27 May 2011

Robert Chambers: Revolutionising Development

Today IDS hosted a Reflection Forwards on the work of Robert Chambers. About 100 development luminaries came together to reflect forwards on Robert's work. How are his ideas and ways of looking at the world being taken forward by a host of development practitioners, policymakers and researchers all over the world?

In areas such as community led total sanitation, livelihoods, vulnerability and seasonality Robert has stood things on their head: putting the last first, focusing on relationships, redefining empowerment, developing participatory methods and relentlessly focusing on power.

In my conversations with people as IDS director, I come across 3 types of people: (1) those who know IDS well and at some point in our conversation ask me "and how is Robert?", (2) those who know a little about IDS, but whose eyes light up when they realise Robert works there and (3) those who do not know anything about IDS, but know Robert!

I first read his work in the early 80s as a useful complement or even antidote to the economists Bernanke, Amemiya and Pencavel. I tried to apply his methods to locating food insecurity in India in the early 90s and I worked with him and Jere Behrman in a CGIAR project on agriculture and poverty.

I have only worked in the same place as him for 7 years. He is inspirational, visionary, full of energy and directs his ego into his work and not into his own position. In a room full of gurus at IDS today, he was the guru's guru (although he would deny it).

Please check out the excellent book Revolutionizing Development (use discount code IDS30) that has been edited by Ian Scoones and Andrea Cornwall, which consists of articles reflecting backwards and forwards on Robert's work.

For an open access archive of the hundreds of pieces of Robert's work, here is a link from IDS' British Library of Development Studies www.ids.ac.uk/go/robertchambers

26 May 2011

Ravallion on Impact, Interactions and Selectivity

I don't really like blogging about blogs, but Martin Ravallion's blogs are like mini articles, so it does not count. In his guest blog the Director of the World Bank's Development Research Group flags 2 things that we should be worried about in the current impact surge.

1. Interactions. We are packaging change into neat interventions which are then evaluated. Second round effects over time,macro effects at the economy level, unplanned interactions between interventions and unanticipated effects on behaviour are being missed.

2. Selectivity on what gets evaluated. Whether it is the low hanging fruit, or interventions that bow to different impact methods or interventions in areas where it is politically expedient to do evaluations, what is being evaluated is not necessarily what needs to be evaluated.

So he calls for some kind of mechanism to systematically scan what is and is not being evaluated and then prioritise what needs to be. And he calls for a more eclectic blend of methods to be brought to the table.

I agree with all of this, that is why I would like to see a mapping of what is being evaluated against what our community thinks should be evaluated (can 3ie organise this please?).

We also need to go beyond different economics tools in our blending, although blending across disciplines will require extraordinary openness, respect and flexibility because we are effectively drilling down into world views and very different ideas about how change happens. But I believe it can be done, and must.

22 May 2011

DFID in Afghanistan: Hearts and Minds or Legitimacy and Jobs?

Against the backdrop of the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden, a new report from the Feinstein Center at Tufts University, authored by Stuart Gordon, examines the relationship between Aid and Security in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

The report is based on hundreds of in country interviews with Afghans and with individuals in the international community: from the civilian government, the military the UN, NGOs and contractors, community members, journalists, analysts etc.

The report concludes:

* the drivers of conflict in Helmand are a potent mixture of tribal vendettas, competition between narco-criminal groups, and violent reactions to predatory local police and bureaucrats. This mixture has developed over the past 30 years and was spurred on by the post-Taliban "carve-up" of power.

* the UK government and other donors adopted quick impact projects (QIPs) to help provide security and deliver services. But different UK government departments saw the QIPs as the means to different ends. The Foreign Office saw them as a way of politically engaging, the Ministry of Defence wanted them to help meet tactical military objectives (winning hearts and minds or the consent winning approach, CWA), while DFID saw them as a bridge to sustainable development. The interviews that Gordon conducted concluded that QIPs were not sustainable from a development point of view, with no evidence being found that they helped win hearts and minds.

* international development assistance generated a lot of negative perceptions: that it fuelled corruption, bypassed community structures, and did not generate enough employment.

As far as I can tell, the last DFID Afghanistan Evaluation was by Jon Bennett of ITAD in May 2009, covering 2002-2008. That report concluded that the DFID project success rate was in line with that in other fragile states and that DFID delivered what it promised within a long term commitment. But is also said DFID state building efforts focused too much on technical capacity in Kabul and not enough on political legitimacy outside of it, and that the emphasis on inclusion, gender and rights had not been strong.

The DFID Humanitarian and Emergency Response Review (HERR) barely mentions Afghanistan and is not terribly helpful in evaluating whether the strategic stance in Afghanistan is still fit for purpose.

Given the changes in the country and within the wider region, the on-going fluctuations in food and fuel prices to which the country is very vulnerable, the expansion of DFID activity in fragile states in general, and the time elapsed since the last DFID evaluation, there seems to be a good case for the planned fast tracking of Afghanistan by the new aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact in its newly released 3 year workplan.

But the workplan suggests the "investigation" (as opposed to a "VFM" review or a "evaluation" review) will look at programme controls and assurance (i.e. it is focussed on corruption) of DFID's programme in Afghanistan, rather than whether it is actually having an impact on development and security. I think ICAI should look at that spec again.

15 May 2011

A New Harvest of RCTs?

I am reading The New Harvest by Calestous Juma on how innovation and entrepreneurship need to be rethought in African agriculture. I can recommend the book—lively, provocative and well-evidenced. One of his key points is that agricultural innovation and knowledge generation in Africa needs to be decentralised. He argues that the interactions of climate change and ecosystems are expressed in variable and unpredictable ways and this makes context specificity more vital than ever. It is not that research and technology developed in one area will not be relevant in another, but just that we must continually challenge whether it will be. I agree with this conclusion.

Over the weekend I also read a column by Ben Goldacre on his “fantasy” that UK public policy should be driven by the MIT Poverty Lab approach. I have not yet read the latest book from the Poverty Lab which he refers to, but it strikes me that the randomised controlled trial (RCT) approach is at risk of doing exactly the opposite of what Juma advocates.

RCTs run the risk of locking in a result, not only within a country but across countries and over time. This is partly because: (a) they are costly to run (although I agree with Goldacre when he says you have to compare the cost with the costs of adopting the wrong policy) and so replication will be seen as costly and not terribly sexy to researchers or funders, (b) they are iconic (e.g. Progresa in Mexico, Orange Flesh Sweet Potato in Mozambique) because they are expensive and donors and researchers want to maximise their investments by publicising results (if they are positive), (c) they are not great at exploring the distribution of effects (sample sizes get too small if there are too many treatment variants) and (d) they are not particularly interested in external validity (understanding the likelihood of an interventions shown to be successful in one area being successful in another) because this requires a different set of skills.

It is interesting that RCTs have not been applied to UK public policy (I am assuming Goldacre is correct in this assertion). One could argue that heterogeneity (e.g. relative differences in behaviours and contexts by region and class) in the UK is lower than in emerging economies and hence the above worries about RCT portability are less valid. I wonder if this low RCT uptake in the UK is because of an anticipated stronger push back on ethical concerns (e.g. the challenge of getting informed consent when randomisation of treatment and control happens at the community or cluster level), or because of the political problems of doing such a pilot in the context of UK’s muscular media, or because UK communities would not put up with being seen as laboratory subjects.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not blind to the virtues of RCTs, I just don’t want to be blinded by them.