance though. My Nairobi friends will note that I haven’t been around much, and I’ve made the commitment that “this week I will get back into regular blogging” more times than I can count. Still, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

An interlude: blogging and tweeting

Blogging has become unexpectedly important to me. I started Find What Works over two years ago, as a way of cataloging my thoughts during my internships and graduate courses. I was surprised to find that others are interested in these ramblings.

This blog’s popularity is largely due to the support I’ve received from other bloggers: my first big bump came when I reacted to a Nicholas Kristof column, Chris Blattman linked to my post, and (about two hours after Blattman’s link) Foreign Policy asked me to write a piece for them. A few months later, my guide to the development blogosphere got re-posts and re-mixes from Linda Raftree and a dozen other bloggers. It remains one of my most-viewed posts. Finally, when I launched a survey of aid/development blog readers as a pet project last year, dozens of bloggers and tweeters helped spread the word.

There’s a sense of community among the aid/development bloggers and tweeters. I’ve actually met some of them, including Tom Murphy and Ian Thorpe, in real life. Others, like J. and Shotgun Shack, are totally anonymous to me. It means a lot to have intellectual compatriots out there who are doing similar work and grappling with similar questions. Sometimes we disagree sharply — as Shawn Ahmed (who insists he’s not an aid blogger!) and I did last year — and those are often the best discussions. When my day job gets too busy and I’m unable to blog or tweet for a few weeks, I actually find myself missing my tweeps.

Despite the many reasons to blog, it has brought me very little money. I have no aspiration to be a full-time writer or analyst. The blogging has always been separate from my day jobs. The biggest measurable benefit is that I get free books to review. However, on a few occasions, people who only know me through my writing have contacted me and encouraged me to apply for openings at their organizations. That’s incredibly flattering. Blogging has also helped me stay sane: having an outlet for grappling with the big issues provides a useful counterbalance to the everyday minutiae of the work itself.

Climbing Kilimanjaro with a couple old friends in August. Probably both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Also, a metaphor for the entire year.

4. Looking forward: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

That line — originally from Steve Martin, and now used as the title of a book — has always resonated deeply with me. I don’t think for a second that I’ve reached that point. I could write a whole series of posts on the improvements I want to make in the coming year.

Yet I close with that line because it’s become my guiding career principle. In practice, it means hard work, constant learning, self-criticism, reflection, humility, and focus. The last one is especially important. I try not to get distracted thinking about what’s next. If I can focus on the task at hand, and knock it out of the park, then the opportunities will come.

Earlier this year, just as I was settling into my new job, I finished up my five years of focusing on learning. The ratio of doing-to-learning has flipped back. I’m learning a lot in my current position, but I feel that I’m doing even more. And that’s a very good feeling.


Okay, enough of this personal-reflection nonsense. We now return to your regularly scheduled programming…

How organizations grow: Zidisha Microfinance founder Julia Kurnia on expanding their reach

Zidisha Microfinance is an online platform to facilitate direct peer-to-peer microlending. Starting from an initial group of borrowers in Kenya — “zidisha” means “grow” or “increase” in Kiswahili — the platform now serves over 560 borrowers in four countries. These entrepreneurs receive loans from over 1,400 lenders around the world. Borrowers and lenders can communicate directly on the website. I find Zidisha’s work interesting because it opens a new window for developing country entrepreneurs to access finance, while also bucking much of the conventional microfinance wisdom. Last December I spoke with Zidisha founder Julia Kurnia and blogged about their model. You can can also learn more at their website.

This week I reconnected with Kurnia. I think that Zidisha’s growth and development holds interesting lessons for other small organizations, so I conducted an email interview. My questions and her responses are below.

Dave: It looks like Zidisha has about tripled in size since we spoke last December. Is that accurate? What was the cause of this growth?

Julia: Yes, that is accurate. We were at $109K in loans funded last December, and are now at about $350K. About half of this growth in lending volume has come from existing members returning to lend larger amounts following a positive initial experience, and the remainder is thanks to new members joining Zidisha.

Our growth hasn’t come from deliberate marketing or advertising. According to our most recent member survey, the majority of new lenders find Zidisha through their own research. They are interested in microfinance as a way to help individuals in the world’s most disadvantaged locations achieve a better life in a way that is more sustainable and dignified than a charitable gift. At the same time, they are turned off by the often exorbitant interest rates that are charged by traditional microfinance institutions, including on loans funded at zero interest through websites that work with local intermediaries. It is generally through research into better alternatives that new lenders find Zidisha.

Though we look similar to other microlending websites, our philosophy is much closer to that of eBay than to traditional microfinance organizations. And from the borrower’s perspective, the difference between Zidisha and traditional microfinance really is dramatic. For example, the average Kiva borrower pays about 35% in interest and fees to the local microfinance institutions that manage loans financed at zero interest by Kiva lenders. These costs are very typical of the microfinance industry as a whole. At Zidisha, borrowers propose their own interest rates and lenders can choose whether or not to accept them – it’s a market mechanism and very transparent. On average, our borrowers pay about the cost of inflation for their loans. It’s a sea change in the way microfinance has traditionally been done.

Our growth was very slow in the beginning – it took over two years for us to reach the initial $100K in loans funded. We were the world’s only direct person-to-person lending service to connect lenders and borrowers across the international wealth divide without intermediaries, and we wanted to take the time to refine our operating model before scaling up. After maintaining a repayment rate above 97% for almost three years, we are ready to begin growing more quickly, and so have focused on that goal this year.

Dave: Previously you said that the biggest constraint on growth was that you didn’t have enough lenders. Is that still the case? What’s your strategy for bringing new lenders into the system? What has been most effective or most challenging about that?

Julia: Our best growth happens when new lenders and borrowers join Zidisha roughly in proportion, so that there is plenty of loan capital available for the new borrowers, and plenty of loan applications for new lenders to choose from. Sometimes the growth of lenders outpaces that of borrowers, resulting in shortages of loan applications to fund. That said, most of the time growth in borrower demand outpaces growth in lender capital, so I would say that most of the time growth in lenders is our main constraint.

Our strategy for bringing in new lenders is to make it as easy as possible for supporters of microfinance who are interested in alternatives that offer better transparency and fairly priced loans for borrowers to find Zidisha. It is a myth that the world’s poorest people must necessarily pay interest rates of 35% or more due to the small size of their loans. Zidisha is living proof that another way is possible.

Jane Wambui at her produce stall. She and her husband used a Zidisha loan to open barber shop as a second business. More here. (Photo: Traci Yoshiyama/Zidisha.)

Dave: Have you started working with borrowers in any new countries in the past year? You’ve said that most borrowers find Zidisha through word-of-mouth. So how do you start reaching your first set of borrowers in a new country? Do you meet any skepticism?

Julia: Yes, our first Client Relationship Intern in Burkina Faso began her work this week. She will be focused on scaling up our base of borrowers in that country. And we are exploring opening pilot programs in neighboring Benin and Niger by the end of the year.

When opening a program in a new country, we try to find local entities, such as NGOs that offer computer training courses or companies that source products such as milk or vegetables from small producers, that work with individuals who are a good fit for Zidisha loans. These entities are often happy to introduce their members to Zidisha, seeing it as a service that adds additional value to all parties. Once the first five or ten loans are disbursed, growth through word of mouth takes off.

We do run into skepticism quite frequently – first by traditional microfinance practitioners, who doubt that disadvantaged individuals in developing countries are capable of benefiting from or repaying loans without constant hand-holding by local loan officers, and often as well by potential borrowers who find our lack of red tape and low interest rates too good to be true. We’ve even been told that some borrowers in Kenya, where loans are disbursed via the mobile phone payment service M-PESA, have been accused of sorcery because of their ability to raise loans of $1000 or more seemingly out of thin air.

Dave: Readers who have created new organizations might be interested to know that you recently left your day job to focus on Zidisha full-time. What drove that decision? Any advice for someone considering the same?

Julia: We bootstrapped Zidisha without any external financial resources, other than some small savings from my day job to develop the initial prototype of our website. For our first two and a half years, we had no salaried employees and I worked at a paid job during the day to support my family. Our income and operating budget last year was just about $10,000, with about half of this going toward money transfer and Skype communications costs, and the remainder used for web development.

Early this year, a generous individual provided a stipend that allowed me to leave my day job to focus full-time on developing Zidisha. We are still an entirely virtual organization. I work from a home office, and our team of about thirty volunteers and interns worldwide collaborate via an internal staff website, Skype and email. We’re lean and efficient almost to an extreme, but our tiny size and operating budget is really a source of strength, allowing us to be fully transparent and ethical, and to maximize the impact of our members’ fee and donation payments.

For others considering the same, I would encourage them to question the traditional assumption that raising a lot of money is a necessary first step to starting up a new organization or company. That used to be true, but today, thanks to technology, a useful service can be offered with very low overhead.

Dave: What’s next for Zidisha? Do you have plans to expand to new countries or try out new approaches?

Julia: Yes, we aim to expand to more of the world’s fifty least developed countries in the coming months; likely candidates in the near term include Guinea, Uganda and Haiti. We would like to develop a mobile phone-accessible version of our web platform because the residents of the world’s poorest countries will mostly access the internet through phones in the next several years.

Dave: Anything else you want to add?

Julia: While many developing countries have made dramatic advances in living standards over the past decade, others have not yet made that leap. As a result, a motivated, responsible person who happens to have been born in Niger or Haiti has almost no real opportunity to develop talents, pursue ambitions and achieve a decent life. This is the great injustice of our generation. And given the dramatic advances that have been made in communications and payment transfer technology in recent years, it is now a needless injustice. We have the tools to overcome geographic barriers. It is high time we put them to use to make geography irrelevant in places where geography is the most dramatic handicap.


Many thanks to Julia Kurnia for discussing Zidisha’s model and growth. Learn more about Zidisha here and here.

The Last Hunger Season: highlighting slow but positive change

I recently finished reading The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow. The book chronicles the lives of four smallholder farming families in western Kenya over the course of a year, as they move from hunger to harvest and back again.

Thurow was introduced to the families by One Acre Fund, an agricultural development organization working in Kenya and several other countries. So even before starting, I knew that One Acre and its staff would feature prominently in the book. I hoped for an in-depth investigation of the organization and its model, but worried that it would be just an extended PR piece instead. The reality is something between the two.

“Thick description” of food security issues

Last Hunger Season dives deep into the lives of the farm families it profiles. It’s clear that Thurow visited them frequently over the course of the year. He chronicles their successes and challenges in all aspects of their lives. The seasons unfold in detailed narratives of the choices the families face, the relationships they maintain within their communities, and the influence that these factors have on their well-being.

The lesson that comes through clearly is the centrality of food security (though Thurow typically avoids that term and its wonkish connotations). The book thoroughly documents how managing the results of the harvest impacts all aspects of the families’ lives — from paying school fees (which are due immediately after the harvest, when food prices are the lowest) to coping with disease (which hits harder when a family is forced to cut back on meals) to investing in other activities that generate income.

In this regard, the book kept reminding me of a term I learned in an anthropology class years ago: thick description. (Is Clifford Geertz still cool? Someone wave me off if not.) If you want to better understand the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa, this book is a great resource.

One Acre Fund v. big international efforts

As expected, One Acre’s work is central to the story as well. The organization provides each of these families (and 130,000 others like them) with seeds, fertilizer and other farm inputs on credit, along with training on improved farm practices and other support. The result: smallholder farmers double their yields, and pay off the One Acre debt with money to spare.

Thurow frames One Acre’s work in the legacy of the Green Revolution, which transformed agriculture in India and elsewhere in the 1960s-70s, but never spread through Africa. As One Acre sees it, the better seeds and other technology already exist, but they don’t reach the smallholder farmers who need them. What’s missing is a reliable system for bridging the gap. The organization is working to develop a sustainable business model for doing that.

The book also contrasts One Acre’s work with the efforts of major international development donors and NGOs. Last Hunger Season comes back to this point repeatedly, making the case that Congressional funding and international famine relief is insufficient and often misdirected. The critiques are valid but the conclusions are never made explicit. Is the argument that the donors should finally get their act together and invest more money in effective interventions? Or just that more money should be spent on small-scale efforts like One Acre’s work? I’m not quite clear. An outsider to the industry will learn more about the global efforts to fight hunger from this book, but don’t expect easy answers.

Missing the opportunity for a case study?

I was hoping for some detailed analysis of One Acre’s business model. Regular readers may know that I have a bit of a management-geek-crush on One Acre’s public use of metrics to drive improvements. For example, one of the metrics is sustainability — i.e. whether program fees cover costs. Since its founding in 2006, One Acre has constantly grown with donor support, while fine-tuning its field operation to make such support less critical. That requires both creating more efficient operations and providing greater value to the farmers who join. I’m really interested in the details of how they pursue these goals.

Thurow’s coverage of this left me wanting. One Acre’s development is part of the narrative, but I wanted more hard-nosed analysis. Which changes to the inputs had the largest ROI in the fields, how many farm families can outreach staff reasonably work with, what are the best ways to recruit new members — and how do these factors vary between western Kenya, rural Rwanda, and the other countries where One Acre is piloting projects?

The book also missed a chance to describe the broader impacts of One Acre’s work. My brain kept spinning with questions like: What happens when every farm in a community greatly increases its production? More supply leads to a lower price, perhaps making it harder to farmers to pay back their One Acre credit even as they have larger harvests. Would that undermine the business model in the long run? Does the organization have data on local maize prices that could confirm or refute this worry? And does increasing productivity eventually lead to a situation where the major bottleneck is something else entirely, like adequate roads or the provision of other public goods? What then for One Acre’s work?

Of course, Roger Thurow doesn’t write for development policy or management geeks. He’s got a bigger audience in mind. Thus it’s a bit unfair to criticize this book for not being something else. That’s like saying, “I really dig Harry Potter but there just weren’t enough vampires in it.” So please, don’t think of this as a criticism. Think of it more like a wish. Because ultimately, to do our work better, we need to know more about what works.


Disclaimers: One Acre’s Stephanie Hanson arranged for the publisher to send me a free copy (on Kindle, no less!). It came with no obligation for a positive review, either of the book or of the organization. And as always, the link above is an Amazon Associates link, meaning I get a (very) small portion of the proceeds if you buy the book. To date, I have made a grand total of $7 from these links.

Citius, Altius, Fortius: Why the Olympics are the pinnacle of civilization

Guys, I love the Olympics. Please humor me by hitting “play” on the following as you read this blog post.

1. The Olympics

For the next two weeks, my productivity will drop substantially as I watch every Olympic event from cycling to field hockey to judo. Once I discovered the official Olympics youtube channel, I knew it was all over.

The odd thing is that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world. I play sports, and I like watching sports if they happen to be on. But I have few loyalties and there are no teams I actively follow. I don’t pay attention to March Madness, the World Series, or the Superbowl — for our non-American readers, those are college basketball, professional baseball, and American football, respectively. I certainly don’t follow the European football leagues. Then there are the sports that I don’t even understand. Like cricket. I have a theory that the whole sport was an elaborate British joke that just got out of hand.

Yet I get totally hooked whenever the Olympics start. I even watch the winter Olympics, which is widely regarded as the second-best Olympics. And I’ll watch any sport, including the ones that aren’t quite sports. (I’ll refrain from listing those here, for fear of sparking controversy, but suffice it to say that any activity with musical accompaniment is more art than sport.)

