Archive for December, 2014

Raj Shah has announced his departure from USAID. Honestly, this surprises nobody at the Agency, or anyone in the development world who’s been paying attention. If anything, folks are surprised he is still around – it is well-known (or at least well-gossiped) that he was looking for the door, and at any number of opportunities, at least since the spring of 2012. There are plenty of reviews of Shah’s tenure posted around the web, and I will not rehash them. While I have plenty of opinions of the various initiatives that Shah oversaw/claims credit for (and these are not always the same, by the way), gauging what did and did not work under a particular administrator is usually a question for history, and it will take a bit of space and time before anyone should feel comfortable offering a full review of this administrator’s work.

I will say that I hope much of what Shah pushed for under USAID Forward, especially the rebuilding of the technical capacity of USAID staff, the emphasis on local procurement, and the strengthening of evaluation, becomes entrenched at the agency. Technical capacity is critical – not because USAID is ever going to implement its own work. That would require staffing the Agency at something like three or four times current levels, and nobody is ever going to approve that. Instead, it is critical for better monitoring and evaluating the work of the Agency’s implementing partners. In my time at USAID, I saw implementer work and reports that ran the gamut from “truly outstanding” to “dumpster fire”. The problem is that there are many cases where work that falls on the dumpster fire end of the spectrum is accepted because Agency staff lack the technical expertise to recognize the hot mess they’ve been handed. This is going to be less of a problem going forward, as long as the Agency continues to staff up on the technical side.

Local procurement is huge for both the humanitarian assistance and development missions of USAID. For example, there is plenty of evidence supporting the cost/time effectiveness of procuring emergency food aid in or near regions of food crisis. Further, mandates that push more USAID funding to local organizations and implementers will create incentives to truly build local capacity to manage these funds and design/implement projects, as it will be difficult for prime contractors to meet target indicators and other goals without high-capacity local partners.

A strong evaluation policy will be huge for the Agency…if it ever really comes to pass. While I have seen real signs of Agency staff struggling with how to meaningfully evaluate the impact of their programs, the overall state of evaluation at the Agency remains in flux. The Evaluation Policy was never really implementable, for example because it seems nobody actually considered who would do the evaluations. USAID staff generally lack the time and/or expertise to conduct these evaluations, and the usual implementing partners suffer from a material conflict of interest – very often, they would have to evaluate programs and projects implemented by their competitors…even projects where they had lost the bid to a competitor. Further, the organizations I have seen/interacted with that focus on evaluation remain preoccupied with quantitative approaches to evaluation that, while perhaps drawing on Shah’s interest in the now-fading RCT craze in development, really cannot identify or measure the sorts of causal processes that connect development interventions and outcomes. Finally, despite the nice words to the contrary, the culture at USAID remains intolerant of project failure, and the leadership of the Agency never mounted the strong defense of this culture change to the White House or Congress needed to create the space for a new understanding of evaluation, nor did it ever really convey a message of culture change that the staff of USAID found convincing across the board. There are some groups/offices at USAID (for example, in the ever-growing Global Development Lab) where this culture is fully in bloom, but these are small offices with small budgets. Most everyone else remains mired in very old thinking on evaluation.

At least from an incrementalist perspective, entrenching and building on these aspects of USAID Forward would be a major accomplishment for Shah’s successor. Whoever comes next will not simply run out the clock of the Obama Administration – there are two years left. I therefore expect the administration to appoint an administrator (rather than promote a career USAID staff caretaker with no political mandate) to the position. In a perfect world, this would be a person who understands development as a discipline, but also has the government and implementing experience to understand how development thought intersects with development practice in the real world. Someone with a real understanding of development and humanitarian assistance as a body of thought and practice with a long history that can be learned from and built upon would be able to parse the critical parts of USAID Forward from the fluff, could prevent the design and implementation of projects that merely repeat the efforts (and often failures) of decades ago, and could perhaps reverse the disturbing trend at USAID to view development challenges as technical challenges akin to those informed by X-Prizes – a trend that has shoved the social aspects of development to the back seat at the Agency. At the same time, someone with implementing and government experience would understand what is possible within the current structure, thus understanding where incremental victories might push the Agency in important and productive directions that move toward the achievement of more ideal, long-term goals

