Time is ripe for incentives to change….


There is so much promise now in returning international development to the hands of those who we mean to ‘develop’. Here are a few examples:


•Accountability has been proposed as a core feature of the new post-2015 development agenda, according to UNICEF.

•The UN’s 2011 Busan Declaration focused on improving sustainable development, aid effectiveness through international cooperation

•Major foundations (Rockefeller, Gates) are promoting participatory evaluation and program effectiveness (respectively), looking for long-term impact.

•An industry acceptance of how mobile technologies and knowledge sharing democratizes information and power, e.g. USAID’s mobile applications and the power of crowd-sourcing, evidenced by amazingly robust African applications of Kenya’s Ushahidi, and sectorally specific ones such as Ghana’s Esoko for agricultural value chains and Microplanet's microcredit, to name a few.


Many of us have come to sense that we’ve had the incentives wrong in development.  While many of us go into international development feeling the strong need to work with communities, to support their own path to sustained well-being, it doesn’t often work that way once we begin.   Following on another blog, we push ourselves to get more, do more, but we end up doing work for- or to- rather than with- our participants. Many of our projects still refer to them as beneficiaries (a more passive term was never coined). Many of our project timelines and result expectations are so rigid that there is no luxury to involve communities in the detailed design, implementation much less getting their feedback on how sustained impact of the project is likely to be (or how the project could be adapted to yield sustained results). 


This is not to say our projects don’t do good! We do. We train participants and transfer a dizzying array of resources to them during the 2, 3, 5 even 10 years we intervene. We work within often dysfunctional national systems with scant resources.  But how often have we built capacity for communities, regions and country-level nationals to continue doing development ‘right’ after we go?


Ironically, this lack of sustained capacity is in large part this is due to our deep desire to do it ‘right’. Right means getting as many resources out there as possible, getting to as many people as possible, getting as many projects done, and getting as many new awards for our firms to do more good as possible.  And therein lies the problem. In our desire to do things right for ourselves, we leave our participants behind.


And most egregiously, we stack the deck against sustainability from the start. The incentives are framed by the Requests for Proposals written in donor offices in Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo and even Beijing.  Today, USAID alone has 1075 opportunities on FedBixOpps.gov.  Were these drafted with national governments, local community based organizations or communities? Unlikely.  Mostly these opportunities are informed by updated versions of past work, sometimes by new policy directions, possibly by new think-tanks research or international non-profit fieldwork, yet the country Missions, implementer offices or community-based organizations can only do so much to ‘fix’ things in the field to retrofit what communities may actually want to do specifically but what was not a priority in the RFP.  Having also been part of a few proposal development teams that wrote proposals answering RFPs based on little field research, this sadly exacerbates the original RFP-wasn't-drafted-in-country problem. It is again our lack of time, our rush to do good (including getting our overhead from projects to maintain our organizations) that is our barrier to actually doing it sustainably. With communities leading. 


But "times are a changing" and new incentives and directions are appearing at USAID such as IDEA's Local Solutions or PPL's Evidence Summit.  New opportunities have been used to engage countries in public-private-partnership agricultural livelihood collaborative programming such as via NEPAD's CAADP (and USAID's Feed the Future programs in a dozen countries). Combined with above-mentioned new funding for capacity building evaluation by Rockefeller Foundation, and new mobile technology ways to value and pass on grassroots voices are all promising. These provide ways to dramatically tweak incentives, to feed in local voices.  Hallelujah.  


What do you think? Are our incentives righter than I see? Are our Requests for Proposal actually mirroring more closely country-national desires for development their way? Please share your learning… so we can truly support their development their way.