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Development
The development process

Does technical assistance need a makeover? by Rebecca Simson ... Guardian Professional, with comment by Peter Burgess

Burgess COMMENTARY
PeterBurgess 22 June 2013 5:07pm

I wrote a book manuscript a number of years ago titled 'Turning Development Upside Down' because the issues being talked about then were the same as the issues talked about 20 years before and nothing of significance was being done.

So years later the discussion goes on, and likely will be going on 20 years from now.

Over the last 40 years there has been huge growth in the amount of academic study of development, just as there has been a huge growth in the amount of research into communications technology, bio-technology, aeronautical engineering and so on. The difference is that in technology there is a lot to show for the research, but in development there is really nothing of substance. There is no Moore's Law anywhere in the development space.

There are reasons. I argue that the metrics used in every aspect of economics and society are fatally flawed. The terrible trio of money measures: (1) money profit for business and wealth seekers; (2) stock prices for investors; and (3) GDP growth for analysts are inadequate. Rather we need value metrics that measure progress for people, place, planet and profit ... and we need decision making that seeks to optimize for all of these at the same time.

This is very different from the modern market economy which works for the rich but cannot work for the poor. Few of the experts seem to understand that productivity which is good for profits and investors is frequently bad for people and place ... and the GDP growth which may be good for profits is usually bad for planet.

As a former corporate CFO who has done a fair amount of consulting for the World Bank, the UN and others, I am appalled at the lack of 'management' expertise in development, and especially the incredibly weak financial controls that are the norm. These are basics and missing from almost all development initiatives. If the money disbursed into the development system was to reach the intended (according to ProDocs) beneficiaries, development performance would be an order of magnitude better ... but too much gets diverted to unproductive activities or inappropriate use.

If resources were well used there could be rapid progress out of poverty. In my view this cannot be done using the Adam Smith market economy direct investment model, nor can it be done using the top-heavy ODA project model, nor the short duration NGO not-for-profit charity model. Small business at the local and community level that engages in activities that satisfy community needs is a way to go ... with resources invested into these organizations on social impact criteria, and TA available to help make them work.

There are a lot of people that want development to work. There are also a lot of people feeding at the 'development trough' with a vested interest in the dysfunctional status quo. A good system of metrics would start to sort this out ... sometimes called accountability ... sometimes called transparency. I tend to look for something I call accounting and performance reporting ... something that takes into account both money and value.

Peter Burgess TrueValueMetrics
Peter Burgess

Does technical assistance need a makeover? ... Inserting foreign advisers into governments is more about facilitating a donor project than resolving broader problems within the public sector. Is it time for a change?


A new model of technical assistance can bring people together to identify constraints and design solutions. Photograph: Corbis

Give a government ministry in a fragile state or low-income country a good shake and a pile of externally-financed advisers are likely to crawl out of the woodwork. They will have wide-ranging titles and responsibilities, from advising governments on macroeconomic management to designing gender-sensitive education policies, and be funded by a range of donors. Yet technical assistance (TA) is a blurry and contested form of development assistance; the development sector is far from having a common theory about how these advisers affect change in developing countries and what they can realistically hope to achieve.

Recent research into how aid can become more effective at helping governments to deliver public services in developing countries offers some new insights on TA's contribution to development. ODI's Unblocking results report argues that, for aid to make a meaningful contribution to institutional change, development organisations should 'act as coaches and brokers and use their 'outsider status' to encourage stakeholders to meet, discuss and resolve common problems'. While a recent paper by researcher David Booth explores what he coins 'an arms-length approach to aid', referring to organisations that operate at a distance from their funders and have the flexibility to shape their interventions based on the demands of recipient governments.

To understand what these new theories of TA imply, let's start with a stylised account of the 'old' TA model. In its original guise, TA is intended to be what it says on the box: advice on a specialised subject to inform policymaking. High-level, donor funded experts advise developing country governments on technocratic issues, drawing on international best practice. The adviser's job is to ensure sound policy; the government's role is to adapt and implement it.

The 'new' TA models turn this on its head. Recent research suggests that technical knowledge is often not the binding constraint to development, but rather the lack of good governance which inhibits public-service delivery. Furthermore, 'best practice' is increasingly seen as a dirty term in development circles, seen as inferring one-size fit all reforms that pay little attention to local realities. Effective institutional reform must build on local practices and is therefore best designed by domestic actors, but reform is often hindered by problems that stop stakeholders from coming together to identify, and implement, solutions.

By acting as brokers and coaches, organisations that adopt this new model can bring people together to identify constraints, and design solutions. These TA providers are not in the business of developing the ideal policy framework, but rather to find ways, together with local counterparts, to make the existing framework deliver public services, however imperfectly.

In practice, of course, the 'old' model is not rigidly applied and the 'new' model doesn't negate the value of specialised technical advice when the time and place is right. Development organisations have a long tradition of inserting consultants into government structures to move things along, be it through project implementation units or in the guise of 'technical advisers'. But this has often been done on the sly and for the explicit purpose of facilitating a donor project rather than to resolve broader problems within the public sector.

I argue in my research that this style of support should be welcomed as a legitimate way for development agencies to support recipient governments, where government demand for it exists. External actors can play a useful role in helping governments resolve governance constraints, if they take their steer from – and answer to – local actors, rather than pursuing a pre-established policy agenda.

A number of development organisations are already operating according to this logic. In Sierra Leone the Africa Governance Initiative, at the invitation of the president, works with the office of the president to manage a process for tracking and resolving problems to high-priority government projects.

In Tanzania, the SNV coaches local government counsellors to understand their roles and responsibilities in holding the executive to account and works with them to elaborate plans for how they will undertake these duties.

This new style of TA does have implications for how donor agencies operate. First, technical assistance providers must be given sufficient flexibility to roll with the political waves by seizing opportunities when they occur and stepping back when the timing is not right. This requires a new approach to logical frameworks and contracts, one that allows TA providers to be judged by how well they manage a given situation rather than their delivery against pre-determined outputs or outcomes.

Secondly, donors need to recognise that soft skills matter. An ability to build trust with counterparts, communicate effectively and network are critical to an adviser's effectiveness, particularly in contexts where government officials don't have the time and space to interpret and apply technical advice. These types of skills are hard to identify from CVs alone, and make the procurement of TA difficult. Procurement regulations need to give greater discretion to country-based staff to select consultants that they think are a good fit for the job, place more emphasis on soft skills and country knowledge and, crucially, give the recipient government greater say in the selection process.

The biggest challenge posed by this new TA model is that it is non-formulaic. It follows demand and opportunity rather than need, and its outcomes are highly uncertain and difficult to measure. This requires a re-think of our approach to development assistance. Both TA providers and donor agencies must be given the discretion to determine when and how to engage, and how to judge performance.


Rebecca Simson is a research officer at the Centre for aid and public expenditure, Overseas Development Institute

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Open a pdf 'Finding solutions: making sense of the politics of service delivery' by Daniel Harris and Leni Wild

Open a pdf 'Facilitating Development ... An arm’s length approach to aid' by David Booth

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