Category Archives: international development

Anxious management

I was reminded of the importance of anxiety and the idea of emotional contagion the other day when I sat with a group of not-for-profit trustees who were being given a presentation by an auditor from a big corporate firm of accountants. The auditor had been asked to present on his experience of auditing other not-for-profits to identify what other organisations were concerned about and how they were dealing with it. The trustees saw it as a way of ‘benchmarking’ the field so that they could be reassured that they were focusing on the right things as they undertook their roles and developed a new strategy.

What transpired in the meeting made me think about how certain ideas about leadership and management are spread partly because they have emotional valency, and thus are more likely to be taken up without being challenged. For the presentation was not just an overview of the sector but also carried a strong ideological message wrapped in an anxiety narrative. This was that adopting a particular approach to organisations and management based on an especially dominant orthodoxy is a way of belonging to an in-group in especially turbulent times. To emulate others would mean ameliorating anxiety about not keeping up, not being professional and not being alongside the people who really know.  Continue reading

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On the complexity of stability and change

Long before theories of complexity became established in the natural sciences, the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about social development as the complex evolution of ‘blindly operating’ processes. Greater interdependence in increasingly highly differentiated societies has led to longer and longer chains of people who are functionally interdependent with others. In other words, and without drawing on complex adaptive systems models, Elias noted how we are formed by, and at the same time we are forming the social processes of which we are part. It is not adequate to ascribe social change to the actions of highly charismatic individuals, on the one hand, or to mystical descriptions of emerging ‘wholes’ realising some kind of archetypal order, on the other. Instead, he argues, society evolves through the interweaving of intentions, a patterning which simply produces more patterning. Our plans and strategies form a tissue, an intermeshing web of actions and reactions, which are very difficult to interpret and to predict. There are trends in the patterning of social relations, and these tend in a particular direction. But the direction is not always forwards, and the consequences not always good. Development, or developments, are not always positive but are likely to both create and destroy. Continue reading

Payment by results: research methods and disciplinary power

I was sitting in a meeting with a social development organisation listening to the kinds of requirements that have been placed upon it by a governmental body in order to trigger the full funding for a grant that they had succesfully bid for. 10% of the grant is ‘performance related’. In other words, and on a sliding scale of reward for performance, the social development organisation has to prove that it has helped educate a certain number of girls in a developing country to a predicted level of attainment, and that these girls will have stayed in school for the three year duration of the project and not dropped out. Additionally money is released against the achievement of pre-reflected project milestones. ‘Results’ are validated by ‘rigorous research methods’ which turned out to mean quasi-experimental methods. In other words, the rubric insists that the project sites be compared with communities where there has been no such intervention, and which are ‘similar in every way’. The organisation will only be fully rewarded if it achieves exactly what it said it would, and precisely to the timetable it set out in the proposal.

This particular social development organisation I am visiting is one amongst a dozen or so others which have received similar or much bigger grants, some of which amount to the low tens of millions. All of them have proposed highly complex interventions in very different developing countries involving the girls themselves, their families, teachers, head teachers, community groups, religious and community leaders, sometimes even boys. As with most social development these days the intervention is highly ambitious and leaves the impression that the organisation, working through a local social development organisation in the country concerned, will be intervening in particular communities at breakfast, lunch and dinner and in a variety of different and incalculable ways. This combination of interventions may be necessary, but the extent and range of them makes the question of causality extremely problematic, experimental methods or no.

The other thing that struck me is that the dozen or so social development organisations receiving this money all have to use the same project management tools and frameworks so that the government department can aggregate progress and results across all countries and all projects. Quantification and standardisation is necessary, then, in order to render the projects commensurable, and in order to make a claim that the government has made a quantifiable contribution to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which they can ‘prove’. The kind of assertion that the government would like to make is that it has improved X tens of thousands of girls’ education to Y degree through its funding of a variety of organisations. These results, the claim will continue, will have been rigorously demonstrated through scientific methods and will therefore be uncontestable. Continue reading

Complex, but not quite complex enough

During the last 10-15 years there have been repeated appeals to the complexity sciences to inform evaluative practice in books and journals about evaluation. This partly reflects the increased ambition of many social development and health programmes which are configured with multiple objectives and outcomes and the perceived inadequacy of linear approaches to evaluating them. It could also be understood as a further evolution of the methods vs theories debate  which has led to theory-based approaches becoming much more widely taken up in the evaluative practice. It is now very hard to avoid using a ‘theory of change’ both in programme development and evaluation. What kind of theory informs a theory of change, however?

