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Beware development geeks bearing gifts

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Yes, this is another review, or perhaps more of a rumination on “Geek Heresy” by Kentaro Toyama (available on Amazon!)

I’ve long been a fan of the ICT4DJester’s snarky tweets about ICT for Development (Toyama’s alter ego) and  have been looking forward to this book. Here is a quick overview and a few thoughts about his conclusions.

The first half of his book is a critique of techno utopian promises in development and in particular on technology based packaged interventions (One Laptop per Child, Community technology centres etc.) that have been variously touted as being the keys to ending poverty. Development veterans will probably be nodding vigorously in agreement with his critique which is strengthened by not only drawing from examples of his own work in the area of information technology but also on examples of non-IT “technologies” such as microcredit and even elections to show the weaknesses of focusing only on the intervention (the “silver bullet”) without looking at the ecosystem in which it is placed. He also takes a satisfying swipe at some of the hype around social marketing using the example of the two for one programme of Toms shoes.

His basic thesis is that technology (or any packed intervention) acts as an amplifier of human intent but not as a good in of itself. In other words technology can enhance whatever purpose humans choose to put it to, but it will not do good by itself, only when the people using it have the motivation and the capacity to use it. The problem in development is that the people who have the greatest need, are also often the least equipped to take advantage of technological fixes.

This also reminds me of the conundrum in knowledge management that the main focus is often on scientific evidence around the design of interventions and how to generalize them using hard data, and rigorous research and evaluation – but there is much less focus on the importance of tacit knowledge – know-how in what it takes to actually get things done which revolves more around the people and the environment. Unfortunately while you may be able to replicate the design of an intervention, it’s much harder to replicate the qualities of the people and environment which it can be implemented successfully.

Toyama’s proposed solution for this is to foster “intrinsic growth” in the communities and individuals with which you work on a development project. This sounds like capacity building – but Toyama breaks this down into three critical components i) intention or heart (the desire to improve things) ii) the skills and judgment to pick the right opportunities and strategies to advance their cause and iii) will or self-control i.e. the ability to resist distractions, temptations as well as to put off present day comfort for future gain.

The second half of the book looks at how intrinsic growth can be developed, drawing on a number of inspiring real life examples. He quite rightly stresses that this is difficult and takes a lot of time and investment. He proposes several methods through which this can be done including education, mentorships and deep engagement with the communities we seek to help, as well as a focus on supporting them to meet their needs rather than trying to get them to pursue our externally imposed goals. While I think he is on to something important here – this part is less satisfying as I think he is on thinner ground in terms of evidence and experience. In fact this is a common trait of books on development  – a first half of well crafted and strongly sourced critique of current practice together with a convincing theory – followed by a second half which uses the theory to propose a way forward –  with useful ideas but incomplete or insufficiently concrete to either convince or to implement.

In this case the challenge is that while education, mentoring and long-term engagement and focusing on the needs of the community and not the donor are clearly important factors in nurturing intrinsic growth, it’s not clear to me that they are the whole picture – nurturing “self-control” is especially challenging (I know I struggle with it at an individual level!). He’s also dismissive of societal nudges i.e. incentives by governments (or donors) to encourage citizens to behave a certain (hopefully more productive) way – while I think there is a fair amount of evidence that this can work – albeit not without some of the other elements in place too.

An area I wish he had elaborated on further was the potential of new complexity based approaches such as human-centred design and agile development to improve how development programmes are designed and implemented. These are promising in that they are designed with the users and the context in the forefront rather than simply introducing externally packaged ideas. They also emphasize the importance of prototyping and continual iteration to improve fit. However they still often result in technological fixes even if they are designed for the specific context, and do not directly address the underlying issues of will and judgment which Toyama rightly emphasizes.

Overall the book is a quick and easy read, and well worth the effort. The biggest take away is an important and too often overlooked aspect to development – that packaged interventions (whether ICT related or not) have an important role to play in development – but this needs to be combined with a strong focus on building the capacity and intrinsic motivation of the communities where they are delivered so that the interventions become an amplifier of a self-propelled desire for progress rather than an externally imposed solution. They are not the cause of change in of themselves but are key enablers when the right conditions for change are already there or are being carefully nurtured. And if we want to reach the most excluded we might want to start out focusing on the intrinsic growth rather before delivering technology.

Written by Ian Thorpe

August 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

KMWorld’s 100 Companies that Matter in K

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KMWorld’s 100 Companies that Matter in Knowledge Management

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 3, 2015 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Working out loud – how can we slowly increase the volume?

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17-24 November is International Working Out Loud week (#wolweek).

This celebrates and promotes the idea of “Working out Loud” i.e. making your day-to-day work more visible to others and narrating your work – so that others can see what you are doing, give feedback, get involved or learn from what you are doing (This short blog by John Stepper outlines the 5 key elements of working out loud for those who want to know more about what I’m talking about here).

This is a powerful idea, and as you can see from the working out loud week site, there are a lot of social collaboration and knowledge management experts and thought leaders doing exciting things in this area.

But while we have a lot of experts and advocates who are practicing this, and those of us who try to do it can see the tremendous benefit, it’s still proving challenging (for me at least) to persuade a critical mass of people inside my own organization to give this a serious try.

The #wolweek site has requested contributions from practitioners to 5 questions (see my responses here) which were quite helpful in framing my own thoughts about why this is difficult, but also what steps to take to make it happen.

Some people are naturally open or curious about the idea and are willing to give it a try – for them it’s enough to explain, show examples and help them use the tools. But for most there is a great deal of reluctance or even fear about this idea – and a lot of questions. How do I do it? What is the benefit of doing this? Aren’t I just spamming people? How can I share what I’m doing before it is completed and fact-checked? Won’t people steal my ideas? Won’t I get into trouble if I make a mistake?

