Why many development initiatives have achievement gaps…and what to do about this

written by Matt Andrews

Yesterday I blogged about Hirschman’s Hiding Hand. As I interpret it, a central part of his idea is that many development projects:

  • focus on solving complex problems, and
  • only once they have started does a ‘hiding hand’ lift to show how hard the problem is to solve,
  • but because policy-makers and reformers are already en route to solving the problem they don’t turn away from the challenges, and
  • so they start getting creative and finding ways to really solve the problem. Initial plans and designs are shelved in favor of experiments with new ideas, and after much muddling the problem is solved (albeit with unforeseen or hybrid end products).

I like the argument. But why do I see so many development projects that don’t look like this?

I see projects where solutions or projects are introduced and don’t have much impact, but then they are tried again and again–with processes that don’t allow one to recognize the unforeseen challenges, and rigid designs that don’t allow one to change or experiment or pivot around constraints and limits. Instead of adjusting when the going gets tough, many development projects carry on with the proposed solution and produce whatever limited form is possible.

I think this is because many reforms are not focused on solving problems; they are rather focused on gaining short-run legitimacy (money and support) which comes through simple promises of quick solutions. This is the most rank form of isomorphism one can imagine; where one mimics purely for show… so you get a ‘fake’ that lacks the functionality of the real thing…

Let me use Public Financial Management (PFM) reforms as an example.

What problems do these reforms try to solve? Quite a few, potentially. They could try to solve problems of governments overspending, or problems of governments not using money in the most efficient and effective manner (and ensuring services are delivered), or of governments using money in ways that erode trust between the state and citizens (and more).

Now, let me ask how many reforms actually examine whether they solve these problems? Very few, actually. Mostly, reforms ask about whether a government has introduced a new multi-year budget or an integrated financial management system. Or a new law on fiscal rules, or a new procurement system.

Sometimes the reforms will ask questions about whether fiscal discipline is improved (largely because this is something outsiders like the IMF focus on) but I seldom see any reforms–or any PFM assessments (like PEFA or even the assessments of transparency) asking if services are better delivered after reforms, or if reforms enhance trust between citizens and the state. I don’t even see efforts to systematically capture information about intermediate products that might lead to these ‘solved problems’. For instance:

  • Do we have evidence that goods are procured and delivered more efficiently (time and money-wise) after reform?
  • Do we have any systematic data to show that our new human resource management systems are helping ensure that civil servants are present and working well, and that our new payment systems pay them on time (and do a better job of limiting payments to ghost workers)?
  • Do we have any consistent evidence to show that suppliers are paid more promptly after reforms?
  • Is there any effort to see if IT systems are used as we assume they will be used, after reforms?
  • Does anyone look to see if infrastructure projects are more likely to start on time and reach completion after costly project management interventions?
  • Do we have records to show that infrastructure receives proper maintenance after reform?
  • Is there any effort to see if taxpayers trust government more with their money?

This is a long list of questions (but there are many more), and I am sure that some reforms do try to capture data on some of them (if you’ve measured these in a reform, please comment as such…it would be interesting and important to know). Most reforms I have observed don’t try to do it at all, however, which was the focus of a recent discussion on the role of PFM and service delivery Time to Care About Service Delivery? Specialists from around the world were asked whether PFM reforms improve service delivery and the answer was “we think so…we expect so…we hope so…BUT WE CAN’T TELL YOU BECAUSE WE DON’T ACTUALLY ASK EXPLICIT QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS.”

My concern with this is manifold: (i) Does the failure to ask if we are solving the problems suggest that we as a community of reformers don’t really care about the problems in the first place? (ii) Does it mean that we will not be sensitive to the situations Hirschman speaks about when he discusses unforeseen challenges that undermine our ability to address problems (simply because we don’t focus on the problems)?  (iii) Does this also mean that we will not have any moments where we explore alternatives and experiment with real solutions that help to overcome hurdles en route to solving problems?

Unfortunately, I think the observations of gaps after reforms speak to all of these interpretations. And this is why many reforms and interventions do not end up solving problems. In these cases, we get the half-baked versions of the pre-planned solution…with no adjustment and no ‘solved problem’. PFM systems look better but still don’t function–so payments remain late, wages are unpaid to some and overpaid to many, services are not delivered better, and trust actually declines. Most worrying: we have spent years doing the reforms, and now need to pretend they work..and have no learning about why the problems still fester.

The solution (maybe): In my mind this can be rectified–and we can move towards producing more projects like those Hirschman observed–by

  • focusing reforms on problems, explicitly, aggressively, from the start;
  • measuring progress by looking at indicators of ‘problem solved’ (like improved levels of trust after PFM reforms) and intermediate indicators we think will get us there (better payment of contracts, more efficient procurement, etc;
  • regularly monitoring this progress;
  • being on the lookout for expected unexpecteds (things that we didn’t know about that make our initial solutions less impactful); and
  • being willing to adjust what we started with to ensure we produce real solutions to real problems–functional improvements and not just changes in form.

For more, read This is PFM which advocates a functional approach to thinking about and doing PFM reform.

One thought on “Why many development initiatives have achievement gaps…and what to do about this

  1. Pingback: When the intent is mimicry, not change. | Suvojit Chattopadhyay

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