As I near the end of my 3-year contract with EWB, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I know. I’ve spent the past several months transitioning with my successor, Miriam Hird-Younger (who writes this fantastic blog). The transition involves showing her the ropes of the management position, passing off relationships within the sector, giving her gradual responsibility over running the team and emptying my brain of all the little facts and anecdotes I’ve gathered over the past three years about agriculture in Ghana. So, what do I know?
I’ve documented a lot of what I know on this blog: failures in the development sector, what drives performance within the government, how to think about change strategies and more. There are big things, like the on-the-ground realities of multimillion dollar development projects, and small things, like contact information for district directors. But which parts matter? Which parts should I focus on transitioning, and which can I allow to get lost? Which parts will help us achieve the changes we wish to see in the sector, and which are extraneous information? This is what I’ve been pondering.
I’m a big believer in context; I think it’s one of the things that sets EWB staff apart from many other well-meaning development workers. What are projects really accomplishing? How do farmers feel about it? Why are extension agents taking part? What changes do they really want to see? What actually spurs behaviour change among farmers or government workers? We take the time necessary to find out what things are really like on the ground, then use that context to inform our work. It’s both tactical, as it builds our credibility with bigger players in the sector, and strategic, as it allows us to design our strategies in line with ground realities and real forces for change.
So how do we get context? The AgEx team has tried several different ways:
- village stays (4-7 days)
- living with farmers (several months)
- immersion periods (1-2 months, usually with lots of travel)
- field research (several weeks)
- immersion in district offices (several months or years)
Each of these different info-gathering methods has a cost. It’s usually not monetary – we never pay more than a few cedis for fuel money – but we cash in some of our social capital, accrued over the past several years of EWB’s work with districts. There is also the opportunity cost to the team, as a staff member spends time gathering information rather than creating change. As I see it, there are three main categories when it comes to cost:
- extractive – short-term, low-trust relationships, more “Q&A” style – high cost
- back-and-forth – long-term, high-trust relationships, more “conversation” style – low cost
- being in the right place at the right time – priceless
As you can see, it costs us more to get information in certain circumstances. So, what are we getting for the price we’re paying?
These different info-gathering methods also get us different types of information. Field research often leads to the “usual” answers. It’s hard to go beyond that without taking advantage of a high-trust relationship, either our own or through an extension agent. Conversely, the longer we stay in one place, whether with a farmer or in a district office, the more we build trust and unlock access to “insider info” and deeper insights.
These insights are definitely more interesting, and therefore more rewarding to find out. But does this really make a difference to our change strategy? What’s wrong with the usual answers? What types of information are we actually missing that will inform a better strategy, and how will we go about filling these gaps? We need our info-gathering methods to be more tailored to the actual information we seek to gain. And, we need to be willing to pay the cost – it has to be worth it.
But even as I write this, I question what I’m saying. Do we really need to be so targeted? Looking only for certain things, ignoring all the rest? Some of the best stuff I’ve learned has been during “in the right place at the right time” moments, like being part of a district staff meeting, or out on an extension visit unrelated to my direct work objectives. As I said above, I’m a strong believer in context, and I believe it’s what sets EWB apart. But it’s not just good luck. Being conscious of what we can expect from different info-gathering methods will help us tailor our learning opportunities to be in the right place at the right time.
What do you think about the value and cost of information? What experiences or learning have most shaped your work? Was the learning experience carefully crafted, or were you simply in the right place at the right time?
Hi blog readers,
I recently wrote an update for our alumni about our latest work on the AgEx team, and I’d like to share it with you too! You can find it here. (After an hour fighting with WordPress about embedded MailChimp html, I am admitting defeat and providing the link – I hope you’ll check it out!)
Please enjoy, and get in touch if you have any questions, comments or you want to work for us!
It’s been several months since I’ve written here. There have been ups and downs and rough patches, but I haven’t felt compelled to share these with the wider world. Just suffice to say it’s been a bit crazy around here since November.