So here’s what I’m learning about how to encourage those who are more reluctant. It is important  to start with a small and relatively low risk opportunity to give it a try. This could be trying it on a specific project or with a small team, or for a fixed period of time. In any of these cases both the effort and the risk is relatively low, yet there can still be some added benefits. Over time as people become more comfortable working out loud within a small team or project then they can be encouraged to do this more broadly such as within a department or professional community. Eventually they might even feel comfortable enough to share what they are doing to the whole organization, and then possibly even a few of them might work or think out loud in public. The more you share the greater the potential benefit, but also the greater discomfort and even risk  – so if you are not a “natural” it makes sense to start quietly and slowly turn up the volume.

Another important element is to have relevant examples of working out loud to show how it can be done from within your organization or in others – you need a few champions to lead the way – and it can’t be bad to create a little envy – why are people talking about these guys? (because they are talking openly about their work and you can too). It can also be good to try doing it as a team to share experience and provide mutual support.

But realistically speaking not everyone is going to be willing to share all their work in public, and I also think sharing in public is something that is qualitatively different from sharing within the organization. I’ve been tweeting and blogging for several years – but for me the act of sharing in public is quite different from sharing inside the organization. In some ways I can write about things publicly that I don’t write about inside because the audience and the purpose is different – in fact I write what I like here because I now that most people inside my organization will not read this or are aware that I blog (or that anyone else that they know does either). Sharing publicly for me is a way of reaching out to people who have similar interests, experiences and challenges to me, of which there are many more outside the organization than inside, whereas working out loud inside the organization is more about helping disseminate what we are doing and looking for people to work with where there is mutual benefit but where our work is different.

Among the people who work out loud in public – while I admire the trailblazers who promote the idea of working out loud, those I admire the most are not those who write and promote this topic, but those that are working out loud in their area of expertise without explicitly talking about it – but who are just using it as part of their work. In the world of international development these are the aid bloggers who write about their work covering what they achieve, but also the process and the discussions and their challenges and failures – not explicitly to promote their organization as marketers, but as authentic voices for the work. There are not to many of these in large aid organizations and some of the best ones are anonymous – but a few more obvious public  cases that come to mind are the World Bank bloggers, or the Oxfam bloggers (including Duncan Green and Jennifer Lentfer) and UNDP’s Voices of Eurasia and then there is a much larger number of independent blogs by individuals (see this list here from Aidsource which, although incomplete, includes many of the more popular and frequently updated ones). The aid bloggers deserve a shout out as part of work out loud week since they write what those of us working in this field know are the challenges of our work, but which you rarely hear from official sources – a comfort for aid workers and the beginning of an education for those who don’t work in our field about some of the misconceptions about what aid workers do – the challenges they face – and what works and what doesn’t.

UNICEF also recently launched its first official public blog, led by Jim Rosenberg who helped get the World Bank blogging before coming to UNICEF. Let’s hope we can use this to get some strong authentic voices who will be willing to share more about what they are doing as they do it to an external audience – not just for the sake of fundraising or building a strong brand, but to help inform those who are genuinely curious about how we get our work done and from whom we could inform, partner with and learn from by opening ourselves up.

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 17, 2014 at 9:00 am

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Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel

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We just put out a consultancy announcement to hire someone to work on a knowledge exchange toolbox for UNICEF. Creating a flexible set of simple tools that staff can use for different challenges they have with knowledge sharing is part of our overall approach to foster a culture of greater knowledge sharing and to give them the means to do it.

The consultancy advertisement was widely retweeted (many thanks to all)  – but I was also called out for trying to reinvent the wheel.

Nancy White@NancyWhite

@peterballantyne @ithorpe @GH_Knowledge Sounds like wheel recreation & many others!

A good question – why try to create our own toolbox when there are already a number of other perfectly good toolkits in existence already? UNDP, Swiss Cooperation, OHCHR and IFAD and many others have already produced some sort of knowledge toolkit and UNICEF is even a partner in the Knowledge Sharing toolkit which Nancy links to in her tweet.

But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.

People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.

The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.

Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.

I’m a big fan of crowdsourced tools like the KS toolkit but it isn’t sufficiently adapted to meet  our organizational needs – precisely because it is for everyone – and it’s not clear how to get help on when and how to use some of the tools in the UNICEF context. I’ve actively tried to promote use of the KS toolkit within the organization but with limited success – it’s a very valuable resource and reference, but not something that most of our staff seem willing to use as a daily guide.

I’m also a big fan of some of the existing agency toolkits but again they are not adapted for us and it’s not always clear how to apply them or where to go for help.

But to be clear, this doesn’t mean reinventing the sake of it. A lot of good work already exists, the key is to reuse it, build on it and adapt it where needed (and not just because). Much of the work will be in packaging or repackaging existing approaches, testing them out in practice in our organizational context and then adapting them to meet our needs. Quite a lot like regular knowledge management and sharing work in fact!

An additional element is to continually improve the tools based on experience in using them, and to slowly add to the tools over time as different approaches are tested. This will include the creation and prototyping a few new approaches but will mostly be incremental learning on the use of existing ones. A final point with all of these is to make the tools publicly available so anyone else can copy them share them – or more likely re-adapt and reconfigure them for their own use rather than just taking them “as is”.

Written by Ian Thorpe

October 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Organizational lessons from youth advocates

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UN Live United Nations Web TV     New York Activate Talk  Innovative Approaches to Advocate for Child Rights

A couple of days ago I listened to an interesting webcast organized by UNICEF in its “Activate” series of talks – in this case on innovative approaches to advocate for child rights.

