Do 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.