Why do I get so enthralled by the Olympics?

2. Sports in general

Let’s start with the idea of sports. I love what sports represent. They provide us with opportunities for greatness. They teach us how to train, focus on a goal, communicate and work together. We draw direct lessons from them for our personal and professional lives. We also draw something more abstract: emotional analogies that can drive us to excel or endure in completely unrelated fields. Sports inspire us.

Sports also create a morally simplified version of the world. They’re similar to literature or movies in that regard. Our daily lives are full of unclear rules, questionable allegiances, and ambiguous achievements. In sports, these are all cleared up. We know the rules, because they’re stated and enforced. We know who’s on our team, because they’re wearing the same shirt. And we know when we’ve won or lost, because we have a scoreboard. There’s something very comforting about this simplicity.

3. Tribalism at its best

For spectators, sports tap into our tribal tendencies. They even reinforce those tendencies. Since the beginning of civilization, mankind has drawn barriers between “us” and “them”. We identify with one group — a city, a university, a country, a racial group — and this inherently means including some while excluding others. We do it in all aspects of life. This psychological habit has manifested itself in humanity’s darkest moments of war and genocide. It’s not obvious that sports, an activity that reinforces the “us” vs. “them” mindset, would be a net positive at a geopolitical level.

And yet it is. This is why the Olympic games represent the pinnacle of global civilization. That’s not meant as hyperbole. I’m serious when I say that no human institution is a greater symbol of what we can accomplish together than the Olympic games. It’s not just because sports bring us together. After all, there are plenty of institutions that bring the world together: the United Nations, the Nobel Prizes, CERN, art museums, films, and more. But sports trump science, art and other fields because sports start from a place of division. We have taken the one thing that usually drives us apart and transmuted it into something that brings us together.

I don’t mean to say that the Olympics actually promote world peace more than those other institutions. The reach is limited and periodic. International trade and diplomacy must have larger impacts. Yet the Olympics triumph over these others in symbolism. Every two years the world spends two weeks to say, in effect: “If we can turn this tribalism into something that joins us rather than divides us, then imagine what else we can do.”

4. More events means more winners

The World Cup also brings the world together, and I love it too. However, the Olympics do something the World Cup cannot: they make it possible for dozens of countries to shine. Countries that don’t often make international headlines can suddenly be stars. We all know that Kenya is good at distance running, while Jamaica wins gold in the sprints. Apparently Slovakia knows how to slalom canoe, South Korea dominates archery, and both Cuba and Kazakhstan are pretty good at boxing.

When watching the Olympics, if you’re not sure who to cheer for, try going with whichever country is the geopolitical/economic underdog. And no country is an underdog like one that isn’t officially recognized yet: since South Sudan hasn’t established an Olympic Committee — priorities, guys! — Guor Marial will be running under the Olympic flag. The same opportunity was given to athletes from the former Yugoslavia in 1992, and those from Timor-Leste in 1999.

Just try and tell me that’s not inspiring.


P.S. Confidential to my colleagues: The bit about dropping productivity was just a joke. I’ll be totally focused at work the next two weeks, I promise. My Olympics-watching time is more likely to cut into my sleeping and (ironically) visits to the gym.

Photo credit: Sam from Vancouver. 

Contractors, NGOs, CBOs, or governments: What’s the best channel for bilateral aid?

That’s a trick question. The answer is: It depends. What does it depend on? That one’s harder to answer.

Last week, John Norris wrote in Foreign Policy under the provocative title: “Hired Gun Fight: Obama’s aid chief takes on the development-industrial complex.” Rajiv Shah has made moves to reduce the amount of USAID funding that goes through government contractors (a.k.a. the “Beltway bandits”) who conduct significant aid and development activities on behalf of the United States government. Shah is a proponent of more direct funding to NGOs, CBOs, governments and other institutions in developing countries.

Not surprisingly, the contractors are not happy about this turn of events. It would mean a huge drop in their revenues and influence in DC. They have mobilized their political allies and even created a new Coalition of International Development Companies as a lobby group.

I blogged on this issue exactly a year ago today (and since blogging is basically a race, that means I win, right?). I tried not to use the “fight” framing that Norris puts in his title, though it’s hard to avoid the problems of partisan bickering when discussing anything in DC. Something in the water (maybe the lead?) makes everyone line up on sides and duke it out, regardless of the issue.

Ultimately, we need a more considered approach to this discussion on contracting versus grants, international versus local, government versus nongovernmental, and so on. We (and I am as guilty as any) tend to make broad statements about the need for increased accountability in aid, more local support, better engagement with existing institutions, or greater efficiency. All of these priorities suggest general responses that don’t always align with one another — e.g. “more accountability” and “lower overheads” often work at cross-purposes. That’s actually okay, because we don’t need general responses anyway. What we need are specific ways to decide what makes the most sense in different situations.

That is, we need to answer the “what does it depend on” question. Shah’s USAID FORWARD strategy, for all its merits, does not seem to address that issue. The contractors’ advocacy certainly doesn’t offer an answer. Advocacy is not a good vehicle for nuance in any case.

Last year I took a stab at some guidelines. If I may quote myself:

We need a conceptual framework for when it should use contracts and when it should use grants. USAID FORWARD promises new policies and guidelines, but it seems that nothing’s been decided yet. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. The specificity of a contract makes sense when the program can be clearly defined in advance. This requires a detailed level of knowledge before the contract is signed, a context that’s relatively unchanging, and easily measured results. If you want a road or a building, contracts will provide more accountability.
  2. Grants provide more flexibility for implementers. For nuanced programs in uncertain contexts, where there’s no way to collect sufficient advance knowledge for detailed planning, and the outcome metrics require a certain amount of interpretation, a grant can describe the broad outlines while allowing the program managers the autonomy to chart the right course. If you want human rights organizing or participatory community development, grants make more sense.
  3. However, between road construction and human rights, there’s a gray area. This is where the policymakers really have their work cut out for them – and why I’m so heartened to see “Rebuilding Policy Capacity” as the third key area in USAID FORWARD.

A few people chimed in with comments on this issue, but I’ve yet to see a clear policy document that really lays out a framework for thinking through these choices. Academics are focused heavily on the public policy and intervention choices, and they pay less attention to the implementation and management issues like procurement or grant mechanisms. It’s the kind of thing that I would love to sit in a think tank and work on, if I didn’t love my actual job more.

Anyone know if someone has really taken this issue on in a thoughtful way?

On planning

Whenever I start a new job, I learn how to plan all over again. I’m not talking about big, strategic planning at the programmatic or organizational level, but rather the daily/weekly/maybe-monthly planning we each do individually to ensure that our own work is on track.

I re-learn planning with every new position because the kind of planning a job requires depends on the job itself: the type of work, the speed of deadlines, the amount of uncertainty and ambiguity in the context, the level of collaboration with internal or external stakeholders, the type of accountability, etc. All of these factors encourage different planning practices.

The changes in my planning practices have led me to distill a few general principles that have been useful in all my planning.

Principle 1: Plan.

That is to say: actually do it. Ideally, I take an hour or two each week to create a medium-term plan. I usually do this outside the office and outside normal working hours, because that’s the best way to get the uninterrupted time needed to really focus on planning. I use that session to review my current plan and update it to cover the upcoming two weeks (maybe more or less, depending on the type of job). That plan forms the basis for my daily plans. I spend 15-30 minutes each morning or night combing over the weekly plan and figuring out what needs to be done in the upcoming day.

That’s the ideal situation. I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes things move too quickly, or there’s too much uncertainty, or you don’t have control over the key decisions. Sometimes you just feel lazy on Sunday morning so you write a blog post about planning rather than actually planning (ahem).

The one excuse that I never allow myself is this: “I don’t have time to plan.” If you think you don’t have time to plan, that’s precisely when you need to sit down and plan.

Principle 2: Have a planning process and template, but be willing to change them.

My planning and the resulting plans have taken a variety of formats: spiral-bound notebooks, pocket-sized journals, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheet. Mostly Excel spreadsheets. Regardless of how I’m recording it, I always have a process and a template.

As mentioned above, the core of the process requires getting away from distractions for at least an hour. If it’s possible, I turn off my phone/email. If I have to be in the office, I’ll at least put in my headphones as a “Do Not Disturb” sign. I make sure that I have on hand whatever I might need: my recent medium-term plan, my calendar, up-to-date metrics, long-term strategic plans, recent requests made of me, etc. From there, the process varies with different jobs. If it’s a new job and you don’t have a process yet, start by listing everything you need to get done. Once it’s all written in front of you, start organizing it into categories, combining or sorting in a way that makes the tasks more manageable.

This is where you start to create a template. The template provides the cheat-sheet that you’ll look at for your daily plans, for making adjustments during the week, and for holding yourself accountable when you make the next week’s plan.

Create the template by thinking in terms of priorities. If your job has been well-defined, you may already know what these priorities are: support field offices, build relationships with donors, liaise with partner organizations, and so on. Try making a table with a column for “priorities”, each of which has several “tasks” or “outputs” in the next column over. The exact terminology doesn’t matter, as long as it makes sense to you in your job. Add other fields as needed.

As you get more accustomed to planning in your job, amend both the process and template to make your planning more efficient and thorough.

Principle 3: The planning is more important than the plan.

My planning aims for more than just a timetable for particular actions or a “to-do” list. Of course, these result from my planning. But the more critical result is the clear understanding of priorities and trade-offs that I gain from the planning process.

The actual plan depends on a variety of assumptions that might not come true. You might try creating several plans for various contingencies, but there will still be others you failed to consider. When the unexpected occurs, you need to make quick adjustments to the plan. Those quick adjustments will be much easier if your planning process focused on making your priorities explicit and understanding your operating context, including the demands and the choices you face.

If you plan with a focus on priorities and choices — rather than tasks — you’re better equipped to make an active decision when something new comes up. You choose whether to adjust your plan, with full knowledge of what you’re sacrificing or gaining. Without making those trade-offs explicit in advance, it’s too easy for the events of the day (or someone else’s plan) to take control of our agenda.

Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Principle 4: Work backwards from the goal and forwards from the present. Iterate as needed.

We plan because time is finite. Any planning template should have an estimate of how long each task will take and when it’s due. From there, it’s basic math to figure out if everything fits the time allotted. But what if you forget to include a critical step?

A good way to make sure you have all the pieces lined up is to work backwards from the goal. Lay out the required preparation and sequence. You might work backwards to the present and realize that it’s too late to put all the pieces in place. Then work forward and identify the trouble spots. If you can’t make it fit, revisit your priorities or look for some outside assistance.

Principle 5: Find your planning horizon.

I like to think of myself as an efficient planner: I plan the things that have to be planned right now, and I put off the planning that can be better done later. The line between the two is your planning horizon. It’s different for every job.

Wherever your planning horizon is, don’t agonize over things you can’t plan yet. Uncertainties and unknowns abound. Find a way to bracket those questions that you’ll address later. Then be explicit about what needs to occur before you can address them: What new information do you need to make the plan, and how will you secure it? Find a way to strike that balance.

Principle 6: Include everything.

Even the boring stuff. If you have repetitive tasks that you have to do every day, include them or risk seeing them squeezed out. It’s as simple as writing them down once and copying them into the new plan each week.

Also, there’s no rule that says our planning has to be restricted to work tasks. I used to include blogging, studying Swahili, and reading in my planning. I recently dropped them off because the plans looked too cluttered, and I knew that I would make time for these personal activities anyway. Except that I stopped making the time when I stopped including them. I’m starting to claw back though. If you have a job that tends to spill beyond normal working hours, include your other activities in your plan.


That’s it for my planning principles. Let’s hear from the readers on this. What principles work for you?

Public institutions are different: Watching the UVA fiasco half a world away

I’m struggling to keep up with the current mess at the University of Virginia. It started when the board suddenly fired the president a few weeks ago. The board’s action failed to meet any basic measure of transparency: no one outside the board even saw it coming. In fact, the president was generally popular with students and faculty alike. Most observers remained confused about the board’s reasons for several days afterwards.

Eventually it came out that the head of the board felt the president was too much of an incremental reformer, while the university faces major challenges requiring dramatic change and something called “strategic dynamism”. UVA’s board thinks that the institution should borrow more from corporate models and culture to adapt to a changing environment of reduced state funding and increased competition from for-profit universities. The one good outcome of this fiasco is that it has sparked a broader debate on the role and function of universities in the 21st century.

If you want full coverage, I suggest going here. I’m not trying to write a summary because I don’t fully understand what’s going on. As an alumni of Mr. Jefferson’s University, I’m pretty concerned about what this situation will do to the academic quality and future of that great institution. But I’m writing here as a development professional, and as such I see clear parallels to our industry’s work.

Learning from the corporate sector is hard…

There’s a commonly held viewpoint in international development that public/nonprofit institutions should learn more about management from corporations and the private sector. This viewpoint baffles me — but not because it’s wrong. I’m baffled because the TED talks and HBR articles expounding this viewpoint are horribly boring and incomplete. Boring, because all organizations can learn from one another. And incomplete, because such commentary typically fails to acknowledge the unique constraints facing organizations with public stakeholders and service missions. These constraints often require different management/organizational models and they encourage different institutional cultures. Failing to acknowledge these differences leads to very thin analysis.

In the case of UVA, the board’s analysis was even thinner than usual. As David Karpf discusses, UVA’s board seems to have little understanding of the issues facing higher education today or how universities should respond. He ends with a sharp rebuke:

This is governance through second-hand op-ed clippings. It is governance through rah-rah PowerPoint presentations. It is governance through Cliff’s Notes and Wikipedia pages. It bears no resemblance to an effectively-run company, much less an effectively-run university.

…and institutional reform is even harder…

Having watched institutional reform efforts in international development, I’m really not surprised to see how UVA’s reform effort has unfolded. Read a few case studies and you’ll notice how easy it is for things to go wrong. Admittedly I’m glossing over details here, but I would argue that the biggest mistakes occur when outsiders (and UVA’s board is formally called the “Board of Visitors”) fail to really understand the institution under reform, the incentives and accountabilities facing various stakeholders, and the institutional culture that results from those incentives.

In acting the way it did, UVA’s board revealed that it fundamentally does not understand the culture of an academic institution. Before you scoff at academic culture, remember that “culture” is not just some wishy-washy malleable thing that will bend to the right force. Yes, all cultures change over time. But an institutional culture also provides a resilient set of guidelines and norms that can sustain an institution and give it strength over the long term. Part of a culture’s strength lies in the slowness with which it changes.

In academia, slowness to change is a core cultural value. Peer review takes forever, paradigms shift rarely, and the tenure system provides job security for half a lifetime. Universities are not designed for “strategic dynamism” or quick reaction to market trends. Nor should they be. Universities are designed to last for centuries, to be the keepers of knowledge, and to prepare each generation of leaders to think in time frames longer than quarterly earnings reports can capture.

Of course, there’s a need to update antiquated systems. Any organization can improve the efficiency of its decision-making apparatus. But where to turn for lessons and how to translate them to your present context? That’s a very hard thing to do well and a very easy thing to do poorly. The international development industry has learned this lesson over the past two decades or so. The UVA board learned it in the past two weeks.

…so maybe be careful when messing with a good thing?

