Development policy and evolution: does the donor public request impact or action?

Owen posted a very good presentation on evolution and development on his blog. Indeed, evolution, like the market, is an efficient way to find solutions to complex problems or to optimize resource allocation.

The subsequent discussion on his blog raised a few issues I would like to expand on, in addition to what I wrote before on evolution in development.

  • The evolutionary pressure is being steered by the public perception. Public perception evolves too. However, I do think this pressure is for the moment rather away from long-term results and towards short-term visible activity. Sorry.
  • Evolution works with selection of the fittest, not by coordinating, clustering and evolving the un-fit. The inclusive narrative for better aid might have to make room for an exclusive selection process. (see also “what don’t make sense in trade don’t make sense in aid”).
  • The path dependency of evolution can easily lead to sub-optimal results.
  • Every evolutionary process creates dinosaurs: creatures fit for the world of yesteryear. Who is your favorite development dinosaur?

This  entry is on public support for development results.

Is the public interested in results? I would not think so: for the donor public the perception of activity is more important than results. Indeed, it is easier to look professional than to be professional. If the donor public doesn’t experience the quality of the services you deliver, it is not economical at all to invest in real expertise and real results when you can invest in faking expertise and fake results. Most NGOs manage to look trustworthy enough to part people from their money. Not all of them are sufficiently accountable.

When disaster struck in Haiti on January the 12th 2010, it took less than 24 hours for donor countries to decide to send their rapid response teams to Haiti for search and rescue. This led to major congestion at the airport, and some spectacular saves by white knights in shining armour that were documented live on television. There were more than 222.000 death and 211 lives were saved by the international and national search and rescue teams. This would be 1 per thousand. There are no data available to me about people saved by their neighbours, as the efforts of Haitians were very much underreported on during this crisis. Would Haiti have been better off it they used the airspace for bringing in shelter, food, water?

In November 2010 a cholera epidemic struck, making more than 1000 victims, while there was clearly no adequate health services or humanitarian workers around. Oh yes, this one struck in West Africa, after the flooding there. The epidemic in Haiti, at the same time, with a few hundred victims got international coverage and full assistance of the international community.

“The public is genuinely moved by the suffering and wants to support poverty reduction” writes Owen in his post. However, as they don’t experience the services for poverty reduction , they are tending to ask for the second best: visible action. In this context, as the situation is still catastrophic, after years of aid, the current “professionals” are clearly not up to the job. Support for hands on volunteers or stars is a normal way out. As is the loathing of the aid establishment. While serious evaluations of the Haiti humanitarian intervention are rather positive (for a once in decades type of event), the public perception is negative. The concern of the public that the money is lining the pockets of agencies and governments, is a valid concern, but also a typical populist issue. In domestic politics this concern is seldom alleviated by information on audits or results. You don’t establish long-term trust with the public on basis of bureaucratic requirements, but on basis of  a long-term open communication strategy, or on basis of a charismatic communicator.

A logical response to the search for public approval is to deliver activity: approve more projects, do more field visits as a minister, or create high level events,  where the stars and politicians from all stripes come together to vow action. This is exactly what is often seen as the problem with Aid. In this context, the plans themselves decided on at the high level events are not relevant, as nobody will wait for the results on the hot topic of today anyway. Activity is also about moving on to the next big thing.

While populism on domestic issues runs sooner or later into the reality of undelivered services, this feedback loop is nonexistent in development, as the taxpayer pays for services for people far away.

If I am right about the political economy of the incentives for a short-term or top down approach, than the development community must start changing some parameters of the equation in order to work towards impact instead of the perception of activity. Change the environment to create evolutionary pressure in the other direction.

However the current reality is not as bleak as we could expect, so some things must be happening that work in favour of the support for a long-term impact geared approach.

The different actors are no blind victims to the incentives before them. Apparently, a lot of them are moral actors. Elected politicians can inform themselves and translate the short-term populist concern in a long-term commitment for results. The same is true about the activist journalists and stars with a long-term commitment, e.g. as UN-agency Ambassadors.

Like piloted by some of the more successful NGOs or agencies, there is a need for a professional outreach to the public. It seems to me that only approaches with this kind of outreach might have a long-term survival chance in the political arena. Even policies that are hugely successful, if they don’t communicate well, might be doomed.
This outreach should put the ad hoc issues and in a wider context. The approach of UNICEF or MSF comes to mind as successful to put a broad results based vision on the agenda. Meanwhile the donor governments seem to be hugely inefficient in explaining their policies to the wider public. The whole Paris agenda seems to be mostly ignored by the public, what seems to be a bad basis for long-term planning.

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