Category Archives: reading

A Whole New World: funding in complexity

wholenewworld.pngYesterday I was at the launch of a fascinating report on how to better fund organisations that aim to achieve change in complex systems. Though the report draws mainly on public sector commissioners and charitable funders in the social sector in the UK, it is relevant far beyond that. We can take many if not most of the principles the report found and with some tweaking apply them in funding for international development.

The aim of the report is to attempt to answer the question “How should organisations which have a desire to help improve people’s lives, and resources to allocate to achieve this goal, manage the distribution of those resources most effectively?” This question is certainly also relevant for international development, as its goal equally is to improve people’s lives – even though many organisations and initiatives have much narrower aims – which is a problem in itself, but that’s for another post.
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Adapting Development – applied to my current work in Myanmar

adapting-devt-coverDo Development Differerently:

  • work in a politically informed, politically smart and problem-driven way
  • take an adaptive or entrepreneurial approach, and
  • take action that is locally led.

These are the central pillars of the Doing Development Differently manifesto. An excellent new report of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled Adapting Development – Improving services to the poor uses these three principles to make the case for why more of the same is not enough in development. The authors analyse current trends and make projections that clearly show that if we continue with more of the same, “it will be decades – if not longer – before the world’s most disadvantaged people have access to basic services of adequate quality.” They describe how development that follows the principles needs to look like and what needs to change in development practice (including agencies) to be able to apply the logic. Duncan Green has written a good review of the paper on his blog. I do not want to write another review but think through how I could apply these principles to my current work in Myanmar.

The context: a rubber sector development project in Myanmar

I have had the privilege to work with a new project in Myanmar that aims to support smallholder farmers in the Southeast of Myanmar who grow rubber. The project is designed as a market systems development project built on the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach with an added component that looks at land rights and land tenure security.  Its aims are multidimensional, as it is also supposed to contribute to peacebuilding in the region, where still multiple armed groups are present.

My job was to train the team on market systems development approaches and coach and support them during the inception phase of the project, where they set out to analyse the rubber sector, its central actors, and major constraints. Beyond the the aim to developing the rubber sector and working on land tenure security, the project also integrates a cross-cutting focus on women economic empowerment (WEE) and gender based violence (GBV). 

On my last trip to Myanmar I supported the team in developing the design for the project. What we ended up with is some sort of a hybrid between what I call a facilitation approach (mainly for rubber market development) and a more direct approach focusing on the land component and WEE/GBV. Facilitation for me is to work through and with local actors wha are willing and able to lead change initiatives. Change needs to be driven and owned locally, not by the project. When you do facilitation, there are certain principles that you need to follow when working with local partners. For example, there is a clear need for a buy in of the local partner into the change, i.e. his/her own investment is needed up front before the project extends any support. The potential partners are, hence, limited to the ones that are ready to invest in new ideas and models.

For the land component and the work on WEE/GBV we planned quite direct interventions. Although the plan is to work through local partners (mainly civil society organisations), these organisations are basically mandated and paid to implement project activities like awareness raising events, trainings, etc.

I’m not totally happy with this but wasn’t really able to formulate a better way of doing it at the time.

Reading the “Adapting Development” report on the plane on my way back from Myanmar, I have been thinking on how more hands on components could be implemented in a way that followed the three principles listed at the beginning of this post –  and be more in line with the market facilitation part. To illustrate my thoughts, I’m picking the land component here as one example to think this through, while in the project this could also be applied to the GBV or WEE components.

Work in a politically informed, politically smart and problem-driven way

This is what the ODI report has to say about this principle (p. 8):

Such an approach tracks down problems, avoids ready-made solutions and is robust in its assessment of possible remedies. Too often, diagnosis only gets as far as uncovering a serious underlying challenge – often linked to the character of local politics. … It is difficult to identify workable solutions to such problems, and attempts to do so often focus on the wrong things. Doing things differently means understanding what is politically feasible and discovering smart ways to make headway on specific service delivery issues, often against the odds.

There are two things we diagnosed as problematic in the rubber sector in Myanmar. People don’t know about their rights and/or they are not confident enought do apply them to get their land titles or enforce their ownership once they have it . Secondly, if they get the propoer land titles, this still does not protect them from land grabbing by the government – a serious gap in legislation.

