Unintended consequences. Thank you, Professor Hirschman.

Posted by on Dec 17, 2012

I was touched to learn that Albert Hirschman died on December 10th.  He warned us about unintended consequences of development actions,  for which I’m grateful.  He also taught us how three mechanisms – exit, voice and loyalty – relate directly to the role of democracy, markets and reciprocity  in the state, the economy and civil society. People have most power when they can change or exit without serious danger or cost, as consumers, voters or supporters or citizens.  Exit is not always possible,  in which case strengthening  participative voice  is important.  In Hirschman’s third mechanism, states and agencies need to maintain the loyalty of their stakeholders based on belief in the value of what they do. Continued loyalty requires negotiation through voice backed up by the threat of exit. I spoke yesterday with a Zimbabwean living in the United States about my enthusiasm  for engaging with young people in southern Africa and helping them gain the knowledge of their own strengths, rights and responsibilities in society through completing micro-actions clustered  into challenges.   He loved the simplicity of the structure, but was worried about unintended consequences.  He wasn’t calling it that,  and was struggling to articulate his concerns. I offered him Hirschman’s phrase  and he said “yes, exactly!”  Thank you,  Albert,  for making...

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The Trouble with Aid

Posted by on Dec 10, 2012

I watched the BBC’s The Trouble with Aid with my wife, who does not work in development or humanitarian aid. She was very troubled by the issues. So was I, of course, all over again. I was impressed by the honesty of Dr Randolph Kent of King’s College London, in the debate afterwards: One of the fundamental failures of the UN, of the agencies…of the system as a whole, is that we don’t really know how to engage with people effectively – those who are vulnerable, who are in need of assistance. And this is a really fundamental problem. (Dr. Randolph Kent, ex-UN, now with the Humanitarian Futures Programme) BBC: The Trouble with Aid: The Debate (till 16/12/12) I was also glad to see Hugo Slim beeing consulted. His writing is warm, humane, instructive and beautifully crafted. Here are three recommendations from his papers on humanitarian aid: ‘Doing the right thing: relief agencies, moral dilemmas and moral responsibility in political emergencies and war’, Studies on Emergencies and Disaster Relief, no. 6, Nordiska Afrikainstitute, pp. 3–11. (1997) ‘Dissolving the difference between humanitarianism and development: the mixing of a rights-based solution’, Development in Practice, vol. 10, nos. 3–4, pp. 491–494. (2000) ‘A call to alms: humanitarian action and the art of war’, Opinion, Geneva, Centre...

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Micro-actions in UK education

Posted by on Nov 7, 2012

The point is often made that traditional teaching strategies become increasingly ineffective for the mobile phone generation in the UK. Can we make a difference for young people here? Incremental learning in key skills like Maths and English, and gathering participatory data might be applied to the poor and marginalised youth of the United Kingdom both born here and members of the African, Asian or South American diaspora. I tested the idea with some frustrated teachers required to teach complex maths and other concepts to young people who can’t demonstrate prerequisite key skills.  They were very...

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Funders demanding payment by results

Posted by on Oct 25, 2012

Increasingly, development project funds from the UK’s DFID require demonstration of value for money and at least some element of RBCOD (results-based cash on delivery). Not only are these elements increasing in frequency, but their share of points available when competing proposals are scored is increasing too. This change is also true of EC development funds, partly because UK, as a contributor, is lobbying for it. NGOs are struggling to know how to cope with this change, having grown-up in an environment of easily accessible funds and very little financial accountability beyond filing honest accounts. I have seen discussions flounder when it came to how to demonstrate achievement of proposed outcomes, and even more so on how to propose measuring them rigorously enough to satisfy funders without the NGO taking on unacceptable risk themselves or on behalf of their in-country partners. Could documented micro-actions plug into this situation and provide an element of payment by...

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Bottom-up vs top-down

Posted by on Oct 15, 2012

Top-down is when some outsider at the top of the pyramid decides my life would be better if something changed in my world, like micro-finance debt available to me as a woman to buy my healthcare and participate as a free agent in the economic world. Bottom-up is when I know that my husband will make me take out that loan so he can drink it. I’d rather have direct access to the clinic. I have oversimplified things here, of course. Some commentators argue that those at the top of the wealth pyramid have control of the resources but it is those at the bottom who know how best to use them. It’s an argument sometimes called pro-poor participation. Robert Chambers talks about “handing over the stick”.   (picture...

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Where’s the money going?

Posted by on Oct 12, 2012

One estimate has two cents in every aid dollar reaching the beneficiary (source: Jeffrey Sachs). Project and administration costs can strip off 10-20% each time a layer is introduced, e.g. the UK DFID contract a fund manager who contracts a UK-based INGO who contracts an in-country programme office who in turn contracts local partners. Fiduciary risk is high, with capacity problems in-country stalling project start-up and rollout, funds being misdirected or misappropriated and items being damaged before reaching the beneficiary. Many of the micro-actions amenable to promotion via mobile phones require no intermediary at all except to produce the media that stimulates reaction and monitor and track performance. Experience to date has shown that partnerships are sometimes needed, for example in providing eye tests or glasses. Recruiting young people to try new products will also require partnership with supply and logistic agents. With all these considerations, the micro-action model still seems to greatly reduce the cost and complexity of intermediaries compared to many other attempted...

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