In a refreshing style, rather than asking some seasoned experts on how to advocate on youth issues they asked actual successful youth advocates themselves.

The speakers all had interesting and inspiring stories to tell about their own advocacy projects which carry a lot of useful insights for other would-be youth advocates and the organizations that seek to work with them and to support them.

But what struck me most as a person working on knowledge sharing, with a side interest in transforming the UN, was how relevant some of the key ideas were to our continual discussions on how to improve development organizations themselves.

A few relevant take-aways:

1. Not being afraid of failure. One of the speakers Erik Martin (@Eriklaes) spoke about how education often discourages failure but should instead encourage children to experiment and take risks and how it is important to have a safe space to fail in order to learn. But this too is a challenge for aid organizations where the pressure is to deliver consistently, but not to risk failure in order to achieve greater gains.

2. The need listening to and engaging with the people you wish to influence or to advocate for in order to better understand their needs and constraints, and to involve them in producing solutions that will be relevant and effective for them. This is a good practice for all parts of aid work not only youth advocacy, and something that aid agencies need to do more systematically. But this lesson also applies to internal organizational issues – when you are making strategic plans or carrying out organizational restructuring, or pondering about the future of the organization in the post-2015 world, it also makes sense to listen to and engage the staff of the organization who are the ones who will be expected to make these changes happen – but too often the engagement is only superficial.

3. The importance of building networks of people for mutual support as well as to work together and share their insights and experience, particularly across different locations or groups of people. Just as international youth networks can be stronger through the creation of large diverse networks of supporters, similarly for professional aid workers there is a lot of benefit to having strong networks of peer professionals with whom to share ideas, get advice and provide mutual support – and yet often this is left to  individuals when it is in an organization’s interest to support and strengthen these networks to help their staff be more effective. An important element that came up in the discussion was the benefit of bringing a diverse group of people together from different backgrounds and expertise in order to generate innovative ideas. Subject matter silos which stifle new ideas are also a well-known phenomenon in organizational culture and finding ways to create cross-sectoral networks and connections is also something we need to pursue.

In this blog I’m just picking up on those points that were particularly resonant for organizational change and knowledge sharing, but there were a lot of other interesting points on youth engagement and advocacy so if this interests you I’d recommend the whole webcast which is available on UNICEF’s Activate talks site here, and on the UN webcast site here.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 13, 2014 at 10:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Show me the impact!

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Last week we ran a session in our office on “Building the evidence base, and evidence based reporting” which was identified as one of our priority areas of work for this year. The purpose was to unpack a little what we mean by “evidence“ in UN coordination work and what are we lacking and what can we do about it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the biggest gap we identified was evidence of the impact of what we do. Donors have been willing to invest in UN Coordination with the assumption that it will lead to better results, but now under pressure from their own constituencies are starting to ask for the proof.

But what do we mean by results? Some have specifically asked us to show evidence of impact of UN coordination on development results. Ideally we would love to show this, it is after all what motivates us to do what we do, but trying to prove (with hard evidence) how many children’s lives were saved, or how many jobs were created, or how much economic growth occurred as a result of joint workplans or pooled funding mechanisms or regular sector meetings is tough job – rather like looking for the impact of a butterfly’s wings on hurricane patterns.

Why is this so difficult? Well for starters, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not aid contributes to development at all – but even assuming it does – attribution is difficult. Development is the result of the actions and resources of many players – bilateral donors, multilateral banks, NGOs, private sector and not least the government, so identifying what the contribution of the UN is to development versus the other actors is very difficult. Now imagine trying to determine what the impact of particular process changes in how we work together affect our ability to contribute to those results. Furthermore the real development results of an action are only fully apparent many years after an  action is taken. So the impact of what we do now might only be measurable in 5-10 years time or more. We also don’t have a control case against which to compare  i.e. you can’t randomly choose to coordinate half of your offers and not coordinate the other half and compare the difference.

So if it’s next to impossible to answer the development impact question with confidence what can we do? A few thoughts:

1. Lower your expectations – measure what you can actually measure. Look more at outputs or process outcomes rather than development impact.  Look at those things where the change is more easily quantified such as greater efficiency (e.g. reduced number of person hours to do something), faster response time, reduced prices through joint procurement, reduced duplication, greater population reach through joint work. Those things can be measured and can demonstrate the value of coordination assume they do if fact improve – but we can and must measure them to see whether they do make things better and how big the gains are.

2. Use what we have in terms of linking coordination to development results however limited it may be. All UNDAFs are supposed to be evaluated and although the time frame is too short to show impact they can look at both coordination and delivery and see how they relate to one another. Similarly a number of evaluations of joint programmes have been done on country and global programmes (for example all joint programmes funded by the MDG Achievement Fund were evaluated – a treasure trove of information if someone had the capacity to do a meta-analysis of them all) – again these can help us to determine the relation although they are far from the complete story.

3. Collect individual case studies that illustrate the impact of coordination and explain the chain of events through which they do it. Case studies help illustrate in a real life situation how coordination takes place and what are the potential and actual gains. They illustrate both the challenges and the gains in a way that is tangible and credible. While they are not “scientific” they can have a strong explanatory power. The key here is to present both the successes and the failures – this contributes more to future learning and improved approaches and is also more credible – we need to avoid the temptation of only sharing the positive thinking that this is what donors want to hear. To overcome the limitations of the individual examples whose success my be contextual its is important to collect many case studies from different contexts. This improves the confidence in the observations, and also can be a basis for meta-analysis to look for broader patterns and lessons (see an example here of case studies on human rights mainstreaming).