Loyal readers will remember that I was writing last year about my EWB team’s strategy development process. A lot has changed since I last wrote, but I’m not going to try to summarize all of it today – I’m sure it will keep changing at a rapid pace. Instead, I want to write about my personal reflections on this process.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on our strategy lately, and on my role in developing it. I’m now a Team Leader for the Agricultural Extension (AgEx) team in EWB. With this leadership role comes a lot of responsibility, and I’ve been learning a lot about what kind of responsibility I thrive with and where I think I fall short. For example, I love the administrative responsibilities of managing a team. I also love the opportunity to invest in the personal and professional growth of every member of my team. Those aspects of my job are thrilling! I am also thrilled by thinking about the “big picture” of the sector we’re working in and how we’re making change in that sector. But that is also where I struggle the most.
I was told when I took this role that one of my challenges would be developing a strong vision and leading people toward it. That prediction has proven to be very true. I am someone who has always excelled more at poking holes in ideas than in building them up myself. I always chalked it up to a lack of creativity, but there’s more to it than that. My naturally critical mind can think of a million different ways for a project to fail. That makes it pretty damn hard to design a solution that I truly believe in, and even harder to sell it to a whole team of people who are here to commit years of their lives to realizing that vision.
Our team has landed on a ~20-year vision of an agricultural extension sector that is innovative, coordinated and customer-service oriented. We’ve imagined a competitive market where extension service providers come from the public, private and civil society sectors to meet the needs of different segments of customers (farmers) to promote socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. We see quality being added to these extension services at many points, from training and education, to a strong management structure, to well-developed field tools and approaches, to a strong enabling policy environment. And this vision has me PUMPED UP!!
But how do we get there? That’s where it gets a bit more messy. To dig into that question, our team has been designing a Theory of Change (see some great posts on Theory of Change by Duncan Green from Oxfam). We started by identifying 8 key changes that need to happen in order for our vision to be realized, then worked backward to understand the steps needed to realize these changes. We are still working on that part, but the hope is that the Theory of Change will define where our team needs to work in order to realize our vision in 20 years.
So we have a strong vision, we have a Theory of Change, now we need to get started. And this is where I get stuck. How do we, the five members of EWB’s AgEx team, create the change we want to see in the extension sector? There are seeeeeerious challenges ahead. Most of the major changes in the agric sector are created by those with money, power, political influence, or (more often) a mix of all three. We have none of those things. So how do we change the system?
We need to build a solution. Not just a theory, not just our assumptions and hypotheses, but an actual work-plan for how to move forward. Where should I post the new staff I’ll be getting in June and September? Who can they work with? Will their placements be based on learning, or experimenting, or scaling, or influencing? What about the staff on the ground right now? Who are the most influential partners we should be working with? How do we get others to start thinking about extension in the same way we’re thinking about it? Questions swirling in my mind… and very few answers.
Now, back to my struggles as a (non-)visionary leader. What does this mean for my ability to lead my team toward our exciting-yet-difficult-to-attain future? (Stick with me, I’ll land soon.)
I remember someone asking me a few years ago about my Principle of Leadership. At the time, I stammered and mumbled and generally had no idea. But the question has stuck with me and now I know my answer: my strength as a leader is defined by my ability to leverage the strengths of my team. This is really the principle I rely on in all situations. I have some strengths, but I also have lots of weaknesses, and it is only be relying on my team that I am able to bring the best out of us as a whole.
I look to Robin for bringing unbridled passion for the public sector and making sure we always connect our work to poor farmers. I rely on Miriam to bring insights and approaches from her background in development studies. I lean on Siera for a connection to current field realities from being embedded with extension staff and farmers. I depend on Don for his selfless work ethic and insane networking skills to find new partners for our team.