There are very, very few people out there who meet these criteria. Steve Radelet does, and he served as the Chief Economist at USAID while I was there, but I have no idea if he is interested or, more importantly, if anyone is interested in him. Much the pity if not. More likely, the administration is going to go with the relatively new Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt. Looking at his background, he’s already been vetted by the Senate for his current position, has foreign service experience, time in various implementer-oriented positions, and he is well-positioned to avoid a long confirmation process as a former lobbyist and from his time as House Sergeant-at-Arms, which likely give him deep networks on both sides of the aisle. In his background, I see no evidence of a long engagement with development as a discipline, and I wonder how reform-minded a former Senior Vice President for Government Relations at an implementer can be. I do not know Deputy Administrator Lenhardt at all, and so I cannot speak to where he might fall on any or all of the issues above. According to Devex, he says his goal is to “improve management processes and institutionalize the reforms and initiatives that Shah’s administration has put in place.” I have no objection to either of these goals – they are both important. But what this means in practice, should Lenhardt be promoted, is an open question that will have great impact on the future direction of the Agency.

Five and half years ago, at the end of the spring semester of 2009, I sat down and over the course of 30 days drafted my book Delivering Development. The book was, for me, many things: an effort to impose a sort of narrative on the work I’d been doing for 12 years in Ghana and other parts of Africa; an effort to escape the increasingly claustrophobic confines of academic writing and debates; and an effort to exorcise the growing frustration and isolation I felt as an academic working on international development in a changing climate, but without a meaningful network into any development donors. Most importantly, however, it was a 90,000 word scream at the field that could be summarized in three sentences:

  1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
  2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
  3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire

The book had a generous reception, received very fair (if sometimes a bit harsh) reviews, and actually sold a decent number of copies (at least by the standards of the modern publishing industry, which was in full collapse by the time the book appeared in January 2011). Maybe most gratifying, I heard from a lot of people who read the book and who heard the message, or for whom the book articulated concerns they had felt in their jobs.

This is not to say the book is without flaws. For example, the second half of the book, the part addressing the implications of being wrong about the global poor, was weaker than the first – and this is very clear to me now, as the former employee of a development donor. Were I writing the book now, I would do practically nothing to the first half, but I would revise several parts of the second half (and the very dated scenarios chapter really needs revision at this point, anyway). But, five and a half years after I drafted it, I can still say one thing clearly.


Well, I was right about point #1 above, anyway. The newest World Development Report from the World Bank has empirically demonstrated what was so clear to me and many others, and what I think I did a very nice job of illustrating in Delivering Development: most people engaged in the modern development industry have very little understanding of the lives and thought processes of the global poor, the very people that industry is meant to serve. Chapter 10 is perfectly titled: “The biases of development professionals.” All credit to the authors of the report for finally turning the analytic lens on development itself, as it would have been all too easy to simply talk about the global poor through the lens of perception and bias. And when the report turns to development professionals’ perceptions…for the love of God. Just look at the findings on page 188. No, wait, let me show you some here:

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For those who are chart-challenged, let me walk you through this. In three settings, the survey asked development professionals what percentage of their beneficiaries thought “what happens in the future depends on me.” For the bottom third, the professionals assumed very few people would say this. Except that a huge number of very poor people said this, in all settings. In short, the development professionals were totally wrong about what these people thought, which means they don’t understand their mindsets, motivations, etc. Holy crap, folks. This isn’t a near miss. This is I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-talking-about stuff here. These are the error bars on the initial ideas that lead to projects and programs at development donors.

WDR’s frames these findings in pretty stark terms (page 180):

Perhaps the most pressing concern is whether development professionals understand the circumstances in which the beneficiaries of their policies actually live and the beliefs and attitudes that shape their lives.

And their proposed solution is equally pointed (page 190):

For project and program design, development professionals should “eat their own dog food”: that is, they should try to experience firsthand the programs and projects they design.

Yes. Or failing that, they should really start either reading the work of people who can provide that experience for them, or start funding the people who can generate the data that allows for this experience (metaphorically).