4. Make a plausible case to look at how process impact can lead to actual impact e.g. if joint procurement of vaccines reduced prices by 10% then this means we are able to vaccinate 10 % more children. If we reduce reporting burden by 50% then staff have 50% more time for programming (or we need 50% less staff). This is of course theoretical impact but it does clearly demonstrate the opportunity cost of maintaining the status quo, strengthening the case for change (and investing in it).

5. Take a look at perceptions  – even though we can’t always generate solid quantitative measures of improved effectiveness and efficiency, it’s worth looking at qualitative measures. Government counterparts and other partners often have a sense whether we are working more effectively with them and reducing the burden on them, delivering better advice etc. based on their regular interactions with us.  Ongoing dialogue and periodic feedback surveys or polls can be very informative as to how well our main clients think we are doing  and whether we are improving over time. We can also anonymously ask our staff the same questions to see whether or not we feel we are doing better. The good news is we have the tools to do this or can easily set them up.

6. The last, and possibly the most important point is that we need be get real with donors and the public. We need to have a hard, truthful conversation where we explain what we can and can’t say about coordination and development, particularly what we can’t say. Often we try to please without facing the truth. In fact most of our donors and partners are struggling with the same problems in showing the impact of their own work to a skeptical public. Maybe it would be better to work with them to figure out how to make the most of what we can do with the information we have, and how to educate the public on what we can know and what we can’t, and share experience on how to communicate this more effectively. Ultimately we need to reassure donors and the public that their money is in good hands, and the reforms we are undertaking are making a difference without being misleading about how much we know about the magnitude of this difference or the exact formula which delivers development. A lot of this is not just in how we measure results, but how we communicate them  – something I’ve written about in more detail before.

Measuring and transparently sharing what evidence we can gather, being honest about what we don’t know and sharing real stories and examples of our work is probably the best we can do with this difficult challenge.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 24, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Imported solutions, local leadership

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A few days ago Dave Algoso posted an excellent blog (Who’s afraid of imported solutions) which looks at whether outside knowledge and models are useful for development (versus home-grown solutions) and considers how issues of power affect the exchange of knowledge, often for the worse.

I just wanted to share a few observations of my own on the intertwined nature of knowledge sharing and power:

  • The debate about local versus external “solutions” is often a false one since almost all development work revolves around introduction and adaptation of new ideas from elsewhere.  Almost no project or idea is entirely home-grown. But the role of external knowledge and how it is acquired and used varies enormously with important implications. External knowledge can range from the transfer and application of specific technical knowledge (e.g. the formula and procedures to manufacture and preserve vaccines) i.e. direct copying of a solution, transfer of models (e.g. adoption of a particular approach or design of social security and cash transfer programmes) with contextual adaptation, or just the use of a methodology to support a locally created design such as application of human-centred design approaches – this might create a local solution but often the methodology used to develop it is an external “solution”of its own.
  • Power is critical in knowledge exchange and can impose limitations on it. One of the most obvious ways that power influences use of external knowledge is through money – if a donor country organization is providing aid to another country, then most likely the models and approaches they suggest will also come  from the same country. This might be deliberate, but it is often also unintentional. If I’m a donor providing resources, I’m naturally inclined to also share the knowledge I most readily have access to which is of course my own. Aid conditionality adds to this power imbalance. Making aid conditional upon certain actions by the government makes sense for the donors in order to insist their money isn’t wasted and that the government follows what the donor believes is good practice in taking the necessary steps on its side to ensure the programme is successful. This is nevertheless a form of coercion which can lead to resentment or unwillingness to “speak truth to power” to explain why the conditions imposed might not be appropriate to a given situation. And this can also mean that the solutions of those donors with more resources (e.g. World Bank, DFID, Gates Foundation) are more widely adopted than if merit were the only consideration.
  • Knowledge is used most effectively when it is based on demand and meets the users specific practical needs. This seems obvious, but is often overlooked. This means it’s always going to be better when countries demand specific expertise than when it is foisted upon them however well-intentioned. At the same time waiting for demand isn’t enough – it may well be that governments in a country are not sufficiently aware of external approaches which could be useful to them to demand them or may not know how to ask. Also it’s not always obvious when an external idea will be useful, sometimes you also need external advice to see it. Also in some areas there may not be government demand, even if it comes from populations themselves (e.g. for sensitive human rights topics) So while demand is essential, it also needs to be stimulated.
  • And of course those with greater ability to market their solutions (often western led experts, NGOs and advocates) will be more effective at stimulating demand for their solutions. And the surer they seem about their solution the more appealing it will be politically, even if the evidence isn’t there to back it up (thinking here of examples such as OLPC or Millennium Villages which were able to take off through the sheer conviction of their creators). Sometimes whole countries can be a marketing asset i.e.  people might want to adapt approaches from a particular country just because of their positive views of that country as a sign of quality regardless of whether the tool is actually successful or whether or not it is applicable in the new context.
  • One way to try to level the power imbalance, and also improving the chances of successful transfer of solutions or models is through South-South cooperation. This is generally more demand driven and can be a learning partnership where both sides benefit from sharing experience and the solutions might be more easily replicable as the contexts might be more similar. The downside is that it is harder to fund when both sides have more limited capacity both in terms of finance and in availability of expertise (experts are often more busy implementing their own country’s systems to have the time to help someone else). Historically much South-South cooperation has been about solidarity and political more than mutually beneficial knowledge exchange – and sometimes with similar power imbalances to conventional aid.

