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Doing development differently: can it be managed?

Time (GMT +01) 10:00 16:30
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Richard Batley, University of Birmingham

Derick Brinkerhoff, RTI International

Jennifer Brinkerhoff, George Washington University

Eleanor Chowns, University of Birmingham

Richard Crook, Institute of Development Studies

Clare Cummings, Overseas Development Institute

Anna Ellersiek, UN Research Institute for Social Development

Verena Fritz, World Bank

Sumedh Rao, University of Birmingham

Sabina Schnell, Syracuse University

Pablo Yanguas, ESID, Manchester University

Leni Wild, Overseas Development Institute


Richard Batley, Birmingham University

David Booth, ODI

David Hudson, University College London

Calls to ‘do things differently’ have a long history in development, with scholars advocating greater flexibility, learning from failure and paying attention to context since at least the 1960s. Yet, they have not had widespread uptake in development policy. Organised by the ODI, the University of Birmingham and RTI International, this workshop reflected on the potential for development organisations to really embed new ways of working, examining how management and administrative practices and incentives may support or undermine the adoption of new approaches. Drawing on some of the latest academic work from the 2015 International Research Society for Public Management conference, and reflecting on practical experience from development organisations, this workshop sought to identify how new practices in development organisations may be initiated and supported.

In summary, a number of issues have become prominent which are facing the development community in taking the ‘Doing Development Differently’ agenda forward. These will require on-going collaboration and a concerted effort if real progress on this agenda is to be achieved. Key issues raised were:

  • Are problem-driven strategies and iterative adaptation compatible with the rules of accountability, accounting and budgeting that are at the core of democratic government and public management? Can they be made complementary?
  • How far should this be a directed process, or offered to others to work out and adapt to their institutions?
  • How do you manage the tension between short feedback loops and iterative adaptation and the recognition that changes often take a long time to occur and become visible? How do you know the best time to make adaptations?
  • What should be measured and how at different stages of programme implementation to allow flexibility and to capture processes of experimentation?
  • Who are ‘development entrepreneurs’, where do they come from, how do you identify them, and can entrepreneurialism be engendered?
  • How do we ensure that the problem chosen is really owned by intended beneficiaries and partners, and not picked or promoted by donors and analysts who may influence problem definition?

Innovation within institutions

What is the potential for a changed approach to development interventions within existing institutions? A number of challenges were discussed, such as how problems are socially constructed and can be shaped by donor language, the danger of imposing social institutions, e.g. community management onto different pre-existing social structures, and how differences in management and leadership styles shape the effectiveness of an approach. While engaging effectively with foreign governments to foster reform is clearly difficult, it was suggested that ‘pockets of effectiveness’ within seemingly dysfunctional bureaucracies can be an entry point, and that providing more specific examples of how ‘doing development differently’ could be applied in practice would help donors to adopt this approach.

A lively debate ensued about how to go about identifying the problem in a ‘problem-driven’ approach. It was recognised that a problem is something which is defined by people, rather than existing objectively. As communities are not homogeneous groups of people with shared problems, the process of identifying an appropriate and representative problem, not shaped by donors’ intentions or ideas, is a critical challenge. A problem can be defined by thinking about different time scales and thinking about whose problem rather than what problem.

Representatives of two bilateral donors raised the difficulty they face of needing to spend their aid budget quickly and in accordance with domestic political interests which leaves little time or space for more iterative and adaptive development programmes. Put succinctly, donors need to do easy and expensive things but ‘Doing Development Differently’ asks donors to do cheap but difficult things. However, more optimistically, it was suggested that the distance between a donor head office and programme implementation can allow for flexibility, as intensive monitoring and reporting is impractical.

A clear call for more rigorous testing of proposed adaptive and locally-led approaches emerged, especially to examine whether these really are new practices delivering better results, and to capture processes of innovation and experimentation which are often missed in knowledge management. Making sure practitioners’ knowledge and experience feed up into development agencies is also important for developing this agenda.