On one hand, I am thrilled to see this point in mainstream development conversation. On the other…I said this five years ago, and not that many people cared. Now the World Bank says it…or maybe more to the point, the World Bank says it in terms of behavioral economics, and everyone gets excited. Well, my feelings on this are pretty clear:

  1. Just putting this in terms of behavioral economics is actually putting the argument out there in the least threatening manner possible, as it is still an argument from economics that preserves that disciplinary perspective’s position of superiority in development
  2. The things that behavioral economics have been “discovering” about the global poor that anthropology, geography, sociology, and social history have been saying for decades. Further, their analyses generally lack explanatory rigor or anything resembling external validity – see my posts here, here, and here.

Also, the WDR never makes a case for why we should care that we are probably misunderstanding/ misrepresenting the global poor. As a result, this just reads as an extended “oopsie!” piece that needs not be seriously addressed as long as we look a little sheepish – then we can get back to work. But getting this stuff wrong is really, really important – this was the central point of the second half of Delivering Development (a point that Duncan Green unfortunately missed in his review). We can design projects that not only fail to make things better, we can actually make things much worse: we can kill people by accident. We can gum up the global environment, which is not going to only hurt some distant, abstract global poor person – it will hit those in the richest countries, too. We can screw up the global economy, another entity that knows few borders and over which nobody has complete control. This is not “oopsie!” This is a disaster that requires serious attention and redress.

So, good first step World Bank, but not far enough. Delivering Development still goes a lot further than you are willing to now. Delivering Development goes much further than behavioral development economics has gone, or really can go. Time to catch up to the real nature of this problem, and the real challenges it presents. Time to catch up to things I was writing five years ago, before it’s too late.

From my recent post over on HURDLblog, my lab’s group blog, on the challenges of thinking productively about gender and adaptation:

My closing point caused a bit of consternation (I can’t help it – it’s what I do). Basically, I asked the room if the point of paying attention to gender in climate services was to identify the particular needs of men and women, or to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable. I argued that approaches to gender that treat the categories “man” and “women” as homogenous and essentially linked to particular vulnerabilities might achieve the former, but would do very little to achieve the latter. Mary Thompson and I have produced a study for USAID that illustrates this point empirically. But there were a number of people in the room that got a bit worked up by this point. They felt that I was arguing that gender no longer mattered, and that my presentation marked a retreat from years of work that they and others had put in to get gender to the table in discussions of adaptation and climate services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Read the full post here.

Those of you who’ve read this blog before know that I have a lot of issues with “technology-will-fix-it” approaches to development program and project design (what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”). My main issue is that such approaches generally don’t work. Despite a very, very long history of such interventions and their outcomes demonstrating this point, the solutionist camp in development seems to grow stronger all the time. If I hear one more person tell me that mobile phones are going to fix [insert development challenge here], I am going to scream. And don’t even get me started about “apps for development,” which is really just a modified incarnation of “mobile phones will fix it” predicated on the proliferation of smartphones around the world. Both arguments, by the way, were on full display at the Conference on the Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services I attended at the WMO last month. Then again, so were really outdated framings of gender. Perhaps this convergence of solutionism and reductionist framings of social difference means something about both sets of ideas, no?

At the moment I’m particularly concerned about the solutionist tendency in weather and climate services for development. At this point, I don’t think there is anything controversial in arguing that the bulk of services in play today were designed by climate scientists/information providers who operated with the assumption that information – any information – is at least somewhat useful to whoever gets it, and must be better than leaving people without any information. With this sort of an assumption guiding service development, it is understandable that nobody would have thought to engage the presumptive users of the service. First, it’s easy to see how some might have argued that the science of the climate is the science of the climate – so citizen engagement cannot contribute much to that. Second, while few people might want to admit this openly, the fact is that climate-related work in the Global South, like much development work, carries with it an implicit bias against the capabilities and intelligence of the (often rural and poor) populations they are meant to serve. The good news is that I have seen a major turn in this field over the past four years, as more and more people working in this area have come to realize that the simple creation and provision of information is not enough to ensure any sort of impact on the lives of presumptive end-users of the information – the report I edited on the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program is Exhibit A at the moment.