A few thoughts on approaches to (partially) address these imbalances:

1. Making more visible the experience and models that are out there and whatever evidence exists about them – in particular finding ways to share more information about what approaches and models come from the South and/or how they have been adapted. There is a wealth of valuable knowledge that is largely untapped just because it is less visible. Supporting more research is promising approaches is also important, although just because and idea doesn’t have a body of rigorous evidence supporting it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shared – since the fact that some things are more studied than others is also often as a result of a power or financial imbalance.

2. Decoupling funding and source of expertise. The discussion around untying procurement is long in aid, but is much less advanced in the area of technical assistance. It could bring tremendous benefit if external funding was not tied to the expertise it procures and instead allowed the most relevant, and demand driven models and expertise to be used. This could potentially give a huge boost to South-South technical cooperation without waiting for countries to pay to provide their own technical expertise.

3. For those working in aid or in partner countries as “beneficiaries” of aid it’s important to see models as inputs to programmes not as the programmes themselves i.e. should look to identify and learn from the best models out there  – but not to believe the hype of others or ourselves that we have a ready-made solution. And we need to be aware of how power affects our conversations and what solutions are considered and who is listened to. We need to be guided in contextualizing a model or solutions by participatory approaches to accept, reject or redesign them. But even the process of participation needs to be locally designed or refined.

An interesting conclusion from all of this is that for development to be successful it has to be both locally owned and driven– but it also has to successfully integrate external ideas and knowledge. This is a challenge since externals can bring in the outside knowledge but will struggle to understand how to apply it in the local context whereas locals may struggle with fully embracing the new models and the need for change.  Successful integration of new ideas may well be a partnership, but with the balance of power shifted more firmly towards the person seeking to change rather than the person helping.  But it may also be best led by someone who can straddle both worlds i.e. someone who lives in the current situation and understands the context and challenges, but who has also taken time way to learn and experience the new possibilities and who can mentally integrate the two (I wrote about this a few years ago as outside-in development). As I concluded then “the real heroes of development come from within, but at the same time need to undertake their personal journey to absorb the new ideas from the outside and figure out how to reconcile them with their existing societies. Aid workers can be allies to help smooth this journey, but they cannot take it for themselves.”

So let’s get over our own power trip when providing support with models and ideas (or innovation techniques) and not assume we know what is best, leaving that to the local heroes of change.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The World in 2014: selected predictions relevant for the well-being of children and UNICEF

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Continuing the tradition from 2013 and 2012  – this guest post is a fabulous overview of 2014 forecasts and predictions from the world of development and aid from former colleagues in UNICEF, who have kindly agreed to allow me to share it with all of you. Thanks to Eva Kaplan, Katell Le Goulven, Nima Hassan Kanyare, Yulia Oleinik and Maggie Ronoh who pulled together and synthesized this great reading list!

Dear Colleagues,

Welcome to 2014!  As UNICEF enters the first year of its new strategic plan, gears up for celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and embarks on the final push towards the MDGs, we step back and take a broad look at predictions for the year ahead.

First, to check in on how we did last year.  The 2013 predictions were largely born out.  The sluggish growth predicted for 2013 was indeed just that, with the global economy growing at just 3% compared to the projected 3.6%.  Some conflicts also caught the global community by surprise—the military coup in Egypt, the eruption of violence in CAR, and South Sudan’s move towards conflict.  We also had the expected unexpected, with extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan continuing to catch us off guard.

And what’s in store for 2014?

The global economy is on the up and up. . .

We’re not back to where we were before the economic crisis, but as the Economist predicts, the global economy should grow at 4%, up from 3% last year.

  • This growth will be “powered by America.”  Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics predicts that the US will “experience its fastest growth in a decade.”
  • According to the OECD, the pace of global growth will be moderated by slowed growth in emerging marketsChina will undergo economic reforms in 2014, with most growth projections hovering around 7.5%.  This is down almost 3% points from 2010, but some economists embrace the lower number, arguing that it could mean necessary reforms are taking hold. Brazil’s economy will only grow at 3%, while India could achieve 6% growth, despite political uncertainty.
  • “European policy makers are buoyant,” says the Council on Foreign Relations’ Robert Kahn.  The Euro zone has stepped away from the brink of fiscal disaster and is growing. Japan is poised to near 2% growth.
  • The UN World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) predicts that African economies will remain strong, growing an average of 4.7%.  LDCs as a whole will grow by an impressive 5.7%, according to WESP.  Fragile states also have a strong showing—in the Economist, five of the top 12 growing economies are fragile states.

. . . but no good news for inequality or global unemployment 

  • The World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab predicts a continuing exacerbation of inequality due to “labour’s declining share of national income.”  The World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 also, once again, places widening inequality high on the list of global trends, and cites an increasing mistrust of economic policy, including both economic policy makers and economic institutions, like banks.
  • The World Bank’s World Economic Prospects echoes this, underlining that “policy stasis” in the face of growth could be a particular challenge for developing countries.
  • The World Economic Forum points to the emergence of “a ‘lost’ generation of young people coming of age in the 2010s who lack both jobs and, in some cases, adequate skills for work, fuelling pent-up frustration.”  Robert Khan reminds us that youth unemployment averages 24% in the Eurozone and has exceeded 35% in several countries.  
  • OECD’s Director of Labour, Employment, and Social Affairs Stefano Scarpetta warns that without embracing policies or innovations to redress the imbalance, these trends could manifest in social unrest.  The Economist’s index of social unrest ranks 19 countries as “very high risk,” including both low- and middle-income countries such as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Greece and Nigeria.  An additional 46 countries are labelled “high risk.”

Changing leadership . . .

