Saturday, June 29, 2013

Can States Empower Poor People? Your Thoughts Please

This blog has been submitted by Duncan Green. It is a reblog originally posted on: From Poverty to Power.

I’m currently writing a paper on how governments can promote the empowerment of poor people. Nice and specific then. It’s ambitious/brave/bonkers depending on your point of view, and I would love some help from readers.

First things first. This is about governments and state action. So not aid agencies, multilaterals or (blessed relief) NGOs, except as bit players. And not state-as-problem: here I’m looking at where state action has achieved positive impacts. The idea is to collect examples of success and failure in state action, as well as build some kind of overall narrative about what works, when and why.
Here’s where I’m currently at:
Empowerment happens when individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by changing the relations of power that have been keeping them in poverty.
The current literature suggests a neat fit with a ‘three powers’ model first proposed by our own Jo Rowlands (I think). According to this reading, power for excluded groups and individuals can be disaggregated into three basic forms:
  • power within (a sense of rights, dignity and voice, along with basic capabilities). This individual level of empowerment is an essential precondition for collective action. For governments, reshaping the social norms that perpetuate the exclusion of groups and individuals is a crucial aspect of empowerment.
  • power with (ability to organize, express views). Poor people come together to express their views and demand their rights. Governments need to facilitate (and not oppose or seek to coopt) such organization.
  • power to (ability to influence decision makers, whether the state, economic power holders or other). Poor people’s voices are effective in influencing those in power. Governments need to create and maintain channels for such influencing, and facilitate access to them by excluded groups and individuals.
In addition, states play an important role in curtailing ‘bad power’, in the shape of excessive concentration of power and influence, and its use against the interests of excluded groups and individuals.
Legal empowerment, a key weapon in the state’s armoury, cuts across all these categories.
So what can governments do? Using the 3 powers model to organize things a bit:
Power Within
  • Registration of excluded groups of excluded groups and individuals, including lower castes, indigenous, the elderly and disabled, migrants
  • Promoting pro-poor norms and values (eg gender rights; preventing discrimination against excluded groups)
  • Equitable access to assets for poor people eg via progressive taxation systems, land rights, housing and decent jobs
Power With
  • Guarantee Freedom of Association
  • Support the emergence/sustainability of interest and identity-based organizations among excluded groups and channels for them to represent their interests and participate in decision-making
  • Positive discrimination, eg on women’s representation in local and national government
Power To
  • Being responsive to views of poor people and their organizations
  • Opening up public policy and service delivery processes through enhanced transparency and accountability
  • Encouraging the co-production of public services
Curbing Bad Power
  • Limiting corruption by state officials
  • Correcting anti-poor market failures such as excessive market concentration
  • Bringing down excessive levels of inequality through redistribution (taxation, assets, opportunities)
Legal Empowerment
  • Using the legal system to promote rights enhancement, awareness, enablement and enforcement for excluded groups and individuals
Of course in many cases, as recent developments in North Africa, Turkey and Brazil have shown, states are not in total control. There are numerous other players on the domestic scene (social movements, trade unions, political activists and opposition groups, faith leaders), and some degree of external influence that supports/constrains their actions.
States therefore are unlikely to succeed simply by setting out, in advance, a blueprint for empowerment and then implementing the plan. Instead, what matters is developing an ‘empowering approach’ that
  1. Creates the enabling conditions required by excluded groups and individuals to empower themselves. This combines access to information, inclusion/participation, accountability and building local organizational capacity.
  2. Learn to ride waves of empowerment-related change, developing a process through which all parties come together to search for solutions to collective action problems, for example testing different options and discarding the least successful options. Matt Andrews calls this approach ‘Problem-driven iterative adaptation’ or (more memorably) ‘purposive muddling’.
  3. Recognize that change is likely to be discontinuous, and respond to the importance of ‘critical junctures’, such as economic and political shocks, that are likely to create particularly fertile conditions for both empowerment and disempowerment.
All comments welcome, but what I’d really appreciate is your suggestions for case studies (with links or references) and where they fit within this framework. In particular, because it seems to be the least well-documented, examples of where governments have built ‘power within’.
Over to you.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Private Sector Faces the Same Leadership Challenges as Civil Society

This blog is a summary of the excellent video interview with Gary Hamel. (posted by Guy Janssen)

There are too few leaders in our current organisations.

