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.