I am grateful for all of these people, and all those I have worked with in the past in EWB. There is so much talent around me, it’s overwhelming! I feel privileged to be in a position to harness all this potential and move us toward an impactful change in the agricultural extension sector. I may not be leading the way with my vision, but I have no doubt that we’ll get there. How could I, when I have an amazing team-ful of talents at my fingertips?
This is a post for Blog Action Day (#bad11), a movement that aims to start a global discussion through thousands of blogs posted in one day on the same topic. This year, the topic is one dear to my heart: Food.I have been thinking about food a lot for the past 1.5 years through my work in agriculture with EWB. We are working closely with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to reach out to farmers, but what are we working toward? This question has nagged me more and more as time goes on, to the point that I ran a learning session at our last EWB retreat with the same name as the title of this post – Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century.I’ve been reading a lot on this topic in the past 8 months. I’m not sure if there’s a trend toward addressing this issue lately, or if I’m just noticing the articles because I’m finally looking for them, but there is a LOT of writing out there! I’ve summarized a few of my favourite articles in the “Further Reading” section at the end of this post.
First, let’s get to the heart of the issue: it’s a matter of food production vs. environmental sustainability. Traditional industrial agriculture has achieved record production through intensive farming practices, mechanized farming and petro-chemical inputs applied with machine-like precision. This has come at the expense of the environment, with corporate farms using up precious fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems in the quest for more food. However, viewing these as two opposing goals is a false dichotomy; if we want to achieve food security far into the future, we must find a way to fulfill both of these goals AT THE SAME TIME! My research into this topic has tried to answer this question: what model of agriculture will allow us to achieve sustainable global food security?
Development workers have a unique perspective on the problem of global food security because we must take into account an additional question, “what is good for poor farmers?” In this case, it’s not just about achieving adequate food production, or nutrition levels, or even environmental sustainability. We must also take into account the lifestyle of the poor Ghanaian farmer, who is being asked to adopt this model to continue providing food for his fellow citizens. What model of agriculture will spur human development in Ghana while also fulfilling the above two goals?
Though I mentioned that there are a lot of people writing on this topic right now, there is a relatively low level of consensus as to what the future model of global agriculture should be. There is a never-ending number of models being promoted (organic, agroecology, industrial, urban, etc.), each with its own convincing arguments and promoters. This is quite startling, and makes it very difficult to choose one agricultural model to promote in our work. So how can we plan for the future?
Let’s be very clear here: the following are my personal opinions, not those of EWB, Ghanaian farmers, or anyone else you might confuse me with. There is no right answer, only a series of thoughts and questions that remain to be determined.
Traditional agriculture in Ghana is somewhat organic, in the sense that there are no chemicals applied to the crops. Most farmers practicing these traditional methods also don’t use improved seeds, proper land preparation techniques or any other Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). As a result, they get low yields compared to their neighbours who use “modern” techniques – mechanized land preparation, chemical fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides, and better GAPs. This is leading Ghanaian farmers to see chemical agriculture as the way forward, when in fact many of these GAPs applied to their traditional organic fields would also increase yields significantly.
Right now, MoFA is steering Ghana toward a future of intensive industrial agriculture through credit-in-kind schemes and input subsidies. And why shouldn’t they? This is the path every other industrialized nation has taken to get out of poverty and push forward their economies. But I think it’s too late to take this path. The time has come when oil-based agriculture is getting too expensive (and oil prices are too volatile) to rely on. The price of oil will only increase in the next 20 years, so why are we promoting a model of dependence on these inputs in Ghana?
If things go ahead as MoFA wants them to, soon the majority of Ghanaian farmers will be using industrial agriculture methods. Food security in the country will be improved, but for how long? Soon fuel prices will be too high for Ghanaians to afford the food produced in this manner, and we will be thrown back into food insecurity. Ghana is at the brink of “maturity” in agriculture, about to choose a method to promote and follow for decades to come. Let’s help them make an appropriate and sustainable choice.
