what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

harlots of the aid business - part IX

I was today reminded of a useful EC forum for those interested in capacity development – capacity4dev – which has a special section on the ongoing reform to technical assistance I have spoken about. Two years ago it published Guidelines for Delegation staff about this - which is useful for outsiders like myself.
Insofar as I understand the EC reform, it seems to boil down to one analytical statemenent and four injunctions (or am I being unfair??). The basic analysis is that the system is fine; it’s people (implementation) that are screwing up. The four injunctions are -
• avoid supply-driven solutions - make sure it's the beneficiary who defines the project
- „Get the project design right”
• „select the right consultants”
• „Allow them flexibility” (at least in the inception period)

The strategy (and the Court of Auditors’ 2007 Report) does actually answer a lot of the complaints which I’ve been making about the EC system of technical assistance. I should be happy - but find myself deeply uneasy. I am trying to explore why this is so. Basically, I think, because the document hardly mentions (let alone analyses) the commercial companies and the (freelance) consultants on which the entire system hinges. On the few occasions consultants are mentioned, it is with some embarrassment – as if we were harlots.
Not surprisingly therefore, the Backbone strategy - which is now the bible for the staff of the 81 European Delegations throughout the world - fails to explore its own role in ensuring that people like myself have the relevant information, knowledge, skills and…attitudes. I’ve been 20 years in this game – and only once has a company involved me in a sharing of experience. And once too a desk officer in a European Delegation asked me to attend on their behalf a conference about decentralisation. Their Guidelines say nothing to encourage such practices – nor to ensure that the methodology of the company bids add any value. At the moment these are prepared formulaistically by staff with little or no experience on the ground – and yet are considered part of the contractual obligations which bind new Team Leaders. If the design and individual experts are indeed critical – then why award so many points in the evaluation for a methodology which is just a paper exercise in which the consulants play little or no part?
And trying to measure the breadth of the professional experience and/or understanding which experts have about “good practice” is a futile exercise – except when the beneficiary expressly (but rarely) asks for that. There is no magic bullet – that’s why the Bliar slogan “what works” was so wrong – so technocratic – reflecting the illusion that, if only we look hard enough, we can find the technical solution to governance problems. “What works” is, first, someone’s judgement. If it’s a fair judgement, the success will reflect a particular context; a set of actors; and a particular script. Elsewhere that script may not translate; some of the actors (or props) may be missing. (Although sharing of experience does encourage and help us all to think more critically and creatively about what we are doing. And it is rather odd that the EC shows so little interest in the impact its institutional reform efforts have had……)
Skills and attitudes are the key - whether the consultant is sufficiently sensitive to the local context and networks to be able to identify opportunities and networks and has the skills to use them at the right time and manner. I have tried to give some examples in the latest draft of my paper for the next NISPAcee Conference.
Again, I don't see that as one of the criteria recommended in the Backbone strategy for selecting an expert - and how, in any event, could that be measured in a way to satisfy the procurement system???? One of the wisest comments I have seen on this whole issue is this - Bryn Tucknott comment on Robert Chambers' paper
I have long given up on the quest to find the one universal tool kit that will unite us all under a perfect methodology… as they will only ever be as good as the users that rely on them. What is sorely missing in the development machine is a solid grounding in ethics, empathy, integrity and humility.

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