Doing Development Differently two years on: not just a fad, but real substance

by 27th Jan 2017
Young women in Mali: could Doing Development Differently improve food security for people in countries like Mali? Young women in Mali: could Doing Development Differently improve food security for people in countries like Mali?

At the end of 2016 the Doing Development Differently community held a workshop to take stock. What have we learned over the past two years? Is anything actually different?

The Doing Development Different community emerged in August 2014 largely as a critical reflection on the politics of development and a ‘more explicit recognition of the political conditions that enable or obstruct development progress’. The hope was, and still is, that this recognition would lead to more locally led and politically smart interventions.

So is anything actually different?

The discussion raised the obvious question of whether this movement was a development ‘fad’ – old wine in new bottles with a fancy label...

But I would argue there are at least two reasons to be more optimistic. At the end of the workshop, Marta Foresti and Matt Andrews went through a list of how the community of practice had fared. There is a manifesto with hundreds of signatures, a huge body of practices across the world, over-subscribed training programmes on problem-driven iterative adaptation. So, the community is active and growing.

And donors are starting to do things differently

The Doing Development Differently community sits among a whole host of movements on adaptive management. For some, it is about participatory approaches (harking back to Whose Reality Counts?), for others it is all about the paradigm-shifting potential of technology, and for others it has even been seen as a means to ensure more effective management and procurement processes. One donor referred to how some actors within their agency are ‘using the language (of adaptive management) without the substance’.

But smuggling the agenda through the back door is making a difference. With donors like DFID, SIDA and USAID formally accepting the importance of complexity, flexibility and adaptation, it is starting to change programming. And I would argue that there are increasingly more examples of where donors are engaging with NGOs on the substance.

A quiet revolution

Duncan Green reflected that ‘development NGOs seem largely absent and/or silent’ in the Doing Development Differently community, but as the learning report from the workshop report shows, a lot is quietly being done. Thomas Carothers and Diana de Gramont once referred to the interface between aid and politics as the ‘almost revolution’, but maybe this is just a quiet revolution that’s happening under the radar.

For CARE, much of that revolution seems to be happening alongside donors rather than against them. We’ve seen this recently in the Harande project in Mali: an initiative which aims to improve sustainable food, nutrition and income security for 270,000 vulnerable household members in the Mopti region. Logframes alone can’t capture and respond to the dynamics of such a volatile environment, so regular reappraisal of the context is central to the project’s approach.

Collaborate, learn, adapt, refine, implement

But this is also aided by the donor’s own evolving thinking. Under USAID’s Collaboration, Learning and Adaptation competition, the Food for Peace programme is piloting a Refine and Implement approach this year in the DRC and Liberia. In practice, this means a one-year inception period (for a multi-year project) where the implementer is actively encouraged and supported by the donor to conduct systemic context analyses and extensive community consultation to refine the project’s theory of change.

While this heavy inception period is a great challenge, it helps to recalibrate our strategies in a more politically informed and conflict-sensitive way. Harande is not a Refine and Implement programme, but its first-year process was consistent with this approach, and its revised theory of change is better adapted to the Mopti region’s many challenges.

Space to think openly and plan realistically

And with regular learning and reflection workshops going forward, there’s good reason to believe strategic adaptation and course correction will continue. With more space to think openly and to plan more realistically, we can do things differently.

Of course, this is not the only thing CARE is doing differently. Sat behind the innovations in Harande is our work on political economy analysis. We’re experimenting with contribution tracing to improve the rigour of our monitoring and evaluation of complex change (watch this space). And we’re piloting the use of the constituent voice performance management tool to improve our beneficiary feedback mechanisms, learning from rapid feedback so that what we do differently is responsive to beneficiaries’ needs.

Tom Aston

Tom was the monitoring, evaluation and research lead for the inclusive governance team. He particularly looked at the application of theory-based evaluation methods such as contribution tracing and outcome mapping.

He joined CARE International UK in 2012, providing support to the Latin America and the Caribbean and Middle East and North Africa regions, particularly in conducting political economy analyses, and conducting studies on social accountability and advocacy.

He has an MSc in Development Administration and Planning from University College London (UCL) and is doing a PhD on the political economy of cash transfers, with Bolivia as a case study. Previously he worked for CARE Bolivia and as a consultant for the ODI and UCL on issues of social protection and disaster risk reduction.

One good thing I've read

For those of you looking to unlock the activist inside you I recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities.