Over the past couple of weeks, in very different fora, I have been exposed to the new international development policies of two major and very different bilateral development agencies - DFID (UK) and AECID (Spain). The differences in those policies - which in my summary are 'Build effective states' vs. "Facilitate solidarity between peoples" - will be the subject of a future blog. My colleague and good friend (and independent thinker) James Deane has an excellent blog on the content of the DFID policy - "A Gutsy New DFID..." For now I wish to focus on something slightly different.
The challenges to which those policies are oriented have a Himalayan scale dimension to them. For example, on page 22 of the new DFID white paper [PDF] it quotes World Bank 2008 data to show clearly that the numbers of people in Africa living on less than USD 1.25 per day (exchange rate adjusted from the old USD1!) increased by almost 100 million people in the 15 years between 1990 and 2005.
How such a substantially negative trend in perhaps the most important development indicator (so much else - health, education, media access, etc. flows from this) in the highest priority region of focus for development (Africa) is possible after hundreds and hundreds of billions (trillions?) of dollars of individual people, family, local community, national government, NGO, and international development investment over the past 15 years begs some fundamental questions about international development policies.
The normal assessment questions for these policies are a) are they good; and b) will they work? But I think that this failure begs a very different but equally fundamental question: How were these policies developed?
This is a crucial question because if those policies are to drive and guide action that resonates and has effect across the spectrum of audiences to which they are intended to relate and benefit - in the case of our two examples from building UK and Spanish public constituencies for investing in international development action to supporting economically poor rural communities with economic development and democratic participation - then they will need to resonate and have meaning in each of those polar opposite contexts and all the variations along that line between those poles.
This issue of policy process (as opposed to policy statements or outcomes) can be met with a gaping yawn - I can feel many of you yawning now! So let me try to encourage you to personalise the question in order to demonstrate its fundamental importance.
What place in the world do you know best and from what perspective do you look at that place? For me, it is rural farming communities in New Zealand where, though we came from farming stock on one side of the family, my father drove trains and chaired his local Union, mother was a seamstress and we saw that community of (then) about 30,000 (100 miles to the next place of 30,000 - this is New Zealand!) from essentially a lower-middle income set of eyes and position. Still this is one of the places that I feel I know the best and in which I am most comfortable. I understand the nuances and the obstacles and opportunities - albeit from our place in that community.
Your place and perspective will be very different than mine, of course. Please do imagine it - barrio, suburb, wealthy inner city area, rural village, private school, island, or whatever - the place in which you are most comfortable and which you feel you know the best.
Now turn this on its head. How do you feel when outsiders to that place arrive and tell you how they can help you improve your lives? And, of course, the answer is resistance - backs stiffen a little, eyebrows narrow just a bit, and the mind edges towards wherever the defensive part of the brain is located.
No matter how skilled and subtle are the facilitation skills of the "outsiders," we all have that natural resistance. The questions we will all raise are basically about - who are they, what are they doing here, and what the hell do they know? (If you want another real-life comparison point think about how you feel when - no matter how justified and accurate the observation - an "outsider" makes comments about your family dynamics!)
This dynamic was right up front in one of the policy seminars in which I was privileged to be invited and to participate (read: listen) in Spain. I sat between participants from Peru and Colombia as some Spanish panellists described various elements of the socio-economic and political environment in Latin America, often with specific reference to Peru and Colombia. In my row, backs stiffened, jaws jutted, sotto voce mumbling percolated, and toes and fingers drum rolled. In essence, the verdict was - they do not understand! Even if those panellists had been completely correct, the response would probably have been - they do not understand!
This is why the question of who is involved in a policy development process is so vitally important. You can have the best policies in the world, but if the people for whom these are intended do not feel that they are their policies, reflecting their realities, and were put in place by people with whom they can identify and relate, and represent their perspectives and daily realities, then the chances of the action driven by those policies being effective is remote at best. The African USD 1.25 per day trend figures above seem to demonstrate this point best. (I wish I had space to compare why there are different trends in India and China, for example, but will leave that for a different blog!)
If you agree with me, then the essential question, of course, is – How can we implement these principles for more effective policies? If I can recall correctly an old Hobsbawm quote that the late Jim Grant, a previous Executive Director of UNICEF, used to quote on a regular basis ("morality marches in step with capacity") then perhaps we can amend this to "policy development needs to march in step with capacity".
Though the processes for building the AECID and DFID policies are not clear, it appears as though they were hatched through the rather traditional methods of internal working groups, consultation meetings, data review, and writing teams. For the Spanish and UK public components of the policy focus and equation, this makes lot of sense. This work is, after all, at the request of and under the guidance of the Minister - the elected, and therefore accountable, representative.
But if the intended impact of these international development policies are to be on governments and people in the economically poorest and/or most conflict ridden countries, there is both a moral and efficacy imperative that they are also involved. And we now have the capacity [or the beginnings of that capacity] to upgrade all of our policy development processes.
How this happens will need creative exploration. No one person - certainly not here - has the answers. But some initial thoughts, tapping into the capacities of the new technologies, for consideration, include:
1. Ongoing: Moving away from a planning process that is centralised - a few people do it - and time- bound - the next 5 years. We now have the possibilities for much more dynamic and organic planning processes.
2. Networks: More extensive use of ongoing online networks for continual input into and refinement of policies. The natural tendency of any organisation in a planning process is to consult out for the purpose of building the insights, knowledge, and ideas that will feature in the policy but to then retreat inwards for the writing and the "finished” policy that is then announced. Consultation then stops. But continual online networks of stakeholders - from Agriculture Ministers to micro-enterprise entrepreneurs - will help to jointly test, refine, and update policies. Lead people on different aspects of a policy should be mandated as a core part of their work to form and facilitate such networks.
3. Wikis: The writing can also be shared: of course, in the end, someone needs to say “this is the policy,” but with wide availability of wikis there is the real possibility of people across a spectrum of contexts and issues contributing to the writing and drafting process - and there are oodles of reasons for why people would do this.
4. Real-time Data: As we are all increasingly aware, the new technologies provide huge levels of real-time data which is vital for relevant and effective programming. Google can now - based on search volumes - predict flu outbreaks specific to geographic areas and population groups - much quicker than epidemiology. Implemented across a range of development issues and contexts (esp. with growing and cheaper digital access in Africa when the cables are working - see Cable News; this will be a major boost to planning - albeit a very different form of planning.)
5. Feedback, Comment, and Criticism: Even if the traditional-style planning processes take place, you can open those processes up post-policy-publication. Divide the policy up into its relevant sections and priorities and further segment by geography and then open up the documents to Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace, Flickr, or any other present or emerging social networking process so that people can interact with the policy - bring it alive.
These are very initial ideas and suggestions. They are small and limited in nature. But maybe they could be the initial cobblestones for a road that ends up being paved with the extensive involvement of all relevant governments and people in the policy development process. The capacity for them to reflect the realities of their place and space as important elements of the policy development process may very well make for better policies and more effective action.