Doing Development Differently: mission impossible?


Yesterday evening was my turn to be with our daughters and read the good night book. We are making progress in Harry Potter N.1 in Italian. However both my daughters are currently very much into Wimpy Kids and preferred to read on their own. So I sat on the floor next to their beds and switched on my laptop, reached Duncan Green\’s blog and read his thoughts about the recent Doing Development Differently (#differentdev) seminar which has hosted by Harvard’s Building State Capabilities programme in collaboration with ODI’s Politics and Governance programme.

Doping Development Differently? How? Duncan Green summarizes it as remembering to develop small-scale experiments, monitor them closely, learn and research what works, share it. At the same time build relationships and trust. Understand really well the context in which your interventions will operate, be flexible and adapt to change. Build momentum with quick wins (i.e. experiments that supports engaged partners ready to change the way they do things). Delivering activities is ok, but it is also important to act as a broker that brings together government levels, government actors, government and non–government actors. Be modest in your first steps, explore, and expand activities incrementally using the evidence and knowledge that is generated through the experiments.

Really interesting stuff discussed by a group of experts who are quite known in the circles with an interest in institutional change, governance reforms, complexity, political economy analysis, theory of change, etc.

From Duncan’s blog I navigated hyperlinks and links to the seminar. I read Alan Hudson’s blog posted on Global Integrity, read the nice Storify about the seminar. Reached the Thinking and Working Politically blog. Great stuff and very much relevant for the project I am working in here in Indonesia and which is concerned with the use of knowledge for policy making.

I checked my daughters. They were already asleep when I finished reading on my laptop. Their books were resting half open on the side of their beds. I switched off the bed lamp and went downstairs.  I kept on thinking about what I just  read and  felt that I was missing something , but could not pin down what it was.

I thought about the strategy paper I have written half a year ago. It contains a revised version of something that Duncan Green has published in his blog about the importance of understanding the (political) context, develop a theory of change, implement, learn, and adapt.

I also felt a bit of envy thinking how it must feel to be part of these meetings. Discuss  new ideas,  moving into new territories to try to improve the way development is done. Testing new ideas. Moving incrementally while being grounded on reality. It must be a privilege, I thought, to be in the same room with Michael Woolcock, Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, Jaime Faustino, Duncan Green, the colleagues of ODI, and others. Have access to their ideas and experiences.

Yet, I thought that something was still missing.

I thought about the two hours meeting that I attended yesterday afternoon to go through the Theory of Change of our programme. As in Indonesia has a new President and a new political environment it is a good time to review the ToC that we developed about 12 months ago. I thought about how I struggled a bit to stay concentrated during the meeting. Maybe because the meeting was late in the day or maybe because of the to-do-list of our team.

I  switched the kettle on to prepare an evening tea  and  made a quick recap of the things we are juggling at the moment: upcoming six months report, discussion in the team about progress and achievements, review of planned activities for the next six months, drafting of ToRs for trainings, assessments, studies, mapping (etc.), managing the team interaction with the other parts of the programme, participate in visits to local governments and identify opportunities for pilot activities, manage the procurement process of consultants, participate in internal management meetings, coordinate and contribute the organization of an international conference on data innovation to take place at the end of the month, procure a video team to conduct interviews that will go into a podcast series, brainstorm the topic of working papers and stories of change that we plan to publish in the second half of the year, the 400 unread emails in my inbox after a short holiday, manage the publication of a couple of working papers, networking meetings, and lastly (but not least) find the time to write blogs and, opinion pieces like this one.

All good with this. The normal life of a large multi-year programme.

Yet, something was still bothering me. I sat in the living room with the warm mug in my hands. The ceiling fan was doing its circles round and round sending a nice breeze. The window was open and beyond the mosquito screen I could hear the now familiar mix of crickets singing into the night and the muffled sound of Jakarta’s traffic. I thought about the 40 people that participate in Harvard. Two intense days of discussion and sharing of ideas. The discussion captured in digital spaces, travelling across the world through the web.

I checked the time. It was late. I like the ideas that were shared at the seminar. I find them inspiring and I thought that we really need to try out new ways to do things. But how to contribute to that discussion? How to translate those ideas into practical actions in our day to day work? How can I work with the team  to bring a  way of thinking into the plans and activities that we develop with our partners?

The questions started to come up one by one but they can synthetized into one:

  • I agree with these ideas and  I can share and discuss these ideas with the team with whom I work  but what difference can it make if the systems around us due to organizational culture, history, circumstances, and traditions struggle to  embrace flexibility, uncertainty,  untested experimentation, and slow incremental changes?

Duncan Green has also written a blog post where he suggests that the idea of ‘projects’ may have become inadequate, I thought while going back upstairs to go to sleep. Is that the solution? I was tired and more thinking about that will have to wait for another day.

5 thoughts on “Doing Development Differently: mission impossible?”

  1. Pingback: If you want to Do Development Differently but it sounds too hard… | Building State Capability

  2. Pingback: Can Theories of Change Help Us ‘Do Development Differently?' | In Asia

  3. Pingback: Can Theories of Change Help Us ‘Do Development Differently?’ | Doing Development Differently

  4. Pingback: Soluciones diferentes pero iguales. Un nuevo manifiesto para hacer cooperación y desarrollo de forma diferente | "TripleAD": Aprendiendo a Aprender para el Desarrollo

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