Calling 2014 “a huge year for democracy,” the Economist notes that 40 elections will take place this year, representing 42% of the world’s population.  With India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the European Union, and several Latin American countries all holding major elections, there is the possibility of political shifts in Asia, Latin America, and Europe.  A great graphic of all 2014 elections is here.

De-escalating, continuing and growing conflicts. . .

This year will mark 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.  This could be a time for reflection on how conflict—and our ability to manage conflict—has evolved. Sadly, on the whole, predictions on 2014’s conflicts do not look good.

On the upside, there continues to be cause for a careful optimism in Myanmar and Colombia; a major diplomatic effort is underway around Iran’s nuclear programs; and Pakistan experienced its first ever democratic handover of power.  However, overall, predictions are pessimistic.  Foreign Policy’s 2014 list of conflicts to watch, by Louise Arbour, compares as follows to the 2013 list: “Five entries are new: Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Honduras, Libya, and North Caucasus. Five remain: Central Asia, Iraq, the Sahel, Sudan, and Syria/Lebanon.”

Changing technology hotspots. . .

In 2014, as Facebook celebrates its 10 year anniversary and mobile phone subscriptions outnumber people, old paradigms in technology development will shift:

  • The Economist’s Leo Mirani notes the best ideas for new technology will likely emerge from unlikely places as “the ‘developing world’ turns into the ‘developer world.’”  The Brookings Institute’s Homi Kharas predicts that developing markets will continue to expand “leapfrog” technologies such as mobile banking, with drones poised to be the next game-changer in development, from delivering humanitarian aid or vaccines to monitoring poaching of endangered animals.
  • Hans-Holger Albrecht, president and chief executive of Millicom International Cellular, predicts that major telecoms will focus on emerging markets—manufacturing smart phones that are ever cheaper, developing digital services and apps that are ever more locally appropriate, and generating ever more data.

Be sure also to check out the innovations forecast from UNICEF’s very own innovators, Erica Kochi and Chris Fabian.

Shifting sources of development finance. . .

Expect development financing to be at the centre of lively debate during the post-2015 discussions.    

  • Predictions on ODA can only be described as confused.  In the EU and Australia, foreign aid budgets continue to be marked by a decided uncertainty, while in the US ODA for 2014 is projected to decrease by 8% over last year.  While much of this is accounted for by the decreasing budget for Afghanistan, contributions to international agencies are down 9%, with increases in budgets to organizations which focus on multi-stakeholder arrangements such as GAVI and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
  • Development Impact Bonds formally took the stage in 2013.  It might not be a fully baked sector quite yet, but Center for Global Development (CGD) is betting that early investments from trusts, foundations, and development finance institutions will help grow the field.
  • Domestic resource mobilization to fill development financing shortfalls will be a key topic in post-2015 debates.  The World Bank notes, “Sub-Saharan African countries collected nearly US$10 in own-source revenue for every dollar of foreign assistance received.”  However, on both the income and expenditure side, there remains much work to be done to strengthen government efficacy.

Action and inaction: A big year for international development

Challenges that have been the centre of development debates for the past decade will remain simmering while some new initiatives will rise in prominence.

  • As we enter the final stretch of the world’s first-ever global development targets, the Millennium Development Goals, discussions on the post-2015 goals will hit a high note. The new goals, to be agreed upon in September 2015, will likely expand targets in the MDGs and enhance the focus on sustainability.  More tricky than the what will be the how.  Engaging middle-income countries will be the critical, says Alex Evans, Senior Fellow at NYU’s Centre on International Co-operation.  “Governments agreed at [last] year’s UN General Assembly that the post-2015 goals should be universal, targeting not only the 1 billion people living in absolute poverty, but all 7 billion of the world’s inhabitants. The reality, though, is that the new development agenda will be anything but that unless middle-income countries engage with it seriously – and at present, it’s unclear what, if anything, they really want or feel they stand to gain.”
  • Climate change action remains on the path of “too little, too late.”  Even as the post-2015 agenda emphasizes sustainable development goals, most predictions are pessimistic about real action on climate change.  As Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change notes, “There’s action nationally, internationally, and on the ground, but it is absolutely not enough.”  The global population is projected to grow by 82 million in 2014.  This could exacerbate the “superlative” trend of recent years, with extreme weather events on the rise even as population pressures erode our ability to manage them.
  • Electricity will be at the fore, with the UN kicking off “the decade of sustainable energy for all.”  The US government recently announced the Power Africa Initiative which would place clean energy as a major USAID priority.  The focus on these will be clean electricity provision, achieved through smart multi-sectoral partnerships.
  • Toilets will also have their day, and here we may also expect to see a leapfrogging technology.  In 2013, the Gates Foundation announced the winners of its waterless toilet challenge and in 2014 will begin to roll out these “next generation toilets” in India.  Africa is also poised for a toilet revolution, with initiatives like Sanergy’s toilet franchise reinventing the entire sanitation value chain.

At the front lines: critical actors in development

Much has been made of the changing relationship to the private sector.  However, the space for development actors (and action) is even broader in practice:

  • Cities are on the forefront of development progress.  As populations continue to shift to cities, achieving development outcomes will increasingly put cities in the spotlight on everything from food security to climate change.  As the Atlantic Council’s Jeff Lightfoot states, “Cities have clout, both in the countries of which they are apart, but also independently and as a network of global cities.”
  • They may not get headlines, but the role of last-mile service workers was highlighted in a handful of studies in 2013, including a UNICEF report. As the Institute for Development Studies’ Lawrence Haddad notes, “Policy is what policy does, goes the saying, and policy only does if frontline workers can implement it and have the incentive to do so.”  For 2014, he predicts that “frontline workers will increasingly be front and center”.

