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. The strategies and principles of development entrepreneurship remind me more of campaign organizing than private-sector entrepreneurship. The report focuses on things like iterative action, self-motivated leaders, coalition-building, and actor mapping. For one comparison point, see how the Wellstone Institute’s guide to strategic planning talks about power mapping.

The decision to call the approach “entrepreneurship” rather than “campaigning” is savvy. Though the ODI report doesn’t shy away from the political nature of what’s being described (the report is actually part of the “Working Politically in Practice” series), all the discussions about “thinking and working politically” run up against the challenge that aid agencies can get caught in a tough spot if they’re actually seen to be working politically. But who could object to working more entrepreneurially?

Intermediating development risk

My favorite point from the report is about the role of organizations like the Asia Foundation as intermediaries for aid funding. I rather like the financial services metaphor you can make here: regional funders can intermediate between large donors (who have capital, but with significant bureaucratic constraints) and small development entrepreneurs (who need capital, but with more flexibility and trust)—analogous to how banks intermediate between lenders and borrowers. These intermediaries channel the funding with flexible support to allow for adaptive programming and risk-taking.

However, this only works if the intermediary organization is willing to take on that risk. If it tries to pass the risk down the chain, then it will do so by conforming its own structures and processes to match the donor’s, becoming little more than a contracting arm. The greater adaptability, political awareness, and overall entrepreneurial nature gets dissipated.

Other models?

There are other operational models for accomplishing this adaptability and political savvy besides development entrepreneurship, but I haven’t seen any articulated quite as clearly. A few other approaches are regularly lauded in the “Doing Development Differently“-type conversations, such as DfID’s State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) in Nigeria or PeaceDirect’s work. There may be a sense in which these fit into the development entrepreneurship model, or they might suggest entirely different models—I’m not familiar enough with either to say. Efforts like the Global Delivery Initiative seek to better document these and other case studies, but many of the conversations that I’ve been part of suggest a hunger for cases, principles, and processes.

There’s also a gap in terms of understanding how these operational models fit into donor agencies. It requires some combination of culture change and new processes (e.g. see DfID’s efforts), but there are open questions. How do we go beyond the pockets of success and adaptability at the big agencies, or spread the good word from the smaller agencies where a different culture has taken hold, to convert the rest of the sector?

That’s a topic for a longer post, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

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