Although the discussion over paradigms has clearly not gone away, the turn to the complexity sciences as a resource domain for evaluative insight could be seen as another development in producing richer theories better to understand, and make judgements about, complex reality. However, some evaluators are understandably nervous about the challenge of what they perceive as being the more radical implications of assuming that non-linear interactions in social life may be the norm, rather than the exception. In a variety of ways they try to subsume them under traditional evaluative orthodoxies, which is just as one might expect any thought collective to respond. Continue reading

Management fads and the importance of critical thinking

One of the main themes of Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott’s new edition of their book Making Sense of Management is that management, and the ubiquitous tools and techniques that accompany the practice are widely taken for granted as neutral, technical and helpful. In detail, and at length, they call these assumptions into question. Further, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Management Studies, Alvesson, with his co-author André Spicer go on to accuse organisations of practising both knowledge and stupidity management. By stupidity management they mean the way that many organisations rush into adopting the latest management fad that everyone else is taking up, simply because everyone else is taking it up. They point to an absence of critical reflection and questioning in many organisations.

It is this process, endlessly rushing towards the next big idea provoked by an anxiety about keeping up with ‘the latest thinking’, or perhaps because of (self-imposed) coercion from peers or scrutinising boards and other agencies, that keeps the management shelves of bookshops filled to overflowing, and management academics and popular writers busy (and sometimes rich). Continue reading

Attempts to make the uncertain certain

I was rung up the other week by someone who worked in a management team in a development organisation, which wanted to try some new initiatives in three ‘fragile states’. It had become clear to them that traditional ways of working, adopting and following logical planning instruments, were inadequate in these particular dynamic and fast-moving contexts, and they were keen to try a different approach. I began to discuss the possibility of working experimentally: with the teams already working in-country, why not start with what they would like to do. Take the first steps, reflect on it, see how it had gone, and then take the next steps. Repeat the process over again. The programme would evolve as new possibilities emerged, although it would take a good deal of discussion and judgement. Programme coherence would build up with retrospective sense-making over time. ‘Yes, but can you prove that this way of working is effective?’, my co-respondent asked.

In a recent journal article I described the way in which staff in an organisation I had a great deal of experience with had tried over time to reflect systematically on the way they were working. This involved acting with intention, but regularly being open to puncturing and questioning these intentions through discussion, reflection and involving the subjects of their intentions by asking them what they thought of the work. It often involved taking two steps forward and one step back, and seeing the process of reflection and discussion not as an adjunct to the work, but as the work itself. The staff often had to work to tight deadlines, to cut short their deliberations to meet them, so were not in any way paralysed by talking rather than doing. Talking was a form of doing. One of the reviewers of the article commented that this was all very well, but what had I actually said about working differently? What would an ideal model of working actually look like?

I was supporting an organisation think about how they might assess work they were doing in East and West Africa where they had made an explicit commitment to their donor that they would focus on what they thought would be sustainable ways of working. That is to say, instead of providing services or materials as such, they would support local stakeholders, central and local government officers, local organisations, politicians and local councillors to work out what their problems were and what they wanted to do about them. The staff in the organisation I was supporting were clear that they had expertise to offer, but the problems were not theirs to ‘solve’. They would support, cajole, facilitate, discuss, offer training if necessary or seed initiatives. But since the inception of the programme the relations with the donor had changed, partly owing to a change in personnel in the donor. Now the donor required ‘objective evidence’ that this way of working produced results, and that these results would be transferable elsewhere. Exactly which kinds of ‘instruments’ were they using to encourage local discussion, and how could they be validated?

In each of these three examples I would argue that there is an illusory quest for certainty. Continue reading

Trends in the management of development

In this post I will continue with the discussion about the particular assumptions which now seem to underpin theories of social development as currently practised by staff in many INGOs. I will also offer some thoughts on the specific configurations that have evolved in the domain of international development between a handful of very large INGOs and others, as well as between INGOs and the state and the public which supports them. In doing so I will be exploring what I consider to be three historical trends which have interwoven to bring about significant changes in the way that staff in INGOs have come to think about their work and how they undertake it. Continue reading