Final thoughts: keeping children at the centre

The Center for Global Development doesn’t publish predictions, but rather wishes.  This year, CGD President Nancy Birdsall crowdsourced hers, inviting readers to contribute.  From the suggestions, she compiled her list, ending with this gem:

“My final wish is simple: Count every child because every child counts, starting with a drive for increased birth registration and improved service delivery for children in low-income developing countries. According to UNICEF estimates, some 230 million children under 5, about one-third of the total, are not registered and therefore do not officially exist. New approaches, including SMS, linking registration to the ID of mothers and strengthening this through the use of biometric data, can accelerate registration even in poor countries and roll out basic services far more efficiently. This should be complemented by a global effort to provide retroactive registration to the approximately 750 million unregistered people under 16.”

What are your predictions for 2014? We certainly look forward to staying in touch and collaborating with you in the coming year!

Happy 2014!

Eva Kaplan, Katell Le Goulven, Nima Hassan Kanyare, Yulia Oleinik, Maggie Ronoh
Multilateral System Analysis  Unit, UNICEF

We value your feedback – please take a moment to tell us what you think ( or leave a comment on the blog.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are those of the authors and editors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNICEF, nor of any particular Division or Office.  References to a non-UNICEF site does not imply endorsement by UNICEF of the accuracy of the information contained therein or of the views expressed.

Written by Ian Thorpe

January 21, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The next innovation: scaling up

with 17 comments

 Right now innovation is one of the hottest topics in development. Even the UN is all over it :-), started by pioneering work from UNICEF, now UNDP, UNHCR, OCHA and many others are creating innovation teams, strategies and labs to help their programmes (and organizations?) become more innovative.

As this great paper from Bruce Jenks and Bruce Jones nicely elaborates, The UN, and the “development system” more broadly is at a crossroads. The current business models were designed in a different age and need to change to adapt to the emerging post-2015 development agenda, but also to the reality that change is permanent and accelerating and so we need to be more agile to keep up and stay relevant and effective.

In the past the most common way to test out new ideas and programme approaches was the “pilot programme” followed by “rigorous evaluation”. The problem with this was that a lot of pilots were created, but few were scaled up to national or global programmes. The pilots would often run for years, but with a kind of loving attention and specific starting conditions that couldn’t easily be replicated (like Millennium Development Villages on a smaller scale). The other challenge was that these projects would need to be run as designed for a couple of years before they could be evaluated (preferably against a control group or even in an RCT). This means there was little scope to adapt them based on feedback, on the ground reality and changing circumstances. A lot of these pilots were also based on theories brought from the outside rather than on local participatory design.

The new wave of innovation projects has done a lot to address these shortcomings. Projects are developed using participatory approaches such as “human centred design” so they better respond to on the ground reality. They are quickly iterated based on feedback and there is an emerging (if still challenging) culture of being willing to fail quickly and start again. There are now a proliferation of trainings, manuals, guides and checklists for those who want to give this approach a try.

But looking ahead, I see a number of challenges in making the most of this welcome development. I wonder how do we make sure that this new approach has a systemic and scalable effect on how we do our work? Here I see three related challenges

1. How do we make the culture or approaches of innovation more mainstream in our organizations so that it is a regular part of how we do our work rather than another pilot project or a high-profile, high visibility approach that organizations use to say “look we’re changing” while keeping most of their operations (and resource allocations) chugging along using the existing (and tired) model.

2. How do we scale the learning from the individual innovations themselves? While there have been a number of very successful innovations developed – how do those become adopted or adapted widely enough to generate large-scale impacts on development (rather than  a significant but localized effect as is currently the case).

3. How do we innovate in the area of policy, or use innovation to inform policy making. In many countries the main game in town for external development actors is increasingly support to upstream policy work. This is inherently national and thus at scale, but innovating at a policy level and creating a space for experimenting, failing and learning is politically challenging for governments.

I don’t have all the answers to these but here are a few thoughts on each of them:

On the first a key step would be to “mainstream” innovation within the work of the organization as a part of (but not the whole of ) the programming toolkit rather than as a parallel process or set of discrete projects. This would imply developing programme guidance that allows innovation and allows but also manages the risks involved and explains when and how the approach should be used. A number of our current programming instruments such as in work planning, monitoring, budgeting management and procurement/partnership need to be revised to remove bottlenecks to innovation. But this is equally a “hearts and minds” issue where there is a need for clear messages and behaviour modeling from leadership to demonstrate that it innovation is encouraged (and to avoid where senior leaders encourage innovation in their words while their actions send a quite different message). Skill building and knowledge sharing is also key for staff to learn how to do it. In this model a team of innovation experts is essential, but their role will become more one of champion, policy setter, capacity builder and advisor than one of project manager.

On scaling up the knowledge from the innovations themselves, there are a couple of challenges. Innovations are often tailor-made to a specific context and may often not have a strong body of evidence nor “theory of change” behind them that explains the underlying method through which they work. This makes it hard to extract the generalizable learning that can be applied elsewhere. But there are a few things that can be done to mitigate this problem such as systematic data collection around innovations, and formative evaluation of the most successful to better understand how they work. Another is to share concrete examples and replicate them as “first prototype” in new contexts to see how they can be rapidly  adapted to fit the next context. This can both make it easier to generate ideas and also help determine which parts are common features of similar projects in different locations and which are elements that need context specific customization. Another approach is to try similar experiments in multiple locations and see which work and which don’t to see what patterns emerge. But this also requires a more coordinated approach to innovation that the “let a thousand flowers bloom approach”. Short of this enhanced networking among innovators can help spread ideas.

