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We need to focus on reformers, help donors change, and share what works

Written by Leni Wild

​Last week’s Twitter Chat was lively, wide ranging and hard to follow at times – a bit like emerging calls to do development differently themselves. 

We wanted to look at how more adaptive, entrepreneurial approaches to development can work in practice, in a chat with Toti Chikiamco (a Filipino reformer), Pete Vowles (Head of Programme Delivery at DFID), Dave Algoso (Managing Director at Reboot) and myself. During the hour-long session the #AdaptDev hashtag was used in 436 tweets by at least 92 people who were actively contributing to the conversation, some of which is captured in our Storify.

What did I take away from these discussions?

First, those calling for adaptive, entrepreneurial responses to development challenges remain a broad church – and that’s a good thing. It was great to see contributions from people in different countries, from different backgrounds, and – dare I say – even from different ideologies on what development is. There are clearly lots of interpretations of what we mean by #AdaptDev or ‘development entrepreneur’, but rather than getting stuck on the disagreements, people were able to provide some very practical examples and insights for what this looks like in practice. We need to keep this debate anchored on these practical illustrations of #AdaptDev, and the principles behind it, rather than striving for one fixed definition or agreement between all.

This leads me to my second reflection – that it was striking how much of the chat focused on the types of people and teams that need to be involved for this to work. Toti Chikiamco shared his own views on what worked in the Philippines, emphasising:
  • The extent to which achieving change reflects the need for both technically feasible but also politically possible reforms, requiring a heavy investment in building political coalitions;
  • The role of brokers or ‘coaches’ in facilitating these;
  • The need to find people with the right skills and values for this. In Toti’s words, 'Inside knowledge and passion don’t show up on a resume'.

While some of this might sound like common sense, too often international debates and policy discussions on how development happens focus overwhelmingly on policies or processes, rather than on people and institutions (that is, the rules of the game that shape people's behaviour too). Yet as our recent film from the Philippines – which charts the work of Toti and others – demonstrates, the reformers and how they work are key to achieving results

Recognition of this means paying much more attention to things like recruitment processes, internal performance incentives and how to create internal working cultures that really foster learning. Mercy Corps' recent 'adaptive management' case study from northern Uganda and ODI’s paper on development entrepreneurship, drawing on the Philippines' experience, start to give practical tips and tools for how to support these efforts. We need more examples like these.

Third, much of the emphasis in our Twitter feed was focused, unsurprisingly, on what needs to change for donors and development assistance. This is particularly useful as we head into a series of international dialogues on financing for development – myself and others have previously flagged a sense of ‘groundhog day’ about these and other international processes that don’t seem to learn lessons from past experience. The Twitter chat reinforced that different constituencies are now calling for a change in how financing is provided, so that it is genuinely locally-led, adaptive, and solves real problems rather than bringing in ready-made solutions. This is not new but the convergence between those from diverse perspectives is striking – and yet, much of the financing debate still seems stuck on how much to raise rather than how to use that finance effectively. 

This is particularly pressing as we know that many of the areas where the Millennium Development Goals lagged behind – primary school completion rather than enrolment, sanitation coverage rather than water access – are those which are complex, require multiple interventions and which involve changing behaviours and motivations too. There is no one solution to these gaps, reinforcing the need for adaptive strategies. A number of participants called for changes in results frameworks and measurement here – something we also call for in our recent report, Adapting development: improving services to the poor

Rather than critiquing what doesn’t work about current results agendas, a key test will be whether this community can start to develop alternative offers, both in terms of funding modalities and their measurement too.

So what is planned for the future? I hope that we can continue to find spaces to debate these ideas, generate practical insights for what needs to change, and connect to new and different audiences. Future events on ‘Doing Development Differently’ are planned, with a first stop in the Philippines, so watch this space!