The University of Virginia has survived and thrived for nearly two hundred years. Few corporations manage such a feat. Longevity may not be the best measure of success, but it should be something to consider when one argues (as the board has) that continued survival requires a fundamental shift in institutional culture and practice.

The attempt to transpose corporate principles to public institutions raises an interesting question: Just which sector is doing better, measured against its own goals? Defense blogger Andrew Exum addresses this issue in a post titled, “Universities Are Not Businesses, and Neither Is the Military.” Here’s the key quote:

While the American model of capitalism is generally strong and often admired, it is by no means seen by the world as the undisputed model for how other businesses and business environments should look. Other successful capitalist economies often look at U.S. business culture and find much to criticize. U.S. institutions of higher education, though, are the undisputed model for others to follow and are universally admired outside the United States.

(Emphasis added.)

I think that about sums it up. Everyone else wants to copy our university model, but they’re less keen on our corporate model. So when we endeavor to change higher education, let’s proceed with caution and a true understanding of how universities actually work — rather than just mindlessly importing principles from other sectors.

Everyone’s office is someone else’s field

I’m back in Nairobi and catching my breath this weekend. For the past three weeks, I’ve been visiting our regional offices throughout Kenya. My travels took me from the border with Uganda to the coast of the Indian Ocean, and from those regional offices I’ve traveled to a few of the surrounding areas. The standard way to refer to such visits is that I was “in the field” or doing “fieldwork”. This framing has connections to academics (such as anthropologists or development economists) but it’s used by development practitioners as well, and indeed many professionals in a variety of industries.

As a few bloggers have discussed, a reference to “the field” often carries connotations of exotic other-ness. It suggests hardship, risk of disease, bad roads — all of which prove you’ve got the stuff and must really be needed there. Using this framing highlights and exaggerates the idea that you’re travelling outside your comfort zone, into the unknown. What does that say about the people who live and work there full-time? Are they somehow less civilized? Such connotations make some people wary about using this language.

The connotations of hardship are also misleading, as Alanna Shaikh has discussed. Pictured at right: a hotel near Mombasa, where I spent an hour working on spreadsheets next to the beach. Hardship? Hardly.

It’s all a matter of perspective

Leaving aside the question of other-ness, I try to avoid thinking in terms of “the field” for a different reason: this framing is horribly imprecise, mostly because it’s always relative. When I visit our regional offices, that’s the field to me but not to our regional managers. When we then travel from the regional office out to surrounding communities, that’s the field for the regional manager but not for their staff who work in those communities. Some of those staff have no offices, so all their work is fieldwork! And of course, our office in Nairobi often has visitors from the US headquarters. My office is their field.

Not only is “the field” defined by where we sit, but how we approach the field is a reflection of our own professional perspective. If we show up in someone else’s office, then the set of assumptions we bring with us will determine how we interact with those we meet. Do we assume that they are mere implementers of the plans written above their heads? Or that they are the ones making the real impact, whose direct knowledge of the context and the program need to be supported by those at the “higher” levels?

Structures, policies and (de)centralization are important…

The last few weeks got me thinking about how the relativism of “the field” relates to the level of (de)centralization in our organizations. Each of our “fields” is basically the next layer of the organization. How we manage the relationships between those layers is critical to how our organizations function. Manage the relationships well, and you get more efficient operations that leverage knowledge from a variety of sources. Manage the relationships poorly, and you get turf wars, wasted resources, and distrust between people who should be working toward the same goal. Every organization with multiple offices — whether an NGO, a corporation, or a government — has to deal with this issue through its policies and structures.

Sometimes these policies are completely asinine, but persist due to the internal politics. Many years ago I worked for a DC-based advocacy organization that operated at the federal, state and local levels. Our primary funders were individual small donors, who originally gave money through the mail and more recently give online. Rather than maximizing revenue and then distributing resources through an internal budgeting process, the organization had created a system of fundraising “windows”: the national office could send fundraising requests for half the year, and the state offices sent them during the other half. The result? Lack of unified messaging to donors, lower overall revenue, and constant animosity between the staff at the national and state levels. Yet changes were impossible. No one would risk losing the little piece of the little pie they had.

(As an aside: Governments deal with essentially the same question when allocating revenue sources. Economic efficiency and political accountability might suggest that property taxes should be local, while income taxes should be national. However the reality in each country is that policies arise from a complex history of political bargaining between interest groups.)

I’ve seen other organizations deal with the layers in more productive ways than that. Often it involves some sort of matrix structure: perhaps reporting lines based on geography (i.e. international HQ > country > sub-national region, etc.) supported by issue-focused experts and administrative staff who work across countries. Maybe within the country office, reporting is done by program rather than geography. These can be balanced in various ways, perhaps with more or less autonomy for country offices. Many forms are possible.

… but it’s all about people …

So if we think about “the field” as the next layer in the organization, and we have policies and structures in place to manage the relationships between the layers, then how do those policies and structures actually manifest themselves?

Ultimately their success or failure hinges on the people who implement them and the relationships those people have with one another. Policies might call for capturing “lessons learned” after a program ends, but it’s useless if the people involved don’t take the exercise seriously. Structures might define reporting lines, but they can’t dictate how a manager works with her staff. If HQ views “the field” as lacking capacity, or the country office views HQ as meddlesome and bossy, then the specifics of the policies don’t matter as much. Policies that dictate what we must do have a harder time prescribing how we do it. And of course, the how of it matters.

This is why HR and recruiting are the most valuable (but often grossly undervalued) functions in any organization. Your organization is your people, nothing more and nothing less. I’ve been lucky enough to find an organization that has good people and manages the relationships between the layers well. Many other organizations (including some of my past employers, like the one discussed above) don’t pull this off.

… and their relationships

Finally, this emphasis on people and relationships should make it clear why visits to “the field” are so critical. Sure, you might need to actually go do work there or at least see what’s happening on the ground. But just as importantly, you need to build relationships with people in “the field”. Visit their offices, have a late dinner after you finish work, chat about anything and nothing. Your ability to communicate and support one another through email or phone exchanges will be a hundred times easier after you’ve met in person.

These personal relationships will always be more important than organizational policies. They’re worth investing in. Regardless of what you call it — “fieldwork” or being “on the road” or “site visits” or whatever — just get out there.

Rebranding African cuisine?

Nice try, ugali — but you’re not fooling anyone.

Admit complexity: a few takeaways from MSF’s “Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed”

I snagged a free copy of a recent volume published by Médecins Sans Frontières (aka Doctors Without Borders). Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience is a series of case studies from a range of humanitarian contexts, combined with a few essays that take broader looks at how MSF’s approach has evolved over the years.

The value of this book stems from the willingness of current and former MSF leaders to take a critical look at how they’ve dealt with incredibly difficult situations over the years. Here’s the meta-lesson I took away from it all:

Admitting failure is for sissies. Let’s admit complexity instead.

Much of the complexity discussed in the book arises from the politics of delivering aid. The case studies cover various conflict settings like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Somalia and Gaza Strip, where provision of humanitarian aid — like almost any other activity — becomes immediately embroiled in the politics of the existing conflict.

Even logistics gets political. Describing the re-launch of their programs in Somalia in 2007, one interviewee said:

Hiring a car in Somalia results in a series of compromises. You have to forget what you learned as a logistician; that a car should drive straight, brake and have safety belts. There, it’s first and foremost about finding out who owns it, what the power relationships are between clans and individuals and evaluating the risks of reprisals against the teams.

If getting a car is that hard, imagine what happens when you start providing medical care.

The book delves into how MSF has responded to the increasingly confused boundary between civil/humanitarian organizations and military action. Of course, this is especially prominent in the chapters on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the latter, MSF stopped referring to itself as an “NGO” — a term that has connotations of US/UN funding and faith-based groups. But there is no way to be apolitical:

The affirmation of “neutrality and independence” that MSF lobbies for so vigorously in Pakistan is so against the practices of state-led humanitarianism at the service of counter-insurgency and stabilisation that it becomes a political position in itself

(Emphasis mine.)

Other complexity is more mundanely about operations, such as how to allocate resources in Somalia without reliable indicators on existing health problems or outcomes, or how to ensure quality care in the face of high staff turnover in Afghanistan. Cultural issues come into play as well, as consumption of alcohol by expat staff in Palestine became a point of contention with Hamas.

The closing essays put the case studies in a broader framework. They describe how MSF’s thinking has evolved over the years, in response to fierce internal debates as well as geopolitical shifts. The epilogue draws three broad categories around the choices that MSF has made over the years: realism (playing the game), confrontation (challenging the game), and abstention (refusing to play).

MSF has used each approach in varying measures, sometimes even within the same country. The case study on Myanmar illustrated this. MSF-France withdrew from the country in 2006, citing the “unacceptable conditions imposed by authorities” on its activities. The Dutch section, on the other hand, took an approach of realism. Using the Dutch acronym (AZG) to distance itself from MSF’s other activities, it served populations that had been forcibly displaced by the government:

Fifty thousand “squatters” were moved to Hlaing Thayar in 1989, a figure which had swelled to 164,000 by 1995. AZG did not fully recognise the dilemma it faced, one which is recurrent in situations of forced relocation. By providing healthcare to the displaced, AZG certainly eased their hardship. But by its presence and participation in the government-run system, AZG was tacitly condoning the government’s forced relocation policy, especially as relocations continued despite AZG’s presence.

These tensions exist throughout the case studies. “Collaborating” might support an unjust system, but the alternative is to create a parallel health system that undermines local capacity, or to leave a group without care at all. There’s no right answer that will serve all contexts. Nor is there necessarily a right answer for a given context. There are simply people trying to use their best judgment to do the most good they can.

That’s the real reason I appreciated this book. As I said, it admits complexity rather than simple failure. The lesson of failure is: do A, not B. That’s incredibly helpful if you plan to scale your solution or tackle the same problem again. But in complex situations, the next scenario will never look enough like the last one for you to apply the previous lessons directly. We can’t say: A worked then, so we should do A again. Case studies help us understand the previous scenarios, the choices those actors faced, the reasons behind their decisions, and the results of their actions. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to retain that much complexity in our minds and use it to inform our own decisions.


Where to get it:

  • You can buy a paper copy from Amazon or just get the electronic version free from MSF.
  • If you want to read it (or anything else) on a Kindle, I highly recommend Klip.me’s Send to Kindle app. Install the extension in Chrome/Safari (or the bookmarklet on any browser), give it your Kindle email address, and then you can send any text on the web to your Kindle with a single click. The text will show up on your Kindle the next time you sync, just like any book you’ve bought.

I’m not a global health expert, but now I can fake it…

…thanks to a new e-book called What’s Killing Us: A Practical Guide to Understanding Our Biggest Global Health Problems.

It’s written by Alanna Shaikh and published through TED Books. That makes it pretty much self-recommending. However, blogging-best-practice required me to actually finish reading it before telling others to do so.

The book consists of ten short chapters that each describe the basic facts about a different global health problem. Writing for a nonspecialist audience, Shaikh lays out why we should worry about each problem and what can be done to address it. The result is a fantastic primer on global health issues for an outsider to the field. I especially appreciated the tie-ins with other development issues: weak healthcare systems and climate change both earned their own chapters.

The book is on the short side, matching the price of $2.99. I read it in a few sittings over dinner and before bed — which is not recommended if you might a) get squeamish reading about tropical stomach bugs, or b) have nightmares after learning just how dire the future of antibiotics is. But I leave the reading schedule to you. Do find a way to fit it in.

The double standard and the development of institutions

Tom Murphy recently shared a chart that he created in collaboration with Carol Gallo and David Week. It lists the “double standards” of how certain political activities are described, depending on where they take place — e.g. in DC it’s a “campaign contribution” but in an African capital it’s a “bribe”. They offered the chart a bit light-heartedly, but in a classic blogger move, I’ll use it as an excuse to talk about something related. First, the chart in question:

What people might normally call it
When it happens in Washington
When it happens in Africa
Money received from political sponsors Campaign contributions Bribes
Uneven spending on public services in different ethnic communities Social injustice Tribalism
Seeking money in exchange for political influence Campaign fundraising Rent seeking
Subservience to oil companies Energy policy Control by foreign interests
Political appointees The new administration’s team Cronyism
Political families Tradition of public service Nepotism
People driven from their homes Homelessness Displacement
No bid contracts Necessary expedience Corrupt procurement
Government secrecy National security Lack of transparency
Assistance to the poor Welfare Aid
Internal security apparatus Homeland security Secret police
Not funding public schools, health system, infrastructure Small government Underdevelopment

To be honest, I gave their original post a quick glance and then forgot about it. Here’s why: if you’re from the US and you work in international development in any capacity, then none of this should be news to you. I sincerely hope that we all have the minimum level of awareness and critical reflection to have noticed this double standard already.

So I didn’t give it much thought until my friend Josh forwarded me the post a few days ago. He doesn’t work in development, but we both worked on government reform campaigns in the US many years ago. We have some hands-on experience with a few of these issues and how hard they are to fix.

Given that experience, it doesn’t ring true to me that these phenomena have different labels simply because they happen in DC versus Africa. Yes, Americans have some rather simplistic, prejudiced, occasionally-neocolonialist views of “Africa” that lead to poor analysis and unearned moral righteousness. But there are also actual differences between the political events and practices described in the second and third columns. There’s something more going on here. These differing terminologies reflect something else.

I’ve realized that the double standard arises from how we think about political institutions. There are two (almost contradictory) points here:

1. We believe that institutional frameworks and processes matter …

The similar-looking phenomena described in the chart above are actually dramatically different due to their different institutional contexts. Just like dragging another player to the ground is a legal tackle in rugby, but a flagrant foul in basketball. We call them different terms, not merely because of the different continents, but because they take place within different political and governmental systems.

For example, the US political system has institutionalized the influence of money to such an extent that campaign contributors don’t have to bribe an official into doing what they want. The influence is more subtle than that. Contributions ensure first and foremost that the candidate who already agrees with you gets elected. (Secondary to this is that s/he answers your phone call in the future, allowing you to make the case for a particular policy; and tertiary is that s/he will consider your future contribution when deciding what to do.) You can argue whether this is actually better than bribery, but it’s clear that these contributions occur within formal rules and with a certain amount of transparency. Only in rare cases do campaign contributions come close to being quid pro quo bribes — and we’re understandably shocked by those cases.

In contrast, straight-up bribes occur often in systems without functioning formal rules and with little transparency. They result from institutions that don’t perform as they were intended. Some flexibility within the rules is always necessary, but if a bureaucracy systematically relies on “facilitation payments” because public sector salaries are too low and financial controls are too lax, then that’s a problem. Something similar can be said about the other elements of the chart (with the exception of welfare/aid — where the relevant difference is the international nature of the latter).

This emphasis on institutions and processes isn’t a Western or American bias. It’s a simple a fact of how large organizations function everywhere in the world. Institutionalization, bureaucracy, rules, and organizations allow humans to accomplish far more and at larger scales than we could without them. Of course, the exact nature of those institutions can and should vary from context to context. The point is that we think they are important…

2. … but we have no idea how those institutions form, function, develop or improve.

Every country has a variety of institutions. Some are resilient while others are fragile, but all of them change over time. The harsh, humbling truth is this: we have no idea how institutional change happens or how it can be guided for the better.

