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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!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Blind leading the blind?


Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I view specialization as a virus which has contaminated universities and the professional community and condemns us all to a constant reinvention of the wheel. Hard-won insights in one field of endeavour have to be rediscovered in another – often in a different language. I drew attention to this in the closing section of my paper to this year’ s NISPAcee Conference – quoting from the OECD’s Network on Governance’s Anti-corruption Task Team report on Integrity and State Building that
As a result of interviews with senior members of ten donor agencies, it became apparent that those engaged in anti-corruption activities and those involved in the issues of statebuilding and fragile states had little knowledge of each other’s approaches and strategies
.“Fragile states” and “Statebuilding”, for example, are two new phrases which have grown up only in the last few years – and “capacity building” has now become a more high-profile activity. Each has its own literature and experts. Those who have been in the game of organisational change for several decades draw on an eclectic range of disciplines and experience – are we to believe that these new subjects represent a crystallisation of insights and experience??
All I know is that few of those in the intellectual world I have inhabited for the past 20 years – the consultants and writers about institution-building in post-communist countries – seem aware of the development literature and the various critiques which have been developed of aid over the past few decades – and which has helped give the recent stuff about capacity development the edge it has. Those who work in my field seem to be a different breed from those who work in “aid”. I say “seem” since I have seen no study of who gets into this field – with what sort of backgrounds (let alone motivation). Whereas there are several studies of the demand side eg a 2007 report from the European Centre for Development Policy Management - Provision of Technical Assistance Personnel: What can we learn from promising experiences whose remit was to gain a better understanding of the future demand for technical assistance, to relate that to past experience and to recommend how TA personnel can best be mobilised, used and managed in the future to strengthen national capacity.
Those who work in my field seem to be more pragmatic, more confident, more “missionary” in the modernist (rather than post-modernist) approach taken to institution building – and, dare I say it - more “mercenary” in motivation than those who have traditionally taken to “development work”.

These musings were prompted by Owen Barder’s development blog (one of about three blogs about development which is always worth reading (Duncan Green, Simon Maxwell and Aid on the Edge of Chaos are three others).
Not only does Barder have a blog – but, I have discovered, a series of podcasts (Development Drumbeats) in which he talks with various characters about development issues. Such a nice initiative – some of the podcasts come with a paper and some even with a transcription!
Barder’s latest discussion was with Tony Blair. Now Bliar is hardly my favourite person. As UK PM for a decade, he not only carried on but deepened the Thatcher agenda of marketisation – concealing a lot of it in a shallow rhetoric about “modernisation”. He has always talked the good talk – and he is on good form in this discussion when he reveals some of the lessons he has learned from the work he has been doing on Governance in three African States – Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Criticism of the supply-driven approach (eg training of civil servants) is the new mantra of the TA industry - and Bliar duly echoes that mantra, suggesting that his approach is different in four respects.
• First that he personally works with the political leaders to ensure that the process of change is demand-driven (interesting that the EC’s Backbone Strategy didn’t mention such an approach);
• secondly the ruthless approach to priorities (focus on a few manageable things), working to deliver prioritised programmes – learning from doing.
• He mentions a third factor - his technical team being resident and coaching – but this for me is not all that different from a lot of TA does.
• The final factor is different - getting „quality” private sector investment (a good Bliar flourish that - it could hardly be „rubbish”!)

Coincidentally it was precisely this point about the need for political demand which I was trying to build earlier in the month to the final version of my NISPAcee paper. And the issue of ruthless prioritising – and learning from doing are close to my heart – as can be seen in the final Discussion paper I left in 2008 to my Bulgarian colleagues (entited "Learning from Experience”. But relying on a Bliar approach would involve cutting back dramatically on interventions. And, by definition, his work is not transparent – is not subject to monitoring or evaluation. The write-ups which will doubtless come will be laudatory – and not, I bet you, governed by the normal canons of analysis!

Note to myself - this entry has meandered a bit – I should return to the theme of the profile of the IB expert.
Note to reader – In January I had a short post about some reports on the use of consultants To that list should be added this interesting paper which gives a typology of external advice

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