Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The tyranny of ideology

Here is one of the best lectures of all time.  It should be required listening for anyone interested in better understanding the world - or trying to change it.  I recently listened to it for the second time; it never gets old.

The lecture is by Isaiah Berlin, delivered at Oxford University in 1955.  The subject is Alexander Herzen, and more specifically his masterpiece My Past and Thoughts, written in 1868.

Once you listen to the lecture, you may want to read the book, too, which is fabulous.  There is no more powerful inoculation against our tendency to fall in love with silver bullets and all-encompassing frameworks and ideologies.

Listen to this episode

Monday, December 20, 2010

When aid works: RIP, Rene Le Berre

"RenĂ© Le Berre, a French entomologist who helped inspire an international campaign that saved millions of West Africans from the parasitic disease river blindness, died Dec. 6 in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer on France’s western coast. He was 78.
Onchocerciasis, the formal name for river blindness, had once been a scourge in the fertile river basins of tropical Africa."
That obit is from the NYT.

When I joined the World Bank in 1986, my first memory is of my colleague Bruce Benton yelling in French over the phone across the Atlantic to Dr. Le Berre.  I remember wondering what he was yelling about.  Bruce did not join many meetings or participate in the various fads and "sexy" initiatives in the Bank.  He just steadily and consistently worked with Dr. Le Berre and his program for twenty years, from 1985 to 2005, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, sparing millions of children from affliction, and reclaiming millions of hectares of land for habitation and cultivation.  All at a nominal cost, representing a tremendous return on investment.

A very nice brief by the Center for Global Development on the impact of the river blindness control program is here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Of Wine and Experts

"I mean, S&P, Moody’s, Fitch, these people all rated securities that apparently completely tanked. So there’s obviously something in the demand for expertise, the imprimatur, which is not really about the fact that they do a good job. By the way, those organizations are not transparent either, just as the Wine Spectator isn’t. So there’s some similarity here that I think probably gives us a little insight into things that are much broader than wine and food."
That is Orley Ashenfelter of Princeton University, quoted by Stephen J. Dubner in a recent Freakonomics column in the NYT.  Experts have shown themselves to be no better than regular people in terms of guessing the price (and presumably, quality) of wines in blind taste tests.  Professor Ashenfelter argues that the same phenomenon extends into many other arenas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Karin Christiansen on Transparency

“Transparency” has (re-)emerged as a buzzword in the development sector and is taking center stage in many development initiatives. Having measured the transparency of 30 major donors, Publish What You Fund (PWYF) released its Aid Transparency Assessment 2010 in October.

I had the opportunity to sit down and to chat with Karin Christiansen, Director of PWYF, during her recent visit to Washington, DC. We talked about (1) the motivations that led to the creation of an organization dedicated to streamlining transparency efforts; (2) what transparency means in development today; (3) examples of how transparency has had real impact; (4) obstacles and opportunities to developing systems that share universally comprehensive, transparent information; and (5) thoughts about future stepping-stones to achieve this goal.

The top performers from the Aid Transparency Assessment scored “fair” marks, yet PWYF and others are leading efforts to ensure that organizations across the sector enhance their transparency systems by providing not only more information but also better information.

Listen to the interview here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Peter Buffett's Advent Calendar

Someone sent me a link to Peter Buffett's Advent Calendar.  It brought a smile to my face.  It's quirky and funny and personal. It has links to some great causes you can give to for the holidays, as well as some very nice holiday music.  Each "day" brings something different - some music, a video, a reading.  I especially like days 5 and 9 so far (I am only up to day 14, since my mom never let me jump ahead when I was a kid). Peter's recent book was listed as among the best of the year by Matthew Bishop of the Economist.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Expert Blinders

"The larger lesson is that the brain is a deeply constrained thinking machine, full of cognitive tradeoffs and zero-sum constraints. Those chess professionals and London cabbies can perform seemingly superhuman mental feats, as they chunk their world into memorable patterns. However, those same talents make them bad at seeing beyond their chunks, at making sense of games and places they can’t easily understand."
That is from a piece by Jonah Lehrer in Wired (HT: April Harding). People who have deep expertise in certain areas often have difficulty incorporating new information from outside their narrow expertise. This is why it is important to have a good mix of both experts and crowds in many endeavors, especially social ones. It is not either-or, but both-and. Finding the balance is the key.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Don't Follow the Leader

"In the final chapter, Seeley suggests five lessons we could learn from bees.
• Compose a decision-making group of individuals with shared interests. Here bees have a higher stake than us: all members of a colony are related (sisters) and nobody can survive without the group.
• Minimise the leader's influence on the group. Here we humans have much to learn.
• Seek diverse solutions to the problem. Humans realised only recently that diversity is good for a group.
• Update the group's knowledge through debate. Here again, bees are superior to us, as each scout's "dances" become less effective with time, no matter how good a new site is, while stubbornness can lead humans to argue forever.
• Use quorums to gain cohesion, accuracy and speed. Impressively, bees came up with this concept long before the Greeks."
That is Tyler Cowen, discussing Thomas Seeley's new book Honeybee Democracy.  These points resonate with my own experience.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Holding Beliefs Lightly

"But I’m trying to hold my beliefs lightly, in the long view that almost all of them, I’m sure, will one day be seen as very naive or even completely misguided.

The purpose of holding them lightly is not to drop them completely, but just make it more difficult to beat other people over the head with them, more difficult to hold on to them when they’re clearly not being helpful, and easier to swap for other ideas, when those new ideas appear promising."
That is from a very nice post about "smart aid" by David Week.   Any serious aid worker is constantly trying to infer principles about what works and what doesn't, and then to have those principles guide his/her actions.  Naturally, many of us want to tell others what we have discovered about what is effective and what is a waste of time and resources.  But we should realize, says Week, that we will often be wrong, and that should be very humbling.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Free the aid bloggers!

"In general I fully support transparency, but these people could lose their jobs."
That is what Saundra Schimmelpfennig told me when I asked her why some of the best aid bloggers out there were anonymous. She is right, of course. But it is also a shame. If there is a common thread running through our understanding of effective aid, it is the need to experiment, learn, and adapt. This means admitting to - rather than hiding - things that don't work, so that we can learn from them. The anonymous bloggers I was referring to talk about the reality of aid work, warts and all. They have a following because their readers know that they are speaking the truth. But their employers could not tolerate the truth, so these bloggers have to remain in the closet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Good aid projects come from good conversations

If we could directly observe the results of aid projects, we could avoid a lot of the heavy bureaucratic processes and reporting that makes life miserable for so many aid workers and that often impedes and obscures quality work.  Like Owen Barder, I believe the time is coming when new approaches and technologies will help us clear away a lot of this bureaucratic brush so we can focus on results.

