Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When success is failure, and failure success.

We were talking the other day about the quandary that faces most serious developers of capacity in any culture which has had long term aid programs. Decades of well meaning (I shan’t enter that debate) intervention often leads, not to a nation developing a robust system of responsibility, accountability and bedrock bureaucratic competence, but instead a disempowering of national staff in the face of international expertise.

Very often, the better the technician, the worse the capacity builder.

Of course, there are real traps here, because perverse incentives get built in. For national staff, while there is an advisor to take work off your hands if it is not up to standard, it is easier and safer not to do it well and push both the effort and the risk of failure onto the advisor. With a never-ending stream of advisors and a philosophy that seems common amongst agencies to ‘churn’ advisors, no one is there long enough to catch on. Or they are incapable of allowing failure. Or maybe they even play along too.

So what happens when the rules change? The advisor, hired nominally to build capacity, actually attempts to do so. She folds her arms and says “Not good enough, do it again. Or don’t. I am not going to do it for you, so I advise you to do better, for your own sake.” If she is alert enough, she won’t be fooled by a quite alarming number of strategies coming forward to shake her position, including stealthy resubmission of basically unchanged work, attempts to have other advisors take over the work, appeals to deadlines, appeals to urgency, appeals to friendship etc.

That is when failure can happen. If she has judged matters well, the failure will be painful but not fatal, and the errors will not relate to mission-critical work. She will not be popular, and the blamestorming will be intense. The failure may work well enough to shake up some entrenched dependent behaviours. Of course it needs to be supplemented by support mechanisms (for the very people vituperating her) and development strategies.

If she misjudges either the people or the situation, she may be sacked. Despite forcing a capacity build, she will almost certainly be endangering any extension of her capacity building contract.

No wonder some take the easy path of doing all the work and bemoaning the inability/incapacity of national staff. The system reinforces dependencies, institutes a round-robin of reports proving those dependencies and shores up the position of aid agencies abroad.

The rewards to nationals of taking responsibility are unclear and often uncertain. We are not looking to incentivise the system, and the perverse results remain.

This post is more asking the questions than proffering answers. I’m not trying to offend aid agencies – I work to one that is serious about trying to develop capacity, not just pay lip service to the concept. I just wish there was more consciousness of this and less reliance on systems and methods that seem to have such a poor track record.

In the meantime, my arms are crossed. My national friends can – and will – do better and will be better off for it.

I hope they eventually forgive me.

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