The chart reminded me of this because media and advocacy commentary on developing country politics usually applies a “problems-to-be-solved” framework on column three. Academic and policy discussions might go a bit deeper, seeing the problems in terms of “institutions-to-be-built”. But what we’re really talking about are long-term transformational processes over which any given actor has very little control.

We see that if we consider the history and development of the American system in column two. America’s history is marked by a great deal of bribery, clientelism, stolen elections, internecine violence, failed peacebuilding, and worse. The forces behind those didn’t just disappear. Some persist, of course, while others have been channelled into and transformed by our present day institutions. Our own column three has slowly shifted into column two. We argue fiercely — both in academic departments (history, political science, etc.) and in political debates — when trying to explain these shifts. We don’t have answers (let alone an answer) to explain how it all happened.

The double standard points to something worrying: not just an ignorance of how these shifts happen, but an ignorance of just how ignorant we are. Our use of different terms obscures the fact that all countries are grappling with similar issues. That doesn’t mean the solutions from one country will translate over, as trying to copy another country’s institutions can be fraught with hazards. We should point out the similarities among the problems if only to highlight the one real lesson from the American experience: that the solutions to the problems will only develop through a long, unpredictable process that is more or less unique to each individual country.

So to recap:

While I defend the “double standard” on the basis that these similar-looking phenomena really are different when they occur in different institutional contexts, I also think it clouds our view of how institutional development happens over time.

Sorry, were you hoping for a neat little answer at the end? You’ve come to the wrong blog, my friend.

But I do want to reward you for making it this far. As long as we’re talking about how Americans see Africa, you really should watch this:

In praise of interdisciplinarity at the World Bank

Blogging is like exercising: if you fall out of the habit, it can be hard to get back into it. Last month I started a new job that’s kept me pretty busy. Of course, compared to unemployment, this is a good problem to have. Sadly it meant my blogging dropped to zero. Though work shows no sign of letting up, I’ve gotten into the swing of things and also moved to a new apartment, which cuts my commuting time significantly. So I’m going to ease back into blogging.

The big story in international development that I missed was the selection of the World Bank’s new president. We weren’t surprised to learn this week that the American candidate won — but remember a month ago, when we were surprised to find out who the American candidate would be? Or as Owen Barder put it with dry British wit:

In fact, there were three March surprises in this campaign. First, Jeff Sachs took the unprecedented step of publicly applying for the job. Second, Barack Obama ignored him and instead nominated Jim Yong Kim to the post.

The third surprise was a vibrant campaign for someone else. The position has historically gone to whoever the American president picks, just as the head of the IMF is chosen by the Europeans. This practice was seriously challenged for the first time, with a number of prominent voices championing Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (currently Nigeria’s Finance Minister) and, to a lesser extent, José Antonio Ocampo (formerly Colombia’s Finance Minister).

While I agree that America’s dominance of the World Bank is morally unjustifiable, the politics of it are also undeniable. As Dan Drezner pointed out, there was no way Obama was going to compromise on this in an election year. Geopolitical shifts will surely change that in the future. I share Chris Blattman’s optimism that the recent debate will lead to greater openings.

Let’s go back to the second surprise. Kim is a doctor, a public health professor, an anthropologist, a college president, and a co-founder of the well-known NGO Partners in Health. He’s not an economist or a banker. Though none of the recent presidents have had PhDs in economics either, you would at least expect someone running the World Bank to have a background in finance.

Or would you? In the past few decades, the World Bank has dramatically shifted what it does and how it does it. It’s no longer just a bank, but a development agency with a stated mission of reducing poverty. Long gone are the days when either the outcomes or the tools of development are seen in purely economic terms.

Yet the organization itself is still dominated by economists. Like almost every professional in any field, economists have a tendency to think that their tools and frameworks can solve problems outside their original topics. See, for example, the entire Freakonomics franchise. This sort of intellectual mission creep can produce fun ideas and challenge existing paradigms. However, there’s something inefficient (even dangerous) about economists grappling with issues and policies related to institutions or cultural change, when the political scientists and anthropologists have been working on those for decades.

That’s why interdisciplinarity* matters. We become better at solving problems if we bring people from various fields together. We’re also more likely to be a bit humble about our ability to solve problems, because other ways of knowing will highlight weaknesses in our own. Humility is a quality that’s historically been missing from the development industry.

Changing organizational inertia takes time, but you might as well start at the top. So although it’s sad to see the US continue to dominate the World Bank, I’m happy to see a doctor and NGO founder — rather than an economist or banker — at the helm. Let’s hope he brings further changes during his term.


Related: Some very smart people give Jim Yong Kim advice for his first year.


* “Interdisciplinarity” is totally a word, I promise.


Worth reading

The last two weeks I’ve been too busy to blog much, but I’ve kept track of some interesting reads that have crossed my desk. Yes, many relate to Kony 2012. I’ve been happy to see a nuanced conversation emerge around the issue, with the critiques receiving almost as much attention as the video.

(Oh, and before getting to the links: I’m now “pinning” on Pinterest. It’s like a visual variation on Twitter. Most of the content relates to fashion, interior design, or other fields in which my lack of interest is only matched by my lack of skill. But I’m hopeful that there are knowledge-sharing uses as well. Check out my main page, or the boards I’ve created: ideasawesomenessbooks, and tools.)

More Kony 2012 commentary worth reading

The White Savior Industrial Complex – Teju Cole transcends the immediate debate to make the broader points about US foreign policy

Unpacking Kony 2012 — Ethan Zuckerman with a better version of the piece I tried to write

The Road to Hell is Paved with Viral Videos – David Rieff pulls no punches: “…what Invisible Children is actually calling for is war…”

Ugandans react with anger to Kony video – a report on a screening in northern Uganda

An Open Letter to Invisible Children Supporters – by Shawn Ahmed. With regard to the previous link, he comments:

First and foremost, what should be the top priority to any individual or organization working to serve those in the developing world are the views, attitudes, concerns, and objections of those in the communities that are directly affected by such work.

If people are throwing stones and near-rioting over a video created by an organization – that should be taken as nothing short of a complete crisis for that organization. And supporters of said organization should be seriously pausing and reconsidering their continued support of said organization.

Finally, because I often berate celebrities, I’d like to take a moment to give props to Don Cheadle and Ben Affleck.

Other topics

Nigeria’s Battle for Stability – great piece from former US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell

Understanding The Al-Shabaab/Al-Qaeda ‘Merger’– by Abdi Aynte

How to spot a terrorist? He yawns, stands still, perspires unusually – unhelpful advice from the FBI and DHS

Why I am leaving Goldman Sachs – by Greg Smith. Also be sure to read: Why I am leaving the Empire – by Darth Vader

Paintballing with Hezbollah – an entertaining and insightful account of exactly what the title says (h/t Chris Albon). An excerpt:

Our collective reasoning for the game was simple: bragging rights. Hezbollah’s military wing is widely considered the most competent group of “nonstate actors”—or, depending where you sit, “terrorists”—in the world. I’d seen pretty much all of their closest competition in action: Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, and almost any other militant group you can name in the region. Famed for their combat prowess and careful tactical calibration, Hezbollah’s few thousand professional fighters have repeatedly taken on the toughest armies in the world (Israel, France, the United States, and even, briefly, Syria) and come out on top every time. Over the decades, they’ve grown in skill and competence to the point where, during the 2006 war with Israel, they’d done something few insurgencies have ever accomplished: morph from guerrillas into a semi-conventional force. If I could get them into a paintball game, I could witness their battlefield tactics firsthand. And if our team could beat them, we could walk around calling ourselves “the most dangerous nonstate actors on the planet.”
/ / current events

Guest post: Kony 2012 and a look inside the Invisible Children organization

[Note from Dave Algoso: The following is a guest post from David Hong. He’s an international development professional, a friend-of-the-blog, and a self-described former “roadie” for Invisible Children. All opinions expressed below are entirely his.]

The social media tidal wave of #Kony2012 happened so quickly I was unaware of it until my girlfriend (someone not involved in international development work), told me about it. My knee jerk reaction was bewilderment. The fringe contacts of my Facebook feed (people who I doubt would be able to place Uganda on a map) were buzzing about the LRA and how Kony is the United States’ number one foreign policy priority. After reading through the Visible Children tumblr, Michael Wilkerson’s piece in Foreign Policy, Invisible Children’s response, Chris Blattman’s thoughts, and a slew of other opinions (including Dave Algoso’s blog), I was shocked at the amount of attention IC was receiving.

Most criticism has centered on poverty porn, borderline-deceptive advocacy, and troubling policy proposals. I don’t really take issue with those, as there are some compelling points being made. However, to malign the organization itself is all too close to the Easterly-esque here’s-what’s-wrong-with-everything-but-I-don’t-have-any-answers platform that doesn’t seem to inspire innovation in the field.

It became difficult to think about what I could offer up to the blogosphere gods. Then it came to me: I used to work for Invisible Children.

As a matter of full disclosure, I am a full supporter of Invisible Children, albeit a bit disaffected, and they are the primary reason I went into a career in international development in the nonprofit sector. I was an intern, not a paid staff member, and was not present during high-level staff meetings or major disagreements about organizational mission or direction, so please apply your preferred grain of salt.

I used to be a “roadie” for IC in 2007-2008. Basically, the position entailed booking screenings of the original “Rough Cut” documentary circa 2005 (focused on night commuting) and another film, “Sunday”, circa 2007 (about a boy living in an IDP camp) at venues around the country, mostly universities and churches. Then, my team and I would physically travel to those places to present the documentary, field questions, and drum up support for the organization.

One interesting aspect of the internship was getting an intimate look at how management and the founders made internal decisions. One IC mantra that was often repeated was: “we want to work ourselves out of a job” — meaning that our development and advocacy work would fuel the end to the conflict and ensure the safety of Northern Uganda’s children, thus rendering IC’s mission complete. However, like any other cause-based organization, solving the problem is antithetical to job security. As the LRA was pushed out of Northern Uganda, there was discussion about IC’s existential role. Now that the conflict was abating, what would the next phase of the organization look like? If the 2008 peace talks were successful and created a resolution to the conflict, where would IC stand? One of the founders wanted to expose issues involving conflict minerals in the DRC and another founder thought IC could develop into a media organization advocating on behalf of all “invisible children.”

Nonprofits rarely close doors in the way businesses go bankrupt, and to say “all causes are equal” is to ignore the realities of the nonprofit marketplace and the standing armies of “fundraising” and “resource mobilization.” IC has always been proud of its unique methodology as an advocacy and “NGO-style” development group; however, there are reasons why few organizations attempt to conquer both skills. For one, it’s hard. It’s hard enough to design programs that demonstrate effectiveness under rigorous standards (e.g. randomized control trials) and initiate campaigns that captivate public attention. My main critique of IC is that they are trying to do too much and are stretched too thin. There is a reason the One campaign doesn’t have direct programs, and why Oxfam doesn’t produce media that can win Sundance.

One unfortunate result of being a hybrid organization is financial mismanagement, but not in the way most critics have argued. During my time at IC, staff layoffs occurred twice, even with exponential revenue growth. Earmarked revenue for programs in Gulu couldn’t be allocated to support administrative or overhead costs in San Diego — resulting in downsizing and miffed ex-employees. There were stories of spending outlandish fees on renting space ($1,200 for one night at an auditorium) and that management salaries were higher (and in one case pitifully lower) than had been communicated to interns.

Is this at all surprising? It shouldn’t be. When I was there, the organization was 3 years old and the CEO was 24. Do I think he’s a brilliant leader and truly capable of running a large organization? Absolutely. However, as with anything else, there are growing pains and young organizations repeat the same mistakes their predecessors make. Let’s face it, entrepreneurs are inherently egotistical — it’s why and how they start successful ventures. You need some hubris. But what has been unfortunate about all of this is that IC could have avoided all the development wonk criticism by simply focusing on their strengths — media and advocacy (like I said before, I’m not addressing the sensationalist aspect of it, I more or less agree), which in this internet and social media-infected world is nothing to scoff at. It’s been entertaining to see how armchair academics are tangentially mentioning IC’s campaign as “effective” and “deserv[ing] credit.” As of this posting, Kony 2012 has over 70 million views. If your petition that got 100 signatures at a community college is effective, then this is a gamechanger.

As a campaign machine, Invisible Children could charge McKinsey-type consulting fees to organizations (are you listening GOP?) that want to start a social media movement. But they don’t. They’ve made inroads in cause marketing and policy that nonprofits can only dream of and upload their professional content online for free. One thing they do better than anyone I’ve seen or heard about is engagement with American youth. The same youth that are often portrayed as “lazy and apathetic” are the ones raising thousands of dollars and inspiring others to care about social justice issues. This is IC’s sweet spot: filmmaking and civic engagement. It’s arguably what they should stick to, instead of getting involved in the murky trenches of international peacekeeping and geopolitics.

Kony 2012: history, nuance, and advocacy’s Golden Rule

I resisted. I really tried. But here I am anyway. Writing about this campaign. If you’re on Facebook or other social media, you don’t need me to include the video itself, since it’s popping up everywhere. But this post won’t make much sense without it, so here it is.

Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video

If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen that I posted commentary last night as I watched it. It’s 30 minutes long, but took well over an hour to watch on my internet connection. That allowed me plenty of time to chew it over. Afterward I checked out their website. I resisted the urge to write anything substantial until I’d read other critical commentary, then slept on it, and woke up with a reluctant decision to blog.

Reviewing the tape

On the one hand, this is a very well done film. The videography, editing, music, everything. It looks good. It’s crafted well enough that millions of Americans are spending half an hour to watch something about a conflict on the other side of the world. That’s no small feat.

On the other hand, those millions of Americans are learning almost nothing about that conflict. I’m so impressed with the filmmakers’ ability to capture attention that I wish they would put it to better use. I wish there was some discussion of Uganda’s political situation or even a mere mention of the name Museveni, because what Invisible Children proposes will have both positive and negative ramifications for that country. I also wish they wouldn’t focus so much on Uganda, because Joseph Kony isn’t even there anymore and the LRA is a regional problem. And while we’re at it: I wish they wouldn’t refer to Uganda as being in Central Africa, because it’s actually in East Africa.

How did I spend half an hour watching this, yet learn so little? Partly because the filmmakers have a strained relationship with questions of empowerment and agency. I wish the ratio of empowered-white-people to crying-black-children in the video wasn’t so high, and that the levels of both were lower. There are a lot of amazing Ugandans doing amazing work to better their communities. Those are stories worth telling.

Finally, there’s what Invisible Children actually advocates: grassroots pressure from Americans to ensure that the U.S. military continues to assist with the tracking and capture of Joseph Kony. In some ways, this is an ideal role for U.S. special forces advisers. If our country has the expertise and the resources to help end a long-running conflict, then let’s do it. But what happens if limited support fails — a strong possibility given Kony’s demonstrated skill at living on the run — and Washington’s decision-makers feel public pressure to do more? Do we switch to drone strikes? Commitment of ground forces?

Whipping the American public into believing that we’re morally right to intervene militarily is always fraught with danger. Stripping away the nuance and complexity of the issue makes it worse. And make no mistake: while Kony is undoubtedly an evil man who should be stopped, the history of the LRA and the governance/military situation in the region make this whole thing more complicated than it seems.

