Politics of Poverty

Complexity, contracting and courage: Changes for USAID to embrace

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Staff on a facilitation program in Uganda debate their intervention strategy in a strategic planning meeting. Photo: Kim Beevers.

Engineers Without Borders Canada comes to Washington, DC to launch their influence agenda.

You probably know them best for failing. Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) made a splash first in 2008 with their Failure Report, the first of its kind among international NGOs.

Since then, when it comes to systems change, EWB has built an approach and a reputation on admitting when things don’t go perfectly, and they are respected for it.

Amir Allana is Engineers Without Borders Canada’s                  Program Manager for Market Systems in Kampala.

EWB’s Amir Allana visited Washington, DC last month from Kampala. I sat down with him to discuss aid reform from EWB’s point of view closer to the ground, working with USAID missions and implementing partners.

Jennifer Lentfer: Tell us a little bit about EWB’s burgeoning influence agenda and how it ties in with your work in east Africa.

Amir Allana: EWB has been working in partnership with donors, aid contractors, and NGOs to operationalize systems thinking and facilitative approaches for seven years. We believe that the development sector is ready to make a paradigm shift in how it operates in emerging economies – one that enables local systems (markets, governmental, civil society) rather than one that replaces them.

Our experience working on the problem of implementation capacity has brought to light barriers to adaptation at the donor-implementer interface, which persist in spite of great staff capacity and organizations. These barriers prevent programs from innovating and adapting, i.e., experimenting and responding to new insight.

While we work on some DfID-funded programs, the majority of our experience has been with USAID contracts; this has led us to build an influence agenda to articulate our learning with our friends at USAID to accelerate this paradigm shift in the sector. We don’t doubt what we have to say is widely applicable to other donors and implementing organizations broadly; we’re just starting with USAID, with whom we have felt the most traction and energy.

JL: What’s needed for a paradigm shift to happen?

AA: For that to occur, development practitioners need to work in the background, facilitate relationships, exercise hyper-sensitivity to local markets and incentive structures, and catalyze change that spreads naturally, such as new business models, services, and products expanding into an untapped market.

One key area we work on with local program teams is building the ability to learn and adapt into their organizations’ DNA, which is critical for any program wanting to create systemic change. A learning organization exhibits three characteristics. First, its capacity to try lots of different things, safe-to-fail spaces for experimentation that yield insight into what works and what does not. Second, you need a staff culture of gathering and processing information and insights from the field continually. And finally, processes and structures to critically debate, analyze, and interpret new information and use it to change program activities in a timely manner.

“In short, it’s experiment, investigate, and respond.”

JL: When you were here in DC, you shared with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) that many of the barriers to working with USAID at the mission level are contractual. What changes does EWB propose to the “toolkit” used by USAID contracting officers?

Understandably, USAID staff—especially Contracting Officers (COs) and Contracting Officer’s Representatives (CORs)—are under pressure to be fiscally accountable to taxpayer money. Likewise, implementing organizations are contract-bound to deliver on narrowly-defined impact indicators. This results in COs and CORs often taking on the authoritative role of whip-cracker, and the implementing organizations stuffing their dirty laundry (read: their learning) under a mattress. Implementing organizations also fail to show courage in pushing back on their CORs for fear of losing credibility or even their contract, and program adaptation stops there.

When taking a facilitative approach to development practice, some contractual changes might be required, such as:

  • changing of local partners based on traction (dropping some, picking up others);
  • changing intervention points;
  • changing staffing structures to intervene in another part of the system;
  • changing work plans and activity budgets as some initiatives don’t gain traction;
  • changing intermediate monitoring and evaluation indicators (as intervention points change); and
  • perhaps financing a study to learn more about the system as questions arise.

I am talking explicitly here about programs/activities that operate in the complex domain, rather than the complicated. (JL note: This USAID Learning Lab discussion paper, Complexity Aware Monitoring, explains more.)