So, for the first time, I see climate service providers trying to pay serious attention to the needs of the populations they are targeting with their programs. One of the potentially important ideas I see emerging in this vein is that of “co-production”: the design and implementation of climate services that involves the engagement of both providers and a wide range of users, including the presumptive end users of the services. The idea is simple: if a meteorological service wants to provide information that might meet the needs of some/all of the citizens it serves, that service should engage those citizens – both as individuals and via the various civil society organizations to which they might belong – in the process of identifying what information is needed, and how it might best be delivered.

So what’s the problem? Simple: While I think that most people calling for the co-production of climate services recognize that this will be a complex, fraught process, there is a serious risk that co-production could be picked up by less-informed actors and used as a means of pushing aside the need for serious social scientific work on the presumptive users of these services. It’s pretty easy to argue that if we are incorporating their views and ideas into the design of climate services, there is really no need for serious social scientific engagement with these populations, as co-production cuts out the social-science middleman and gets us the unmitigated, unfiltered voice of the user.

If this sounds insanely naïve to you, it is*. But it is also going to be very, very attractive to at least some in the climate services world. Good social science takes time and money (though nowhere near as much time or money as most people think). And cutting time and cost out of project design, including M&E design, speeds implementation. The pressure to cut out serious field research is, and will remain, strong. Further, the bulk of the climate services community is on the provider side. They’ve not spent much, if any, time engaging with end users, and generally have no training at all in social science. All of those lessons that the social sciences have learned about participatory development and its pitfalls (for a fantastic overview, read this) have not yet become common conversation in climate services. Instead, co-production sounds like a wonderful tweak to the solutionist mentality that dominates climate services, a change that does not challenge the current framings of the use and utility of information, or the ways in which most providers do business. Instead, you keep doing what you do, but you talk to the end users while you do it, which will result in better project outcomes.

But for co-production to replace the need for deep social scientific engagement with the users of climate services, certain conditions must be met. First of all, you have to figure out how, exactly you are going to actually incorporate user information, knowledge, and needs into the design and delivery of a climate service. This isn’t just a matter of a few workshops – how, exactly, are those operating in a nomothetic scientific paradigm supposed to engage and meaningfully incorporate knowledge from very different epistemological framings of the world? This issue, by itself, is generating significant literature…which mostly suggests this sort of engagement is really hard. So, until we’ve worked out that issue, co-production looks a bit like this:

Climate science + end user input => Then a miracle happens => successful project

That, folks, is no way to design a project. Oh, but it gets better. You see, the equation above presumes there is a “generic user” out there that can be engaged in a straightforward manner, and for whom information works in the same manner. Of course, there is no such thing – even within a household, there are often many potential users of climate information in their decision-making. They may undertake different livelihoods activities that are differently vulnerable to particular impacts of climate variability and change. They may have very different capacities to act on information – after all, when you don’t own a plow or have the right to use the family plow, it is very difficult to act on a seasonal agricultural advisory that tells you to plant right away. Climate services need serious social science, and social scientists, to figure out who the end users are – to move past presumption to empirical analysis – and what their different needs might be. Without such work, the above equation really looks more like:

Climate science => Then a miracle happens => you identify appropriate end users => end user input => Then another miracle happens => successful project

Yep, two miracles have to happen if you want to use co-production to replace serious social scientific engagement with the intended users of climate services. So, who wants to take a flyer with some funding and see how that goes? Feel free to read the Mali report referenced above if you’d like to find out**.

Co-production is a great idea – and one I strongly support. But it will be very hard, and it will not speed up the process of climate service design or implementation, nor will it allow for the cutting of corners in other parts of the design process. Co-production will only work in the context of deep understandings of the targeted users of a given service, to understand who we should be co-producing with, and for what purpose. HURDL continues to work on this issue in Mali, Senegal, and Zambia – watch this space in the months ahead.



*Actually, it doesn’t matter how it sounds: this is a very naïve assumption regardless.

** Spoiler: not so well. To be fair to the folks in Mali, their program was designed as an emergency measure, not a research or development program, and so they rushed things out to the field making a lot of assumptions under pressure.