In the meantime, a blogger called Tales from the Hood has a nice post on practices considered correlated with "good aid" - i.e., aid that has the desired impact.  I particularly like his/her first point:
1) Starts and ends with the needs of those affected by poverty, disaster, and conflict (a.k.a. “the poor”, “aid recipients”, “program participants”, “beneficiaries”…).  ...[I]f we’re to do it right, if we’re to plan and implement good aid, our starting point needs to be those whom we seek to serve. If that starting point is anything else (for example, the needs of a particular donor, surplus of something…) then a recipe for bad aid has already been started.
This requires listening to what communities themselves want. And then listening to how they feel that projects are being implemented.  And then listening afterwards to what they learned.

Listening is not easy. Communities are full of diverse interests and unequal distributions of political power and voice, and it is usually tough to sort out these various influences.  Many aid workers and organizations still lack the capacity to listen systematically in such contexts. But dealing with ambiguity and conflict by not listening is usually a poor strategy.

And listening should not be one way. The best aid projects I have seen have been born from a conversation between community members and aid workers. All involved in the conversation bring unique information, perspectives, and desires. A constructive outcome - leading to a good aid aid project - requires give and take on both sides. I love this piece by David Gaus where he describes how he learned to listen - and be heard - while working on health care in Ecuador.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How much can we rely on medical experts?

"He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed."
That is from a recent article by David H. Freedman in the Atlantic Monthly sent to me by my friend April Harding.   The "he" is Professor John Ioannidis, who has done as much research on this topic as anyone in the world.   Here are some other key quotes from the article:
... he was struck by how many findings of all types were refuted by later findings.

“I realized even our gold-standard research had a lot of problems,” he says. Baffled, he started looking for the specific ways in which studies were going wrong. And before long he discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals."

... 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials...

 “You can question some of the details of John’s calculations, but it’s hard to argue that the essential ideas aren’t absolutely correct,” says Doug Altman, an Oxford University researcher who directs the Centre for Statistics in Medicine.

If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Sometimes people contact me to say they think I should emphasize more the importance of experts in development.  I often respond by saying that the issue is in development is finding what works rather than relying on people who have credentials based on their degree or who they work for (see Saundra Schimmelpfennig's excellent post on this).  By contrast ( I used to say) relying on credentials made sense in certain fields where there was a clear link between credentials, knowledge, and outcomes such as structural engineering and medicine.

This article makes me think that I should re-think my reference to medicine - a field that needs to re-examine its own standards of proof and good practice.  It does not mean that I will stop going to the doctor when I need to.  It does mean that I will ask a lot of questions (something fortunately encouraged by my current doctor).

Does this have anything to do with philanthropy and development?  I am not sure, but I did like this quote from another researcher, Athina Tatsioni:
“Usually what happens is that the doctor will ask for a suite of biochemical tests—liver fat, pancreas function, and so on,” she tells me. “The tests could turn up something, but they’re probably irrelevant. Just having a good talk with the patient and getting a close history is much more likely to tell me what’s wrong.”

Monday, November 08, 2010

Professional is not a Title

"Professionalism may have less to do with your job title/organization and whether you are paid staff or a volunteer, and more to do with how you approach aid/development."
That is from Saundra Schimmelpfennig's excellent post over at Good Intentions are Not Enough.   There has been a lot of commentary on Nick Kristof's recent NYT Magazine article about "DIY" foreign aid.  The heat:light ratio of that commentary has been high.  Saundra's common sense in summarizing the apparently diverging views on this topic is most welcome, because it shows that there is more consensus than might be apparent. Here is more:
"There is a need for fresh perspectives and a variety of ideas and approaches. However this must be tempered with knowledge of the factors that led to success and failures in the past so the same mistakes are not constantly repeated."
I recommend the whole post.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Transparency: How to Get from Consensus to Impact?

Here is a nice paper from Homi Kharas of Brookings on how transparency can transform accountability in the official aid sector.  The paper goes beyond treating transparency as a slogan and instead asks "what is it good for?"

Here are some thoughts that came to mind as I read the paper:

  1. Key questions: a) Who is doing what (b) to whom (c) with whom (d) why, and (e) how is it going?
  2. An emphasis on beneficiary voice is key.  Kharas says "In many ways, the call for aid transparency is a hand maiden of the call for greater ownership by recipients."
  3. Transparency should be mostly about learning rather than punishment or blame - see this.  
  4. This will only work if we get the incentives right - incentives for donors to put out data, and incentives for people to provide feedback and input.  Top-down mandates will not work; my own experience is they will sink under their own weight. As a corollary, simpler may be better than complex.  Witness Yelp and TripAdvisor.  Both have flaws, but they are sustained and influence behavior in ways more complex and heavy systems do not.
  5. For these initiatives to work, they require a combination of factors - the right information, gathered from the right sources, displayed through the right user interface, to the right people, at the right time.
  6. Lant Pritchett has a very nice article about the disincentives that donors face for honest evaluation.  Bottom line is that there is all downside, and little upside. 
  7. Devesh Kapur and I predict that allowing each donor to run its own transparency system will lead to obfuscation and lack of network effects.  The biggest effect would come from a single, independent system that donors can't massage. 

What's the Bottom Line?

Aid is made less effective by the incentives which aid agencies face, which they in turn transmit to their staff.  In large part, these unhelpful incentives are a consequence of lack of information about results.  If we can measure results better, and if we can use this to simplify the management of aid (and not simply bolt additional reporting on to existing bureaucratic processes),  this will enable more decentralised decision-making, respect country ownership, make the jobs of aid workers and government officials more rewarding, improve the effectiveness of aid, and so reduce poverty faster.
That is from Owen Barder's post Incentives, Results, and Bureaucracy in Foreign Aid. If you have never worked in a large aid organization, this piece will help you understand the pressures that even the best aid workers face.  And if you have worked in one of these organizations, you will find that Owen offers a ray of hope that might (just might) allow you to stop spending so much time on internal process and start spending more time on what we all care about: results.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Africa = US + China + India...

