DDD and large programmes: possible?

By Arnaldo Pellini and Budiati Prasetiamartati

Approaches to complex social problems often start on the wrong foot, because they prescribe solutions and promise results. The Doing Development Differently (DDD) community instead advocates for something slightly different: to be problem driven, to try to work with conveners who know how to work politically, create space for experimentation, and make ‘small bets’ checking to see which ones gain traction.

We were in Manila a couple of weeks ago to join the Doing Development Differently: Philippines workshop organised by the Overseas Development Institute and The Asia Foundation. DDD is a growing community with over 400 people from more than 60 countries now having signed the Doing Development Differently (DDD) Manifesto. In Manila, we saw examples of this approach in practice and in particular, examples of where the approach is working and leading to policy reform.

Critics argue that the evidence so far is too context specific, too organisation specific and limited to programmes and projects with a relatively small budget and which engage primarily with NGOs and advocacy organisations to pursue policy reform. We do not agree with this skepticism although it raises a question about how a DDD approach can/cannot fit large development programmes.

Large programmes are implemented by large contractors who often lead a consortium with other organisations which have a specific expertise and track record. The main contractor holds the contract and hires the consortium members as subcontractors to either manage a component of the programme or, more rarely, co-manage the whole programme.  It is not easy for large contractors to apply the DDD principles. The contracts they sign with donor agencies can be quite prescriptive in terms of key deliverables and milestone payments. Large contractors tend also to specialise with specific donors and with time their administrative and operational systems shape around the requirement of those donor agencies with whom they do most work. This can turn against the flexibility and adaptation required to adopt a DDD way of working. To reduce risks and manage costs large contractors have an incentive in harmonising practices and ways of working from the headquarters rather the decentralising operations to programme and project teams.

Large programmes have large budgets. A budget of, for example, 10ml USD or higher per year creates an intense pressure to spend the money from day one. This is done to reduce the risk that the budget will be decreased in subsequent years. The pressure to spend leaves less room for a problem driven approach. Large budgets mean that an approach based on many ‘small bets’, slows down spending and threatens financial flows in subsequent years of the programme. It is safer, therefore, to develop plans and maybe offer solutions as well as listing activities and outcomes.

Large bilateral programmes have two governments who own the programme. The norm is to have a steering committee where representatives from the two governments meet at regular intervals to approve plans and activities. The implementing team is accountable to this body to suggest those plans and activities as well as to report of progress. The steering committee is responsible for the overall direction of a programme and can be complemented and supported by technical working groups where the implementing team has an opportunity to discuss in more detail specific parts of the programme implementation. These governance arrangements per se do not constrain the room for maneuver for a DDD-type approach, but they can limit it. For decades plans for large development programmes have used an often rigid results logic with limited attention to the root cause of problems. The focus is usually on what needs to be achieved year by year, semester by semester, quarter by quarter. The partner governments themselves may be familiar with planning processes that are primarily geared on results rather than experimentation. In a sense, the DDD principles present too many unknowns compared to the business-as-usual results-based approach.

The discussion in Manila was a step forward in the direction of finding ways for the DDD principles to make it also into large programmes. These programmes present specific challenges and are often under greater scrutiny by both the government that provides the large share of the funding to the initiatives as well as the one which host the programme.

Innovation is risky and, maybe a bit counter intuitively, large development programmes can be more risk avers that smaller ones. In terms of moving the discussion forward there is the need to 1) learn from DDD efforts what can be brought up to scale in terms of government engagement and operational structures and systems; 2) Continue to adapt the DDD principles into large programmes and in discussions with partners and counterparts so that it becomes a common language; 3) Document and share what has worked well (and what has not worked well) in applying the DDD principles to large programme.

The DDD principles are not new. They have existed for some decades but have not made it into mainstream development. Does this mean that the DDD principles need to take over large programmes? No. Instead of being seen as an alternative, they should be seen as a complement that can help large programmes to have, for example, a component or a work stream which is very experimental, which all parties have agree upon, and where it is safe to fail.

The authors have been writing this blog post in their personal capacity

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2 thoughts on “DDD and large programmes: possible?

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