Advocacy’s Golden Rule: simplify but don’t distort

I’ve written about advocacy campaigns before. My stance is a bit contrary to that of many other development bloggers, likely due to our different backgrounds: I started my career in advocacy, while many of my blogging friends are academics. While academics cringe at the narratives used by advocacy groups, I’ve made my peace with their need for simplification. If a given problem requires government action, and we think about the politics and strategy required to make the government move, we can’t help but conclude that our messages must be simple. Otherwise our cause gets lost in the noise of Capitol Hill, or Turtle Bay, or wherever.

But that doesn’t give advocates a free pass. While writing about conflict minerals legislation a few years ago, I distinguished simplifications of reality from distortions of it. This is what I wrote:

Unlike a distortion, a simplification is actually backed by and derived from a more considered analysis. A simplification is tied by a clear (if unstated) chain to a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the problem. Some advocates would claim that it’s okay to use a distorted narrative, as long as it leads to the right policies. This thinking is dangerous because it detaches your policy agenda from reality. You start believing your own distortions and lose any assurance that you really are pursuing the right policies. Even worse, other people start believing your distortions.

So simplify, but don’t distort. I’m only stretching the term a bit when I call this the “Golden Rule” of advocacy. When you distort an issue, you encroach on other issues. If you inflate the numbers on the severity of the problem you’re addressing, you steal resources from other programs. If you misrepresent the causal chain or fail to give sufficient history, you hamstring policymakers and future advocates (including a future you) who have to deal with a mis-educated grassroots movement (see “Save Darfur“). Do unto other issues as you would have other advocates do unto yours.

Invisible Children has done a great job of slimming down reality into a simple narrative, packaging it, and selling it. And boy, do they sell it. You can get an action kit complete with bracelets, t-shirts, posters and more. But they’ve gone too far. Too much style, not enough substance. Their “policy manifesto” weighs in at a mere two and a half pages. The story they tell about Joseph Kony and the policy they advocate for stopping him amounts to distortions of reality. They’ve got the resources, the networks, and the skills to truly promote better U.S. policy in the region, yet they’ve focused it too narrowly in order to make something attention grabbing. I wish they had set their sights higher.


The posts I linked to above, and other resources:

Dignitas Project: supporting community schools in Nairobi’s Mathare slum

Picture an urban slum in a developing country. Walk around a bit. Think about what’s missing. We can move from the concrete up to the more abstract: there’s little in the way of pavement, proper drainage, government services, employment opportunities, secure property rights. It’s easy for outsiders to conclude that there are massive needs. There must be little local capacity to deal with them.

It takes more creativity to see the positive capacity in slums. These communities are home to bustling economies, active social organizations, and practical (if sometimes illegal) solutions to the provision of public services like electricity or water. Residents work hard under harsh conditions to build better lives for themselves and their families. These capacities could be an incredible base for building further assets.

This second perspective — starting with the positive capacities — was why I became interested in an organization called the Dignitas Project. It works in Mathare, a slum community of about 500,000 residents located just a few kilometers northeast of downtown Nairobi. Dignitas works in education, but rather than building or running schools, their staff provides training and support to existing education leaders in the community. Last week I visited the Dignitas Project’s office and tagged along with their staff for a day. Here’s what I learned.

1. Mathare’s community-based schools

Caso Upendo, one of Dignitas Project’s new partner schools

A vast majority of students in Mathare attend informal schools — or, as Dignitas prefers to call them, community-based schools. A mapping project the organization conducted two years ago found 75 of these schools, serving over 18,000 students. In contrast, there are only 3 government schools in Mathare.

In general, the community schools are crowded and lack proper facilities or learning materials. They follow the Kenya national curriculum, but instructional quality varies. Many teachers have little or no formal training, while others are government-certified but may be waiting for a position at a government school to open. Turnover is high. Teachers might earn up to 3500 Ksh (about US$40) per month, or they might not get paid at all. Schools vary in size as well: some have two dozen teachers serving as many as 800 students, while others have just one or two teachers, and may be little more than day care centers. School fees are typically around 250-400 Ksh (about US$3-5) per month.

The education prospects for Mathare’s children are bleak, but community members are clearly interested in improving the situation.

2. The Dignitas Leadership Institute Program: understanding community needs, and meeting them with outside resources

The core of Dignitas’ work with community-based schools is the Leadership Institute Program. Dignitas recruits and selects teachers, principals, and community leaders for a year-long fellowship that includes intensive training between school terms, as well as on-site professional development and coaching throughout the year. Before describing the Leadership Institute in detail, let’s talk about the genesis of the idea.

Understanding community needs…

Most NGOs justify their programs in simple terms: “We saw need X, we address it with program Y. It’s just so obvious!” Sometimes things really are that simple. But we should never assume that they are.

Dignitas didn’t assume things were simple. Its work was preceded by a participatory needs assessment that dove deep to understand the community. Over the course of two weeks in July 2008, twelve community facilitators ran 60 focus groups and 47 key informant interviews with school headmasters, teachers, students, parents, and other community organizations and leaders. The resulting report included findings and details on the methodology (it’s available here).

When I visited the Dignitas office, I told co-founder and executive director Tiffany Cheng that it was rare to see a small organization conduct such a rigorous analysis and then share the results publicly. She was a little surprised at the idea that this was a radical thing to do. Honestly, I’m surprised as well. More organizations should follow Cheng’s lead.

…and meeting them…

The assessment pointed to several opportunities for change: establishing learning communities for teachers; promoting enrollment by addressing student needs; educating parents and improving school-community relations; coordinating with government and civil society organizations to improve education; and supporting promising leaders within Mathare.

In 2009, Dignitas started to meet these needs. They piloted the Leadership Institute with 22 teachers from 5 schools. In each year since the pilot, they have expanded the pool. At the end of 2010, Dignitas visited 45 schools to discuss the program, of which 30 applied and only 15 were selected. Schools have to meet several criteria to ensure a minimum level of capacity and transparency. For example, schools must have multiple teachers, be registered with the government in some way (typically as a community-based organization or a self-help group), have bank accounts in the school’s name (not the headmaster’s), and have a formal school management committee (or at least commit to creating one).

Once schools are selected, then individual teachers apply. Dignitas typically works with 5 or 6 fellows from each school, including teachers, headmasters and members of school management committees. This ensures the institute has deeper impact on the school and helps build the capacity of the institution, rather than just individual teachers.

Dignitas continues to expand. Following the recently completed application process, they will have 19 partner schools this year (including 14 who they had already worked with) and 103 fellows. According to Cheng, the major constraint on expansion is the number of schools that are ready for the program — though of course Dignitas has its own resource constraints. For schools that don’t make the cut, Dignitas provides feedback so they can make improvements and reapply in subsequent years, which several have done.

…with outside resources

Dignitas’ founders and board members tapped their personal networks to get the organization off the ground. This seems fairly typical for small start-up NGOs and social enterprises. However, they quickly found broader support, including from local donors. A fundraiser in Nairobi in December 2010 raised enough in donations to cover the majority of the program’s costs, much of it from Kenyan business leaders who see the value in investing in their communities.

The organization’s approach has also garnered attention from those with even deeper pockets: USAID. Last year, Dignitas started partnering with Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya (EMACK), a program funded by USAID and managed by the Aga Khan Foundation. EMACK has only recently started working in informal settlements, so the Dignitas partnership has really shaped their work. One component of the program is a “whole school approach” to help teachers, parents, and other stakeholders create school development plans.

You may have noticed that the previous paragraph had more acronyms than the entire rest of this post combined. Welcome to the world of development. Cheng says she didn’t know much about this world when she started — and that was a good thing. The new partnership has come with typical donor requirements, which have helped the organization to strengthen its financial reporting and other systems, while Dignitas’ other fundraising has allowed it to keep a focus on the community’s interests.

3. Caso Upendo and the Dignitas school rubric

The day I visited Dignitas, their staff went out to visit one of their new partner schools. I tagged along and tried to stay out of the way. The school we visited is called Caso Upendo. It’s in one of the nicer parts of Mathare, where some government development funds have been used to improve the roads and other infrastructure. (Pictured above.)

Dignitas program director Martina Amoth holds an impromtpu coaching session during a school visit

The purpose of the visit was to administer Dignitas’ school rubric. This is a multi-page tool that’s used to assess a partner’s institutional capacities and development. Dignitas drew from other sources to craft something appropriate for their partners and aligned with their strategic plan.

The rubric contains five categories: systems and operations, like finances; culture and climate; pedagogy; student support, such as non-academic activities and psycho-social services; and engagement with families and other stakeholders. Each category has several sub-topics. Early each school year, Dignitas staff visit a partner unannounced to observe teachers, meet with the headmaster, and then make qualitative assessments of the school’s level of proficiency in each category.

This was Dignitas’ second visit to Caso Upendo. An interview with Mr. Victor, the head teacher, yielded some new insight into how teachers are managed, motivated, and developed. Dignitas staff also sat in on classes to observe instruction, and interviewed teachers. One teacher at Caso Upendo, Mr. Geoffrey, was previously at another Dignitas partner school. Dignitas program director Martina Amoth held an impromptu coaching session with him between classes, giving him feedback on his lesson plans. (Pictured left.)

After the visit, the Dignitas team gathered in their conference room to compare notes and assign ratings in the rubric. This information will guide the training and support that Dignitas provides Caso Upendo as it joins the Leadership Institute later this year. The rubric will also be used to track the school’s progress. Evaluating institutional development is always complicated, and this tool helps Dignitas make more nuanced and careful assessments.

4. Schools as local institutions

Although Dignitas focuses on schools, the impact is broader than education. Schools are local institutions that improve communities in many ways, and provide an entry point for other services. For example, Dignitas and its partner schools have worked with various organizations to provide clean water, connect the schools with feeding programs, educate children and their families on health issues, and offer vaccinations and deworming.

The Leadership Institute Program has also led to a certain amount of networking between schools, so that education leaders from across Mathare meet one another. This is especially important in a place where ethnic conflict lines flared into violence after the 2007 presidential election, and could do so again in the future. Cheng has been cognizant of the need to work with schools all across the community.

Dignitas is committed to working in Mathare, and isn’t planning to expand into other communities anytime soon. Community change takes a long time. It requires patience. Dignitas is working to transform institutions, which also means transforming behaviors and attitudes. You can’t just provide a few workshops and then move on to the next school. You have to build relationships over years.

5. Advice for others

Cheng strikes me as a very candid and reflective leader. When I asked about lessons she’s learned that I could share with readers, she had an answer ready. Her advice related as much to attitudes as specific practices: you have to really believe in the work you’re doing, you have to be creative, and you have to be relentless. All of these are vital for spotting and seizing the opportunities to move forward.

She seemed to speak from experience when she said that you sometimes have to climb 14 flights of stairs because the city council elevators are broken, and then wait for hours to get a meeting, or to convince someone to let you use a free photocopier because you don’t have the funds for you own. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride, or put a check on your impatience, or navigate the rhythms of a work culture you don’t quite understand, because that’s what it takes to get the work done.

My big takeaway from the time I spent with Dignitas is that there’s no contradiction between saying that local capacity exists, and that outside resources can support local actors. The tricky part lies in how outsiders provide that support without overwhelming or undermining local capacity. Dignitas seems to strike that balance well.

Full disclosure: Dignitas Project did not compensate me in any way for blogging about them, with the exception of a great lunch and some tasty mango. I connected with the organization through fellow blogger/tweeter Eugenia Lee, who works for Dignitas. Many thanks to Tiffany Cheng and her wonderful staff for letting me see a little piece of their world. 

Sanergy: making a sustainable business out of the sanitation value chain

Sanitation is a major problem in urban slum areas. With so many neighbors and so little infrastructure, residents have few good options for dealing with human waste. Often they resort to “flying toilets”: plastic bags of waste tossed in ditches or down alleyways after use. Many slum residents pay small fees to use pit toilets instead, but those have to be emptied by the bucket and waste usually ends up in local waterways. You can imagine the public health effects of these practices.

There are countless efforts underway to improve sanitation in slums. For example, one business tries to improve on the “flying toilets” by selling better bags, which the company then collects, sanitizes, and turns into fertilizer. At the other end of the spectrum, some organizations advocate for meaningful public investment in sanitation infrastructure, but governments are often reluctant to provide services in settlements that may be technically illegal.

Somewhere in the middle, we find a young company called Sanergy. Their business model has several components, each of which is in a different stage of development. The end goal is to create a sustainable business to address the entire sanitation value chain. I should confess that “sanitation value chain” is not how I normally think about dealing with excrement. I wanted to learn more, so I recently stopped by their office in Nairobi and talked with co-founder David Auerbach. He gave me a better sense of how they work.

1. Low-cost sanitation centers

The first component of Sanergy’s model is a network of low-cost sanitation centers in the slums. Sanergy has developed a toilet that costs $200 to manufacture. These toilets form the core of the sanitation centers, which are sold as franchises to local entrepreneurs in Nairobi’s slums. Franchisees pay $500 for the sanitation center itself, which comes with the first year of waste collection services and discounts on accompanying products like soap and toilet paper. Services will continue in subsequent years for a renewal fee, still undetermined but likely $100 per year. Franchisees earn revenue by charging 5 cents per use.

The branding is an important part of what franchisees get. In the community, toilets are branded as “Fresh Life” — not Sanergy. The slogan — “Be clean. Be fresh. Be you.” — is written in English. Auerbach explained that the intent is to create an aspirational brand, the way Coca Cola does. Customers are attracted to the promise of a better life. Fresh Life operators also get the benefit of increased business that comes with being part of a network.

Sanergy recruited its first franchisees last fall. The company partnered with microfinance bank Faulu Kenya to pitch the franchises to many of its borrowers. Faulu then provided financing for many of the franchises, while other entrepreneurs have started on layaway plans or paid cash. Initially, Sanergy thought that youth groups would be the primary operators, but working with youth brings extra challenges. The company now sees its ideal operator as a slightly older community member who is already running one business, and is looking to start a second. Ned Breslin profiled one such operator after a recent visit.

There are currently 12 franchises in Viwandani and Mukuru Kwa Njenga, two slum areas in Nairobi. Each gets about 40 uses per day, though they are designed to eventually accommodate 100 uses. Sanergy has 25 more toilets in the pipeline.

2. Daily waste collection

Sanergy has committed to collecting waste from its franchises every single day. The toilets were designed to make the process quick and clean: waste is captured in an air-tight container, and the company’s waste collectors can easily swap a full container for an empty one.

The promise of daily waste collection has meant a lot to potential operators, but it’s been met with skepticism. Residents of Nairobi’s slums have seen many well-meaning outsiders show up, make promises, and then disappear. Sanergy is different because it actually makes a business out of the waste. They don’t advertise that fact as much to potential operators, but Auerbach tells a good anecdote about a light bulb going on in one gentleman’s head, as he realized that Sanergy would keep coming back.

3. Converting waste into fertilizer and electricity

The other side of Sanergy’s business model is what it does with the waste after collection. Currently they have about four tons composting in boxes. With the addition of sawdust and certain microorganisms, this will convert into a high quality fertilizer. The first customers are likely to be big agricultural operations, like flower farms.

Eventually, the company also plans to convert waste into biogas, generate electricity, and sell it directly to the Kenya power grid. (Hence the name: sanitation + energy = sanergy.) The biogas process would still result in fertilizer, so the two aren’t mutually exclusive. For now, though, Auerbach says they’re focusing on fertilizer as the more lucrative opportunity.

