Friday, September 21, 2012

No Prescriptions for Development

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO/President

There is increasing tension (even contradiction) between the need to encourage flexibility, risk-taking, and experimentation at the field level, and donors’ growing emphasis on tightly-packaged and prescribed inputs, outputs, and deliverables.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, we are witnessing a significant shift in how development practitioners look at and evaluate the appropriateness of what they do. This has profound implications for how we design and execute activities on the ground. If we understand development as an emergent property of a complex, self-adaptive system, then what we need from organizations like Plan is not the ability to provide “stuff” or prescriptions for what to do, or even best practices. Instead, what is required is experimentation and adaptation. And being successful means you need to take risks.

Plan’s highly decentralized federated structure can be a real asset in this context. Ours has never been a control and command structure, and most of our best innovations, like Child-Centered Community Development (CCCD), have emerged through countless iterations, tests, and constant adaptation at the field level, and spread bit by bit across communities and countries.

That being said, when it comes to effective feedback loops, Plan has had challenges. There is also a need for a more thorough gender – social exclusion analysis which will support disaggregated data and targeting of excluded youth. Understanding the ‘axis of inclusion’, whether it be areas such as remoteness, gender, disability or extremely poor youth, is an on-going process and much remains to be done. Our federated and highly decentralized structure – a source of strength in terms of constant innovation and change – has also been a weakness, since it makes it difficult to aggregate findings and disseminate what we have learned.

Encouragingly, Plan is now paying much more attention to feedback loops (often called monitoring and evaluation, or M&E, in the development field), focusing on hiring professionals with the skills needed and introducing the discipline of ensuring all major activities have robust M&E plans in place.

A commitment to feedback loops is more than just putting together a program monitoring plan. It requires a total change of mindset - a willingness to take risks and tolerance for failure. Despite increasing chatter in development circles about the need to do this, the bottom line is that this change of mindset is still not all that common throughout the development community. In part this is because many donors do little, if anything, to spur innovation, encourage risk-taking, or tolerate failure. On the contrary, an increasing culture of compliance (as Andrew Natsios [1] has noted in his paper some years back) actually discourages innovation and increases the risks to failure. And even major foundations – which often take pride in their ability to innovate – do not always follow through in the design of their programs and grants.

It is a cautionary note. The move towards greater accountability and emphasis on M&E is all positive. But we should be mindful that there is a mismatch between what development requires (innovation, risk-taking, flexibility) and what increasingly donors are looking for (tightly-packaged projects, clear deliverables, clear metrics of success).

Plan is very fortunate, however, to have a large base of individual donors who are both patient and flexible – our sponsors. Our sponsors have provided what I call “patient capital.” This funding has been the source of experimentation and innovation for years. They enable Plan to continue to be creative and develop new ways to engage children and their communities, and it shows in the quality of our work.

An independent research effort focused on the impact of Plan programs conducted by the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs[2] found that “Plan’s long-term presence in communities allows the organization to support the continuous participation of community-based groups…established community-based groups can serve as a starting point for future development work (carried out by Plan or other development organizations) since the organizational structure remains intact.”

Further evidence of the staying power of this kind of local capacity development is provided by a Post-Intervention Study of Plan’s work in Kenya. In 2011, Plan hired INTRAC consulting to return to the Bura and Voi regions where Plan had worked from 1986 to 2002 to evaluate the sustainability of Plan’s programs nine years later. INTRAC found the water committees were still functioning, collecting user fees, maintaining the systems and representing the interest of the communities with the Water Department. INTRAC also found the vast majority of the classrooms and latrines were still in good working order almost a decade after Plan had left. The continuation of these community development committees (CDCs) well after the departure of the INGO offers lessons for the development of more autonomous and durable community-based organizations (CBOs).

None of this would have been possible without our sponsors providing long-term funding, which has enabled Plan to build the linkages and trust at the community level required to take risks, innovate, evaluate, adapt and evolve the programs.

Moreover, when CDCs function alongside decentralized local governments there is evidence of the full potential of this model. For example, according to an external evaluation, between July 2004 and March 2009, Plan Bolivia built local capacity by fostering and training 848 CDCs across six departments. During that five-year span, those CDCs managed projects totaling more than $13 million. This total includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from rural Bolivian municipalities.

Plan’s Community Development Committees represent a proven methodology for building local capacity from the grassroots. With their scalability, accountability, sustainability and effectiveness, the CDC model demonstrates that community-based civil society organizations can successfully move from being beneficiaries to increasingly independent and capable partners in their own development.

We do not thank our sponsors nearly enough. Our donors are our partners, investing with us in a continuous process of discovery, adaptation and evolution. But we need to recognize that in return for this patience, we need to be clearer with our sponsors about what we are doing with the resources, more timely with our communications, more transparent and frank about what we are accomplishing (or failing to accomplish). We are working towards this end, modernizing and refining our internal information management infrastructure, and improving how we collect and disseminate information at the field level. We have much more to do, but we have clear goals and are slowly making progress.

1Andrew Natsios, “The Clash of the Counter-Bureaucracy and Development,” Center for Global Development, July 2010.
2Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, Uwe Gneiting, and Hans Peter Schmitz, Transnational NGO Initiative, Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, How does CCCD Affect Program Effectiveness and Sustainability? A Meta Review of Plan’s Evaluations, July 2011.


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