Making Positive Deviants the New Normal

The international development sector has a history of expensive failures. Top-down planning, marginalizing local actors, transposing cookie-cutter solutions from other contexts, and short-term “band aid” solutions are all to blame for these projects’ lack of impact.

Against the backdrop of these failures, a number of projects are successfully creating real change. Even within the same systemic constraints, these projects have found ways of doing development differently and creating impact. They are positive deviants within the sector.

In October, Zack and I had a chance to take part in an event focused on those positive deviants. Hosted by the Overseas Development Institute and Harvard Kennedy School, the two-day workshop, “Doing Development Differently,” sought to build common understanding and a community of practice around a new way to engage in international development.

Learning from positive cases was central to the event. Over a dozen practitioners and policy makers presented focused case studies: seven and a half minutes, no slides, just the story. These case studies, complemented by the experience of participants, fed into broader sessions aimed at teasing out common principles.

Manifesto for “doing development differently”

In the weeks since, the conveners and participants have crafted a manifesto. It states that successful initiatives tend to follow common principles:

Reboot was happy to sign on to this manifesto because it ties so closely to how we already work. In fact, Zack presented our work on social accountability in Nigeria at the workshop, and our friend Natalia Adler from UNICEF talked about the project that we did with her team in Nicaragua. The manifesto also draws from a pioneering array of methods, experiences, and principles presented by other participants who shared their work, including the “problem-driven iterative adaptation” (PDIA) approach used by Matt Andrews and others at the Kennedy School’s Building State Capability program.

The community of practice resulting from the workshop is carrying the initiative forward. The event drew an influential group of 40 participants together, and facilitators managed to create more engaging discussions than you typically see at a policy workshop. Several people commented that they had been trying to drive change in their own institutions, and that this group finally made them feel that others were dealing with the same struggles. Oxfam’s Duncan Green called it “two mind-blowing days.” We left feeling invested in the next steps.

Challenges and next steps

However, challenges lie ahead. First, this community of practice needs to grow. We need a larger community to infiltrate more development institutions and change policies as well as mindsets. Even more importantly: We need more diverse perspectives to better articulate these principles and develop a deeper understanding of what they mean in practice. The “Doing Development Differently” workshop skewed heavily Northern, with few voices from the global South in the room. It was also dominated by donors and consultants. If that lack of diversity continues, it will impoverish our ideas and our impact.

The need for diversity relates to another challenge: incorporating power and politics into these principles. The Northern/donor perspective at the workshop led us to frame issues from the standpoint of outsiders promoting or funding reform or direct services. The resulting principles call for more agency and leadership from local conveners. However, I suspect that the needed shift in relationships is more nuanced. True success will involve different types of approaches on the part of local actors; and all of these relationships are tied up in politics and the specific individuals involved. This is a thorny set of issues.

Finally, this community needs to present something truly new, useful, and impactful. One critique raised at the workshop, and readily acknowledged by the conveners, is that all of these ideas have been floating in the development sector for some time. This community of practice may be able to offer something unique if it can solidify and operationalize these principles in various development institutions (to this end, we discussed issues like procurement and human resource policies). But institutionalizing the principles carries a risk of watering them down, as often happens when issues or approaches are “mainstreamed.” Even the logframe, that favorite punching-bag for development reformers everywhere, started as a well-intentioned effort to improve planning.

Despite the challenges, I’m optimistic about these efforts. Later this week, I’ll be in Berlin for a meeting hosted by the World Bank and Germany’s aid agency GIZ that will build on the workshop and the manifesto. The next stage involves creating more robust case studies, beyond the seven-and-a-half-minute presentations from the workshop. We’ll seek to craft a case study methodology that incorporates local perspectives and lessons—and that captures lessons about emerging practices in an actionable way.

The work of changing institutions is hard, but we’re happy to help drive these efforts forward, in theory and in practice. Ultimately, doing development differently means ensuring that the “positive deviants” become the norm.



Futher reading.