4. Other initiatives

Outside of the pieces described above, Sanergy has a lot more going on. For example, showers may become part of the sanitation centers in the future. They’ve also designed a “pedal powered poop pump” that could be used to cleanly remove waste from standard pit latrines. Finally, a not-for-profit arm is exploring a voucher program to improve affordability and accessibility of the toilets for poorer slum residents.

Conclusion: Advice for other social entrepreneurs

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Auerbach if he had any advice I should share. Without much hesitation, he replied:

“Get on the ground…”

Sanergy started as a concept in a class at MIT’s MBA program. Auerbach and his cofounders — fellow MIT MBA’s Ani Vallabhaneni and Lindsay Stradley, along with engineer Joel Veenstra — received a grant to do a feasibility study in Kenya, then designed prototype toilets that they tested in Kibera. As they gathered more support from the likes of Echoing GreenUSAID’s Development Innovation Venturesand others, they’ve further refined both the technical side and the business model. The team has also expanded. Many of them live in the house that doubles as an office, with laptops open at the kitchen table or on the patio.

“…and hire locally.”

The success of the business model depends on creating viable franchise opportunities for local entrepreneurs and attractive services for slum residents. Foreigners might bring great technical skills, but for understanding the market, nothing beats having strong Kenyan staff who know the communities and the people. “Hire locally” is more than a good development principle. It makes business sense too.

Trust and the development of institutions: reviewing “Liars & Outliers”

I managed to snag an early copy of Bruce Schneier’s new book, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. It’s a bit different from the books you normally see reviewed on development blogs. I’m a fan of Schneier’s sensible commentary on security issues, so I thought his book might provide some insights relevant to development work. I read it with general questions about institutional development — and specifically the issue of corruption — in mind.

A theory of coercion, compliance and trust

Schneier’s book provides a framework for understanding trust, compliance, cooperation, defection, coercion, and security across a variety of contexts. He starts by noting that trust is essential for our daily lives: we have to trust that merchants won’t cheat us, that other commuters will drive safely, and that the money we put in our bank account will be safe. Our economic and political systems wouldn’t function without trust. And we, in turn, can only trust others if society finds ways to promote cooperation.

As societies have gotten larger and more complex, they’ve developed four different pressures to promote cooperation. At the lowest level, morals are the rules that we’ve internalized. They work best in small groups because they rely on a certain amount of empathy. At the next level, reputations provide incentives to act honestly and fairly so that others will want to deal with us again. Reputation is only an effective control up to a certain group size — something on the order of 150 people, the oft-cited Dunbar’s number. As groups get larger, certain institutional pressures are needed: licensing regulations, court systems, taxation, and the like. These all promote cooperation and thereby enable trust.

Security systems create pressure for cooperation as well, but in a slightly different way. They often cut across the first three types of pressure. Locks physically stop break-ins, and they also provide a moral reminder (hence the phrase, “Locks are for honest people”). Likewise, tax audits perform the security function in detecting fraud, thereby bolstering the institutions of taxation.

These various pressures aren’t mutually exclusive. They often work together, and the lines between them may be blurred. Still, the framework gives us some broad categories for how society encourages individuals to place group interests above their personal interests.

Defection — with a twist

Schneier draws heavily from game theory to elaborate on his framework. The concept of “defection” will be familiar to anyone who knows the prisoner’s dilemma or public goods game. For the purposes of this book, defection is morally neutral; it could be good or bad. Stealing is defection, but so is protesting injustice. The dynamics are similar. In both cases, an individual decides that the risks that accompany defection are tolerable in light of a private competing interest, whether it benefits your wallet or your conscience. Society uses similar controls to prevent defection in either instance.

Defectors of all kinds seek like-minded groups. Those might be criminal organizations, transnational activist collectives, religions, sub-culture groups, or something else entirely. This is where things get interesting: defection from one group is often cooperation with another. For example, teenagers rebel against all sorts of social norms in order to conform to youth norms. Similarly, criminals may defect from law enforcement institutions in order to cooperate with fellow gang members.

Corruption: defection for personal interests, or for a smaller group?

I mentioned above that I had corruption in mind as I read this book. The obvious way to think about corruption is to see an official as placing his/her own selfish interests ahead of the public interest. What if we instead think of corruption as defecting from the social pressures of one group, in order to cooperate with the pressures from another?

Society as a whole pressures public officials through moral, reputational, and institutional mechanisms, as well as security systems like audits. Each type of pressure provides a different set of levers for encouraging cooperation with society’s goal of reducing corruption. However, corrupt officials do not act only for themselves. Often they act for their families, ethnic groups, or other constituencies. The pressures from these subgroups can be much stronger than the broader societal pressures.

As Schneier points out, understanding the actor is critical to understanding how they will respond to moral, reputational, institutional, or security pressures. It’s not enough to crank up the pressure against corruption. We also have to consider the other pressures that an individual faces.

Unexpected consequences

Social pressures operate in complex systems that have evolved over time. When they change, they can have unexpected and often counterintuitive results. To draw one example from the book: employing a security guard at a store can actually lead to an increase in shoplifting, if other employees conclude that monitoring shoppers is no longer their responsibility.

The results get even harder to predict when you consider technological advances. New technology creates new opportunities for defection: computer viruses, email scams, homemade chemical weapons, and so on. Defectors can often exploit new weaknesses more quickly than institutions and security systems can adapt to defend.

The point about unexpected consequences is especially interesting as we think about institutions in developing countries. Intentional efforts to “build institutions” don’t always turn out the way they’re planned. Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that individuals face tremendous pressures that run counter to institutional goals. Social norms are slow to change, as are in-group loyalties.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book, though it came with no obligation to provide a favorable review. The links above are Amazon Associate links, which provide me with a tiny amount of revenue from any books you buy.

Measurement at the agency level, part 3: One Acre Fund case study

This is the third and (probably) final post in a series on measurement at the agency level. Part 1 discussed the basic idea and the challenges involved. Part 2 looked at how Mercy Corps has dealt with these issues.

This installment covers a very different organization: One Acre Fund. While Mercy Corps manages a wide range of programs in over 40 countries on every continent, One Acre Fund works only in agricultural development and has operations in just a few countries. This has implications for their level of programmatic homogeneity and focus on particular results. They’re also relatively young, so they’re growing with a good metrics system already in place.

I’ll start with an overview of their model, then move on to talk metrics.

1. One Acre Fund in brief

One Acre Fund supports rural subsistence farmers with a “market bundle” of services. The bundle starts with bringing farmers together to form producer groups. One Acre Fund field officers then educate the groups on better planting techniques, and deliver improved seed varieties and fertilizer. The field officers also help the groups with post-harvest crop handling, storage and market access. They also provide crop insurance.

None of this is a gift. Farmers repay the program fees out of their increased incomes. This has allowed One Acre Fund to recover 80% of its field costs through program fees. Further fine-tuning of the model will bring it closer to full sustainability. Their newsletter points out that no piece of the program is new or innovative. But the combination of them into a sustainable business model could be revolutionary.

The successes so far have allowed the organization to expand rapidly. It has established operations in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, while trials are underway in Ghana, Tanzania and Cambodia. From the current reach of about 75,000 farm families, One Acre Fund plans to expand to reach a million by 2020.

2. Metrics-driven

One Acre Fund describes itself as “data-driven.” Judging from the website and casual conversations I’ve had with staff, I’d say that’s true.

What’s really interesting — from the perspective of measurement at the agency level — is their program dashboard. It lists seven performance metrics under three categories: scale, impact and sustainability. The dashboard tracks progress on each metric over the past three years, with targets shown for upcoming years. The graphic below is pulled straight from their site.

Their semi-annual performance reports include a few more metrics under each category. Some of these metrics can be drawn from simple program records. For example, it’s pretty easy to know how many districts you’re working in and how many employees you have.

The impact metric, on the other hand, requires a bit more effort to nail down. The organization’s M&E staff compares the harvests and incomes of farmers already in the program (treatment) with those who have just joined but have not yet completed a planting season with the “market bundle” (comparison). The fact that they are measured in the same year makes it possible to control for outside effects (like weather or changing crop prices). Similarities between the two groups helps to reduce selection bias.

3. Management, strategy … and PR?

My earlier post distinguished two uses of aggregate metrics. You can design your system either to improve strategy/management decisions, or to provide material for public relations/fundraising. Which one you decide to pursue might influence your choices. I presented the distinction as if you had to choose one or the other.

However, One Acre Fund has blurred that line with a deft move: they make the former a selling point in the latter. They use their metrics to fine tune the model and manage staff performance, while advertising that fact in their promotional materials. This won’t open the wallet of a casual donor who primarily responds to gut-wrenching photos of starving children, but it has attracted a lot of attention in the growing “impact focused” donor community.

4. Could others do it?

If we’re lucky, that “impact focused” donor community will continue to grow and more organizations will seek to follow One Acre Fund’s footsteps by increasing the rigor and transparency of their metrics.

However, as always, a word of caution is due. Not everything fits into neat quantifiable boxes. Certain issues resist metrics and so also resist “proof.” Think about community empowerment, policy change, peacebuilding, and human rights protection — to name a few. Just because one intervention isn’t proven doesn’t make it less deserving than another one that is. Don’t confuse a lack of proof of impact with a lack of impact.

Of course, within a given class of interventions that can all be assessed in the same way: by all means, please fund the one that’s proven.


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Measurement at the agency level, part 2: Mercy Corps case study

Last week I discussed why NGOs might want to measure results at the agency level, rather than just at the program/project level, in order to improve management decisions or better make the case for the agency’s impact. This is harder than simply aggregating program level metrics. An effort to measure at the agency level will face challenges due to the variety of an NGO’s programming, the variety of contexts it operates in, and the inherent difficulty of managing an organization-wide process of measurement.

I wanted to bring in a case study of how one NGO approaches measurement at the agency level, in the hope that their experience would provide lessons for other efforts. This post will describe how Mercy Corps tackles this issue. Due to my previous work with the agency, I happened to know a bit about how their system works. I contacted Barbara Willett (Mercy Corps’ Senior Technical Advisory for Design, Monitoring & Evaluation) to learn more. She was kind enough to share several documents and to answer my many questions.

1. Mercy Corps’ Mission Metrics

When it comes to measuring agency-wide results, Mercy Corps faces many of the challenges outlined in my previous post: over 300 programs on issues ranging from agriculture to microfinance to youth, run by 42 country offices that have a fair amount of autonomy. A further complication arises from the agency’s variety of revenue streams — individual donors, private foundations, bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, and more — which each come with different reporting standards.

Yet in the face of this, Mercy Corps has developed and implemented a system called Mission Metrics to cover it all. This system provides the agency with a relatively small set of Mission Indicators through which to “funnel” program results. These indicators give internal decisionmakers a clearer picture of the agency’s impact, allowing them to improve that impact through better strategy and management decisions.

Several elements of the program are worth highlighting.

1.1 Long development period

Mercy Corps has been developing Mission Metrics over the past four years. It started with a senior-level commitment in 2007. This was followed by a facilitated effort to define the general measures and terms, develop them into themes, implement field tests, and eventually roll out the system across the agency in 2011. The development period was marked with numerous online trainings, presentations, and meetings. This year will be the first full review of the effort.

This long process allowed all parts of the organization to help guide the final product. It has been critical to create a system that’s appropriate for Mercy Corps and has buy-in from those who make use of it.

1.2 Aligned with the mission

As the name suggests, the Mission Metrics are about measuring performance against the mission. This means a focus on programmatic impact. Operational issues like efficiency or finances were left off the original roll-out, though these could be incorporated later.

The 20 Mission Indicators fall under Mercy Corps’ three-pronged mission of promoting secure, productive, and just communities. For example, one of the indicators under “productive” is: “Number and percentage of households reporting greater prosperity.” Another reads: “Number of jobs created.” Under the mission element of promoting “just” communities, one of the indicators is: “Mechanisms to manage conflict are established or strengthened.” Another reads: “Marginalized populations play a role in community decision-making.”

If those seem vague, then that’s a perfect segue to…

1.3 Mission Indicators serve as baskets

The indicators don’t prescribe specific measures. Rather, they serve as categories. As part of the development process, Willett’s team created a 50-page document with definitions and sample indicators. Programs are meant to align key program indicators with the Mission Indicators. This allows flexibility for tailoring the system to local conditions and even capturing unintended consequences.

As a result of the Mission Metrics, it’s now possible to sift through results from hundreds of programs in a systematic way. Previously, tracking down the information on disparate programs would have been far too time consuming. Now, an executive or manager can aggregate results at the Mission Indicator level, and conduct some broad analysis of how MC’s work is balanced across different program areas.

1.4 Improving data quality and supporting M&E

Submissions to the system include not just data, but also descriptions of data collection methodologies. When the Mission Metrics information comes in, support staff can do a bit of a “data quality audit” to understand M&E practices across the organization. This has created an opportunity to highlight good M&E, identify training needs, or provide extra support where it’s needed. In turn, this has promoted some standardization of measurement across the agency.

2. Recommendations for others

In a presentation last fall, Willett offered several recommendations based on Mercy Corps’ experience. A few of them stood out to me. First, it’s important that such efforts aim for genuine learning and management – rather than PR. It’s also important to connect the system with real use as soon as possible. Finally, as mentioned above, the development of these systems takes time. All of these factors were important to ensuring that Mercy Corps’ internal stakeholders could see the system’s value.

I find these recommendations interesting because they focus more on the process of developing Mission Metrics, rather than what the final system looks like. This is the key lesson for other agencies: develop something appropriate for your agency and work. Mercy Corps’ system probably wouldn’t work as well if you just dropped it into different agency. But the process and principles behind its development can be applied more broadly.

Mercy Corps has also seen value in having those conversations about what the mission means to the agency. The process led them to define and understand key terms that had been left ambiguous. Everyone involved came away with a clearer sense of what the agency’s work is about, as well as what role they each play in it.

3. A final cautionary note

There’s one aspect of agency-level measurement that might make you a bit uncomfortable. If you work at the ground-level, you know that most information about your program can’t be captured by agency-level metrics. Heck, a lot of impact can’t even be captured by program-level metrics. Stripping away nuance is inherent to this exercise.

So the cautionary note is this: even as we strip nuance away, we need to make a mental note that the aggregate numbers don’t tell the full story. There will always be more to the agency’s impacts than the numbers reveal.


Many thanks to Barbara Willett of Mercy Corps for her help with this post. Full disclosure: I have previously been employed by Mercy Corps, but currently have no formal relationship with the agency.


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What does it all add up to? Measurement at the agency level, part 1

You’ve already heard my thoughts on how any effort to rank NGOs will descend into absurdity. The major difficulty with such an endeavor stems from the remarkable range of organizations that fall in the “NGO” bucket. Let’s call that the “Wikimedia v. Oxfam” problem. How would you ever make a meaningful statement about which of those organizations is “better”?

A slightly smaller hurdle is presented by the range of activities within a given organization. Many large NGOs conduct a variety of activities (direct relief, long-term development, policy advocacy, etc.) across a range of issues (education, health, WASH, etc.) in a variety of countries. Even if we acknowledge the intractability of the “Wikimedia v. Oxfam” problem, we may still want to get a handle on how a given organization is doing on its own terms. Can the M&E of those disparate activities be added up to something more comprehensive?

