Owen Barder talks to UNICEF about knowledge, evolution and effective aid
This past Monday we were lucky enough to have Owen Barder come by our office to give a webinar on knowledge for development. His presentation is given below. I don’t have a recording of the meeting but here’s a much shorter video of a similar talk from last year’s AgKnowledge Share Fair in Addis Abeba which is also well worth a look.
The presentation was packed full of thought and conversation provoking insights, especially for those of us working in a large “traditional” aid organization. And quite a few additional ideas came up during the Q&A at the end.
A few takeaways:
- Knowledge is a major driver of development (and inequalities in knowledge are key determinants of inequalities in development)
- Development problems are “wicked problems” i.e. they are complex (see my previous post on complexity)
- Complex problems are best solved by evolution, not by top down “intelligent design”.
- Solutions evolve through experimentation – trying lots of ideas, and by good feedback loops, collecting and sharing data on results, listening to beneficiaries in order to identify which ideas work and continually improve them.
- Compare any solution against the benchmark of “just giving cash to the poor”
In the Q&A Owen made a number of other interesting observations, one of which was that in development organizations there is a tendency to focus on knowledge sharing as a dissemination exercise, (if only we could get our knowledge out there into the hands of practitioners and policy makers). In practice one of the biggest constraints is actually the demand for knowledge. Aid workers have too many things to do, and are not rewarded for or required to keep on top of the latest knowledge and experiences in their field. So to help knowledge spread we need to free up and incentivise aid workers to seek out knowledge that will help them do their jobs better (blog post forthcoming on this!).
Another interesting discussion was about the future role of large aid organizations, and how to move an organization such as ours into this new way of working. Owen used the example of how technology has dramatically changed the nature of the travel business. In the past you would go into a travel agency and they would be in charge of picking the flights, finding the best price, looking for itineraries etc. whereas now the travel service is much quicker, more efficient and offers more choice, but is largely self service. He explained that eventually the “aid business” will go the same way as donors look to interact more directly with beneficiaries and to have more direct choice in what they fund and how they receive information about their “investments” and how they are doing. The role of aid organizations here would be to provide and facilitate the platform for exchange.
In terms of moving organizations he mentioned two elements i) creating competition so that the best organizations and ideas are those that thrive, with greater transparency being one means to encourage this ii) since lare organizations are hard to move from within set up small scale projects outside the mainstream, (he referred to them as “skunkworks“) which can innovate by working outside existing rules (and which can take risks and where failure is an option) to develop new approaches, which if successful can then be adopted by the broader organization. In fact there are a few examples of this already within the UN (one example would be the UNGlobalPulse project) – but we certainly need more of them, and I’d like to volunteer Knowledge Sharing as one of them!
All in all it was a very interesting and inspiring discussion. It’s still very challenging for large aid organizations like ours to take on these ideas, but I hope this was a small step towards building some internal momentum for change.