If we want to build truly adaptable organizations (or societies), everybody has to become a leader and organisations (and societies) have to reward leadership. We live in a world of amazing complexity and complex organizations that just require too much from a few leaders at the top. They don’t have the intellectual diversity, the bandwidth, the time to really make all these critical decisions. By the time a small team at the top realizes there’s a need for fundamental change, it’s too late. We expect leaders to be confident and yet humble. We expect them to be very strong in themselves but open to being influenced. We expect them to be amazingly prescient, with great foresight, but to be practical as well, to be extremely bold and also prudent. There are too few leaders with all these qualities, yet we’ve built organizations where you almost need that caliber of person for them to run well if you locate so much of the decision-making authority in the top of the organization.

Bottom of the S-curve.
Step-by-step, organisations are going to catch up to this new economic reality. Value is created by rubbing up against customers, innovating, co-creation, on the periphery. But we still have these organizations where too much power and authority are reserved for people at the top of the pyramid. The structures, the compensation, the decision making must catch up with this new reality. Compensation, incentives and rewards need to change to be in line with the value added by each person rather than the formal position on the formal ladder.

Challenges and Principles are the Same in Private Sector and Civil Society.
The challenges are remarkably similar to those mentioned in the articles listed in No more waterfalls, only trial and learning.

  • What can we do to create more opportunities for leadership?
  • How can we teach people what it means to exercise leadership when you don’t have formal authority?
  • How do you mentor people?
  • How do you build a coalition?
  • How do you live in the future so other people want to follow you?
  • How do you become one of those connectors bringing ideas and talent and resources together?
The fundamental principles are: empowerment, transparency, meritocracy, natural leadership, information, and accountability.

The organisation needs to look at every single information process, resource-allocation process, planning process, hiring, promotion and say, “How do we start to embed those principles in every one of these processes?” So instead of moving decisions up to where people have expertise, we’re going to move expertise down to people close to the front lines. Everybody needs the information and the skills to be a leader, to make the right kind of choices and then be held accountable for those choices through a very short feedback cycle between your decisions and rewards.

Not Romantic.
This is not some romantic thing—you know, “let’s just give everybody more power” —because that’s probably chaos. But if we equip them, give them information, make them accountable to their peers, shorten the feedback cycles, then I think you can push a lot of that authority down in organizations.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Grant Vouchers: New Foundations for Civil Society?

This blog has been posted by Silas Everett (

The American colonies complained that there should be “no taxation without representation”.  But what happens when the reverse is at play?  In the poorer parts of the world dependent on foreign aid donor funding goes to government and to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who seek to address the development issues of the day.  For NGOs, who unlike government, do not contest elections or try to raise support from local funding sources. Instead, NGOs often operate solely with funds originating externally from democratically governed, well-to-do countries.   In other words, NGOs in developing countries play a civic role in carrying forward the interests of the people, providing “representation without taxation”.  

Who’s complaining? 

On the lips of donor, government, and NGO representatives from the Balkans and Caucasus, to Southeast Asia, I have heard the following phrases from time to time used to describe civil society:  

·         “Donor-driven”: NGOs have been accused of being or at the behest of foreign or other political influence – this is especially true where when push comes to shove CSOs engaged in advocacy efforts are unable to articulate or demonstrate who they are representing at the grassroots level, thus undermining their political capital to influence the desired policy change.

·         “Weak participation”:  This phrase finds itself in the challenge statements of many of a civil society project proposal, but when seeking to increase participation, there is a tendency for NGOs to rely on project money to incentivize public participation rather than the other way around.  As a result, donor dependency sets in and the perennial development challenge of “sustainability” rears its head only to be met with another project proposal.