This graphic by Kai Krause is not only clever.  More importantly it affects the way I see the world. (Click for larger view.)

(Hat tip to Scott McCloud, whose fabulous book Understanding Comics is recommended even for those who don't read the comics.  Image is via Information Is Beautiful.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Development as Evolution, not Intelligent Design

Having worked in Russia for five years just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I can attest to the quality of goods and services produced in a planned economy.  There was little variety and terrible quality.  Consumers had little ability to complain - they were either met with a shrug of the shoulders or just told to be happy they got anything at all.

In this great narrated presentation, Owen Barder argues that that the functioning of market economies is more akin to evolution than to design from above.

The key factors are variation and selection.  He extends the analogy to international development, and makes several key points.  First, we do have a profusion of development actors and initiatives, but not enough real variation;  the strong pressure for aid coordination reduces experimentation.  Second, we don't have good mechanisms for selection - failed or mediocre organizations and projects seem to plod along.  And third, a critical factor for selection is the ability to get feedback directly from the intended beneficiaries.

I highly recommend setting aside a few minutes to watch this compelling and well illustrated video.

Friday, October 22, 2010

CGD as Social Capital

Last Wednesday I went to the Center for Global Development for the launch of my friend Devesh Kapur's new book Diaspora, Development, and Democracy.  Book launches in Washington, especially about public policy, can be either mind-numbingly boring or maddeningly partisan, and I generally avoid them.  But the minute I walked in the door over at CGD, I was happy to be there.

Why?  Because CGD is one of the rare places where smart people with often sharply different perspectives and positions come to listen to - rather than talk at - each other.  When you are there, you have a real sense that people have come to learn from one another to understand the world better.  Unlike so many other places in Washington, in the blogs, and on TV, people don't come to CGD only to score points or to win intellectual arguments.  Instead, they come to present their arguments and listen to others and then go away and refine their own thinking.

I sat there on Wednesday wondering  how CGD came to be this way.  Part of it is due to Nancy Birdsall, the co-founder, who cares less about winning arguments and more about the truth than almost anyone I know.  Ed Scott, the other co-founder and core funder, has a similar personality.  He is gruff and opinionated, but in the end he cares about what works, not about ideology.  Together, they have recruited exceptional fellows and staff, all of whom have their policy disagreements and petty disputes but who feel (to the outsider, at least) like a family.  Many of those of us who attend CGD events feel like part of an extended family.

CGD has become the leading think tank on development because of the social capital that it has built over the last ten years.  Other academic institutions and think tanks have impressive rosters of scholars, but the whole is often less than the sum of the parts.  (Don't even get me started on talk radio and TV talk shows.)  CGD is the opposite - the whole is far more than the sum of its parts because the parts respect and listen to each other.

After the discussion, I went out for drinks with a couple of former classmates, including Devesh.  We joked about the paper he and I recently published on aid accountability.  Devesh and I see the world very differently, to say the least, and from the outset I questioned my sanity at having agreed to write a paper with him.  At times, we both felt like strangling the other over one point or another.  Yet despite (and maybe because of) these differences, we persevered and wrote a paper that, hopefully, sheds a little new light on the topic.  And that reminds me of the initial question I had for Devesh when he asked me to do it:

"Why on earth do you think we should write a paper together?" I asked.

"Maybe so we will learn something," he replied.

And he turned out to be right.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Can USAID Reach Escape Velocity?

Can USAID be saved? The aid agency has been on the ropes for the last few years. First it was folded firmly into the State Department, reducing its independence. Then its problems were dissected in great and depressing detail by a former Administrator, Andrew Natsios. In an excellent paper, Natsios shows how a culture of compliance and caution has overwhelmed the agency, making it almost impossible for even the best staff to deliver results.

Few would argue that USAID is on the ropes. But there are some bright spots that offer hope. One of these is LAUNCH, a global initiative formed by NASA, Nike, USAID and the U.S. Department of State to identify and to support innovations that meet the world’s urgent challenges. LAUNCH will announce the winners of its Health Forum on October 30.

The aid field has been dominated by solutions that are top-down and incremental. Instead of trying to simply “procure” the cheapest or the best available solutions from the usual suspects, LAUNCH challenges nearly anyone to come up with breakthrough ideas. Bottom-up solutions alone won’t save USAID anymore than purely top-down ones will. But if the agency can achieve a critical mass of bottom-up initiatives, it just might escape the gravitational pull that threatens to have the agency crash and burn.

Fortunately, LAUNCH is not the only such initiative at USAID. Others, such as Development Innovation Ventures and Global Development Commons, are also pointing in the right direction.

But there is one more thing. USAID and other agencies need to make sure they are addressing the right problems. That, too, will require new approaches since aid workers and experts are not always in touch with what beneficiaries actually care about or need.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Transparency for learning, not punishment.

"Today, transparency is not used enough as a tool for helping organizations to learn, improve, and adapt—to hold themselves accountable to themselves first! Far more frequently, it’s used to find fault and even punish . . . But don’t we have to dig for the truth and ferret out the facts as to what is (and, equally important, is not) working so we know how to improve?"
That is Mario Morino, in his latest column.  He goes on to say:
"Transparency is about our value set and how we act on it—not about checking a set of boxes or posting a set of documents on a website. It is about the honesty, openness, and integrity we live by in governing and running our organizations and doing our jobs."

Transparency: The first step to democracy

I had the pleasure of meeting (and running with) Owen Barder last week at a meeting of the International Transparency Initiative.  I have to admit that "transparency" is one of those terms that does not inspire me.  It seems so static.  Yet in this interview with Lawrence McDonald of the Center for Global Development, Owen brings alive the dynamics that aid transparency can bring.   I call it The Democratization of Development, and Owen's work, along with that of the IATI makes me more and more hopeful.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Legalize Gay

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
One of my colleagues told me this morning that it is National Coming Out day.  So I am going to come out - for equal rights for gays and lesbians and for marriage rights for all men and women, regardless of sexual orientation.

One day we will look back and be ashamed at the way that we forced a large segment of our population to hide a central part of who they are.  We will be ashamed that we tormented them in school, denied them benefits at work, and forbade them from entering into legally sanctioned relationships.

One day we will look back and be ashamed - in the same way we are ashamed of how we treated African Americans and even women, to whom we denied the vote and many other rights for decades.

