Deep and Wide? Or Wide and Shallow?

At Sunday school sometime in the last century I remember singing with great gusto a chorus that included the lines “deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide…” Even today I can hum the tune (but not out loud as laryngectomees cannot sing. Or hum). The words have come to my mind over the last few days after reading a series of articles and blogs about ‘Doing Development Differently’ (DDD), ‘Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation’ (PDIA), or as the United States Agency for International Development calls it ‘Adaptive Management.’

Enterprising post-graduate students at the London School of Economics have written an article about adaptive management. Two Palladium practitioners, Jehanzeb Khan and Annette Fisher, have authored an excellent piece, published in the Journal of Global Policy, on the importance of appointing the right people to oversee donor-funded DDD initiatives. They draw on their experience in implementing the UK Department for International Development-funded projects in Nigeria and Pakistan. This latter piece (a sort of extended blog) is worth looking at for the two excellent cartoons alone.

This topicality is reinforced by the fact that over the last 18 months I have had the dubious privilege of perusing a couple of dozen or so bid documents where the authors demand approaches to design and implementation that ‘do develop differently’ or ‘think and work politically’ (TWP). These documents rarely specify what they mean by these terms. The one constant seems to be a call for flexibility. Still, it is encouraging to see how deep and wide this DDD / TWP movement[1] seems to have become. Let me re-phrase that. It is encouraging to see how wide this DDD / TWP movement seems to have become. I am concerned that we are noodling around in the shallow end of the fountain.

So What’s the Difference? And Does it Matter?

I am aware that some would suggest that debating the differences among these four sets of abbreviations is akin to angels dancing on a pinhead. I am sympathetic to this. And yet. There are differences and yes it does matter. TWP emphasises the political in a way that seems to be airbrushed out of DDD and especially AM. TWP emphasises the political in three key ways – and these three ways seem to me to go to the heart of what it means to situate development in the real politik of partner countries. To do development differently.

First, in the issues and problems donors choose to address. PDIA / DDD are absolutely right to demand that problems are locally identified and interrogated. Notwithstanding the fact that PDIA’s authors were writing primarily for domestic governments, the approach has been taken up with rhetorical enthusiasm by some bilaterals, and here, the process of selecting (deciding upon) specific interventions is critical. Do we judge that there is a potential ‘answer’ to a problem – one that is technically desirable and politically feasible? How do we know? On what basis do we reach a judgement? Many articles and approaches to AM kick in once design and implementation starts – it is all about flexible budgeting, real-time lesson learning and program responsiveness. All well and good – but it misses the centrality of the selection process.

Second, DDD and AM do not seem to emphasise contextual analysis and interpretation – holding constantly under review all the interests and incentives swirling around the initiative as it moves forward. How is the initiative interacting with the authorising environment – all the politics that happens when stuff begins to happen? Are we constantly revising our understanding of how change happens? How are pro- and anti- forces playing out? How should we respond?

Finally, it seems to me that none among DDD, PDIA and AM recognise the single largest implication of TWP: to embrace, engage with, and seek to influence the assumptions stated in the right hand side of the project framework. We all know the logic of the framework: if outputs are delivered and assumptions hold (usually some meaningless nonsense about ‘political will’), then outcomes will be achieved. One of the major arguments of TWP is that development interventions should be designed to include activities to engage with all the possibly nefarious incentives and interests that influence if not determine chances of project success.

TWP demands that these assumptions be moved two columns to the left in the framework – don’t just assume – act and intervene. Initiatives and interventions are designed precisely to deliver the ‘political will’ for the change / reform program or whatever it is. This is the big lesson from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Coalitions for Change program in the Philippines and DFID’s Pyoe Pin program in Myanmar. Their success has much more to do with informed and insightful problem selection and active and concerted political engagement over the long-term than anything whatsoever to do with flexibility in planning.

Ultimately of course it matters not what we call it – but it matters a great deal how we understand it and how we seek to practice it. We cannot do development differently by adopting a different set of techniques. Change is political. We need to engage with the process of change. This means working with and through all the individual and collective sets of domestic interests that, given the opportunity, can work together to make change happen by overcoming the interests that resist change happening.  

[1] Michael Woolcock’s description at the World Bank / DFAT DDD workshop in Jakarta in May 2017.

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