Complex situations resist our analytical capacities, they are unpredictable. In these situations, we cannot base our decisions on data. Hence, our decisions often based on intuition, gut feeling, and rules of thumb. Through continuous learning, we can train our intuition and become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments. (more…)
For you as development professionals change is your daily basis. You aim for, provoke and witness change processes. You steer projects and manage programmes. You take care that you partner organisations are strengthened. You are part of changing teams. Have you ever thought about what change is for you? And what it needs to effectively support change? (more…)
Recently, there was a meeting in USAID on complexity theory and development. DEVCO is developing guidance on political economy analysis. The World Bank just published a research paper on participation that singles out standard management approaches as main reasons why participatory approaches normally do not work. In our business, when the big ones start talking about something, there is change in the air. And in fact similar developments are taking place in most donor agencies. (more…)
Almost ten years back I met with the „SDC AdFin Circle”, the group of financial administrators. These, mostly women experts in financial management of development projects met regularly in order to exchange on many practical aspects of their work. While the majority of them worked at the SDC Head Office, some were deployed to Cooperation Offices in our partner countries. Facilitating the exchange among all was on the agenda of this meeting and I was invited by the financial advisor to talk about practical possibilities of working with an electronic platform. This person wanted to know about possibilities of using an electronic discussion platform. While explaining the pros and cons of web and email based electronic platforms – that time SDC was turning to Bellanet’s Dgroups for hosting such platforms – one of the participants raised the issue as to who might subscribe to the platform. And she continued by saying to my astonishment: “If my boss discovers what question I ask, he might not be happy since I am supposed to know and not to have questions”!
Later I shared this experience with my Canadian friends from Bellanet and we wondered whether we encountered a cultural difference between Switzerland and Canada where he would exclude such a statement.
by Adrian Gnägi
A few years ago, when I was posted in Amman, we frequently visited my wife’s family in Beirut. That made for long rides on monotonous Middle Eastern desert highways. The deal with the kids was that they could wish for stories to be told. One of their favorites was the illustrated book “Beaver, give us a ride”. The story goes like this: Beaver uses a hollow log as boat on the river. His friends are not impressed: nice, but small. So beaver builds a large raft and invites one after the other of his friends to come on board. When bear joins after all the others, there definitely is no space left. The friends try to prevent an uninvited butterfly from landing on the overloaded raft in the rapids, but …
The story is a beautiful explanation of complexity theory for children. Our kids used to discuss for hours whether and how the wreckage could have been prevented. They asked to review the pages where the different friends joined the party, discussing who could have done what differently at which moment to prevent the accident. The better they knew the story and the pictures, the more weak signals they discovered. In the end they realized there would have been steering potential in every single scene, right from the beginning.
But why was this steering potential not realized, why was the catastrophe not prevented from happening? Standard MfDR (managing for development results) thinking explains impact as the end of the result chain: impact happens in a distant future, when all outputs have been produced, when outputs have interacted with other factors into outcomes, and when other forces have diluted outcome influence in the attribution gap.
Beaver’s story shows why the MfDR impact model is not useful for development program steering:
- When impact is conceptualized as happening in the distant future, all impact induced steering opportunities are forgone, because they lie in the past. At the moment when the friends are swimming to the shore, they cannot prevent the wreckage any more.
- The attribution gap prevents from knowing what kind of steering should have happened – the cause-effect chain is broken. When the friends discuss who was to be blamed, they agree none of them had caused the result - it was the butterfly’s fault! (more…)
By Manuel Flury
SDC operates in fields such as skills development, water and sanitation, rural livelihoods, micro finances, municipal development or community based health care. It is active in poorest, conflict prone and fragile states via direct bilateral aid and through programmes of multilateral organisations. The portfolio includes sector budget support, capacity development, infrastructure work and related policy work. SDC collaborates with a wide range of public, private enterprise and civil society partners.
High quality of its thematic and technical work has always been a trade mark of Swiss Cooperation. This level of competence is at great risk! SDC is about to lose its thematic excellence. Administering larger junks of development funds is becoming characteristic for SDC’s development work. Despite this overall trend, the importance of excellence and competence in what SDC is doing is repeatedly stressed. The question, however, what the fields of (thematic and technical) competence of Swiss Cooperation would be remains unanswered, still, and already for many years. (more…)
Some months ago, a colleague of mine was preparing a regional workshop with National Programme Officers (NPO). ”How can we make sure that NPOs write better credit proposals that reflect the various, complex challenges SDC is confronted with in its development activities?” was the question we discussed. My immediate reaction and proposal was: Why don’t we make the NPOs understand better how SDC Berne looks at proposals and how Berne takes decisions. During the workshop, the NPOs got acquainted with SDC Berne realities through role plays.
Some weeks later I participated in a discussion among colleagues leaving for Cooperation Offices. Again the same issue: Credit proposals do not satisfy the Head Office, they do not reflect the logics of the Operations’ Committee. Are NPOs not able to edit such documents? Can’t they handle the complexity built-in? The answer was a different one: Let the NPOs focus on projec documents. That is where they are experts in! And let the Swiss expatriate staff write the “Swiss styled” credit proposals. Dividing the labour as another way of dealing with complexity! (more…)
by Adrian Gnägi
How is it possible that
- social change is emergent and therefore cannot be precisely planned for, but
- LogFrame is the standard tool in aid for planning and reporting on social transformation?