·         “Lack of legitimacy”: Poor people in developing countries often view both civil society and government from a distance.  Neither is particularly trusted when it comes to address the concerns of the poor.  In contrast, where poor people give contributions to say their clan, local forest or water user group, village church, mosque or temple, they not only feel better served but better represented. 

Over the years, albeit seldom, I have seen some experimentation with different approaches to civil society engagement that try to address some of these common concerns. In Mongolia, I was involved with Training, Advocacy and Networking (TAN) program for two years trying to stimulate rural civil society.  The program was implemented by Mercy Corps and funded by USAID for five years and supported 64 small community development projects with grant funding  ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 in areas such as education and health services, environmental protection and awareness, employment promotion and income generation, water and garbage management, local transportation, and social services addressing alcoholism and domestic violence.

The project started with a Citizen-based Grant-Voucher Program where selected bagh (or hamlet level) households received training and vouchers to identify, prioritize, monitor, and address community needs.  The program had four basic steps. First, gathering - following an information campaign about the vouchers, baghs were selected on the basis of demonstrated commitment to increasing public participation and the amount of funds the baghs pledge based on bagh member response. Second, taking inventory - households of selected baghs were given a voucher representing a monetary value. Bagh constituents in a guided series of bagh council meetings then pooled resources and prioritized community needs with facilitation support from local trainers guided by TAN. Third, engaging - local civil society organizations, having attended the previous bagh meetings, presented proposals to the bagh constituency that addressed the constituency’s needs. A civil society organization or consortium of such organizations was then selected for leading the implementation of the project. Fourth, monitoring - the project was monitored by the bagh constituency using a community scorecard methodology.

The voucher component of the program had promising, but mixed results.  While more citizens participated in community development as a result of the voucher system, the issues the community participants identified were often broad and general, such as poverty, unemployment, alcoholism.  These issues were often beyond NGOs’ capacities and resources to resolve, especially in the relatively short time frame of the project.  While community participation was high during the needs assessment stage, at the project selection stage, there was difficulty in building consensus around a narrower, more concrete set of actionable priorities.  The tendency was to jump to one or two “fundable” priorities and as a result the community participation rate declined.  Instead of NGOs, some issues, such as those requiring advocacy or collaboration with public service agencies, could have been better dealt with by community members themselves if they had had the opportunity for further capacity development. 

Overall, the grant vouchers echoed much of what we know about community development:  greater community ownership was observed where community members retained authority and responsibility throughout the project. How this type of grassroots civic engagement scales up to national level has yet been untested to my knowledge. The numerous examples of non-donor funded grassroots civil society organizations that have reached national prominence may find that in the end such forms of civil society development need to foremost take their own course.  

So coming back to the original question - is the kind of aid architecture we find today really the best the development community can offer?  In some sectors it may be, particularly those requiring deeper technical, scientific, medical or legal expertise at an organizational level. However, the apparent benefits and novelty of alternative mechanisms like grant vouchers suggest more experimentation is required across  sectors of civil society engagement in international development, particularly at the grassroots.  Frankly, with much self-criticism, the current status quo and acceptance of the form of representation supported by the international development community deserves more grumblings of discontent, not aimed at civil society, but at the orthodoxy of the top-down funding mechanism itself.   In the end the big challenge may have less to do with finding the right modality of channeling funds to civil society, but rather finding the muster and leverage to convince central and sub-national authorities and NGOs to recognize, support and work with indigenous, community based groups, many of whom exist outside of the formal state structure and may be out of step with international norms themselves. 

How to Plan When You Don’t Know What is Going to Happen? Redesigning Aid for Complex Systems

This blog has been submitted by Duncan Green. It is a reblog originally posted on: From Poverty to Power.

They’re funny things, speaker tours. On the face of it, you go from venue to venue, churning out the same presentation – more wonk-n-roll than rock-n-roll. But you are also testing your arguments, adding slides where there are holes, deleting ones that don’t work. Before long the talk has morphed into something very different.