Alan Turing, the father of the computer, who was also instrumental in cracking the Nazi code in WWII, was both persecuted and prosecuted in Great Britain after the war for being gay.  He was forced to take female hormones to "cure" him of his illness.  Turing buckled under the abuse and killed himself with cyanide in 1952.  Of this, and of many other crimes against many other homosexuals in the free world, we should be ashamed.

This blog is titled "Pulling for the Underdog."  And despite all the progress we have made in the last decade, there are still many voices of hate speaking out against gay people and against the unalienable rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   It is time for the rest of us to stand up and speak out - and to come out for equal rights for all.  One day we will look back and be proud that we did.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Which Donors are Meeting their QuODA?

"Which donors give aid well and which need to improve?  These (and many more specific) questions are addressed in a new report issued by the Center for Global Development and the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development Program.  The report is authored by Nancy Birdsall and Homi Kharas and is designed to be updated and published annually. For data nerds there is plenty to get excited about.  For starters they use information from the AidData database in order to construct many of their aid quality indicators! "
That is from a post by Mike Tierney over at AidData.  Hats off to Nancy Birdsall and Homi Kharas for leading this effort called Quality of Official Development Assistance (QuODA) over at CGD.  You can hear them interviewed by Lawrence MacDonald here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Show Me The Money!

Sometimes we reach our desired destination by taking an indirect route.  That is the key theme of John Kay's new book Obliquity.  And it was on my mind over the last two days at a meeting of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a consortium of donors promoting greater transparency in international aid funding.

IATI has made much more progress than I imagined possible, and I left the conference encouraged by the possibilities and by the people working on it.

One of the presentations was particularly striking, because it demonstrated John Kay's point. A representative from UNDP showed the system they had designed to track trust fund budget flows.  They created the system because UN country offices were complaining that the trust funds they had been allocated were not being disbursed to them in a timely way.  As a result, programs were delayed.   Under the old system, it was hard to tell if the problem was in the implementation or in budget availability. And if the problem was the budget, was it because the donors had not paid up, or was it because of some delay at headquarters?  So they set out to make the flow of funds in the system available in near real-time to relevant UNDP staff.  

After they designed this beautiful system, they then realized it would be useful to a larger group of people within the UN system.  At this point, they started thinking about who should have access and who should not.  The answer to this was no obvious, and in any case the complexity of creating and managing an restricted access system was substantial.  So the UNDP team asked itself "Is there any reason not to just make it open access?  That would sure make our lives easier."  

And it turns out there was no good reason not to do this.  The result is that anyone in the world - beneficiaries, recipient governments, aid workers, donors, and taxpayers can all see where billions of dollars of UN trust fund money is coming from, and where it is going, what it is for, and when it arrives.  

So this was an example of an initiative that created unprecedented transparency at the UN.  But it didn't start out that way.  It started out as an initiative to solve a problem within the agency itself, and because it solves that problem you can be sure it will be properly maintained and sustained.  I left the IATI meeting wondering how such an indirect approach can be pursued in other dimensions of the information we need to make transparent.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Pritchett: Experts impede innovation

The same skepticism about “one size fits all” that made “Washington Consensus” two dirty words should be taken to the range of “expert” advice in sectors from education to health to public sector governance to “institution building.” All of which is mostly just repeating the conventional wisdom and closing off, rather than opening up, space for novelty and innovation.
That is from a very nice piece by Lant Pritchett over at AidWatch about President Obama's recent speech about US development policy, which he applauds.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A New Kitchen Gadget or a LifeSaver?

It needs to get as much input as possible from the people who will actually use the stoves. The stoves will need to be as much like existing stoves as possible, to minimize the change in cooking style required to use them. In particular, women need to be able to cook traditional foods that are appealing to their families. Listening to the women who’ll cook on them is the best way to do that.
That is from a nice guest post by Alanna Shaikh, commenting on Hilary Clinton's recent speech at the UN promoting improved cookstoves. Many people are unaware that breathing poorly ventilated cookstove fumes kills an estimated two million people a year.

Improved stoves can reduce the fumes problem while also reducing fuel costs.  But as any of us who have bought a fancy new gadget for our cooking spouses can attest, "great" ideas aren't always appreciated - much less used - if they don't meet the needs of the user. 

Alanna points out the needs for careful consumer research - and even broad consumer marketing, which is rare in the aid and development field.  Even with both of those, it is no guarantee the cookstove initiative will succeed.  In fact as I have written before, it takes an average of 58 ideas for each initiative that succeeds.  But while improved cookstoves are not a silver bullet, they are well worth promoting.

Read the whole post here; it is very good.

Whatever Donor Wants?

But before we rush to the toolkit and assume that better data is all that donors want and need, it’s important to take a step back and remember that while metrics are critical and have their place, they’re only one piece of the puzzle. As studies indicate, there are other equally-important things to consider, among them, personal relationships, family dynamics, social networks, values, and commitment to particular causes or issues.
That is from a nice article by Cynthia Gibson in the Non-Profit Quarterly.  As someone who studied economics and cost-benefits analysis in grad school, I probably appreciate and rely on data more than most.  But at the same time, I also realize that data is not what determines most decisions - even at so-called expert aid agencies and foundations.

For many years, I was annoyed by this and felt that harder arguments and more facts would sway people. But changing human nature, as desirable as that may be, is something rarely achieved.  So perhaps, as I noted earlier, the best approach is to try to work with - rather than reform - human nature to improve decisions about philanthropy and aid.

For marketplaces like GlobalGiving, this does not mean giving up emphasis on data and impact.  To the contrary.  One of the key functions of a good marketplace is to use metrics in the background to drive the average quality of projects higher and higher over time - and to do this while enabling donors to find good projects that resonate with their personal relationships, family dynamics, social networks, values, and favorite causes.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Developing Communities - Not Countries

Guest post by Felipe Cabezas.

"There is no such thing as the Western world and the developing world." – Hans Rosling

The speakers at Monday’s TEDxChange stressed countries’ progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Even though countries have not universally met them, they have made impressive strides in a relatively short period of time – so much so that classical divisions between the “developed” and “developing” worlds are now muddied.

Yet we still refer to developed/developing countries, North/South and First/Third Worlds in our discourse.

