Monday, July 23, 2012

Changing paradigm of development work

The “expertise infusion” development model is indeed being transformed before our eyes. We can no longer be sectorally-focused. We cannot look for accountability only on paper. We must first and foremost look for it in the relationship of the "implementing partners" to those they (excuse me, we) serve. This requires the time and skill to see what is living in organizations and communities that is authentic, that has potential, accompanied by a deep respect for what is local and indigenous and a subtlety of practice to give thoughtful and careful support where it is needed, which is indeed difficult within the project cycles that currently dictate our day-to-day work in the aid industry.

The aid agency of the future focuses on building its own skills to accompany and support local groups, community leaders, and grassroots initiatives, rather than overpower or co-opt them. The aid agency of the future is able to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, rather than asking local implementing "partners" to change. The aid agency of the future is lowering the “glass ceiling” for local groups to participate in decision-making about aid resources, is bucking the paradigm of development without local sovereignty, and is demonstrably serious about downward accountability.
It is in encouraging and supporting these qualities and processes that we may find the real challenges of change management for donors and NGOs. Development practitioners, including donors, must pay more attention to the concept of organization itself and the practice of facilitating the development of authentic and sovereign local organization and social movements.

The UNDP paper “Institutional Reform and Change Management: Managing Change in Public Sector Organisations” (2006) identified that public sector organisations are often seen as resisting change and that many public sector organisations seek capacity but not change. It further identified that for many development practitioners, change and capacity are distinct, even though the evidence suggests that they are intertwined. This may well be because many if notmost development practitioners are more technically oriented than people oriented.

A useful definition of change management is: “the coordination of a structured period of transition from situation A to situation B in order to achieve lasting change within an organization”. The OECD said (2003) that there is no difference between change management in developed or developing countries.
It could be argued then that capacity building and institutional strengthening also occur in a process of “transition from situation A to situation B in order to achievelasting change within an organization.” After all is it not the goal of capacity building and institutional strengthening to be sustainable?
It seems logical that capacity building and institutional strengthening in developing countries should follow the same processes as change management in the developed world. Unfortunately anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case.
In the developed world, change management is about people and working with people to prepare, involve, consult and generally build their capacity to deal with change before introducing the change itself.
In the developing world, the first time most members know about the change process is when the boss walks in with the technical advisor. Unfortunately the technical advisor is probably not going to spend sufficient time on the people skills so essentialto sustainable capacity building and change management.
Perhaps it is time for aid agencies and donor organisations to look at the essential nature of their programs and projects and adopt a change management philosophy which involves and empowers people to move forward in a common purpose to achieve the Millenium Development Goals.

Thinking out of the box

The Water Operators’ Partnerships conference of 2 November 2011 in Amsterdam was for me a dive in the deep ocean. I entered a world I didn’t know before. Of course I know the struggle to make water and sanitation facilities accessible for the poor people especially in the rural areas. And I know about the public versus private discourse to deliver these services to the people.
However, I entered this world of dedicated specialists in the water industry but also one that surprisingly has an in-crowd culture. There were only water specialists around, not that that is strange during an International Water Week, but I think that the subject of capacity development to improve water utilities' services cannot be seen as an isolated area in the developing debate. But there was not such a linkage to other interesting experiences and knowledge like capacity development and the global common goods.
Ok, the partnerships (WOPs) work with local knowledge of water operators to develop capacity in the hope that public water utilities will transform into healthy organisations that deliver the best services to their existing and future clients. But I refer to academic research and new insides about the concept of capacity building and its impact on development – to let capacity building be useful as a tool for development in general.
For example, there is research going on and new discussions about what capacity is, and more importantly how capacity can be made useful for a broader development with the help of external donors/mentors. Capacity building in itself cannot generate development; it only can do if it is embedded in a structure that includes other actors and decision makers at different levels.
Organizations like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, as well as non-governmental organizations, expertise centres and other initiatives have been working on the capacity development concept – and its predecessors ‘Technical Assistance’ and ‘Capacity Building’ – for many years.
Hence, I had the feeling participants wanted to learn from others who aren't working solely in the water operators’ world. During the conference some mentioned clearly the distinction between working on capacity building on a peer-to-peer base and influencing development in a broader way. They couldn’t find the answers. So there was for sure a demand to know more about how to make capacity work for development. And that's important, because otherwise it would be hopeless to talk about the Millennium Development Goals or about a contribution to development in programs like the WOPs.
An integrated approach (bringing capacity to development) is timely and vivid. But the only thoughts outside the box during the conference were how to make the public water utilities and partnerships bankable – how to get the financial institutions on board. A very valid and important question, of course, but loans are one part of the story; there are many other ways of finance. It would have been better to look at the alternatives. But the alternative approach has to deal with much more complex organization structures. It will be more political too, something most of the participants were not looking forward to.
But water is a political subject – if you like it or not. You cannot avoid politics if you talk about making water accessible for the people, because it is a public good, also if your focus is primarily on capacity building and on how to finance drink water projects.
If development is really the ultimate goal of the Water Operators’ Partnerships the experts involved shouldn’t look with a narrow perspectives to the issues of finance, nor should they focus on water problems as such. No, it should open the doors, discuss the political dimensions and take citizens’ participation more serious. One of the most important contributions capacity can make to development is to create better conditions and solutions for local development dynamics and to make policies more responsive and conductive to local realities. 