What I feel we came up with as a remedy would fit the category of ‘ready made solutions’: The activities focus on building the capacity of local community based organisations to train farmers, public officials and raise their awareness about land rights. What could we do instead? We need to find local partners who are ready and able to drive change in a politically smart and locally adapted way. Local partners are much better at this because they know the specific political reality of their village or township. So instead of approaching them with a plan that is done and tell them what doto do, they can help us deepen our diagnosis based on that knowlege and their continuous interaction with the local system. Continuous diagnosis is essential in order to be politically informed. Together with these partners, we can discover smart ways to make headway on the issues of land title provision and also on advocating for more smallholder-friendly land legislation. This can/should not be driven by our own ideology, but rather be genuinly informed by local political reality and hence inherently pragmatic.

Take an adaptive and entrepreneurial approach

From the ODI report:

Because development problems are typically complex and processes of change are highly uncertain, it is essential to allow for cycles of doing, failing, adapting, learning and (eventually) getting better results. This requires strong feedback loops that test initial hypotheses and allow changes in the light of the result of those tests. 

Currently, we have a plan that covers all activities for the first 30 months of the project. Besides the need to develop the plan in a politically smart way adapted to local reality and not as a one-size-fits-all townships solution, we also need to be ready to adapt and be pragmatic with our interventions over time. The solution cannot be designed in advance and then implemented by the project. Being entrepreneurial and politically smart means that the aim of the project is to develop the solution together with local partners over time.

Emergent vs. trained entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is the modern-day philosopher’s stone: a mysterious something that supposedly holds the secret to boosting growth and creating jobs.

20130720_WBD000_0This is how a recent Schumpeter column in the Economist starts out. The argument that the author shares with us is basically that the heist for entrepreneurship both in developed countries as well as in developing countries (although he focuses on the first) is based on a faulty understanding of what an entrepreneur actually is: Continue reading

ODI paper on planning and strategy development in complex situations

ODI just published a great paper by Richard Hummelbrunner and Harry Jones titled “A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity.” It is a great piece that takes  the discussion around harnessing complexity for more effective development to a much more concrete, practicable and practitioner friendly level.

In the relatively short (12 pages) and easy to read paper, Hummelbrunner and Jones introduce complexity, name the biggest challenges in the face of complexity, propose three core principles to face them, and even showcase a number of tools that can be applied in these situations.

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Paradigm shift and the (non) future of schools

I want to share some of my Sunday reading and listening with you.

First a blog post by Dave Algoso on his blog “Find What Works”: in the article Kuhn, Chambers and the future of international development he talks about paradigm shifts from science to international development. This is interesting as I myself and many around me are saying that a paradigm shift is needed in international development that appreciates the complexities of the environments we work in. Algoso features two posts by Robert Chambers where he sketches out how such a new paradigm could look like (direct links here and here)

Secondly, a TED talk by Sugata Mitra about the future of schools and learning. His basic thesis: “schools as we know them are obsolete”. One quote that particularly struck me, as the language he uses is very much the one we use when talking about development from a complexity perspective:

… we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then she stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.

Watch it yourself, it’s about 20 minutes:

Refreshing read on regularities in complex systems

I just came across this blog post by Cynthia Kurtz, who wrote with Dave Snowden the paper “The new dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world“. Cynthia describes in her post how she perceives regularities in complex systems, so called oscillations.

I like the post because it uses a really refreshingly simple and jargon-less language to talk about this characteristic of complex systems. Compared with other texts on complex systems, it’s fun reading and seeing oscillation and, connected to it, unpredictability in complex systems with different eyes.

Here an example:

Those leaves remind me of a conversation I had once with a person with whom I was discussing the differences between complicated and complex patterns. He said something like, “You say a complicated pattern repeats and a complex one doesn’t, right? But how do you explain the fact that complex patterns sometimes do repeat?” I said, “They repeat until they don’t.” What I meant was, when a leaf is oscillating, it looks like it’s connected to some perfectly engineered device governed by a mechanical timer. But that’s an illusion that bursts when the leaf suddenly stops. Complicated patterns repeat because somebody or something made them repeat. They stop repeating when somebody or something stops them repeating, or when they break down and need to be fixed (after which they repeat again, if somebody or something makes them). Complex patterns repeat because they started repeating, and they stop repeating because they’ve stopped repeating. Keep in mind, of course, that the patterns we see in our world are rarely purely complex or complicated. Even those oscillating leaves I see out of my window have been influenced by the complicated design of the house that separates us.