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Can Philanthropy Put Humpty-Dumpty Back Together Again?

February 02, 2012

(Michael Edwards is a leading expert on global civil society and the author of Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World. This is the second in a series of posts in which he looks at different aspects of the Bellagio Initiative, an effort funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to produce a new framework for philanthropic and international development collaboration in pursuit of human well-being. Click here to read the first post in Edwards' series, "Well-Being and Philanthropy," and here to read/download the Bellagio paper from which the quotation below is taken.)

"The more one disaggregates the components of well-being into smaller and more manageable pieces...the more each piece can be measured and controlled in order to improve returns....[B]ut the same pieces can't simply be re-arranged to the same effect in different contexts...."

MikethirdsectorcroppedOne of my most important career lessons was taught to me by Sithembiso Nyoni, an activist in Zimbabwe. "No country in the world has developed itself through projects," she said, reflecting on the tendency of NGOs to fund their own small bits and pieces of development and hope that they add up to something more substantial over time.

Unfortunately, because the larger structures of society evolve organically rather than in assembly line fashion, they rarely do. The long and messy processes that drive our politics, culture change, and institution-building can neither be predicted nor controlled, especially if the outcome is something as complex as well-being. In that sense, development is poetry and foreign aid is prose.

Of course, a clear sense of purpose and direction is important to success. In contrast to Zimbabwe, that was one of the things that distinguished South Korea, Taiwan, and other societies that developed quickly after World War II. But as the experience of those countries also shows, clear goals were balanced by the flexibility to pursue them in lots of different ways as circumstances changed. "Evolution is always surprising," wrote Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, "so make room for it. If you let things flourish you get a wild ride, but you also get sustainability." That's been true of all game-changing experiences in development right up to the Arab Spring.

Tension between "local ownership" and "outside intervention" has been woven through the history of development efforts for half a century or more, and it's unlikely to disappear as long as foreign aid is a tool in the foreign policy toolkit. Accountability to taxpayers, concerns about corruption, and a desire to show more "value for money" have all reinforced a project-by-project mentality that a decade ago seemed to be fading in favor of unrestricted support. Projects that are carefully planned and monitored do offer the prospect of more control, even if their influence over the deeper drivers of development is weak. On the plus side, there are many ways to leverage the impact of projects -- including through policy advocacy, capacity building, networking, and knowledge-creation -- so that they become more than small pieces in a jigsaw that can never be completed.

Nevertheless -- and here's the link to current trends in philanthropy -- the idea that successful projects can be "replicated" or "scaled-up" has, for reasons I don't entirely understand, become an article of faith. There are striking similarities between the Millennium Villages Project in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, and the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City. Both have received significant injections of resources in an effort to demonstrate that good results are possible without broader changes in the surrounding environment. The same goes for school-reform efforts and the Obama administration's Social Innovation Fund. Other schools and communities will learn from these experiences and follow a similar path, or so the theory goes.

Except that they don't, because the resources aren't there, or because the same innovation doesn't work or isn't valued when transported to another setting, or because those broader forces have a nasty habit of kicking the ladder away just when you least expect it.

If that's the case, why do pilot projects (or "policy experiments," as they are often referred to in the U.S.) continue to exercise such a powerful hold on the imagination of philanthropists? Perhaps it's because they accomplish other things that are important, like building support for their favored approaches, strengthening networks of people prepared to back them, and keeping alive the comforting thought that social progress can be removed from the influence of politics, economic restructuring, and social struggle.

Even if it could, it would be something of a pyrrhic victory, threatening to sacrifice long-term improvements in the infrastructure of problem-solving for short-term advances in services and other material indicators of success. As fifty years of trial and error in development make clear, however, investing in people's capacities to innovate is much more important than replicating any particular innovation.

But how we do measure success in that kind of scenario? And is there a way to knit all these different approaches together in a positive and constructive fashion? That's the subject of next week's posts.

-- Michael Edwards

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Posted by Niki Jagpal  |   February 03, 2012 at 10:46 AM

Another great post. I think you raise some pertinent issues for those who seek to impact structures or challenge institutionalized norms and practices. Systems change requires an entirely different approach to both grantmaking and also measurement. As you note, while a system can be broken down into its constituent parts, it can't be reassembled to its previous iteration. Systems change and especially policy/advocacy work requires patience and a degree of comfort with non-linearity and uncertainty. I look forward to reading your next post on measurement in such philanthropic work.

Posted by Intldogooder  |   February 03, 2012 at 04:58 PM

The key question for us in the aid and philanthropic sector is to consider–are donors and international organizations really interested in supporting local civil society to become more mature, autonomous, networked, and able to manage funds without their permanent intermediation? International and local NGOs alike should be subject to scrutiny, yet we also need to acknowledge the vision, structure, inherent strengths, and impact that under-recognized and under-resourced local organizations can and do have, despite the failings of the aid industry.

I’ve worked in children and HIV programming in southern Africa for over a decade. What is undeniable to me in this time is that most children are getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major internationally-funded programs. Rather, those who survive and thrive do so because of the local efforts of people who organize their communities to extend support and services to children in areas not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

The “outside expertise infusion” aid model is being transformed. I certainly welcome the dialogue about how international actors can focus on building their own skills, practices, and institutional processes to accompany and support local leadership, rather than overpower or co-opt it. At the grassroots level, these are the people who are there for children, whether outside support is available or not. To read more, see: http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/Blogs/Busan-High-Level-Forum/Local-organizations-are-overlooked-in-aid-effectiveness-debate

Posted by Josh Joseph  |   February 06, 2012 at 01:24 PM

"...the idea that successful projects can be "replicated" or "scaled-up" has, for reasons I don't entirely understand, become an article of faith."

Have been enjoying your series and thinking about the good point above, since your raised it. Coming from the research side, I'm a fan of pilots. The successful ones stand out b/c they're rare and show what's possible. But you're right that it's easy to read too much into success...scalability is a great example. Here's a nice multi-site study http://bit.ly/wjyh4X that supports your point. It focused on using checklists to reduce hospital infections. Turns out the "checklist" is just the tip of the iceberg. Cheers.

Posted by Akwasi Aidoo  |   March 15, 2012 at 05:14 AM

Thanks, Mike. Very insightful. Donor obsession with projects is something that's going to stay with us for quite some time. It's an addiction to what I call the syndrome of "projectitis." Unfortunately, there are no rehabs for donors with such terrible addictions. Some day. Sounds cynical, but can one say?

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