Is theory wrong or are development practitioners systematically lying about what they are doing? In this post I argue that the issue is not lying, but rather precariously muddling through. Imprecision and cascade reporting are the two main techniques used in our business to reconcile LogFrame and emergence. This is unhealthy.
In a recent blog post on what has gone wrong with MfDR (Managing for Development Results) I argued that support for social transformation should not be conceived using LogFrames. In a comment, Rick Davies expressed puzzlement with this demand. I can easily understand why people do not want to let go of LogFrame. The LogFrame approach is backed by the most powerful lobby in our organizations: it is the middle managers who make it our standard. LogFrames are still here after 50 years because middle managers get from them what they need: a nutshell project summary; the link between resources, activities and results; and indicators for measurement and reporting. LogFrames are a great tool for organizing funding relationships. Unfortunately, they are utterly inappropriate as guidance for implementation (see my earlier post on the usefullness of different program formats). This is why we need to go for the institutional struggle, that’s why the standard must fall. (more…)
By Adrian Gnägi
There is growing international frustration with the way the MfDR (managing for development results) agenda developed. In this post, I reflect on a widely read article by Andrew Natsios, former head of USAID.
A few weeks ago IDS organized an event entitled “the big push back meeting”. The aim of the meeting was to galvanize a movement against the “current trend for funding organisations to support only those programmes designed to deliver easily measurable results”. During the event, a recent essay by Andrew Natsios on what has gone bad with the results agenda in aid was frequently referred to. Natsios message is that “Obsessive Measurement Disorder” (OMD, “… an intellectual dysfunction rooted in the notion that counting everything in government programs will produce better policy choices and improved management”, p.4 ) has spread in development agencies to a degree that it nowadays prevents transformational development. He claims that the drive for transparency and accountability has become the major enemy of good development practice, the main obstacle for developmental impact. Natsios is careful in pointing out that the results agenda was well intended and produced some desirable change in aid. His focus is on the loss of balance, though, on the sickening consequences of taking into account what is measured only. (more…)
- The project manager is an agronomist by training. He does his best. But since the project is to support the development of municipalities, he is on a very steep learning curve.
- The project management team was planned with 4 professionals. Since some of the funding proposals were turned down by donors, the partner organization only recruited 2 staff. They did not adapt the activity plan, though, so staff are constantly overstretched.
- And so on: the IT system is not working properly and project staff therefore cannot access guidelines and templates in head office, the desk officer is on maternity leave and the project team therefore is cut off from advice and governance, the project was conceived without Government consultation and therefore is not integrated into the national dynamic, the partner organization is new in the country and therefore has no allies yet etc etc..
Bad, really bad. Not entirely unfamiliar, though. But what really left me speechless was my friend’s conclusion: “I will make sure this agronomist is put through an at least 5 day project management training next year”. (more…)
The need for a trustful (learning) culture that is open for emerging patterns of collaboration
By Manuel Flury
SDC experiences a period of far reaching organisational change. The management informs the collaborators via the SDC-Intraweb and exchanges with the middle cadre. Collaborators share their questions in the cafeteria, chatting around filing cabinets and walking through the corridors:
“What thematic policies are still valid?” - “Is poverty alleviation now just one of several aims of SDC or still the main “raison d’être”?” – “Nobody knows exactly how thematic experts may bring in their concerns!” – “There is lacking information, and the interfaces are not clear.” – “The service level agreement with the newly created support at Ministry level was elaborated without even consulting us.” - “The new regulations and guidelines for elaborating credit proposals are nowhere to be found on the Intraweb.” – “The guidelines for the office management report are just approved, there is no scope for any adjustments now.” (more…)
By Adrian Gnägi
This is the third post inspired by the conference “Evaluation Revisited: improving the quality of evaluative practice by embracing complexity” held in Utrecht on 20./21. May 2010.
A few weeks ago, Freiburgstrasse 130 (SDC Head Office) was struck by an earthquake. Work flows stopped, the atmosphere changed, some colleagues shut their office doors and stopped talking, others wandered from office to office and talked for days. Something unprecedented had happened: In one single operations committee meeting, 3 entry proposals for local governance programs were turned down. Millions of Swiss Francs, months of preparatory work, scores of people concerned. Emotions, arguments, alliances, strategies, formal and tacit norms – one huge mess. But one overriding impression – what had happened was not right. Within days, roughly one fifth of SDC Head Office staff had signed a petition to senior management. No one can remember having seen something like this before.
By Adrian Gnägi
A few days ago, a colleague working in a partner country passed by in SDC Head Office and gave a presentation about his work. He presented frighteningly impressive graphs that show how fast desertification is advancing. Many rural herding families will be forced to migrate to the cities in the coming ten years if nothing happens. Luckily, the Government drew up a state-of-the-art national action plan, based on the international convention against desertification. Donors have aligned with this action plan and support the Government through harmonized aid modalities. The country is moving towards a mining economy with few new jobs outside agriculture, though, the colleague concluded, and the major challenge for the future will be to channel some of the mining revenues to poor rural families. (more…)
By Adrian Gnägi
On May 20th/21st 2010 I participated in a conference entitled „Evaluation revisited – improving the quality of evaluative practice by embracing complexity“. In the lines below I sum up my take on this most inspiring event.