So where did I end up after my most recent attempt to promote FP2P in the US and Canada? The basic talk is still ‘What’s Hot and What’s Not in Development’ – the title I’ve used in UK, India, South Africa etc. But the content has evolved. In particular, the question of complex systems provoked by far the most discussion.
I started off with the infamous US military mindmap of Afghanistan. Although ridiculed at the time, the map looks like a genuine and nuanced effort to understand the country and is probably fairly typical of the complexity of power and relationships in any given country. The point is that such a system is complex, not complicated. Complicated means if you study it hard, you can predict what happens when you intervene. In contrast a complex system has so many feedback loops and uncertainties that you can never know how it will react to a stimulus (say $100m in aid, or an invasion….).

Complex system US Afghan mindmap

The crucial point is that most political, social and economic systems look like the map. Yet the aid business insists on pursuing a linear model of change, either explicitly, or implicitly because a ‘good’ funding application has a clear set of activities, outputs, outcomes and a MEL system that can attribute any change to the project’s activities – a highly linear approach. Other organizations – say forest fire managers, or the military, seem more able to cope with complexity, although I found out from a woman in one seminar who had served in Afghanistan that the power map was actually drawn up by a consultant, who was promptly sacked after showing the slide to General Petraeus, so maybe the soldiers aren’t so comfortable with complexity after all.

In denying complexity is obliged either to seek islands of linearity in a complex system (vaccines, bed nets), which may not always be the most useful or effective places to engage, or to lie – writing up project reports to turn the experience of ‘making it up as you go along’ that epitomises working in complex systems into the magical world of linear project implementation, ‘roll out’, ‘best practice’ and all the rest. That not only wastes a lot of staff time and energy, it also reduces the ability to learn about how to work best in complex systems.
So how should the aid system change? Overall, we need to think though ‘How to plan when you don’t know what is going to happen’ (my best effort at explaining complexity without resorting to jargon). Here are my bullet points, and brief explanations:

Fast feedback: if you don’t know what is going to happen, you have to detect changes in real time, but also have the institutions to respond to thatinformation (as was not the case recently in the Sahel).

complexity road sign 2Focus on problems, not solutions: Drawing on Matt Andrews’ work, the role of outsiders is to identify and amplify problems, but leave the search for solutions to local institutions. (At the World Bank, Shanta Devarajanpointed out the contradiction between this approach and NGOs’ preference for big, simple solutions – end land grabs, no to user fees. Ouch.)

Rules of thumb, not best practice toolkits: I am told that the US marines do not go into combat brandishing Oxfam toolkits and online resources on best practice. They operate on rules of thumb – take the high ground, stay in communications and keep moving. They improvise the rest. Aid workers on the ground operate far more like this than our project reports admit. If we were honest about it, we could have a better discussion on how to improve those rules of thumb.
Some possible approaches that spring to mind (and I would love to hear examples of others)

Work on the ‘enabling environment’ rather than specific projects: things like norms, rights or access to information

Evolutionary/Venture Capitalist approach: run multiple experiments and then zero in on what seems to be working best. Example, the Chukua Hatua project in Tanzania

Convening and Brokering: Get dissimilar local players together to find solutions – the outsiders’ job is to support that search, not do it themselves. Example, the TAJWSS water project in Tajikistan

But any attempt to move in this direction raises some fundamental challenges to the current structures of the aid industry:

Results for grown ups: The current approach to measuring results favours linearity. But rejecting results altogether is the wrong approach – both because even those who recognize the central role of complex systems still want to know if they’re doing any good, and because the results people control the cash. No results, no funding. We need to get much better at ‘counting what counts’, and reclaim the idea of ‘rigour’ for qualitative and other methods better suited to complex systems.

evidenceWho to employ? Risk-taking, entrepreneurial, maverick searcher types have a hard time in an aid business dominated by bureaucratic procedures and risk aversion. Moreover, working in complex systems requires deep local knowledge of formal and informal power maps, something expats on a two or three year posting are unlikely to acquire. How do we turn the tables to attract and retain searchers, and value locally embedded knowledge?

