Daring to fund creativity

It seems like everyone is talking about innovation at the moment. It’s not just the development world which thinks we need new ways of doing things, austerity in the UK has led to pressure on the government to innovate. In the UK, this has basically meant doing more with less – by pooling resources, streamlining services, and encouraging people to help out with delivering public services (the Big Society etc.). The severe cuts to public funding have forced government to find new ways of providing public services. While the cuts have been (and continue to be) extremely harsh in particular areas, austerity has at least pushed people to think differently about how public services work.

So, in the development field how can development practitioners and donors also be encouraged to think differently about public sector improvements? The BRIC countries are not facing the same spending constraints as many Western economies and so low- and middle-income countries need to be able to develop solutions according to their own context. Recent development thinking has called for ‘development entrepreneurs’, who are people with a strong understanding of the politics and economy of a country and who can work creatively to solve particular problems.

However, Pritchett et al. talk about ‘capability traps’ which suffocate innovation in developing countries. There traps occurs when bureaucracies are incentivised by aid to replicate ‘best practice’ forms of government funded by donors. Beneficiary governments may appear to have followed donor advice on how to reform their public sector but often new organisational forms are created without changing enough for the intended outcomes of reform to be produced. Pritchett et al. also talk about how donors place high demands on developing countries to rapidly transform their public sector which overburdens the existing system, reducing its ability to manage problems and develop solutions. In short, developing countries are swamped by donors funding huge public sector reform programmes based on ideas which have been developed in other country contexts.

It’s easy to criticise but faced with the complex challenge of supporting a country to improve its public sector, it’s unsurprising that donors look to support forms of government which are seen to function in other places. This seems like the safest option, especially when a donor is accountable to tax payers. But, given the general lack of success in supporting public sector reform, allowing countries to experiment and develop their own solutions is increasingly seen as the new way forward. Of course, there has to be the will to solve problems on behalf of the national government first, but assuming there is some motivation for improvement, donors are in a unique position to fund innovation. The UK government is funding innovation in its own government so why not take the same risk and fund innovation elsewhere too?

It’s a question of daring to experiment, taking a venture capitalist approach to development where donors expect some things to fail but understand that continuing to fund the same approaches to development is far more likely to be a path to disappointing results. Finding new ways of supporting public sector reform and delivering services calls for imagination and experimentation, and donors’ role in this should surely be to fund creativity.

 

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Means or ends? Form or function…? What really matters?

When it comes to new thinking on governance and progress, there is a commonly recurring theme of ‘function over form’. What this means is that a system of governance is valued for the quality of services it offers and the improvements it generates, rather than the nature of the organisations which carry out the work. So, it is now more widely accepted that human development outcomes, such as lower maternal mortality and higher primary school attendance rates can be achieved by non-democratic, unrepresentative governments. It may take a while for western governments to openly admit it, but democracy is not necessarily (or usually) the first step to poverty reduction. Actually, it probably never is.

It’s very tempting to try to find a common path which all countries have followed as they have developed but there does not seem to be a nice step-by-step guide to development. Instead, focusing on what on what can be achieved with the means available is becoming a more popular (and realistic) approach. This is ‘best fit’ instead of ‘best practice’; prioritising the outcomes a government achieves over the way in which it achieves them.

This can be interesting if we consider women in leadership. Following the last post about women’s empowerment in Tunisia, to what extent did women entering government mean more progressive government policy? Of course, there is a risk of drowning in normative words like ‘progressive’ but, in general, does enabling women to occupy positions of power, have a positive effect on development? An immediate reaction might be to assume it does. It seems logical that gender inequality issues, such as lower rates of education, employment, pay etc. for women are more likely to be addressed if more women have an influence over government policy.

However, increasing the number of women in leadership, while often a development objective, does not necessarily support gender equality. You can look to the tea party movement in the US or the presence of female religious fundamentalists in Tunisian government as examples. While women being in positions of power may seem like an indicator of progress, nothing can be taken for granted. The question is whether the development community should support more women entering leadership for its intrinsic value of equal opportunity, or whether support should be focused only on changes which result in more tangible development outcomes?

This is not a real decision since most people could accept that both are important but it does force us to question what we consider development to be and why. It is almost impossible to move away from values of equality and justice when discussing development, and any notion of ‘progress’ will be subjective, no matter how it is defined. This isn’t a problem though as long as there is honesty too. It seems fair to celebrate better healthcare and education in Rwanda, just as it is to be glad that Tunisian women can join political parties. Being explicit about what we value is what matters because development is always going to be messy.