But data implies that development functions on a smaller scale rather than on a larger one. When Hans Rosling dissects country bubbles in his visualizations, he illustrates that average information hides vast differences between regions’ development achievements. He argues that, because “there’s such a lot of difference within countries, it’s not relevant to have [average data] on a regional level. We must be much more detailed.” Bill Easterly takes that extra step and, by zooming into New York City, reveals that significant socioeconomic differences exist even in neighborhoods consisting merely of city blocks.

We already know this. So why do we still refer to developed and developing countries?

This linguistic habit blurs details and positions communities in need to disappear from view. Take Bennett County, South Dakota. Life expectancy in the United States is 78.11 years but in Bennett County is 66.6 years – on par with Azerbaijan, considered a developing country in the 2009 Human Development Report. But by using a developing-country framework, funders will invest in health initiatives in Azerbaijan – not in the United States. What about Bennett County? Doesn’t it warrant assistance, too?

This is not to say that organizations do not assist communities. They do. So then let’s reflect that in the way we speak!

Let’s refer to developing communities instead of developing countries.

This may seem like an insignificant change, but it alters the underlying cognitive framework that serves as the basis from which aid organizations operate. Incorporating developing communities into our lexicon portrays the world as a patchwork of variably developed communities that does not conform to national boundaries – a framework that more accurately reflects the reality of development.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Agriculture Challenge: Communities Helping Themselves (With Delicious Results!)

GlobalGiving nurtures bottom-up, community-based solutions to pressing social problems. We believe in the power of small over large, local over centrally planned and grassroots over top-down. This is why we jumped at the chance to partner with Bonterra Vineyards and Growing Power to support urban agriculture.

Urban farms help low-income communities access fresh food, generate employment, enhance food security, and improve quality of life. Rather than relying on fast food chains or large supermarkets, urban residents with access to a local farm can eat fresh fruits and vegetables grown right in their communities.

I grew up in Kentucky. It’s a great state. But parts of Louisville have been labeled “food deserts” due to the lack of accessibility to fresh food. Through its urban farms, Breaking New Grounds not only brings fresh produce to these underserved neighborhoods, but also provides agricultural training to local residents, and creates new, environmentally-friendly jobs.

In Denver, while fresh food is available in summer, winter months often mean relying on food grown and processed thousands of miles away. Feed Denver catalyzes urban farms that can be operated year-round, giving urban dwellers access to high-quality food from January through December.

Until October 7, these urban agriculture programs – and several others - are participating in an online fundraising challenge on GlobalGiving, with the chance to win up to $20,000 in contributions provided by Bonterra Vineyards.

To further highlight the power of communities working towards a common goal, the Bonterra-Growing Power-GlobalGiving challenge features a collective group incentive. If each participant raises at least $2,000 from 25 or more unique donors, all will receive a $1,100 bonus from Bonterra Vineyards. As on a community farm, each participant’s individual effort will contribute to the larger good. I like the taste of that!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does the Truth Set Us Free?

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
That is from an article by Joe Keohane summarizing a number of recent studies about human nature.

I spent the first half of my career working at aid agencies gathering facts to inform policy analysis and recommendations to governments.  This describes the mental model I followed most of those years:
If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.
Alas, that does not seem to be the case:

Rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs.
When someone does not agree with us, we are often tempted to redouble our arguments to convince them we are right.  Aid agencies often offer carrots and sticks as well.  The research points to why that often does not work either:

The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
Is it time for us to let go of the idea that facts and good analysis can convince people?  I hope not.  But on the other hand, the Buddha realized that he could only be enlightened if he faced reality rather than ignoring it.  The question is how best to combine human nature with facts and analysis to help society progress.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"They even told me so, but I ignored it at first"

I have learned that the community had the answer. They even told me so, though I ignored it at first. But they left it up to me to figure out the 'how.'
That is from a nice paper that Jim Hennigan sent me by David Gaus, titled The Rural Hospital in Ecuador.  It's about how a highly trained doctor and public health expert came to Ecuador with his own well developed sense of what should be done. 

The quote above hints at a successful combination of bottom up and top down: too often experts come in thinking they know what to do as well as how to do it.  But communities generally know what they want; they just don't know how best to get it.  And that is where expertise brought in from the outside can make a real difference.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Innovation Challenges - surprising sources, surprising approaches

Teams from Virginia, North Carolina and Winterthur, Switzerland, with roots in the world of auto racing have won the first Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, the $10 million competition aimed at advancing the technology for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
That is from today's New York Times.   One of the benefits of challenges like the X Prize is that anyone can participate, and often the winners come from non-traditional places.  In this case, who would have thought that the winners would come from the auto racing industry, which is known for sacrificing fuel consumption in favor of speed.  And while the second and third place winners used electric engines, the first-place team relied on a not-so-new approach called internal combustion.

The timing of this is appropriate, since I am speaking today at the NCOC's Civic Innovator's Forum, co-sponsored by the Case Foundation, which has done what may be the leading analysis of promoting innovation through challenges and competitions.  Check it out - and while you are at it, check out GlobalGiving's own Global Open Challenge, which is now underway.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Don't be seduced by visualization..."

"Don't be seduced by visualization.  It can be cool for data wonks.  But you need to focus on real users who are trying to solve a problem."

That was Tim O'Reilly at the World Bank last week, speaking at the opening of a session discussing the Apps for Development competition.  

Tim told me he had never been to the World Bank before.  But many of his words of wisdom apply more broadly to aid initiatives.  Try replacing "apps" with "projects" in the following quotes:

"It may be the case that you invent apps that no one uses."
"Look at other apps to see if you can become part of their ecosystem."
"It may well be that you don't have the right data for your cool new app."
"Think of your app as a component rather than a platform."
"Don't assume your app will be used in isolation."

The purpose of the session I attended was to prime the ideas pump for apps.  Someone at my table suggested an app that allows users to tell developers what kind of app users would find useful.  In light of this previous post, you can imagine that I seconded that person's suggestion.

Listening and Learning

A recent post "If you can flip a coin, can you be an expert?" got a mostly favorable response, but I want to elucidate and emphasize a few things in this post and the next.

First, listening to communities should be the foundation of any aid initiative.  What community members want for their lives should be the starting point.  Though aid agencies may not be equipped to address a problem such as security, the fact that security is of great concern to the community should inform what projects get funded and how they are designed.  For example, if security for women is a big issue, then the design and placement of wells or standpipes is critical.  Or if social tensions are high between certain groups, then great care needs to be taken to design projects that don't exacerbate these tensions.

