I spent this summer in perhaps the most overwhelming of places in the field of global development: Washington, DC. While it may be far from the ‘developing world,’ this monumental city is at the very center of the ‘Development World.’ A vast network of donors, implementers, contractors, consultants, think-tanks, and policy-makers have converged in this city to set the agenda of this great ‘machine.’ That is not to say that these organizations’ agendas are defiantly divorced from those of developing nations, as we often imagine and lament in our critical development classes. These groups are populated by veterans of the Peace Corps; by those that love to travel and that live for cultural exchange; by multi-linguists and multi-culturalists; those that seek authentic global impact.
So what’s up? Why do we continue to want to change ‘development infrastructure’? Why does development move too slowly and why do we think that little has been achieved? Why do we imagine that giant INGOs and Banks do not care for true impact, sustainable and community-driven change?
Here’s my hypothesis: They do care. But they follow a system and a method, and these are hard to change.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the complexity of development contracting, so here is an attempt to transcribe what I am hearing and observing every day. American aid is ear-marked for projects that serve our security interests. (That’s not new, Obama makes that point repeatedly, and Clinton (if elected) is expected to continue that trend). A lot of that money is packaged in a USAID contract (or a cooperative agreement), and that contract sets the rules of implementation (like priority issues, partner groups, delivery mechanisms, methods of measurement, etc). An implementing agency (a group responsible for carrying out a development project) writes a proposal and forecasts a budget to achieve the aims of that contract. Competing contractors enter a bidding process, and the winner (the prime-contractor) becomes responsible for managing the delivery of that project. That means: hiring consultants, buying necessary materials, delivering programs, measuring progress, reporting outcomes to the donor, and then preparing for the next contract. Rinse and repeat! (Note: this is extremely simplified).
Problem: the process is rigid and timelines are tight. The traditional contracting mechanism leaves little room for iteration and creative, critical thinking. It limits the number of actors and the types of actors that can be involved in a program’s design. It limits the amount of time that practitioners have to deeply understand certain realities and deliver accordingly. As described to me by a colleague, contractors, despite their extensive technical and in-country experience, act as passive implementing agents, operationalizing projects that major donors seek to establish.
Sometimes a contractor will be granted the flexibility to change the direction of a project, even mid-way into implementation. In other circumstances, donors choose to stay course, even if a project is delivering zero positive returns. As with everything in development, It Depends. And, to me, this is deeply dissatisfying and quite confusing.
Luckily, things are looking up (maybe). According to an interviewee at USAID, the agency is filled with “internal optimists” working to change how things operate. I invite everyone reading this post to look up a few things: USAID Forward, Local Solutions, and CLA. These are initiatives from the system to change the system; to make aid and development more adaptive and responsive; to place resources directly into the hands of local civil actors, to reduce the influence of massive contractors; to breathe innovation into old development structures. USAID Forward is 5 years out, and it has faced challenges (many challenges) along the way, to which I’ve been lucky to gain some inside exposure.
Also, the extent, availability, and purposes of data are changing. Traditionally, USAID required contractors to collect data on the successful implementation of a project (did we follow the steps, did we implement as we said we would?). This is related to a track of M&E called Fidelity of Implementation, which monitors the adherence of an organization to its plans of execution. And this is evolving. With the advent of the Open Government Initiative, USAID now requires the M&E teams of contractors to make publically available all the data collected during an implementation. There’s a lot of interest in using data to make informed, evidence-based recommendations that improve future programming. And people are jumping on this opportunity to collect new non-routine data during project delivery that can drive new insights and begin to change how we do things.
In conclusion, I think it’s an exciting time to be in development. Yes, things move slowly, but even the largest agencies and organizations are considering new practices that (I hope) will create more flexibility, creativity, and opportunities for authentic local ownership in major development initiatives