Christmas smorgasbord: Collective action failures, Aardvark attacks and why PDIA may be good old practice but a poor new fit.
If, like me, your mind is now turning more to Christmas parties, you may want to just jump to the end of this piece and watch the 30 second video clip. This will give you a profound new insight into the importance of overcoming collective action failures. And you may also want to forward it to friends that don’t share your fascination with that topic but would enjoy a very funny cartoon about an Aardvark. It might even go viral.
And if by this stage of the year you feel more in the mood for watching a video than reading then you may want to just put your feet up and watch the source of the clip, namely David Booth’s (ODI) presentation on solving Collective Action Problems. (Spoiler alert – this also includes a cartoon about penguins). David’s presentation was one of the very interesting and stimulating talks at a last week’s Danida seminar in Copenhagen on capacity development and reform challenges. David not only analysed the extent to which collective action failures are holding back development but also presented his latest research on how some new arm’s length organisations seem to be having some success in overcoming them. And if you want to catch up on the rest of David’s research then it is not too late to order his book for Christmas.
Some of you may have been puzzled by the number of times you’ve heard people refer to PDIA (try saying Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation after a Christmas party). You may have long thought that you really shouldn’t get to the end of the year without finding out what the buzz is all about. If you don’t want to wade through the Working Paper , then may I recommend to you Matt Andrews (Harvard) ninety second explanation of PDIA? (Matt was yet another of the very interesting and stimulating presenters at the Danida seminar).
For some, time of year is about reflection. Try the wonderfully succinct and profound presentation by Nils Boesen (Danish Institute of International Studies) on how approaches to capacity development have evolved over the last thirty years – and more worryingly have regressed in the last ten. And if you’re going into the festive season feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenges you might want to keep Nils’ inspirational guide through complexity for watching when you return in the New Year.
Finally if your taste is more for a literary Christmas quiz, you may enjoy Ole Therkildsen’s presentation that turns the lens of political economy analysis back onto the donors themselves. He started with ‘It’s the politics stupid’ and concluded with ‘Donor know yourself’ – a warning from classical times to those with excessive views of their own abilities.
All these presentations were part of the Christmas smorgasbord served at the Danida seminar last week. There were some striking linkages and similarities between the discussions and those at ODI’s CAPE conference on ‘Budgeting in the real world’ in November. Richard Allen asks Is There a “New Consensus” on PFM Reform? and ByrnWellham questions whether it is translating into changes in practice on the ground
One link came in the form of Matt Andrews, who was a key presenter at both events. A common view that emerged at both was that PDIA was helpful but not a wholly new - ‘Old wine in new wineskins’, as someone put it. There was also a clear challenge that emerged at both: PDIA may be best practice– or at least just very ‘good practice’ – but for most donors it is a really ‘poor fit’. In the new aid environment, increasingly funding can only be secured when results are fully specified in advance. Yet the heart of the PDIA approach is that you can’t even specify the problems in advance - let alone the results.
So if PDIA is ’good old practice’ but ‘poor new fit’ how can we move forward? Previous analysis focused on identifying the people or issues that could drive change. One of PDIA’s insights is that, in many contexts, it is problems that may be the best ’drivers of change’. The challenge next year will be in applying the same political-economy insights to overcome the collective action failure of donors to support PDIA style approaches. The debate about how to do this started at the Danida seminar.
A more comprehensive and forensic review of past successes and failures of capacity development might help establish the extent to which PDIA type approaches in the past had been the key factor for project successes. Winning funding for piloting PDIA approaches to see if they really do produce better results could be another way forward. This is a specific challenge for ODI’s Budget Strengthening Initiative– an arm’s length organisations that David Booth reviewed earlier this year. One interesting aspect of the initiative is its focus on delivering independently evaluated ‘significant stories of change’ without fixing in advance the precise changes to be delivered (or problems to be solved). A third possible answer is to formalise PDIA into a defined recognised “best practice” model. But this risks reducing PDIA to yet another silver bullet that quickly loses its value, not least as everyone will quickly claim their approach exemplifies it.
But this is all for next year. In the meantime let me close with wishing all readers the very best season’s greetings. And here to start the season is the thirty second clip on the importance of collective action in the event of an Aardvark attack