The Piper Plays the Tune

International development is driven by donors. Whoever has the money gets to pick what kinds of interventions are paid for and undertaken. This is a mixed bag.

Pros Cons
$ and mandate to buy public goods not being provided by recipient countries. Political decision-making at high levels. They may program on merit, but it’s not a given.
Not all, but many, staffers are genuine. They read and think and pick interventions that are likely to work. Flavor-of-the-month programming bandwagoning that is later abandoned for another bandwagon.
The power of research behind them, and the $$ to try stuff out. Learning is a weaker goal than accountability. Failure’s not neutral, no matter what they say.
They’ve made a big difference so far. See Hans Rosling for glorious detail. Interventions take time to mature, but cycles are short and subject to political change.

These issues are great and fine and good to consider and debate when it comes to providing vaccines, installing water filters, or building schools. But there’s a whole class of interventions – that are ever more common, by the way – that raise the bar. They’re multi-faceted, contested and the likelihood of success is quite low. Compare:

Scenario One: If Donor X goes into a country and helps administer vaccines, then, well, the project operator arrives, buys some vaccines, keeps ’em cold or whatever they need, maybe trains people at the health centers to give shots while maintaining hygiene and keeping patients calm. It’s got its challenges but it is do-able.

Scenario Two: Donor X decides that State Y’s health system needs A, B and C upgrades. This means the country’s own vaccine administration is going to be improved, rather than just supplanted by someone coming in a giving kids shots. And everyone has a dog in that race. Vested interests in the Health Ministry, local and regional vaccine suppliers and nurses’ and doctors’ unions jump into the fray. Suddenly this is not vaccination, this is politics, it’s the system, it’s people’s livelihoods. Now try the exercise with the police force, or training parliamentarians, or *gasp* anti-corruption initiatives. It’s exponentially worse.

Why? Doesn’t everyone want kids to get their vaccines? (Oh, crap, I really walked into that one. Let’s pretend there is no anti-vaccine club.) Doesn’t everyone want a better-trained police force with forensic equipment?

The problem is that what we want from any of these programs is well down the road from “well-trained police force” or “vaccinated children.” We’re proposing to change systems, however dysfunctional, that are in place because they serve a need. As soon as well-intentioned non-profits or donor governments start screwing around with a system that works (for someone), there’s going to be blowback.

International development is less and less about giving vaccines and more about system change. It’s actually strategic: why provide vaccines in a one-off program when you can help the system reorganize to provide vaccines in perpetuity? But it doesn’t always work. I would venture to say that it often doesn’t work. There’s a post-colonial character to the way donors propose these “solutions” and full-barrel resistance from “recipient” countries when it upsets the current beneficiaries of bad systems.

I think it’s also because so many changes have to take place on a sub-micro level, inside and laterally through bureaucracies. What we’d like to have happen is that the new system is introduced and everyone says, “Wow! Why didn’t we think of that!” and changes overnight to accommodate this imported logic.

Real social change does not happen as a series of cataclysmic moments associated by great leaders, but through daily transformation conceived and implemented by ordinary people (Esteva et al., 2013). See Blog post on evaluation in Africa.

It’s not just that it’s hard to make people change to a new logic. It’s not their logic, and that is a problem. There’s something here: involving citizens and rank-and-file bureaucrats in decision-making, problem-solving and development is the only way for change to stick. And the way you do that is something donors don’t much like: one the one hand, trial and error, and on the other hand, putting the locals in the driver’s seat. Neither of these affords the control the donors prefer, and results-based management is not an option.

By Keri Culver

Blog Comments

Well said. You’ve summed it up beautifully. It’s a system that needs a paradigm shift. Not more rearranging of deck chairs and new kinds of deck chairs.

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