Development as an Ecosystem: How Aid Programs Can Stimulate Change

09 May 2017   ·   Erwin van Veen

Socio-political change processes are complex, disruptive, and unpredictable. For this reason, donors such as Germany should initiate more adaptive aid programs. Such programs have broad objectives, flexible resources, and are able to learn. This means moving away from only reporting tangible results at the output level, starting to hold programs accountable for their capacity to adjust, and sustaining long-term partnerships between funders and implementers.

Socio-political problems typically have many stakeholders, are subject to conflicting interests, and are layered in their composition. Development issues are all about dealing with such socio-political problems in as progressive a manner as possible. Consider, for example, the problem of crafting realistic, fair as well as effective rules for peaceful competition for power in fragile societies. Complex systems with multiple objectives that include a public function feature the same characteristics. The provision of security and justice, or the regulation of profitable sectors of the economy, provide good examples.

From a programmatic perspective, this means that the linearly implemented, fixed-budget and output-focused approaches to aid one often encounters, including programs funded or executed by German actors, will generally not be fit for purpose. A high stakeholder volume, conflicting interests, and a layered nature mean that problems are complex and their resolution unpredictable. This puts high demands on the quality of interventions that are intended to address them, if they are to do so responsibly. Looking at aid programs as a form of intervention that has the aim of stimulating progressive change suggests three observations:

  • There is no point in defining detailed objectives, goals and milestones for aid programs in advance. This only serves to create a fictional reality that does not account for the fact that the solution is part of the problem definition and the change process itself.
  • There is little point in specifying program resources – personnel, funds, time, and requisite knowledge – in detail in plans and budgets. Ballpark figures should be established but experience shows that complexity and unpredictability generate unforeseen opportunities, needs and costs.
  • It does not make a lot of sense to run social change programs as if they were industrial maintenance procedures: technical, cost effective, and following a strict schedule. Social change is too unruly and dependent on political opportunities.

To illustrate the point, take the decade of international support for justice reform in Mali until 2012. Millions of dollars were expanded on classic aid programs with specific objectives to improve the institutions, staff and hardware of the country’s justice sector without considering its political economy, windows for reform or the interests of Mali’s leading political families. These programs were executed quasi-mechanically on the basis of sweeping – but unrealistic – national development plans. Today, over 80% of the Malian population still prefers customary justice providers over the state, and has little confidence in its justice apparatus.

Think of development as an eco-system

Fortunately, the notion that social change processes are difficult to influence from the outside, don’t unfold in linear fashion, and can regress as well as generate creative surprises if their local pace is respected, is gaining a foothold within the field of development cooperation. Engaging with this notion requires that development programs stop pretending that development in another country is analogous to maintaining a refinery that can be “adjusted” or “optimized”. Such an understanding is too simplistic.

Instead, we would do better to think of development as an ecosystem: a complex system that has many entry points to stimulate organic growth. Such growth has many feedback loops and ultimately creates a new balance with built-in diversity and redundancies to maintain stability – until the next disruption comes along.

So, what should be done to make developmental interventions more sensitive to the non-linearity of change and the inevitable regression that progressive change efforts will suffer at some point?

Use adaptive programs... adaptive what?

Designing and implementing more adaptive programs would be a good start, when and where socio-political change is the objective. In programmatic terms, adaptiveness means setting broadly defined objectives only, supported by a few clear boundary parameters. This ensures that many different paths can be taken to arrive at the same result, which can also shift somewhat in its definition. Adaptiveness also means flexibility of program resources in the sense that they must be scalable in function of the opportunities and impossibilities for program progress at a given moment in time. This recognizes the variable tempo in which change can happen, alternating between allegro and adagio in the blink of an eye. It is certain that it is not constant, as many programs seem to assume. Finally, programs must have the capacity to learn: is a program able to turn inevitable failures into effective interventions, and to exploit effective interventions in pursuit of further success?

All of this requires a quality of change management that is not easy to learn or to practice. Developing new insights must proceed in parallel with reasonable continuity of envisioned program objectives. At the same time, program managers must balance the need for engagement, decisiveness, and doing nothing.

Three actions to make aid programs more adaptive

Fortunately, many methods already exist to enable programs to interact with developmental ‘ecosystems’ in a productive manner without losing sight of results. Examples include political economy analysis, strategy testing or outcome mapping. For developmental programs to become more adaptive, and make greater use of such methods, at least three actions are needed:

  • Parliaments and ministries in donor countries should move away from reporting quantified and tangible results against preset objectives at output level. This focus should be replaced by a broader understanding of the type of results that aid programs can deliver.
  • The same actors must shift the emphasis from programs being accountable for being executed as planned to being accountable for timely and politically adroit adjustment to contextual (political) change.
  • Funders and implementers of adaptive aid programs must sustain long-term partnerships that focus on establishing shared objectives, building trust, enabling joint learning, and conducting good risk management.