JL: Say more about what’s needed at USAID when it comes to managing “complex” activities.

AA: EWB is proposing at least two broad changes to start with when it comes to this:

First we’re talking about a change in the culture of conversation and action between COs, CORs, and implementing organizations. COs have the authority to make the types of changes an implementer would need. USAID should recognize that change is part of the implementation phase in a facilitation program, message this to their COs, and empower their COs to feel comfortable enough negotiating changes with the implementer while maintaining fiduciary responsibilities of compliance.

In other words, COs’ role should be framed as negotiation to enable good development, not enforcement of contractual articles. In our experience, this has worked best when the CO is experienced, knows the rule book inside and out, and is open to conversation. Implementing agencies, on the other hand, need to build better trust relationships with their CORs and be upfront—courageous even—when contractual changes are required and not just take “no” for an answer.

Secondly, EWB advocates for prioritized investment towards learning in development practice, particularly systemic change and facilitation. We’d like to see USAID focus on what it means for their staff who are managing contracts. USAID staff need to understand facilitation, which is very different from direct delivery. To do so, implementing organizations and CORs need to learn together and remain abreast of individual programs’ strategic approach, theory of change, and nitty-gritty tactics of systems change. At times in the field, knowledge becomes obsolete in less than a quarter; opportunities need to be jumped on. USAID’s CORs are, frankly, too busy to keep up, causing an implementer to spend more time managing the donor relationship than intervening in the field. This causes burn out on both sides. An alternative approach would be loosening control – an unpopular suggestion in my experience.

JL: In my own experience in the “field,” there is a perceived risk that people who push back on USAID do so at risk of losing their own livelihoods. Have you seen instances where USAID is welcoming more genuine feedback from its implementing partners?  

AA: Yes, I most definitely have. But I have also seen the opposite before. I can’t say one way or the other on this one. It is so relational, dependent on the specific individuals involved, which I suppose in itself is not great.

JL: So what is the purpose of the contracting model and how does it fit (or not!) with the way development practice has evolved?

AA: This is a broader (nearly philosophical) question. “Contracting” as a mechanism is built on the assumption that expertise of the private sector and civil society can be harnessed efficiently through competitive processes. It also allows for the party putting out a request for proposals to outsource the best-to-date expertise.

In the development sector, we stifle the benefits of contracting. Donors stifle the benefits of contracting by managing for activities rather than outcomes. Implementers stifle it by (sometimes) being driven by repeat business from donors as opposed to achieving the mission of poverty reduction.

It’s the equivalent of hiring an engineering firm to build a bridge but picking the tools for them. But shouldn’t the engineers know best what’s needed to build the bridge? Conversely it’s the equivalent of the engineering firm using an inadequate composition of steel and concrete because it looks better to their benefactors on paper, but they should know better. Of course, development is much, much more difficult—unproven, complex, immeasurable—than building a bridge, which is part of the challenge. We don’t have clear goalposts.

In short, we are not harnessing the expertise of development practitioners, nor do we value cost-effectiveness. So why contract at all?

JL: You mentioned that increasingly “development management” experience (gained inside the aid industry) may not be as important as management experience gained outside of it. Explain what you mean by this.

AA: The developing world, and the role of development practitioners, has changed tremendously in the past 15-25 years.

A country director in a recovering post-conflict country once told me: “I am forced to hire a [local] CoP who has 15 years of development experience. You know what that means? It means 15 years of experience in giving away s**t. That’s not what [this country] needs! How are we supposed to do good market facilitation with inappropriate leadership?”

There is such a thing as great management experience; but as the role of practitioners evolves, this experience does not necessarily reside in the development sector (though some does). There are great managers with international experience in the private sector; additionally, professionals from different fields have much to offer the development sector. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in managers; it doesn’t make a hoot of difference whether they came from the development sector or not. I’m not advocating for one or the other; we just need to broaden our definition of “relevant experience.”

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