Thursday, December 21, 2006

“Round up the usual suspects!”

This week’s Ramble starts with a rhetorical question. Do we really have Paris?

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Let me explain. I’m not entirely mad, although Casablanca is one of my favourite films. In 2005, a large meeting of donors and governments took place in Paris to thrash out the future of development assistance (that’s ‘aid’ to you and me), and make one of those Declarations that these gatherings are so fond of.

I won’t bore you with the details of what was agreed, but in a nutshell, governments agreed to get their houses in order, in particular with regard to financial management, corruption and the like, while donors agreed in turn to use the reformed Government systems more and more, particularly through the use of direct budget support and basket funding. A previous post has gone into more detail on this, but budget support and basket funding are the two forms of support that give Government the most freedom to use the funds provided in a manner consistent with Government aims. Additionally, donors also promised to start working together much more effectively to make sure they get as much common ground as possible before coming to Government, so that we don’t have the burden of discussing the same thing with each donor in turn or dealing with ten different systems for dealing with the same issue.

These are all good things that we agreed, even if the fundamental problem of development (how to create or foster a dynamic economy, since you asked) was left unaddressed. However, after the big wigs got back from Paris, fresh from signing the declaration, the plebs in-country were left trying to implement it. This has proven far more difficult than signing it.

The basic problem is that as with most exercises like this, everything that matters in the Declaration is vague. Sure, we’ve unambiguously agreed to set up robust budgeting, monitoring and procurement systems, and donors clearly state they will use these robust systems more and more, rather than burdening us with the task of dealing with each of their own individual systems, as I say above. There are even some global targets and indicators for 'development partners' as a group.

This is all great, but what lacks definition are the crucial questions that need to be asked on the individual level: When will you change and how will you change? What are the preconditions? Government and donors might have completely different ideas of what a strong monitoring and evaluation system is, and even if they were in agreement, a donor could act in bad faith and simply claim that what Government has put in place just isn’t good enough, and until it improves they won’t play ball. This isn’t really unusual. More than one donor organisation has centrally determined policy that explicitly declines to support government, due to political and economic orthodoxy at home. It’s difficult for us to do anything about this. Money flows from donors to Government and not vice versa, so we have no real way of holding donors to account for their actions.

Well, no foolproof ways. We do have one weapon, one that we’ve been using since our adolescence: peer pressure. We can get those donors who really do intend on strengthening Government to do so, and then scream to high heaven about how great they are. We publish reports and tables that place them at the top of the donors league table, lauding how lovely they are to work with, and then boo and hiss at those donors whom we don’t like.

Sound’s a bit weak doesn’t it? It is. This method works with those who care about what other donors think and who generally support the idea of a strong Government. As for the others, well, how do you shame someone who has no shame? It’s early days for this method, even in more advanced countries than Malawi, so time will tell. I suspect that for some donors, it won’t have any significant impact. For them to change, we need to change the content of their economics of development. Indeed, this has to happen everywhere, but in some places more than others.

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No Ramble next week – I’m off for a short Christmas break to Vic Falls, the Zambia side. Aiming to do some serious birding our there, thereby boring the pants off all my friends. It should be an interesting drive. Have a great Christmas, and if anyone watches the dead rubber fourth test of the Ashes, I’d appreciate an account of Shane Warne’s 700th wicket. I hope he does it like McGrath, who predicted his 300th would be Brian Lara. He was right – the middle wicket of an incredible hat trick.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

“Know your role … and shut your damn mouth!”

This week’s Ramble has been having development-existential thoughts. Nothing to trouble Kierkegaard, mind, but I’ve been thinking.

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Specifically, I’ve been ruminating on what I am, and why I’m here. Not quite in the ‘what is man, and why is he on earth?’ manner, but more in the ‘what is a development economist technical assistant, and why is he in the Ministry of Finance?’ vein of things.

When I arrived in Malawi, it wasn’t really clear exactly what my role would be here. I knew where I would be working, I roughly knew what the key issues our division needed to address were, and I even had a vague idea of how my terms of reference might evolve over my stay. The one issue that wasn’t clear, however, was in many ways the most important: am I here to build capacity or not?

A quick note on capacity building: it’s one of the most misused terms in development. Donors and Government both bang on about capacity incessantly. We all agree that capacity is weak, and it’s easy enough to spot where there are capacity constraints. What’s much more difficult is to work out how to address these constraints. This is where my existential navel-gazing comes in. If I am here to build capacity then obviously, my key function is to ensure that what I do work on is carried on when I leave, that none of the reports are discontinued, and none of the policies and strategies are unimplemented and forgotten.

In an ideal world, this is exactly what I would do. With my feet on the ground, however, it becomes much more difficult. It’s not that I think that my colleagues are not capable of doing what I’m doing and following through what I’ve started to its logical end. The problem is that for these people to take over what I’m doing, a few conditions have to be met. Firstly, they have to know exactly what it is that I do – not just what outputs the division gets, but the process by which they are produced. Secondly, they have to have be interested in the work, understand what it contributes and be willing to fight to make it happen, which normally depends on being involved from the start. Finally, they have to have the motivation to spend the often boring hours of poring over data or chasing people on the phone for information that most work in this field requires.

All of these preconditions are problematic. Firstly, the best way of learning the processes that go into producing one of the reports we’ve done recently, is to shadow the work of someone who is already doing it. Otherwise, the new person needs to find his or her way to the same output by trial and error, a significant waste of time and effort. This doesn’t really happen in Government because we lack the staff to fill all of our existing holes – so shadowing another Government official is rarely a priority, even when they will only be in place for a short period of time.

The second issue is less of a problem for me. I’ve been lucky in that most of what I do has been planned in close cooperation with one of my most committed colleagues, so we’ve built the importance of our work in monitoring donor practices into our division to some extent, even if the detail of the data collection and analysis we do might not be embedded in the same way.

The third issue is the most difficult. I can work twelve hour days and weekends when need be, because I’m doing a job I love, and my conditions of service are good. My less fortunate colleagues might have trouble making ends meet and may even be running businesses on the side to do so. They understandably find it harder to devote the same amount of time to work that I do.

These three issues are beyond my realm of control, and they mean that in practice, I’m not really building capacity here. I’m trying, and I think some of the things we’re doing now will last well beyond my tenure in Malawi, but for the most part, I don’t think my precise role will be replicated by a local civil servant. It’s frustrating, but when I think about it, what I’m doing in Malawi, working for Government directly, without any donor managing me, isn’t really capacity development. It’s something more akin to gap filling: I’m doing a job that the Government can’t do with the current establishment in the civil service. Any capacity building is an added bonus. But essentially, my role is to fill a position to the best of my ability to allow the Government to function better that it would with that position unfilled.

It’s not ideal. I’d prefer to think that all of what I’m doing is making a permanent impact, but much better to acknowledge the limitations of what I’m doing and try to push them as far as they will go.

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I hope the length of this post makes up for the long silence. I’ll try be more prompt, but work pressures make it harder and harder.