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Community Contribution

Taking Time to Stop and Think: Shifting Aid Models to Manage for Systemic Change

Feb 04, 2014

This blog post was written by Amir Allana (Market Systems Katalysts) and Fariya Mohiuddin (Engineers Without Borders Canada).

Logo from 2014 Policy Forum on Global DevelopmentThe 2014 Policy Forum on Global Development was convened in Toronto in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders Canada’s 13th Annual National Conference.  Entitled Towards Systemic Change: Shifting Aid Models to Manage for Complexity, it brought together a small group of policymakers, development practitioners and thought leaders from Canada, the United States, Uganda, Ghana, Malawi, and the United Kingdom to explore and discuss models of aid that allow for the pursuit of complex, adaptive, flexible program design while retaining the rigour and “value-for-money” aspects of the current convention—the results-based management (RBM) model. In particular, we were keen to test the limitations of RBM when approaching problems that require a view of development that is complex and nonlinear (i.e. a systemic change framing).

The Forum consisted of two parts: Framing the Problem and the Solution Space. The first half began with a presentation by Dr. Ben Taylor[1] outlining the parallel rise of results-based management and systemic change thinking in development over the last 20 years. This was followed by panel presentations by representatives from donor agencies and implementing organisations, detailing their experiences in managing the tension between these two paradigms. Through facilitated roundtable discussions, participants delved into the barriers, constraints, and opportunities that this tension has presented in their work.

We launched into the second half with presentations on how to think about and resolve this tension in reality. The afternoon began with a Skype presentation by Dr. Matt Andrews, one of the designers of the thought framework we chose, called Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).[2]  Participants were then asked to apply this framework through two current case studies from Uganda. This flowed into the last session of the day which looked at the institutional contexts in Canada and the United States for operationalising this kind of programme model.

Key Discussion Points

  • For more experimental programme design, there needs to be better trust and more courage between donors and implementers at the field level to openly discuss changes to contracts during implementation, including focus areas and activity budgets.
  • Agreement on the problem definition or mission is necessary. This shared understanding should then serve as the organising principle when adapting activities and plans to ensure that practitioners are beholden to the ultimate mission, rather than the activities themselves.
  • Accountability is a key constraint. Donor agency accountability to taxpayers limits how much risk/flexibility they can invest in. Particularly in contracts for such programmes, how do you design a flexible, open-enough, yet defined-enough contract?
  • While donors appreciate the principles behind systemic approaches—flexibility, adaptation, etc.—there is a dearth of knowledge about what this looks like in practise. Consequently, PDIA and its variants currently rely on the strong leadership of a few individuals.
  • There are opportunities to pilot this innovative thinking along the lines of the venture capital model through providing stage-funding for small, flexible projects and then scaling up if successful. However, caution must be exercised as the tacit knowledge from implementing “failed” pilots resides in the implementing team; as such, the same team is best suited to implement the scale up.