My colleague Mina works with an organic fertilizer company near Tamale and often cites a study that showed yields to be virtually the same when appropriate amounts of chemical and organic fertilizer were applied to test fields. In fact, the plot with the highest yields used a combination of both types of fertilizer. So why are these methods most often presented as mutually exclusive?
There are many sustainable practices being used in Ghana on a small scale – sustainable land management, soil fertility techniques, inter-cropping to naturally get rid of pests, organic fertilizers and weedicides and many other GAPs. What are the best ways for EWB to promote these techniques without being paternalistic and dictating the way forward for Ghana’s agricultural development? Tricky…
I think one of the key lessons here is that we need to be adaptive, changing our approach depending on the conditions (economic, social and environmental) in which we find ourselves. Of course, these conditions are changing all the time, so we need to be constantly testing our assumptions, checking if the information we gathered 1 year, 6 months or even 2 weeks ago is still relevant today. And we need to help the Government of Ghana to have the same resilient approach, adapting to new information and conditions as the world lumbers toward a new model for sustainable food security.
Different levels of thinking about this:
- Global food systems
- Consumers in Canada
- African agriculture
- EWB’s stance
- Our strategies
More questions to ponder…
- How do we bridge economic development & environmental sustainability in Africa?
- What are the pros and cons of each agricultural model?
- How do these changes in policy translate to realities on the ground?
- What stance should EWB and other NGOs take on these issues? How will this effect our work?
- African land grabs
- GM crops
- Foreign investment
- Food price volatility
- Climate change
- Farmers’ rights
Special report on the future of food – population, development, environment, politics, nutrition, food waste:
- ‘A Prospect of Plenty’. The Economist, Feb. 24, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18200642
Politics, global markets, demand for food:
- ‘The new geopolitics of food’. Foreign Policy, May/June, 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/25/the_new_geopolitics_of_food?page=full
Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and the concept of agroecology:
- ‘Save climate and double food production with eco-farming’. IPS, Mar. 8, 2011. http://www.ips.org/africa/2011/03/save-climate-and-double-food-production-with-eco-farming/
- ‘Sustainable farming can feed the world?’. New York Times, Mar. 8, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/sustainable-farming/
Agroecology and development:
- ‘Can the world feed 10 billion people?’. Foreign Policy, May 4, 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/05/04/can_the_world_feed_10_billion_people?page=full
- ‘Study debunks myths on organic farms’. Star Phoenix, Sept. 27, 2011. http://www.thestarphoenix.com/business/story.html?id=5462520
- ‘Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology’. Grist.org, Apr. 21, 2011. http://www.grist.org/sustainable-farming/2011-04-20-eliot-coleman-essay-organic
- ‘On agricultural productivity and food security’. Ed Carr, Open the Echo Chamber. Sept. 26, 2011. http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/2011/09/26/on-agricultural-production-and-food-security/
Concentrated industrial vs. wide-spread “nature-friendly” agriculture, which is better for the environment:
- ‘Farming: Thoughts on an intense debate’. BBC, Sept. 2, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14761015
Smallholder farmers and environmental sustainability:
- ‘Global food crisis: Smallholder agriculture can be good for the poor and the planet’. Guardian, June 1, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/01/smallholder-agriculture-farming-good-poor-planet
Findings of DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century:
- ‘Food security has global implications’. Politico.com, June 7, 2011. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56342.html
Moving from old to new models of agriculture:
- ‘A warming planet struggles to feed itself’. New York Times, June 4, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
- ‘The farms are not all right’. Walrus, October, 2011. http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2011.10-food-the-farms-are-not-all-right/
Again, it’s been quite a while since I posted. Sorry about that! Life has been crazy busy lately, so I just wanted to post a short update about what life has been like lately.
August was an INSANELY busy month, with 6 summer students leaving (we miss you!), 5 new volunteers arriving, 2 weeks of meetings for EWB’s African Programs Leaders and… my 2-week Canadian vacation!
