Did the movement to reform development start above a Chipotle?

Doing development differently with an old technology: post it notes. (credit: ODI)

The way that donors, governments and practitioners go about doing development is problematic. It is a rather easy statement to make, because just about anyone will agree – what is being done to improve countries and bring an end to poverty is not helping as much as it should. The hard part is figuring out what to do to fix this problem.

One group of development leaders has a proposal, and in comes in the form of a manifesto. The DDD (Doing Development Differently) Manifesto describes key principles for not only changing development practice, but making it better. It boils down to the idea that progress requires a cycle of doing, failing, adapting and learning. The constant progress of making changes based on lessons learned is how things will get done, not by predetermined programs set out by governments and donors.

Rather than beat down on development failures, the manifesto wants to find commonalities between successes. The authors believe that the process of adapting and learning is what connects the things that do work.

“Some development initiatives, however, have real results,” according to the document. “Some are driven domestically while others receive external support. They usually involve many players – governments, civil society, international agencies and the private sector – working together to deliver real progress in complex situations and despite strong resistance. In practice, successful initiatives reflect common principles.”

Signatories of the manifesto include staff from places like the World Bank, UNICEF, SABMiller, Harvard University, the South African government and Oxfam. It is the product of a two-day event held above a Chipotle in Harvard Square (I still think it should be called the Chipotle Manifesto), and hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the U.K.-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute. The idea for the event and the manifesto come, in some part, from Matt Andrews and his problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) approach to development projects. Rather than describe it, I will let his students do the work with this video:

I attended the sessions in late October alongside 40 others in the development field to hear stories of how people were applying the principles of adaptive development in their own work.

Presenters were limited to seven minute talks, no Powerpoint, to describe an example of doing development differently. What emerged was a tension between the way that development programs are undertaken and the things needed to foster success. The World Bank, for example, requires a process where the board approves plans and if significant changes need to be me made, the restructuring process must carefully go through in reworking the old contracts and agreements. It is slow and does not allow for solutions to evolve or emerge over time.

People working with the World Bank and the U.K.’s Department for International Development pushed back at the event by saying that there is a need for some process and accountability. Whether we like it or not, the money spent by the two is political. That means goals of funders and the ability to communicate what is happening and being accomplished are all a part of what led to the current process. And as Oxfam’s Duncan Green pointed out, an attendee as well, there is the issue of needing to show results.

It was quickly apparent that doing development differently requires an overhaul of the entire system. However, that does not mean creativity and impact are stifled. From UNICEF to the World Bank, examples were shared where projects exercised flexibility and the use of small bets to enable faster failure and wins for projects.

With a few exceptions, practitioners were notably absent from the meeting. There was talk about projects in terms of design, but there were not many people who were doing the work at the community level. The people doing such work brought a perspective that challenged some of the big players, but a more diverse representation would have helped foster an even deeper conversation regarding the current roadblocks to development.

The manifesto will likely ring true to many and raise concerns for others. The need to learn from mistakes and ensure that there is the flexibility to make changes is an idea that will garner broad agreement. It is, in fact, exactly why I added my own name to the list of signatories. What remains unaddressed is the technocratic approach to development. The common assumption during the meeting was that development happens with some sort of outside assistance, and idea challenged by the likes of NYU’s Bill Easterly and others.

At the core, what matters is defining principles to do development better. Manifesto authors Matt Andrews of Harvard, Leni Wild and Marta Foresti, both from ODI, recognize that their ideas are not all that revolutionary. They wrote in Foreign Policy that just because it seems like common sense does not mean it is actually happening.

“What is striking is that many development projects, policies and reforms still do not adhere to such principles. This is true for many initiatives that are externally supported and for many that are driven by developing country governments,” they write. “We therefore see the need to identify these principles clearly. We also believe it is vital to state our belief that development initiatives will have more impact if these principles are followed. … It’s time to build on development’s positives, rather than singing an old and sad song about its failure.”

For additional reading on the DDD Manifesto and the meetings, go here. Tomorrow, I will share my recent investigative report into Tanzania’s effort to increase water access. I believe the reason it failed for the first five years helps to illustrate the very problems that the DDD Manifesto is trying to address and why the status quo prevents such adaptation from happening.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.