The tentative answer is: “Yes, but it’s tricky.” Let’s start with the “why” and then move into some of the complications. I’ll draw a few lessons from the corporate world, and then a later post will have a case study from a real live NGO.

1. Why pursue measurement at the agency level?

There are two possible reasons to do this, and they may lead to different decisions on the “how” questions. Measurement at the agency level could serve…

As a management and strategy tool: Picture yourself as a board member of a large international NGO. The CEO stands in front of you, telling you that the organization has had a great year and that she has a plan for making the next year even better. Do you believe her? To make a proper judgment, you need more than just a financial report. You need to understand the whole scope and impact of the NGO’s work. But you’re a busy person and you don’t have time to analyze detailed narratives of every program (nor does some poor staffer have the time to assemble them). You need a relatively small set of numbers and visual aids to convey the information, so you can digest it and draw appropriate conclusions. So what should the CEO put in front of you to convince you?

As a public relations/fundraising tool: Picture yourself as a donor, scanning NGO websites. Most of them provide you with a few numbers on the size and scope of their work: number of countries they operate in, number of staff, annual expenditures, etc. These numbers can be useful for establishing legitimacy, but as GiveWell has observed, they don’t tell us much about what the agency actually does or what impact it has.

Depending on which audience you choose to serve, you might make different decisions in the measurement process. I’m more interested in the first use: to inform management and strategy decisions. The rest of this series will focus on that. Even at levels lower than the board, such data can be useful for troubleshooting problems, spotting opportunities, and generally helping managers focus their attention more efficiently.

2. What complications arise?

As I hinted above, there are a number of challenges to agency-wide measurement. Here are just a few:

  • Type of programming: Some issues lend themselves more easily to quantitative indicators. Compare health interventions to local peacebuilding work: there’s far more consensus around the appropriate indicators for the former than for the latter.
  • Variety of programming: NGOs that work on only one or a few issues will find it easier to maintain the same indicators across multiple programs, which naturally makes aggregation easier.
  • Variety of context: Even similar programs in wildly different regions may be hard to capture with the same set of indicators.
  • Long-term impacts: These are notoriously hard to measure in any circumstance. For certain agencies and activities, it may be particularly tricky to make useful measurements. For example, in a humanitarian relief setting, the decision loop is much too short to observe the long-term impacts of any given action. The tendency will be to focus on activities and outputs instead.
  • Organization-specific factors: There are as many types of NGOs as there are NGOs. Organizational culture matters a great deal. So do factors like whether an NGO is highly decentralized, currently has strong M&E systems, or gets funding from a variety of sources. So as always, individual results may vary.

These are just a few of the hurdles. I’m sure you can think of more, like simple organizational inertia. Speaking of which…

3. How do you even get this system off the ground?

Forget the bullet points above. The biggest challenge? Simply managing the whole process of implementing such a system. You have to create an overall framework, define the specifics, design something to manage the information, and eventually implement it all. If done right, this process will allow you to sort through the problems mentioned above.

You’ll need input and involvement from all corners of the organization. If you’ve ever tried to manage a project across multiple departments/countries, you understand what a slog it can be. It requires support at the executive level, a fair amount of cohesion across the organization, and persistence.

4. An aside: How does the corporate world manage it?

I’m a bit skeptical of the “run NGOs like businesses” attitude that pervades many parts of our sector. I don’t believe that the attitude is wrong, so much as incomplete. I would suggest a fuller version: run NGOs like good businesses, and run businesses like good NGOs, and generally learn best practices regardless of where they come from.

That said: I think this is a topic where business best practice is well ahead of almost every NGO. Although profit is any company’s final metric, most will rigorously track and manage to a number of daily metrics: size of average purchase, number of customers served, delivery time, staff efficiency, repeat customer rate, etc. These metrics are the drivers of success for which mid- and lower-level employees are held accountable. They’re different for every company.

Companies face the same set of challenges as NGOs when selecting metrics, implementing systems to track them, and making decisions based on them. We can learn from the corporate experience. The first lesson is that it takes real investment in infrastructure (both human and technological) to overcome these challenges. The second lesson is that the payoff to doing it right (in terms of success against mission) can be huge.

5. Still seems a bit abstract, huh?

I’m working on a case study on how one large NGO tackles this issue. That should give you a clearer picture of how this works in practice. I might do a few case studies on other organizations too, depending on what information is available and how much time I have. If you think your organization handles agency-level measurement well, or has a unique situation, or just has some interesting lessons to share, please get in touch.

Stay tuned…


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Regarding the job I thought I had

Someday I’ll tell you a cautionary tale about funding-contingent positions. But not on this blog. It will only be told over drinks, with names changed to protect the innocent. In any case, it’s a story for another day. The practical upshot is that I’m job hunting again.

So I’m writing this post for one particular audience: any hiring managers who found my CV in their inbox and decided to check out the blog. First off, thanks for stopping by! I’m quite proud of what I’ve built here. But more importantly: several of my recent posts have mentioned that I was starting a new job; if you read those posts, you might wonder why I just applied for a job with your organization. So let this post clear up any confusion: yes, I’m still unemployed. So please hire me!

As long as you’re here, dear hiring manager, there are a few other things I want you to know about my blog.

  1. This is not my only writing style. I adopt a certain “voice” here. It’s informal, conversational, sometimes rambling. Conventional grammar and punctuation take a backseat to the points I want to make. Which is not to say I’m sloppy (usually). When I do something like start a sentence with “which” or throw in an parenthetical aside (see what I did there?), it’s intentional. You might disagree with the choices, but please realize that I can write in a more formal tone when the product requires it.
  2. I keep a pretty strict firewall between my day job and my blogging. Some employers are worried that bloggers will air the organization’s dirty laundry. But I rarely even mention my employer or my work on this blog. Why would I need to? There’s a whole world of data and other people’s experiences to draw from. My own experience is a tiny sliver of what informs my writing. If you think my blogging might be a problem in whatever position I applied to, I assure you that we can work something out.
  3. You may not agree with everything I write here. That’s okay. I try to be thought provoking at the risk of being wrong. It’s more fun — and it’s also incredibly necessary. Our industry faces tough questions that intelligent people can disagree on. As I’ve said before, we should always be able to argue for ideas, with passion but without personal investment. I hope you’ll still hire me anyway.

Finally, here are a few of my favorite things I’ve written recently. The first one appeared on ForeignPolicy.com, and the rest are from this blog. They’ll show you more about my abilities than any cover letter possible could.

/ / blogging, career & education

Soundtrack for your travels

By the time you see this, I’ll probably be somewhere over the Atlantic, en route to Nairobi. I’ll be living there for at least the next year. Between moving and starting a new job, I’ve got to postpone the substantive blog posts for a bit longer.

In the meantime, for all the “global nomads” out there, I present my top 5 hitting-the-road songs:

1. Freebird — Lynyrd Skynyrd

2. Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do — Dierks Bentley

3. Turn the Page — Bob Seger originally, but I’m partial to the Metallica cover

4. Take It Easy — The Eagles

5. Here I Go Again — Whitesnake

Yep, they’re all either classic rock or country. Not sure whether that says more about me, or about those genres…

/ / travel & fieldwork

More than just hot air

My fellow aid and development bloggers have a lot going on. Somewhere in between blogging and full-time jobs, many of them squeeze in some fascinating side projects. Here are a few new ones and a few old that you might find interesting.

DAWNS Digest: Tom Murphy (A View From The Cave) and Mark Goldberg (UN Dispatch) have launched the “Development and Aid World News Service” — or DAWNS. It’s a news clipping service that sends you a daily digest of global stories critical to the development/aid community.

International Development Careers List: Got a question about career paths, resumes, grad school, living abroad or anything else? Alanna Shaikh can answer it. And if she can’t, she’ll find someone else who can. She sends responses to the full list (minus identifying information) so you get answers to questions you never even thought to ask.

ICT4D Career Network: Similar to Shaikh’s careers list, but with a particular focus on ICT jobs and careers. This one is moderated by Wayan Vota.

Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices: Saundra Schimmelpfennig (Good Intentions are Not Enough) has released a 20 page take down of the overhead ratio. She’s making it available on a pay-what-it’s-worth-to-you basis.

And stay tuned for…

Peer coaching: The crew at whydev is teaming up with Shana Montesol Johnson (Development Crossroads) to launch a peer coaching matching service. They’re still designing it, so help them out by taking their survey.

AidSource: There are whispers of a new online space for aid workers. The twittersphere is all a-twitter with rumors. Well… maybe it’s not that big of a secret anymore. Aidsource is in beta testing right now, and membership is by invitation only. Shotgun Shack, J. (Tales from the Hood), and the aforementioned Alanna Shaikh are running the show. Expect to hear more from them in the coming weeks.

/ / blogging

So long, New York.

I said goodbye to New York City last weekend. Next week I’m starting a new job in Nairobi (more on that another time).

Leaving NYC was bittersweet. I’ve always felt like I should live in Manhattan at some point in my life. So I moved there for grad school several years ago. I fully expected that I would enjoy a couple years there, then move away and never look back. It’s an undeniably amazing place, but I just didn’t think it was where I wanted to be forever. Now I’m not so sure. It grew on me. When I move back to the US (in a year or two or five), I’m not sure where I’ll end up. New York will definitely be high on my list.

In loving memory of my time in New York, here are a few of my favorite spots.

1. Otafuku: A tiny grill in the East Village that serves up the best okonomiyaki in the city, and possibly the entire country. If you don’t know what okonomiyaki is, I highly recommend you find out.

2. Tea Lounge: I’m a coffee shop lover wherever I go. I’m a fan of any joint with lots of mismatched couches, coffee/laptops during the day, and beer/jazz at night. When I lived in DC, I made Tryst my second living room. Well, Tea Lounge is the Tryst of Brooklyn.

3. Radegast Biergarten: The Platonic ideal of a beer hall. Excellent beers in half-liter and liter mugs (pictured at right). A grill serving up bratwurst, keilbasa and other goodies. Rowdy brass bands entertaining crowds on the long benches, which can fit large groups while also encouraging you to make new friends. It’s worth the trek out to Williamsburg.

4. Brooklyn Boulders: Kind of an obvious recommendation from a rock climber, but this is more than simply a great climbing gym. Though I was only a regular at BkB for a month or so, I loved the sense of community there. Good for both new and old climbers.

5. Fat Cat: Picture a bar full of games — pool, ping pong, shuffle board, scrabble, chess, backgammon, and more. Add in nightly jazz bands. Take away any hint of pretension. Now put it in a basement in the West Village. That’s Fat Cat. Very chill, honest, and fun.

6. Magical Burp Castle of Freedom: Okay, it’s actually just called Burp Castle. But a couple friends and I enjoyed this place enough that we thought it deserved an even more awesome name. It’s a great place for beer (all Belgian brews that you won’t find in most bars) and also for conversation (there’s no music, and if the room gets too loud, the bartender will “sshhh” until everyone brings their voices down). It’s a quirky little bar worth checking out.

And an honorable mention for…

7. New Yorkers: The people make the city. Crocodile Dundee was right when he said that New York is the friendliest place on earth. You have to be okay with — and maybe even enjoy — being constantly surrounded by strangers. If you want a sample of the city’s residents, check out the “Humans of New York” project, a wonderful photographic census of the city. The project’s facebook page carries many of the same photos, with accompanying commentary.

Finally, my favorite New York movie moment:

Got any favorite New York spots? Feel free to share them in the comments. I’m sure I’ll be back there someday…

/ / misc, New York City

Lies, damned lies, and ranking lists: The Top 100 Best NGOs

Sometimes I don’t feel like being clever or coy with the headline. Sometimes I just want to make the point up front. This is one of those times. Allow me to underline it:

Ranking lists are great publicity for both the rankers and the ranked — but they usually involve bad analysis and mislead the audience.

This intentionally inflammatory statement comes in response to the inaugural “Top 100 Best NGOs” list from the Global Journal. The list includes both relatively new players like Ushahidi (#10), and some established juggernauts like Oxfam (#3). GJ’s editors took a broad definition of “NGO” – a wise move, in my opinion, given the blurred lines between NGOs, nonprofits, and social enterprises – but they restricted their list to those organizations that are “operational or advocacy focused.” This led to some interesting choices. For example, I don’t think of TED (#71) as being an NGO. The list excluded the Gates Foundation (because it focuses on grant-making rather than running programs), yet the Open Society Foundations (#46) were included.

But my disagreement with GJ is not over which organizations got a chance to be included, or even the final results. Most of these NGOs are, to the best of my knowledge, quite good. My big disagreement is with GJ‘s ranking methodology. And the fact that they created this list at all. Let’s start with the methodology.

How did they decide the rankings? Good question!

I’m not really sure what the methodology was. They briefly describe their use of “qualitatively measured metrics” such as: innovation, effectiveness, impact, efficiency, transparency/accountability, sustainability, strategic/financial management, and peer review. They emphasize that “there is no science in measuring” and rhetorically ask the following:

How does one – after all – compare the fundamental societal impact of an organization like the Wikimedia Foundation, with the tangible outputs of a well oiled humanitarian machine?

How indeed. I contacted the editors for more information. Alexis Kalagas was kind enough to describe their process. The data sources for the rankings included organizational websites, annual reports, external evaluations, and conversations with practitioners and donors. No word on who they talked to, how many people, how they were selected, or how the conversations were structured.

Kalagas also shared more detail on which of the “metrics” were most important to the decisions: innovation, impact and effectiveness were given most consideration. Furthermore, the editors limited their scope to the past five years. On GJ‘s Facebook page, they replied to one comment to say that the ranking: “did not take into account longer-term impacts.” Just mull over that one for a moment.

Ultimately, it sounds like the methodology was: we browsed the web, talked to a couple people, then sat around the conference table arguing among ourselves. Here’s the result.

Sorry, guys, but that just doesn’t cut it. That’s not a methodology.

Would a more “rigorous” and “quantitative” ranking of NGOs be better? (Hint: No.)

The obvious alternative to this process would be something more transparent and rooted in metrics. Sadly, many people still think that the overhead ratio is an appropriate way to judge NGOs. (It’s not.) You could try a more balanced approach though, with multiple measures in a weighted formula.

This might look something like the U.S. News rankings of American colleges and universities. They have a weighted formula that uses a long list of metrics ranging from acceptance rates to academic reputation. It all creates the impression of being rigorous and data driven. But there’s nothing scientific about the rankings. Schools argue furiously over whether the metrics are appropriate and the formula makes sense. Some schools have even chosen not to participate.

In a weird way, it’s actually to U.S. News’ credit that the rankings are so disputed. We should be able to argue over methodology. The GJ ranking, on the other hand, came out of a black box. It provides no set of data that can be reanalyzed by others who want to tweak the weightings. It’s just a list of opinions.

So could we apply that metric/formula approach to NGOs? I don’t think so. As GJ points out, there’s no easy way to compare impacts across social sectors. At least universities are all doing basically the same thing (they educate students, conduct research, run athletic programs, etc.) and are structured in basically the same ways. But Wikimedia Foundation, Ashoka, TED, Search for Common Ground, and MSF? I could not think of a more diverse group of organizations in terms of missions, methods, or structures. How would you ever craft a set of metrics that would apply to all of these, let alone a formula that spits out a number to fairly rank them?