Adaptation, agency, and development entrepreneurs

The Doing Development Differently agenda brings back a focus on agency in how development happens. Researchers discussed how approaches to public sector reform in international development often ignore motivations for adopting new practices and that interventions need a better understanding of what motivates individuals to act entrepreneurially, to experiment, and to push for change. Entrepreneurs who catalyse change within institutions can play different roles, such as articulating a vision for change, challenging existing power relations, or acting as brokers and negotiators to build alliances for change. These roles may be played by different people at different times and they rarely work as ‘lone rangers’. Practical ways for donors to promote entrepreneurialism could be establishing challenge funds, supporting innovation labs, and allowing programmes to develop iteratively, making small bets and scaling up according to on-going feedback.

These ideas provoked a range of questions from development practitioners about how to support and cultivate entrepreneurial working, whether individually or as teams and organisations, and whether some people are intrinsically ‘entrepreneurial’ or if this can be taught and learnt. A number of questions were posed about how to measure, monitor, and evaluate entrepreneurial ways of working, especially when the need to be accountable to donors, and for donors to be accountable to their constituencies cannot be wished away. Innovation in donor contracts is needed as well as within development interventions in order for these ideas to be put into practice. In particular, there is a need to carefully examine the ‘authorising environment’ in which different donors operate in order to judge the feasibility of more creative programming.

Where next for Doing Development Differently?

The final debate of the day asked what is really new in Doing Development Differently and where might these ideas go. The discussion centred on the challenge of managing flexible ways of working; how to measure experimental ways of working and their effectiveness, e.g. how to measure ‘brokerage’; whether more flexibility risks practitioners having less drive to achieve results; and how to finance interventions which may change unpredictably. There was also discussion over how the differences in donor organisations may mean the ‘Doing Development Differently’ approach splinters and loses momentum. Yet, it was also argued that each organisation has a different culture and context and so will not be able to adopt a new approach unless it is adapted to their culture.

Turning to the central question of the day; whether institutional barriers to flexible, creative programming can be overcome, responses were largely optimistic. It was proposed that smaller organisations with less rigid structures can change more easily, whereas large donors need a reform strategy from within. And yet, we are seeing examples within DFID, for example, of real effort to change practices through new ‘smart rules’. The next step is to see how far these rules are embedded culturally and become ‘norms’ and internalised in the organisational culture. While adaptive programming may be more demanding for management and finding new ways to measure effectiveness is a challenge, it should also be cheaper and less onerous in terms of reporting.

Looking forward, it was asserted that the only way that this agenda will move beyond discussions between researchers and development agencies is if it is actually tried out in practice. There was a call to be ambitious in shaping the future of development, thinking outside the development bubble, and drawing on others’ knowledge and practices.

At ODI, regional events are being organised to bring together practitioners from South Asia and in Nigeria to feed their knowledge and experience into the debate and turn the focus onto operational challenges to working differently. ODI will also be gathering ideas for innovative monitoring and measuring systems which could be applied to development work, and is reaching out to organisations beyond the development sphere to look for synergies between UK reform processes and adaptive development programming.


​There are renewed calls for development support to radically change in 2015. While some progress has been made, this is highly uneven and does not yet deliver long-term sustainable gains for many. There are particular gaps in how public sectors work, and how systems and institutions function – and external efforts to support these reforms often struggle.

Calls to do things differently have a long history in development, with scholars advocating greater flexibility, learning from failure and paying attention to context since at least the 1960s. Yet they have not had widespread uptake in development policy and practice until now. There has often been a lack of reflection on how development organisations themselves work, and how their own political, managerial and administrative incentives shape the ability to work in different ways.

Organised by ODI, the University of Birmingham and RTI International, this workshop reflected on some of the latest research from the 2015 International Research Society for Public Management Conference (IRSPM), and draw on practical experience to identify insights for how to grapple with these principles and what more can be done to support changed approaches.

Read Pablo Yanguas' blog for the Effective States and Inclusive Development research programme about the event.