End of aid? NO! But we do need to adjust our thinking

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
December 7, 2018

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an interesting panel at the 2018 Water and Health Conference organized by The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The panel, “Role of Aid: End of Aid,” moderated by The Water Institute’s Jamie Bartram, was lively and thought provoking.

If you are a development practitioner, let me first set your mind at ease: The panel concluded that we are nowhere near the end of aid. But we also agreed that what we think of as aid, as well as the job of traditional donors and implementing agencies such as Plan International USA, has changed. Aid needs to reform because our thinking about development has changed. Though many of us agree we need to update our thinking, we do not agree on what updated thinking means.

For example, after years of viewing development as purely a technical issue, pundits today acknowledge that most development “problems” are not just technical in nature. Bill Easterly, formerly the chief economist at the World Bank and now a professor at New York University, famously says in his book, “The Tyranny of Experts,” that “The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich, is based on a technocratic illusion … that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights.”

Ben Ramalingam, of the Overseas Development Institute, takes a different tack, looking to physics and the science of “complex adaptive systems” for inspiration to better describe and address the development challenge. He, Owen Barder, Lant Pritchett (with his ideas about problem-driven iterative adaptation) and others tell us to stop seeing development as linear. The implications for design and delivery are clear: Good design is not about identifying silver-bullet solutions and delivering at scale. Instead, success requires constant experimentation, iteration, learning and adaptation.

This rethinking of what we mean by development, and therefore how development aid is designed, delivered and measured, has brought new concepts and approaches to our industry. We have seen the growth of the “thinking and working politically” movement in aid and, more recently, USAID’s increasingly accepted Political Economy Analysis (PEA) and local systems tools.

These movements to reshape the thinking about what development is have also helped usher concepts from the business world into our industry, such as the ideas of failing fast, which we borrowed from software development, and lean startups. USAID’s former Chief Innovation Officer Ann Mei Chang’s new book, “Lean Impact,” is a great example of how these concepts can be brought together to transform how we think about development and what actions organizations need to take in order to remain relevant.

Sometimes the lesson is not to move fast but to slow down. Plan has partnered with academia, and this partnership has been uncomfortable at times, as our cultures are different. But these partnerships have helped bring needed new thinking about the importance of research and evidence. Consider our partnership with The Water Institute at UNC around community-led total sanitation (CLTS). The research was to better understand the conditions under which CLTS, an approach that Plan helped pioneer, addresses a serious development challenge, open defecation, to determine where it worked well and did not experience regression, when the gains from a program are lost as people revert to unhealthy behavior. As a grassroots organization, Plan thought it knew all there was to know about the approach. We were impatient with a methodical research approach. We wanted to move fast. But the research helped prove that CLTS works well only within specific “performance envelope” parameters. This partnership has helped transform how we think about program design and the role of research in development.

Transformation and innovation are happening even inside traditional donor institutions, which are not usually celebrated for their ability to change. USAID’s relatively recent efforts to introduce tools like co-design are helping transform what had become overly complex and rigid procurement processes. These procedures were becoming barriers to the introduction of new thinking and ideas into project design and execution. These changes are long overdue and welcome.

The last seven decades of the modern foreign assistance age have taught us a great deal. And the fear of fading into irrelevance is encouraging transformation among many in the sector. At Plan, for example, we are trying (with various degrees of success, but ever hopeful!) to transform ourselves from an organization with all the answers to one that seeks to ensure all the questions are heard. We are doing this through better tools and techniques that encourage a broader range of local voices to speak up and be heard. We have been investing in improving data capture and enhancing local capabilities to turn data into advocacy and action — through efforts such as Equal Measures 2030. We are investing in better monitoring, evaluation and learning tools that support adaptive learning and iterative design. And we are exploring whether and how technology, such as artificial intelligence tools, can be applied to improve learning and analytics in our sector.

Perhaps we can teach old dogs new tricks. As the CEO of one of those old dogs, I can tell you that constant change and transformation is exhausting. But we cannot afford to take our foot off the accelerator. Not for one minute.