The 2 weeks of Team Leader meetings were held at the beautiful Lake Point Guesthouse on Lake Bosumtwe, near Kumasi, Ghana with ~10 super-inspiring leaders from EWB. The beautiful lakeside location provided an ideal place to step back from the day-to-day business of running an EWB team to think about our long-term strategy as an organization. Here are a few of the questions we discussed during the meetings:
- What are our theories of change within each team? How can we learn from each others’ experience?
- What are the investment criteria for EWB as an organization to invest in new or ongoing initiatives? What combination of results, potential and leadership needs to be in place?
- How can we invest more in EWB’s leadership pipeline, so great people continue to flow into our African Programs?
- How can we hire and use local staff effectively?
- What are various pathways to scale our change, either theoretical or from experience?
- What are the teams’ strategies for influencing the “big players” in their sectors?
- What is EWB’s overall vision? (We are currently undergoing a visioning process as an organization, pretty exciting to participate in!)
It was amazing to discuss these questions and to get/give feedback on our strategies. My brain was hurting! It was pretty intense – we even had a random woman buy us a round of drinks when she saw us working until 7pm on a Sunday, haha. Here are a few of my main take-aways from the meetings:
- Our team has come a long way! We were in a pretty rough spot last February, but we have really turned around and come back strong. I’m excited about the things we’re currently working on and can’t wait to see where another 6 months takes us!
- That said, I feel we have a long way to go in developing and articulating our strategy. These meetings were an AMAZING opportunity to push my strategic thinking and articulation further, so it’s something I’m passionate about pushing forward over the next 4 months. More to come on this blog!
- I think we need to invest a LOT more in understanding influence pathways for the agric sector (specifically public sector) in Accra. We’ve been trying to find out how to leverage our relationships, but there’s actually a lot of ground work that still needs to be done before we can do that.
- I’m also excited to build on more of the strong synergies between the 3 agric teams in Ghana – our public sector team, the Agric Value Chains team and Business Development Services. We’re all doing similar exciting things, and I hope we can find systematic ways of sharing and learning from each other.
- We really need to plan ahead, but it’s really HARD to plan ahead. Yeah, big learning, right? I’m being asked to project how many African Programs Staff we’re going to need in the next year, but it’s so hard to tell – will we still be searching? prototyping? scaling something up? doing a pilot in 2 districts, or 20 districts? At least I’m really happy to work for an organization that is so flexible and will allow us to adapt (to a certain degree) as things change. Pretty cool!
- EWB is exciting! We are developing a really inspiring model and I feel the African Programs vision is pretty inspiring as well. It makes me proud to work for such an organization and to be invested in the leadership of EWB
After the last day of meetings, I headed to Accra to fly to Canada. I arrived on a Saturday morning, was greeted by my lovely family, and whisked away to the cottage. It was spectacular!
After an exhausting month, 10 days at the cottage of eating, sleeping, drinking and dock-sitting was just what I needed. It was super-relaxing and we had beautiful weather (most of the time!).
After that, I returned home for a few days of errands, catching up with friends and visiting with my Gramma. It wasn’t long, and before I knew it (2 weeks to the day) I was back on a plane to Ghana! But I’ve arrived back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to dive into the “fall semester” – our busiest time of the year!
Of course this first week back in Ghana has been a bit nuts, trying to get caught up with everyone and everything. I’m working on the budget and “strategic plan” for our team for next year, which is difficult to say the least. But it’s been amazing to get home, unwind and unpack. Ben and I just moved to a new place right before I left for Kumasi. We’re still settling in, but so far it’s wonderful – both the house and the family we’re living beside. All in all, I’m getting ready for a great few months until Christmas!
It’s rainy season here in the north, and we were hit with a monster rainstorm yesterday afternoon. Don and I had a fun bike ride home from the office to discover that not only were all the dirt roads flooded, but the paved ones too! A few pics to tell the tale:
That’s all for now. Just a quick update! I hope I’ll be back to some more regular blogging soon – I’ve got a few in the pipeline that I’m looking forward to writing, so stick around!
Ben put up his second post in the Strategy Development series yesterday. It’s a long one, but very interesting if you like start-ups, frameworks, strategy, or just cool new ideas! I suggest you head over to The Borrowed Bicycle and take a gander. And once again, we’re looking for TONS of feedback on this stuff – does it jive? What do you like or dislike about it? What are we doing well, and what are we totally forgetting about? Please leave your comments over there, it will be an immense help to us!! Thanks!
Once again, the link is http://theborrowedbicycle.ca/2011/04/customer-development-and-our-strategy-process/. Enjoy!
I’m writing this post to introduce a new concept we want to try over here at EWB. I’ve been hanging out in the “international development/aid online community” for a while now and while it’s fun to chat, I’d actually like to put this community to work! (And yes, family, friends and colleagues, I want you to help me out too!) One of the favourite conversation topics is poorly designed development projects. While it’s fun to bash these projects, it’s harder to design good ones. I’d like to use this opportunity to seek out feedback on our team’s next move in public sector agricultural development.
This is an experiment! The plan is to outline our team’s strategy development process and the various investment opportunities we have, then seek external feedback on where we can invest and how we can play a bigger role in the agric sector. I have no idea if this experiment will work out, but I think it will be interesting to try! In order to work, it relies on a few success factors:
- lots of readers – so please share widely so we can ask for widespread feedback!
- feedback from within and outside the sector – if you know people in the agric development sector, send them this way. If you know smart people who would just be interested in providing feedback, please also send them this way!
- sustained readership – unfortunately there is a lot of info, so it’ll be going up in a series of posts – you gotta keep reading to get to the meat! We’ll see whether people can hang in this long.
- understandable posts – we’re looking for feedback on whether you have any idea what we’re talking about… so let us know!
As I wrote in a previous post, our team is currently undergoing a rigorous strategy development process. Thanks to Ben‘s personal interest in the tech start-up world, we’re trying something very new: applying start-up business principles to our strategy development. For a bit of background on why we’re applying these principles, see Ben’s earlier post, Tech start-ups and human development: different worlds?. Ben will introduce you to the tech-world language, but it basically advocates a Searcher rather than a Planner mentality – figuring out what people want before scaling it to a broad level.
Ben will be writing a series of blog posts in the next few weeks describing our process, model and some of the initiatives we’re looking to invest in. I’ll post links here on my blog, but please comment over on his blog – we’re hoping to get tons of feedback and discussions going!
So, without further ado, I will guide you to the first post over on Ben’s blog: Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks. Enjoy!
Warning for my non-development-worker readers: this post is a bit technical. But I hope I’ve explained everything clearly, and please ask questions if I haven’t! I would love to hear some new perspectives on this topic.
Also, I started writing this post a few months ago, when two big themes in the aid blogosphere were complexity and impact evaluation. People seem to be writing about this a bit less these days, but they’re still important topics (and we don’t have any clear answers) so it’s my turn to weigh in!
Where does all the money go?
So what is impact evaluation? This is the attempt to use rigorous methods to understand what actually works, or has impact, in aid and development. Of course there is no “silver bullet” solution to global poverty, but which interventions are more effective than others? Which things have no impact at all, or a negative impact? Ultimately, rigorous impact evaluation should lead funders and policy-makers to direct funds towards interventions which are most effective and reliable in improving people’s lives.
There is a huge push right now to “show what works” in foreign aid. Citizens are seeing that the Western world has spent trillions of dollars on foreign aid in the past 50 years, yet global inequality is worse than ever before. Of course progress has been made, but have the results justified the spending? Citizens want accountability from their governments, and proof that their hard-earned tax dollars are actually having a positive impact on the lives of those they are targeting in the developing world.