Second, though there are some outstanding exceptions, as a rule we don't yet do enough listening.  A recent study by Alex Jacobs and Robyn Wilford concluded that "most NGOs do not manage 'participation' or 'downward accountability' in a systematic way."  It noted that a "number of pioneering innovations are emerging...[but] most are still in the experimental stage..."  It cites the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership's 2007 Standard as offering a constructive approach, along with pilots being conducted by the NGO Keystone.  GreatNonProfits is also piloting an approach that listens to a broader set of stakeholders.  NGOs are not alone in not listening enough.  I can speak from long years of experience that listening is an even greater challenge for official aid agencies such as the World Bank, ADB, and USAID.

Third, most aid workers are trying to do the right thing, but they usually have to spend a lot of time and energy managing upwards within their own bureaucracies.  The Jacobs and Wilford study cited above discusses these dynamics, which will be familiar to staff of NGOs and official agencies alike.  In short, the incentives for listening to communities are attenuated at best.

Fourth, listening is hard.  Power dynamics sometimes mean that community members don't say exactly what is on their mind.  In response to a question, they may say what they think the donor or implementing agency (or local official) wants to hear.   With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, we are working with Cognitive Edge on an indirect approach that relies more on storytelling to infer what people really think.  More details on that will follow.  Though this approach is by no means the whole answer, the initial results are encouraging.

Fifth, listening is messy.   There is no single "community."  Community members usually differ on what is most important to them, and the question arises about how to decide to whom you should listen. Should initiatives be decided on majority vote?  In addition, sometimes donors or implementers with a lot of experience feel strongly that a certain approach desired by community members won't work, and that there is a better way.  Should the donor or implementer over-ride the wishes of the community, or should they err on the side of accepting the community's wishes so that learning can take place if the project does not work?  Again, there is no easy answer to this - there needs to be a balance.  On this topic, I recommend David Ellerman's Helping People Help Themselves.

I suspect that the ability to listen is one of the most important factors determining whether aid workers can have a positive - and lasting - impact on a community.  That is why we are trying to help the project organizations on GlobalGiving listen better to the communities they serve.   As always, I welcome comments on this topic.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Why Peer Review Works in Science, and Why We Need It for Aid

Guest post by Marc Maxson.

"Calls for aid reform assert that better evidence will lead to better policy."

What if this isn’t true?

What if policymakers don’t really care about whether their policies align best with the evidence? Are we screwed?

No. Good systems can still achieve progress and coordination in spite of the people within that system. The example I know best is scientific peer review.

You might think that the peer review process is a system to weed out garbage and improve publications – but that’s a pleasant side effect. The actual “system” is built around these three components:

1) One “cannon” – Scientists within a field implicitly agree that there will be one shared body of knowledge, to which everyone will contribute. This knowledge can be spread across hundreds of journals because (a) all use the same peer review mechanism and (b) specialized search engines (PubMed, Web of Knowledge, and Scopus) index virtually everything – reducing the odds that an important paper will go unnoticed. Grantmakers also consult the one cannon before allocating.

2) Forced confrontations – Scientists must face their critics and respond to them. Most neuroscience papers are submitted at least 3 times, meaning you get to read about your professional inadequacies a hundred times over a typical career. Peer review also alerts your most successful competitors ahead of others, further pressuring you to address the weaknesses in your paper and resubmit. Dialogue results.

3) A reputation system for scientists (see the H-index) – This system fairly reflects your breadth and depth, ignores non-peer-reviewed work, and requires that your work not only pass peer review but also be valuable to others (frequently cited).

Science is simpler than international development. Knowledge is the only measurable output, and the system outlined above reinforces quality. Moreover, the relationship between scientists and grantmakers is driven by the quality of that knowledge, which is determined by one's peers - not the grantmakers. The NIH program officer doesn't need the knowledge he is funding; he wants to know how many people cited it and what the author's cumulative impact (H-index).

What happens when people try to game the system?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that scientists are only concerned with their own reputations. Scientific facts become a means to an end: prestige.

A scientist could try to publish a bunch of “facts” to vault his career, but only peer reviewed “facts” affect his prestige. Four or more quasi publications equal a peer-reviewed one; that's a lot of wasted effort.

A scientist who promotes his “facts” outside of journals won’t get cited and could get “scooped” by a competitor. These non-canonical publications win the media and public but lose in grant competition. The “herd” protects itself because the H-index never lies.

Groups of scientists colluding to publish each others’ papers and move their reputations forward also fail, for a number of reasons I explain in my longer post.


The best part of the system is that scientists are forced to confront the other viewpoint in order to publish and be heard by the larger community. This is something that is badly needed in aid, because it is currently an afterthought, and disorganized. Some discussion questions:

Q: What incentive do aid practitioners have to discuss work with their peers?

Q: How can grantmakers in international development work from a common set of knowledge, as science grantmakers do?

Q: What compels people to consider different viewpoints before acting?

Q: What is the basis of personal reputation in international development?

Q: What happens when we replace "experts" in the peer review model with "crowds" of beneficiaries?

Q: Could a system that guides grantmakers in this way work in international development?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

If you can flip a coin, can you be an expert?

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, we recently ran an experiment at GlobalGiving that had shocking results.  We asked people in four communities in Kenya to tell stories* about the development issues most important to them.  This was their answer:

In parallel, we asked experts (both local and foreign) with experience in those communities to predict what they thought the story would be about.  Here is the shocker:  Only 1 of the 65 experts and implementers correctly predicted the most common theme.

Personally, I found it surprising that 42% of the stories were about social relations, but on the other hand, I don't work in those communities so how should I know?  But I would expect the experts to know, wouldn't you?  Alas, the experts predicted only three of the top six concerns of the community.  In other words, they did about as well as flipping a coin.** 

The old style of aid is for experts to study the situation and decide what people need.  It is tempting to say that we should simply reverse this and let the people decide.  Exciting new technologies will enable beneficiaries to have a far greater voice in the coming years, and that is long overdue.  But the best system will likely  provide a balance of the two.  It will create an ongoing, iterative conversation between beneficiaries and experts about what is needed, what works and what doesn't, and what that implies about priorities and initiatives in subsequent rounds.

* The story telling part of this experiment was done with the help of Cognitive Edge and Irene Gujit. They were introduced to us by the Rockefeller Foundation, which is leading some of the most innovative work in the field I have seen in years.

