Quality First

This past week, a colleague Lauren (working with Agriculture Value Chains) and I had the opportunity to present to a group of M&E specialists on some of the work that EWB has been doing. EWB has a few key beliefs about the development sector and why it seems to really struggle to deliver results, and – since articulation always seems to help me think things through – I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on it lately.

After this meeting, Lauren and I sat down and chatted with one of the guys who was heading the M&E side of the project. We were talking a bit about this problem of ‘poor implementation’ – why is it that so often these workshops or development projects are so obviously weak? If these projects fail time and time again, why is it that these implementing partners are continuously hired? Why doesn’t the market, that greatest of evolutionary powers, select NGOs that are really excellent, while the ones that deliver inferior work can eventually be forced out of business? Lauren and I both exclaimed ‘incentives’!

Dave Damberger recently presented a fantastic TED talk on ‘Admitting Failure’, and one of the key take-aways for me was a brief discussion on incentives. He compared the public and private sectors to the development sector, and high-lighted one key different – accountability. If the private sector starts producing something the consumer doesn’t like, it don’t get bought – and that business shuts. Should the public sector start off on a direction that the constituent isn’t in favor of (okay, simplified but bear with me), they’ll get voted out of office (eventually). With development, however, if the beneficiaries aren’t seeing any improvements, or see obvious inefficiencies, then they shrug their shoulders and appreciate what they did get. After all, it’s not costing them anything. Meanwhile, the big donors at the top are sending down money, and the implementers (NGOs, often) in-between are sending rosy reports upwards and inferior products downwards. On the surface, everyone is happy –the implementer is getting paid, the donor is getting reports affirming their money is being spent well, and the eventual beneficiary is some combination of voiceless and happy to get something.

It’s comes down to a matter of incentives. Those private sector guys are working to maximize profits, partly through maximizing sales, which means increasing their customer-base, which means giving people something they want and can’t get elsewhere. The government wants to stay in power, so they’re providing services that people need, and that constituents will attribute to them. Implementing bodies want to secure contracts,  so they have large incentives to report good results, and donors want to demonstrate to their funders back home that they’re doing ‘good work’, so they accept those good results – those photos of new wells, the list of 200 farmers that benefited from a workshop, or the dollars distributed through a micro-credit scheme. Some community member whose borehole breaks down after a year and a half might think about doing something, but really, it’s not his borehole, so why bother? (of course, at this point, it’s NO one’s borehole.)

The incentive structure awards great proposals, nice, easily digestible (but ultimately meaningless) results (such as number of farmers trained), and short-term quick results (which tend, almost by definition, to be unsustainable). Worse, it punishes failure – the implementing partner that says “actually, this really didn’t work. We tried, and for these reasons, it failed” is the guy who doesn’t get hired again. No one wants to throw money at something that isn’t working, after all… and currently, folks are essentially asked to report on themselves.

One of the ways this has really manifested itself is in quality. Over and over again – from education enrollments going up while BECE pass-rates go down to shoddy construction on toilets to terrible community sensitizations around borehole ownership – a crappy product is rolled out, the photo is snapped, and the glowing report filed. The follow-up doesn’t happen, and the measures used to determine success consider what I just detailed a success! That borehole was drilled, that community ‘sensitized’! It’s all ‘output’ indicators oriented around quantity.

It’s like a fish and chips place that you go to because it’s all you can eat for 6 dollars, and you know you got to get your money’s worth – so you eat until you’re ready to burst, your heart hates you for it, and you go home feeling sick. Maybe that’s enough incentive not to go back, especially if your doctor tells you enough is enough. In development, it’s your boss paying those 6 bucks for you, every Thursday at his favorite restaurant, and ordering for both of you, while eating a salad himself, oblivious to the belly-ache and cholesterol he’s piling on you. And you thank him, because you’re worried that if you complain, or – what a concept! – ask for something different, you’ll end up with nothing at all.

I believe development NEEDS to be extremely high quality. Poverty is complex, and the solutions need to embrace that theoretically, and be implemented impeccably. I’m not sure how to get there, but I know that low quality begets low quality – a cycle – and I think that a lack of a demand for excellence is one reason development hasn’t delivered results to the degree people would like. Donors need to start demanding the best, recognizing that this will probably result in higher overheads (more monitoring required) and, from an outputs perspective, probably fewer results. However, without that push for excellence, that (returning briefly to the analogy) push for roasted fish, with a salad, with blue cheese, and maybe some olives in there, and – oh man!! – maybe a little plum chutney on the side, with –sorry, got carried away… without that push for excellence, a demand for nothing but the highest quality, we’ll keep spinning our wheels, digging ourselves deeper and deeper.

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3 Responses to Quality First

  1. Tom Curran says:

    Insightful post into the problem of accountability. Who does the demand for excellence need to come from? Aid recipients, funding organizations, implementers? Or taxpayers in donor countries? What is the best way to influence this system?

  2. Michael says:

    This is what RCTs are for. At least in theory.

  3. Siera Vercillo says:

    Why can’t it come from all of the above just like in the private sector?:
    – aid recipients need to demand more of what they need not necessarily what the want. It may mean refusing money. I personally think that more NGOs need to be for profit, to discourage a type of dependence on those giving out the money. Aid recipients need to say “this is what we think we need and we are not compromising for it. If you want us to compromise than we will look to others for resources. If we fail than we will change our demands.”
    – Funding organizations need to start looking at what works and stop looking at what is popular. They need to make clear funding decisions and articulate to the sector why they are making certain decisions. This encourages critical discussions allowing funding organizations to improve their funding parameters. The circle of improvement continues and also allows aid recipients to be more honest with their results. They need to also support research happening on the ground despite it not necessarily showing as many positive results. This is how we learn – trial and error.
    – I work every day with an overburdened public sector that implements because it has no other option. Without the payment of projects, there would be more money for activities. Since the public sector is over burdened the quality of implementation is also diminished leading to poorer practice. This is a more systemic problem. It is about bringing independence first to an implementer so they can decide and demand what they want to implement. But the system needs to adjust
    – taxpaying citizens need to understand where their money is going. To do this they need to demand transparency of success, failures, and decision making from all of the above.

    The system of foreign aid needs to change. It needs to be more consumer (aid recipient, implementer) driven, open to admitting and accepting failures and less dependent on those with the money (funding organizations).

    Dan, plum chutney sounds good

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