Another challenge with scaling up innovation though is that the skills to manage a programme at scale are different from those required to innovate in the first place. As a project becomes more successful and matures there is less ideation and evolution and more traditional “good management” and standardization. The challenge is to organize a smooth transition between these phases so the project management style evolves as the project matures. Another idea is trying to find ways that when new ideas are tested there is already some consideration of scale from the outset. This could be in the form of constraints on the initial design that only allow designs that can function at larger scale without a high degree of customization or a high degree of technical support.

On the challenge of innovating in the area of policy – while it’s not wise to fail, even if it is fast in national policy initiatives, small-scale experiments can help identify and test possible policy actions before they become officially adopted. In particular they can help not only determine the likely effects of policy, but also different approaches to implementing it in practice. This is particularly promising in the complex areas of social policy and behaviour change for which technical fixes don’t work. But this requires carving out a space for small-scale policy experiments that are designed to help influence policy at the macro level (such as the UK behavioural insights team).

A related challenge for public sector innovation is the low tolerance for failure, even for experiments, on the part of the public who funds it. An interesting approach used in the early days of New York City’s innovation work was to tap into private and foundation funding that is more tolerant of risk but in the right circumstances might be willing to invest for social good rather than just economic gain. This also has potential to be applied in other countries, and particular in the UN system where we are looking in any case to diversify funding sources. New partnerships with the private sector could actually be a spur for increased innovation both through funding and expertise. Even with traditional funding sources it might be wise to take a portfolio approach to public spending with an explicit “set-aside” for innovative activities that follows a different set of rules for planning, budgeting and evaluation allowing more risk, but only on a small part of the overall budget.

Another challenge for policy innovation is that what works in practice is not always what is popular politically and so the policy process often takes a different direction from what the evidence from experiments would indicate. This is equally a problem with traditional “evidence based advocacy” and scaling up in general. A potential advantage for innovators is that they may be able to mobilize a constituency of supporters around a successful experiment in a way that a traditional researcher cannot.

Right now innovation is literally “the new thing” but if we are not able to come up with sound approaches to mainstreaming it and scaling up the results then it may be just another development fad rather than a new way of doing business. Then innovation won’t be as “sexy” as it is now but it will be making a more lasting difference.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A bottom-up data revolution for post-2015

with 6 comments

This post was inspired by the blog series ‘What kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?’ on  – and now cross posted there too! –

The High Level Panel’s report on the post-2015 development agenda called for a “data revolution”. It’s already clear from this set of blog posts that there is both a strong enthusiasm about the new possibilities of data analysis to support the implementation and monitoring of a new development agenda, but also a wide range of interpretations of what this means, who will be the principal actors and who will benefit.

Often the benefit is seen in terms of having access to better statistics, real-time monitoring and feedback, big data analysis and open transparent data on aid and government spending. These provide a treasure trove of data to support better monitoring and evaluation of development interventions so that aid agencies can design better programmes and donors can allocate resources more efficiently and researchers can better test out their development theories.

But I’d argue that the most significant and also most challenging part of the data revolution will come from the bottom up. While aid transparency can help with accountability to funders or even to partner governments, the really interesting area where improved accountability is needed is with respect to those who the aid is intended to help.

One promising area is in soliciting feedback and ideas for development projects directly from the communities where they are implemented. Both new technologies (such as SMS or online surveys) and old technologies (public opinion polls, paper questionnaires, interviews) can be used to help collect information on both the preferences of project beneficiaries and their levels of satisfaction with the services they are being provided. This is helpful both as a means of improving programme design to make it more effective, but also conferring the important right of giving the poor a voice (“nothing about us without us”). See “listening to the people we work for” for more on this idea.

But people don’t always tell you what they really want or really think. Sometimes you also have to observe them and see how they act, or even try to “walk a mile in their shoes” to better understand the lives they lead, the challenges they face, the choices they make and why they make them. Ethnographic studies have been with the development world for a long time, and the notion of “human centred design” is also not new, but a data revolution can help expand the use of these techniques and make them easier to do and more cost-effective. Use of “big data” to observe behaviour patterns such as use of mobile phones, transport or health services can help us understand much more about how people are really making choices. Similarly use of remote sensing devices, hand-held cameras and recorders and other tools can help scale up ethnographic research and participatory evaluation, including giving individuals and communities the tools and skills to “document themselves” and share their own stories.

But an even stronger step that is still in its early stages is to empower citizens in developing countries not only to be able to express their views or share their lives, but to provide them with the tools and skills to take advantage of the data revolution themselves. At a simple level this can mean helping them have access to and the skills to make use of  the data they need to make individual decisions (such as choosing between schools or health centres or make healthy nutrition choices). But a more ambitious goal would be to help them develop the skills they need to be able to mobilize an advocate for their own interests making use of the data that is out there (and often about them) rather than relying on the goodwill and decisions from others with stronger technical skills and better financial resources to invest in using data.

Here the open data revolution is a good starting point to empower citizens, but in reality most citizens, especially those in developing countries lack the capacity to make effective use of this data. Instead open data may create a new “digital divide” between those who have the ability to collect and analyze the new data and those who don’t with rich word governments, academia and private enterprise being the main beneficiaries of these new data sources while those we are trying to help are being left behind.

In the end, if we really want to realize the promise of the data revolution, and use this to bring about sustainable change, then we need to think from the bottom up rather than the top down. How can we develop the capacities of the communities we seek to serve, including the most disadvantaged, so that they can participate fully in the new data revolution and be leading their own development rather than relying on the goodwill and analytical capacities of others.

Written by Ian Thorpe

December 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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