** There were a total of twelve themes to choose from.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Air-Traffic Controllers' Lesson for Development

Guest post by Felipe Cabezas.

Thinking about the recent buzz about aid transparency on my flight from Milwaukee to Washington, DC, I wonder if we will use more information to improve programs’ effectiveness or to conduct business as usual. Of course, a large part of that depends on how we gather – and display – information.

Perhaps we should turn to air-traffic controllers for guidance.

Air-traffic controllers oversee specific airplanes within a specific flight zone – not the entire air space. When trying to land an airplane, they communicate directly with the pilot and elicit pertinent information. They already know some things (for example, current weather conditions) but rely entirely on the pilot for airplane-specific information (for example, mechanical issues). When assessing information from multiple airplanes, air-traffic controllers discuss among themselves and develop a plan to land all of the airplanes within their flight zone. But this plan continually evolves. At any moment, an unexpected problem could occur which would cause the air-traffic controllers to adjust their initial plan. And because air-traffic controllers are not flying the airplanes, they need to constantly share their updated plans with each pilot to ensure that no airplane lands unsuccessfully – or worse, collides with another. All of this occurs from the moment an airplane enters a flight zone until it reaches its terminal gate.

So, what do air-traffic controllers teach us about aid? Just as Dennis wrote earlier, actionable, transformative information comes from the right sources and is provided to the right people at the right time.

From the Right Sources: We must communicate directly with beneficiaries as well as other stakeholders who have been the primary source of information in the past. Beneficiaries have critical information that experts do not have. But experts also have information – including lessons from experiences elsewhere – that beneficiaries do not have.

To the Right People: Aid agencies and stakeholders must collaborate not only ex-ante but also during implementation. Aid agencies devise programs that are intended to help beneficiaries. Due to unexpected problems, no aid program works perfectly as designed. Stakeholders (especially beneficiaries) must provide feedback, and aid agencies must listen and readjust their programs accordingly.

At the Right Time: A donor-stakeholder feedback loop must exist in real time. Beneficiary feedback is key. An unexpected problem must be identified and corrected immediately to ensure that a program remains on course. If not, then the program may not serve – and may even harm – the beneficiaries.

Air-traffic controllers want their airplanes to land successfully and rely on a robust, real-time feedback loop to prevent a pile-up of airplanes on the tarmac. Errors have catastrophic – and visible – consequences, which is why good feedback systems have been invented.

The costs of failed aid programs are less visible but no less tragic. The good news is that the right kind of transparency can lead to feedback loops that improve program impact significantly. A recent study in a small area of Uganda showed that improving transparency around the performance of health clinics reduced infant mortality by 33 percent, thereby saving an estimated 550 lives – the same number of people that a Boeing 747 holds.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who did this?

We shall find too that such current notions as that society ‘acts’ or that it ‘treats’, ‘rewards’, or ‘remunerates’ persons, or that it ‘values’ or ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ objects or services, or is ‘responsible for’ or ‘guilty of’ something, or that it has a ‘will’ or ‘purpose’, can be ‘just’ or ‘unjust’, or that the economy ‘distributes’ or ‘allocates’ resources, all suggest a false intentionalist or constructivist interpretation of words which might have been used without such connotation, but which almost invariably lead the user to illegitimate conclusions.  We shall see that such confusions are at the root of the basic conceptions of highly influential schools of thought which have wholly succumbed to the belief that all rules or laws must have been invented or explicitly agreed upon by somebody.

That is from Friedrich Hayak's Law, Legislation, and Liberty via Cafe Hayek (HT to Bill Easterly).  The full post is worth reading for a quick summary of some of Hayek's key insights.  Among them is this:  that rules, laws, regulations, institutions, etc were generally not invented by specific people or by a society for specific purposes.  Hayek's point is that in most cases they actually evolved organically.

A corollary is as follows: Being able to describe (a) how a system currently does function and then (b) how it should function generally does not (c) lead to the system getting changed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Learning from Mistakes - Medical Edition.

“When you break that paradigm of litigation and give patients the chance to understand the human element of the other side — of the doctor and what they are struggling with — you find that people are far more forgiving and understanding than has been typically assumed,” said Richard C. Boothman, one of the study’s authors and the medical center’s chief risk officer, who devised and carried out the disclosure program. “We have given patients no alternative but to sue, and then we use the fact that they sue to show how opportunistic and awful they are.”
That is from an article in the NYT about a new approach being taken by the Univ. of Michigan Health System.  Instead of circling the wagons and taking refuge behind the lawyers when a mistake is made, the hospital staff admit the mistake to their patients and talk about what they have learned and what they are going to do to avoid the same mistake in the future.  Sometimes they compensate the patient or family, but that is worked out directly rather than via a lawsuit.

You really have to hand it to the University of Michigan for trying to break with normal practice, which is that doctors are discouraged from admitting or talking about mistakes, preventing others from learning from them.  The article notes:
"That openness has in turn created an environment where patient safety and patient care, not avoidance of litigation, have become the priority."


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don't Make the Same Mistake I Did

“We dump hardware down and hope magic will happen,” said Michael Trucano, senior information and education specialist at the World Bank, whose offering to FailFaire was a list of the 10 worst practices he had encountered in his job.
Trucano won the award for best failure at a recent Failfare gathering at the World Bank that was co-hosted by MobileActive.  Earlier I blogged about the product pileup of things the aid industry invents that people don't want.  Events like this at the World Bank are encouraging, because talking about failure is the first step toward not making the same mistakes again and again.

The full story, by Stephanie Strom in the NYTimes, is here.  Trucano's own account, with many insights, is here.  A very nice post by the World Bank's Aleem Walji is at the Development Marketplace blog.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Solving the Wrong Problems

"It turned out we were solving the wrong problem."
That is Saul Griffith, a wunderkind inventor who created a new way to make eyeglasses on an inexpensive device in developing countries.  For that invention and others, Griffith won a MacArthur genius award.  The eyeglass machine was a great invention; unfortunately, the real constraint turns out to be testing eyes and writing accurate prescriptions rather than making the lenses.

Griffiths' story is highly relevant to the aid business, especially these days as new foundations and people with experience in technology are trying to help address challenges faced by the world's poorest.  A lot of smart people are trying to help, and since their expertise is in software or technology, they (naturally) try to use those tools first.