Short Term v Long Term: Funding and project cycles are short term, change in complex systems is often long term. How can we bridge the gap, for example by combining good, plausible stories about the short term, with more rigorous impact assessment in the long term (how often do we go back and study the effects of an intervention 10 or 20 years after the funding has ended?)

How to keep/build political support given that working in complex systems means acknowledging a lack of control over what takes place and limits to attribution (no you can’t ‘badge’ the Arab Spring as created by Oxfam, USAID or anyone else, sorry). It also means greater tolerance of failure – a venture capitalist approach means accepting 9 failed start-ups for every 1 big success, but imagine what aid critics would do with a 90% failure rate. And how do we communicate and sell this approach to the public after systematically dumbing down the aid and development story for decades? (From buy a goat and save the world, to a post-goat narrative….)

Ben Ramalingam has been thinking about this for years, and writing about it on his Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. His book of the same name is due out later this year, so let’s hope it can settle a lot of these issues (and doubtless raise many more).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

No more waterfalls, only trial and learning

This blog was posted by Guy Janssen

Supporting civil society always is about empowerment, i.e. enabling choices and turning choices into action and results. (World Bank definition)

The traditional project cycle approach (plan, execute, evaluate, and plan something else) (AKA as waterfall cycle) is too directive to allow choice and self-initiated action by civil society.

Alternatives have been defined by different sources but they are all based on the same principle: The world is too complex to plan (too much), outcomes are achieved through trial and learning.

Old funding, planning and control mechanisms are still obstructing this new way of working in some development organisations but the trend is unmistakable. Below are a number of sources that are advocating for a try-learn approach:

  1. Problem Driven Iterative Adaptations (Social Development) 
  2. Adaptive Strategy (Non-Profit Management) 
  3. An arm's length approach to aid (International Development) 
  4. Mapping Context for Social Accountability (International Development) 
  5. Agile Programming (Software Development) 
  6. Evolutionary Change (US Military) 
  7. Great Businesses Don't Start With a Plan (or maybe a small plan) (Business Development) 
  8. Agile Reform (Blowing my own trumpet)

If anyone knows other sources, please add. If you think some sources do not belong in this list, please ask to remove.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Prof. Bremer cites Paul Dosh on WB blog

This is what Professor Bremer wrote as a comment on the World Bank blog: People Spaces Deliberation. It would be great if she could write the opening blog.

Paul Dosh (Demanding the Land) identified the four strategies that local communities use to get what they want/need in the informal communities where most of them live these days: militancy (large angry marches), alliances (trading votes for services), taking it (illegal grid connections), or building it themselves (self-help). Any one of these strategies may work better than the others in a given context, but the question that this very interesting blog post implicitly asks (that is, dances around) is, which of these strategies is the Bank really comfortable with being part of? Any of them at all?

Quality Criteria for Civil Society

This blog was posted by Guy Janssen

These are the 12 quality criteria for a member based organisation developed on the basis of consultations. Do you have any suggestions for improvement?
  1. The CSO is a rules based organisations and rules are the same for all. 
  2. Rules are made in the interest of the members by (the representatives of) the members. 
  3. The CSO represents the needs or interests of its members.
  4. If programs of the CSO are likely to benefit some members more than others, then there are mechanisms to ensure that access to these benefits is distributed fairly and that the costs are borne by those who benefit.
  5. The CSO is self-sustaining. 
  6. Conditions for membership are generic and logical. 
  7. There is neither government involvement nor elite capture.
  8. The leadership is selected by the members through a competitive system.
  9. The leadership can bind the organisation even after the leadership has changed. 
  10. The CSO has channels for members to express and discuss their needs.
  11. The CSO has channels for individual members to complain about rule violations to an independent entity that can investigate and punish.
  12. The CSO has channels for members to provide feedback on quality of services delivered to the membership.