Many agree that the most rigorous form of impact evaluation today is the Randomized Control Trial (RCT). This technique takes a statistically significant sample size and randomizes selection into two groups: control and treatment. The treatment group receives a development intervention, such as crop insurance, or microcredit, or whatever you are trying to test, while the control group receives nothing. Both groups are evaluated over the course of the study (usually 1-5 years) and the results come out somewhere along the spectrum of “yes this works” (how?) to “this has no effect”. Sometimes it’s inconclusive, or the results are not easily generalizable, or there is further research to be done, but RCTs are generally considered the gold standard in evaluating development interventions.
There is a lot of controversy around RCTs because of the high cost and time involved. These studies are not appropriate in all cases. They shouldn’t be used by organizations looking to evaluate past programs, or smallscale projects looking for continued funding. Instead, RCTs should be used to inform development and foreign policy on a large scale. Citizens giving foreign aid want to know, for a fact, which development interventions are the best bang for their buck – and RCTs should, in theory, be able to tell them.
Inside the black box
The second trend these days in the blogosphere is complexity, or complex adaptive systems. Aid on the Edge of Chaos has a good round-up on complexity posts. The bottom line here is that in a complex system, results are unpredictable. The system is not static, or linear, or deterministic; it evolves over time, adapting and growing based on both internal and external influences. When dealing with a complex system, you need to take a “systems approach” by monitoring the whole rather than the individual pieces.
What does this mean for development? Well, people and communities and indeed the world are all complex systems. It is hard to predict when something will change, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of revolutions across the Middle East. From this perspective, it is hard to ever know which development interventions will achieve the results we want.
Most development interventions are designed around something like an impact chain – what will you do, and what results will it produce? However, complexity theory tells us that we should monitor a system generally for results, not just for our predicted or desired results. There are often unintended results of our actions, sometimes negative and sometimes positive. In addition, it can be hard to attribute positive changes to our particular intervention in a complex system – so much is happening at once and there are so many stimuli to the system, you never really know where something originated. This also poses problems when we’re discussing replicability of development interventions – just because something worked once in a particular set of circumstances, doesn’t mean it will work again in a different setting.
So what does it all add up to?
Impact evaluation and complexity. Now it’s time to bring these two concepts together. The big question here is this: Can we understand “what works” in enough detail to be able to predict future results of our interventions?
My answer is yes, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. In the past, evaluation has usually focused on the question “what intervention worked?” where the answer is “fertilizer subsidies” or “school feeding programs”. I think we need to start looking more at HOW things work. Instead of looking for programs that we can replicate across entire regions, we should be asking, “what worked?”, “under what conditions?” and “with what approach?” which give answers more like “foster innovation”, “promote local ownership” and “give people a choice”. These conditions may be found across many different areas, but may have more of an effect on the success of an intiative than the WHAT of the initiative itself.
I generally support rigorous impact evaluation for 2 reasons:
- fostering a culture of accountability to donors and stakeholders (and taxpayers);
- foster learning so that we understand conditions for success and can set projects up for success in the future.
I think the aid industry has learned (and can learn even more) something about what works, or probably more about what doesn’t work. I also think aid can’t be prescriptive since human beings are complex and our behaviour is irrational and unpredictable. But we can set conditions for success when designing our interventions. And while the results may not be wholly predictable, at least the intervention will be more likely to succeed.
What does this look like in practice?
We are currently in the process of team transition and strategy re-development. Here are a few principles I’m looking to follow with our team strategy as we go forward:
- always have a portfolio of initiatives on the go (don’t put all your eggs in one basket)
- make sure these initiatives all contribute toward the bigger change we’re trying to make in the agric sector
- range of timescales: short-, medium- and long-term changes, informing and building on each other
- constant learning and iteration: testing, getting feedback, adapting, and testing again
- focus on articulation of our observations and learning to external audiences
- high awareness of the system as a whole: what does it look like? where are the strongest influences? the most volatile players? who exerts the most force on the system?
What principles would you add to my list?