But as Griffith says in the article, "The speed with which software-based activities and web innovations catch on - text messaging, eBay, Twitter - has encouraged public perception that transformative technological change takes place almost instantaneously."  Unfortunately, this is not the case with most development challenges, as in the case of the new eyeglass machine.

A more fundamental problem is that the inventors don't have a good way to assess demand.  So they invent all sorts of things that *seem* to make sense, but turn out not to be used or adopted by the intended beneficiaries.  Over at the CGD blog, April Harding has written about the "product pileup" in the health sector, where new agencies and foundations have created products such as Malaria Rapid Diagnostic Kits and bednets.  She cites a book by Laura Frost and Michael Reich that discusses why these innovations are not being adopted, and what can be done to reduce this mismatch between supply and demand in the health sector.

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, GlobalGiving and Innocentive have teamed up on a pilot to reverse the sequence of innovation.  First, we ask the communities what they need.  And then we advertise that need to Innocentive's virtual teams of inventors.  This pilot is described here.

Illustration source: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/small-business-financing-is-missing-the-target.html

When Supply Meets Demand for Innovation

Guest post by Britt Lake

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation and in partnership with InnoCentive, we at GlobalGiving have been piloting a way to enable communities to tell the world what problems they need help solving.  We've then been crowdsourcing solutions to these problems to bring clean water and electricity to communities in India, Uganda, Peru, and around the world.

First, we reached out to hundreds of local organizations around the world to determine their communities' biggest challenges.  The responses came pouring in: How can we build a rainwater harvesting storage tank that is appropriate for our region? How can we design an indicator that would show us when water has enough exposure to UV light to make it safe to drink? How can we create river turbines with local materials that would provide electrical power to villages in the Peruvian jungle?

We then posted five of these challenges on the InnoCentive website, which in turn broadcast them to potential inventors around the world. The initial results are promising.  Four of the five challenges have already found potential solutions. 

Take the EDGE Project.  EDGE is an organization that researches, designs and implements sustainable development projects on the Ugandan island of Lingira in Lake Victoria.  Since they were founded, they’ve been trying to find a way to make water from Lake Victoria safe to drink for the Lingira community.  They have tried boiling the water, using biosand filters, chemical water treatments, and an electrochemical system, but none of these have provided sustainable solutions for the local environment.  These existing methods make the water taste bad, require expensive replacement parts that are not found in the community, or don’t get the water completely clean.  In the two months after the challenge was posted, the EDGE project received 85 potential solutions!  The EDGE team reviewed all the submissions and selected one promising new approach - a new type of ceramic pot filter that both cleans the water and stores and protects it from re-contamination. 

Through this process we’ve been able to figure out what people need, and we’ve identified potential solutions to these challenges.  Our final step is getting these solutions funded and tested.  We’re working with our partners now to find out what it will take to get these solutions working on the ground, then we’ll use crowdfunding to actually get these solutions tested.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

When Top-Down is Needed: World Bank Reform

Reforming the World Bank, by David Phillips, is the most constructive book on the topic I have read.  Phillips, a long-time World Bank staff member, spent his career advising developing country institutions how to make the changes needed to carry out their functions effectively.  Upon retirement, Phillips decided to turn his formidable analytical skills toward his own previous employer.   He has produced a refreshingly different book about reforming the largest international aid institution.

Phillips describes not only the changes that need to be made but also offers insights into how to get them done.  New aid donors and new social technologies threaten to make the Bank and other aid agencies irrelevant if these agencies do not change with the times.   The leaders of those traditional agencies would thus do well to heed the lessons of this book.

In the fourteen years I worked at the Bank and in the ten years since I left, I have read many critiques of the institution from a variety of sources - academicians, NGOs, government commissions, and journalists.  Most are arguments for the Bank to do more or less of something (engagement with civil society, environmental projects, gender projects, infrastructure projects, policy lending, trade adjustment loans, government transparency and corruption initiatives, etc).  Others argue that the Bank should change the way it works at the margin, by making more grants and fewer loans, for example.

But few critiques show much understanding (or even interest) in how to effect the changes prescribed.  That is the great strength of Phillips' book.  He has thought carefully about the forces that have led to changes in the Bank over time, and how they might be brought to bear today.  More importantly, he describes with great clarity the incentives at work at all levels in the institution.  He knows what individual staff and management are held accountable for in reality (vs the rhetoric).  And like Moises Naim, former board director of the Bank (and most recently editor of Foreign Policy Magazine), Phillips is able to elucidate the incentives facing the board of directors as well.

The crux of this book (and something not duplicated by Naim or others) is Phillips's insights into the tensions between management and the board.  Those tensions are a binding constraint to real reform and change at the Bank.  They are all the more intense because the Bank has a resident board of directors that typically meets twice a week(!).  Phillips describes the sophisticated (and rational) efforts by management to keep the board from micro-managing by flooding the board with too much information to digest. The board, in return, distrusts management, and repeatedly tries to rein in management initiatives.  This vicious cycle eats up a huge amount of staff and management time. The brainpower, relationships, and energy of board members are also sapped by the struggle with management instead of applied to development problems.

The result is an inward-looking institution whose whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and whose ability to change and innovate is sharply limited.  Before I left the Bank in 2000, I asked many of my colleagues, whom I admired greatly, what percentage of their skills, energy, and time got applied directly to development challenges facing their client countries.  The response I got from most of them was "twenty-five to thirty percent."  The rest of their potential was dissipated on internal processes and compliance with regulations.  Given the tremendous assets of the Bank in terms of people, money, and relationships, this squandering of potential is a real tragedy - especially for the world's poor.

On the eve of my departure from the Bank, one of the managing directors asked me for advice on his ongoing reform effort.  "What do you think are the most important things?" he asked.  I told him that in my view real change would not happen unless the Bank deliberately subjected itself to outside competition that threatened some of the Bank's own resources.  Only if the Bank had something concrete to compete against could its real progress be assessed objectively, and only then would the board and management feel compelled to develop a more productive way of working together in order to survive.

The managing director was aghast at this idea, since he felt it would threaten the very institution he was charged with protecting.  But this is short-term thinking.  In the end, it will be up to the board and the Bank's shareholders, including the US government and others, to show the courageous leadership needed to bring the Bank into the 21st century.  Without such leadership, the Bank will remain insulated from competitive forces and will continue using the majority of its resources on internal processes rather than on promoting prosperity for the world's poorest.  But if the will to lead is there, Phillips' book can help guide the way.