Keeping the sustainable development flame alive

Keeping the sustainable development flame alive

Capability for self-reliance

Being food insecure is a terrible thing. So is financial insecurity, energy insecurity and water insecurity. Sad but true, many families, communities and countries are faced with continued or emerging insecurity in the supply of water, energy, and food. Self-reliance as the capacity to rely on own capabilities to navigate one’s own affairs may not sound as exciting as double digit growth but the concept deserves a central place in the international development cooperation.
Self-reliant individuals, organizations and societies develop strategies and implement activities to realize their long-term vision. Self-reliant actors employ technical, social and organizational skills to keep themselves afloat, anticipate and adapt to changing environments and show resilience in the face of adversity. Absence of the capacity for self-reliance implies earlier or later insecurity with possible dire consequences.

In fact, truly self-sufficient and resource secure societies are hard to find. Apart from perhaps a small group of eskimos in Greenland or an indigenous community in the Amazone that could be qualified ‘self-sufficient’, people are highly interconnected and mutually dependent through trade and other forms of cooperation. Producers need consumers, creditors need debtors and exporters cannot fare without importers.

New knowledge and skills can propel self-reliance to a higher level. It worked like this since the ancient domestication of crops and animals and continues today with the development the latest technologies. Expanding capacities is as critical to technical innovation as to deep organizational and societal transformations.

Faces of self-reliance
In the early nineties, drought prone communities of Aiquile in Bolivia merely survived on rain-fed agriculture. The strength of the peasants laid in their syndicalist organization with an economic arm –a self-declared social enterprise- CORACA. The organization offered its members a range of trainings in political awareness and agriculture while commercializing agricultural products to become financially independent.

CORACA was well-known for its extraordinary drive for self-determination and self-reliance. Don German, its president, dreamt of self-sustained homesteads as a reliable livelihood source for the peasant communities. He was fascinated by the concept of ‘Perma Culture’. It is about a multi-storied orchard with a diverse mix of complementary crops and small animals producing in a sustainable manner. The production system optimally harnesses the natural resources: sun, water, nutrients throughout the seasons while protecting the soil against erosion.

Supported by international financial and technical cooperation CORACA was able to build individual and collective rainwater harvesting ponds for many families. The pond technology -basically an improved form of a locally existing practice- allowed the production of some cash-crops and store, even in dry years, water to secure a minimum food production.

It is December 2011. Cecilia, a member of the Twa minority, cell phone in the hand, proudly talks about her business of making briquettes at the launch of an entrepreneurship initiative in Rwanda. She makes 30.000 Rwandese francs (50 USD) per month, enough to lift her out a beggar past. She buys her own clothes and sends her children to school. She now feels part of the society and is confident to enter a bar for a soft drink. She thanks the country and the people for having created the
opportunities for her to stand alone and live a decent and dignified life.

On another level countries and power-blocks are fighting multiple resource insecurities. The United States explores alternative options to provide energy security while the Middle East hugely invests in pursuit of water and food security. Many African governments hope the current growth spurt finally will allow an escape from financial dependence from the donor community.

Beyond the fish and the fishing rod

International development cooperation can play varying roles to support Cecilia, CORACA and countries in their quest for self-reliance. They have skills and knowledge that might turn out essential for others.
We have learned that the essence of development cooperation is closer to nurturing home-grown capacities than anything else. Capacity development is not about the fish or about the fishing rod-to paraphrase the popular fish metaphor. Capacity development is about the combination of social and technical capacities that allow people to fish, hunt or cultivate their own food in a durable way.

‘Helping people help themselves’ or in other words increasing people’s ability for self-help might sound a bit old fashioned but has recently made it to a leading motto of the Dutch development cooperation. It builds on the notion that capacities developed in a specific context sometimes bear relevance for people elsewhere. Well, centuries of “polder” life behind the Dutch dikes has rendered some useful lessons for Katrina stricken New Orleans. And success of the stamp-size low-lands in
leading Europe towards food security following WWII and as a top agricultural exporter might hint to a story of inventiveness and built up expertise. In short, experiences from anywhere can inspire and serve as an example for local solutions everywhere if you take into account steps of adaptation and

New capacities are acquired through a gradual learning process. External agents can only do so much through accompanying role or as a catalyst by being a coach, teacher, broker, facilitator, lender and/or partner. Unfortunately, capacity development processes are often slow and complex, while results and impact are difficult to measure. Randomized Control Trials (Banerjee & Duflo; 2011) combined with comprehensive life stories might help to clarify that picture.

Mainstreaming self-reliance

Over the last two decades Don German’s vision about durable self-reliance of a peasant community has become mainstream in the development discourse. Growing scarcity has finally put sustainability on top of agendas of businesses as well as governments. There is now consensus between civil society organizations, governments and businesses about the need for a new development equation with more social and environmental factors. It is now also understood that durable self-reliance is
not in the least about locking-in safety valves and floodgates to protect against contagion of systemic risks from water to energy or from finance to food and vice versa.

While overhauling international development cooperation we should keep in mind its function of being a public hub for sharing knowledge and skills for advancing self-reliance of individuals, organizations, and countries and ultimately the global society.

What can be a better gift in life than professional support to develop ones capacities for lasting access to vital resources as water, food, energy and finance?