Even if a more methodologically sound ranking were created, it would suffer from the problem of false precision. A further analogy to the U.S. News rankings: What does it really mean that a school sits one spot higher than another? Harvard (#1) might be better than Podunk State — but is it really better than Yale (#3) this year, or even Brown (#15)? I would suggest taking any such rankings with at least a plus-or-minus 20. So why create the impression that the individual placements mean something more?

So I think these rankings suck. But why do I care?

I am two things: a development professional, and a blogger. As a development professional, I want to see a more efficient market for funding social causes. That’s an economics-y way of saying that I want funds to flow to those NGOs that can best convert them into positive social impact. As a blogger, I’m especially interested in how imperfect information distorts those funding flows. That’s not the only problem with funding markets, but it’s a big one, and it’s the one that I can (maybe?) influence as a blogger.

Regardless of the methodology, this kind of ranking represents an enormous chunk of imperfect information being thrown out into the market. Several organizations on this list have already started touting their ranking. I don’t blame them, of course. They do it for the same reason that universities advertise their rankings: it’s good for recruitment, fundraising, and more. Meanwhile, the Global Journal gets a lot of new hits on their website.

Most people consuming these rankings will not take the time to critically analyse them. They’ll assume that someone else has already done that. They may not use these rankings to explicitly make decisions, but hearing about an NGO’s rank will undoubtedly influence a donor’s opinion.

My suggestion for next year’s list: Don’t do it.

Seriously. If you want to highlight good work and inspire readers, go with case studies of individual NGOs. Or, pick a sub-sector (say, reproductive health, or peacebuidling, or human rights) and write features on how the major players differ in their approaches. That would be interesting, it would inspire, and it would stimulate debate. And most importantly: it would give you the space to actually explore what makes a great organization great.

ICC to move forward with trials of four Kenyans

Yesterday, the International Criminal Court announced that it will move forward with trials for four suspects in cases stemming from Kenya’s 2007/2008 post-election violence. The four suspects going to trial are Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Francis Muthaura, and Joshua arap Sang. In the cases of two other suspects, Henry Kosgey and Mohammad Hussein, the pre-trial chamber found that there is not enough evidence to move to trial.

Given the elections this year (or maybe early next year), the ICC trials are certain to have political ramifications. Apparently Kenya’s new constitution is unclear on whether Kenyatta and Ruto are legally allowed to run for president. Both have reiterated that they plan to stand as candidates. If they survive the legal hurdles, coalition politics may lead to one or both dropping out anyway.

Ken Opalo’s piece on African Arguments provides the best political analysis I have seen of this so far. One excerpt:

So how might the ICC ruling affect alliance building ahead of the elections? Firstly, the ruling will most likely bring Kenyatta and Ruto closer, at least in the short term. While for now the two have self-interested reasons to be together, it is not guaranteed that their grassroots supporters will play along in the long run. After all the question of land, which was at the heart of the clashes in the Rift Valley between Kalenjin supporters of Odinga/Ruto and Kikuyu supporters of Kibaki/Uhuru, remains unresolved. …

Secondly, there is speculation that should the two be barred from running for president they might settle for a compromise candidate in the likes of Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, MP Eugene Wamalwa or former cabinet minister Raphael Tuju. But such an eventuality is also fraught with uncertainties. For one, it is unclear that the old establishment behind Kibaki and Kenyatta would settle for the untested hands of the two newcomers – Wamalwa and Tuju. Nobody, especially if you may have some ill-gotten wealth stashed away, wants surprises in the presidency. In addition, many of them already deeply distrust Musyoka whom they see as an opportunist out to benefit from Kenyatta and Ruto’s woes. In the end they may settle for the devil they know, Mr. Odinga. It is telling that a section of the Central Kenya business elite, Mr. Uhuru’s backyard, have started warming up to Raila.

Although the ICC trials will have their most noticeable impact on the presidential elections, Keith Somerville discusses (also on African Arguments) the charges against radio broadcaster Joshua arap Sang. The use of radio in Kenya’s post-election violence was not as direct it was in Rwanda’s genocide, but there are still concerns about whether broadcasters incited violence in 2007/2008 or have been a threat to peace more recently. As Somerville points out, it’s especially hard to assign accountability for inciting violence when a media actor uses metaphorical language of disputed meaning (e.g. “the people of the milk should clear the weeds from the grass”). Sang’s trial will have ramifications for radio and other media going forward.

For more commentary on the political implications of the ICC trials, see Kenya’s The Nation newspaper. And for a thorough history of the 2007-2008 post-election violence and its political fallout, I recommend the International Crisis Group’s recent report.


Related posts:

Show me the money.

Despite my absence from blogging over the past week and a half-ish, I’ve still been thinking about the use of money and conditions in development. Following my previous post about Cash on Delivery (COD) aid, I was happy to receive some supportive comments from the aid twittosphere. If you missed it, you should also check out the comment that from Bill Savedoff of CGD left on the post, arguing that COD aid will be better than current practices (but do read his comment, and my response, and judge for yourself).

In related news, it seems the World Bank is developing something called “Program-for-Results“. I’m not clear on the details, but it seems to be similar to COD aid. It would be interesting to see a chart that compared COD aid, the WB’s Program-for-Results, and the EC’s MDG contracts (and any similar proposals?) along relevant elements. Anyone care to pour over the documents for each and whip something up? Could be an good paper topic for some grad student with time to spare and an interest in guest blogging…

Meanwhile, Lant Pritchett has lobbed a few grenades at another of the development industry’s favorite cash incentive programs: conditional cash transfers (CCTs). We shouldn’t make too much of the parallels — COD targets governments and CCTs target individuals. Those are, you know, different things. Still, anytime money is being tied to a particular social outcome, we should worry about incentivizing the wrong actions, undermining intrinsic motivations, or overriding other accountability mechanisms. Maybe there are lessons here.

With a blog post titled “Holding the poor accountable for bad schools,” Pritchett is blunt in his characterization of CCTs. He asks you to imagine a child who is considering dropping out of school after years of bad or absentee teachers. He writes:

The development technocracy with its latest rigorous research methods and can-do, expansion of “what works” attitude has the solution to your drop-out problem: they will threaten your mother. This is a wildly new popular class of programs called “conditional cash transfers” which has spread from its origins in Mexico and Brazil to over 30 countries. …

For the state and those that see for the state and like the state, see the problem of child drop-out is a problem of the household not complying with the state’s objective to universalize enrollment. The obvious solution is to make the poor child and poor households more accountable to the state’s narrowly drawn objective of increasing enrollment. That the real goal was to properly educate the child gets lots in the counting. Once the problem of education is re-defined so that the state can easily see and measure it as schooling then forcing a child back into a disastrous school counts exactly as much in increasing enrollment as attracting children to stay in school because they are learning. …

Holding powerful teachers accountable, while cost-saving and learning increasing, is politically difficult. Even giving poor people a choice in where their children attend school is politically difficult to get by the educationist lobby. But holding poor people accountable is always politically easy.

That was on the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog (which you should be reading). Pritchett makes similar points with a softer tone in a post on CGD’s Views from the Center (which you should also be reading).

In his CGD post, Pritchett distinguishes the political logic of CCTs (namely, that conditions make cash transfers more palatable, and insulate them from clientelistic manipulation) from their economic logic (that fulfilling conditions, such as attending school, improves household/recipient welfare) — and argues that the two logics can come into conflict. The benefit of the conditions come entirely on the political side. He cites a J-PAL study that shows CCTs to be a cost-ineffective way to get children in school. Then he goes on to write:

In other words, one common narrative—that the scaling up of CCTs is a good example of evidence based policy making because the use of randomization in the design of PROGRESA provided solid evidence that it was an effective program and hence other countries adopted a CCT because of this solid evidence—has it almost exactly backwards. The impact evaluation proved that PROGRESA was cost ineffective if it was considered as a mechanism to increase schooling. Everyone involved in the design knew this. They were not imposing the conditionality to get the behavior conditioned upon, but to get the transfer itself.

What PROGRESA proved that was convincing was about the political effectiveness of conditions to the implementation and support of cash transfers. Adding conditions to cash transfers allowed a well-designed cash transfer to have political traction against opponents.

From the two posts, I have three takeaways about CCTs:

  1. Attaching conditions to cash transfers will lead to the fulfillment of those conditions. (Okay, no surprises there…)
  2. But that’s probably not the most cost efficient way to fulfill those conditions.
  3. Yet it is the most politically expedient way to make the cash transfers.

I like Pritchett’s argument because it forces us to look at CCTs from a different angle. It doesn’t mean that they’re a bad idea, just that they’re something different from what we thought. And we should be honest with ourselves about that if we want to use them well. Here’s one reason why: if the effect is primarily political rather than economic, then the external validity (aka generalizability) of a CCT impact evaluation depends on understanding the political context as well as the welfare impacts.

So given my caveats above, are there lessons to translate to COD aid? Pritchett argues that CCTs are not actually about encouraging recipients to fulfill conditions, as much as they are about ensuring political support for the cash transfer itself. A similar statement could be made about COD aid: it’s not actually about ensuring that recipient governments show results, as much as it’s about generating support for aid among donor governments that are increasingly concerned with “value for money”. And again, the politics on both the donor and recipient level matter a great deal.

Related posts:

Articulating my discomfort with Cash on Delivery (COD) aid

There are a lot of positive things to say about CGD’s innovative Cash on Delivery (COD) aid concept. Go here if you need the basic background. Despite all the great work that Nancy Birdsall and her crew have done to describe how COD aid would work in practice, something about it is deeply discomforting to me.

Before I get to that, here are two obstacles that are important, but that I think could be overcome in due time:

  • The technical feasibility worries me, but not too much. Selection of outcome measures, data collection processes, verification, and more pose surmountable challenges. I’m happy to see how much thought has been put into the details of implementation.
  • The hurdle to political acceptance can be overcome as well. A recipient country government would surely be concerned that COD aid might cut into their other aid streams. CGD conducted feasibility studies in a few countries (MalawiEthiopiaLiberia), revealing some interest among officials. But recipient governments have little incentive to agree to a pilot COD contract unless the funds were purely bonus, and so a contract could only be signed if there’s a “price point” that’s attractive to recipients but at which donors are willing to leave other funding untouched.

Again, these are both surmountable challenges. I mention them merely because I think they haven’t been solved yet.

My major concern with this concept has to do with accountability. COD aid increases accountability to donors. It’s right there in the somewhat flippant name: recipient governments deliver results to the donors. It treats developing country governments like mere contractors.

I fear that this increase in a recipient government’s accountability to donors would be accompanied by a decrease in accountability to its own citizens. CGD’s work on the concept argues the opposite, namely that COD aid will create incentives for increased transparency on results, which will then enable domestic civil society and activists to hold their government accountable. I’m not convinced.

Suppose local groups aren’t happy that the education system is now focused on a narrow metric of success (say, completion rates or test scores). Parents and others want to see a broader curriculum, or more equitable access, or whatever — but their government faces strong financial incentives to stay focused on the narrow measures of “success”, however it’s been defined. If this example sounds familiar to American readers, that’s because this is what the federal government did to the states with No Child Left Behind. At least American voters have some mechanisms for holding the federal government accountable.

In the case of developing countries, pressure from domestic constituencies would have a hard time stacking up against their government’s desire to cash in on the donor’s contract. What then? The COD aid contract might achieve the results promised, while undermining longer term institutional development.

Increasing accountability isn’t always a good thing.

Next on the reading list…

My aforementioned increase in book consumption continues. The following are underway or next in my queue:

If any readers have book suggestions, please chime in! I’ll be looking to fill up my Kindle before my next trip.

/ / books & events

Reading in parallel: Future of Power, Great Stagnation, Thinking in Time

A couple weeks ago I got a Kindle Touch. The result has been a massive uptick in my book reading, especially when I’m travelling. I’m making some serious headway into the backlog of book recommendations that have piled up over the past few years. If you’ve been thinking about making the switch to an e-reader, I highly recommend you do.

So far I’ve finished three of the books on my list. I usually don’t read multiple books at a time, but these three go well together. Here’s a mini-review on each.

The Future of Power — by Joseph Nye (2011)

This one came highly recommended from the foreign policy crowd. It’s the kind of book that never really surprises you and never leads you to controversial conclusions. You start to wonder what the big deal is.

Then you realize that Nye has systematically sorted all the major global trends into a careful framework of what it means to have or exercise power. I don’t think I learned new facts from this book, but now I have a much better understanding of the things I already knew. That’s worth a lot. For example, he makes a big point about the difference between power transition among states, and a power diffusion away from all states to nonstate actors. These are two different phenomenon that interact with one another but must not be confused. Nye gives clear-headed assessments of major actors (both state and nonstate) in terms of their power resources, especially as they compare to the United States.

One takeaway for the aid/development crowd: Nye’s framework suggests a different way of thinking about the militarization of aid. After finding the limits of their hard power in Afghanistan and Iraq, US policymakers have tried to supplement it with the soft power of aid. The results have been mixed, at best. But the militarization of aid is just a subset of a broader trend, what we might call the “power-ization” of aid: significant domestic political pressure is forcing Congress and others in DC to marshal whatever resources they can in the face of a major power transition (i.e. the rise of China), and aid is one of those resources. They’re looking for “value-for-money” — but with different expected returns than the development wonks would like.

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better — by Tyler Cowen (2011)

This was easily one of the most talked-about books of the year — at least if you read economics blogs, like say, this one. Cowen packs a lot into this tiny book (it was originally released only as an e-book but its popularity induced a hard-cover edition, which clocks in at 128 pages).

The book’s subtitle sums up its argument pretty well. Much of America’s economic growth over the past century has come from low-hanging fruit, such as free land (well, stolen land — but the economic impact is the same), major technological breakthroughs, and expanding public education. We “got sick” thinking that this would go on forever. His one sentence explanation of the financial crisis: “We thought we were richer than we were.” Cowen goes head-on with the idea that we live in a highly innovative time, arguing that most Americans have seen little practical advance in basic lifestyle in the past half century. With regard to the major exception — internet and communications technology — Cowen points to the small impact the internet has actually had on America’s GDP and employment. Though he ends on some hopeful notes about positive trends and the need to reinvest in science, the overall effect of the book is sobering.

The Great Stagnation pairs well with The Future of Power because they both bring careful analysis to the challenges facing the US in coming years. Cowen’s less-than-rosy view of our economic condition supplements Nye’s description of the “power resources” that the country can convert into actual power. With a major election this year, we can expect increasing public discourse around these questions (even while candidates themselves dance around the issues, as is their custom).

Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers — by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (1986)

This book stands out a bit from the other two, if only because it’s older than some of this blog’s followers. That means some of the examples used are not as familiar today. Sure, I know a bit about the Bay of Pigs fiasco — but the Skybolt affair? The social security reforms of 1983? Thankfully, the authors provide the context needed to follow along.

The real strength of this book is the basic framework: decision makers use historical analogies to understand new situations, and how they do so matters a great deal. Neustadt and May delve into the records on various majors events to elaborate on how historical memory influenced decision makers. They provide some tips for asking better questions, illustrated through the historical examples and suggestions for how they might have been better handled. For example, the authors suggest a practice called historical “placement”: systematically investigating the background of both individuals and organizations, so you can understand how they might respond to current events.

What I took away from this book is a greater sensitivity to how we use historical analogy in development thinking and advocacy. Think about references to a “Marshall Plan for Africa“, or the argument