Re: International Development


We had to raise overhead to 12% to save the village.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:00 AM
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Thanks Heebie!

Posted by: rottenindenmark | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:05 AM
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Doesn't that just show regression to the mean? Why is this a development-specific problem?

Not that I'm not 100% behind "overhead ratios are uninfornative."

Posted by: Benquo | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:07 AM
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A big problem (noted in this article and elsewhere) is that people in very poor countries tend to be petty, venal, corrupt, conservative, short-sighted, selfish, ignorant, bigoted and vicious - or, to put it another way, people - and that even in the very worst situation it is not easy to design an intervention that will make everyone better off and won't affect existing balances of power at all, and being one step above the bottom makes you absolutely focussed on holding on to every scrap of advantage you have over the people on the step below you.

Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:09 AM
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OK, having now actually read the article, I agree that it's pretty awesome.

It seems like the basic gist is that we should do more testing, especially of big interventions following up on small trials, and I completely agree. Testing interventions to see if they actually work is one of the highest impact philanthropic activities out there right now.

Posted by: Benquo | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:15 AM
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The thing I found puzzling about this article was...well, I guess it's something I've always found puzzling about nonprofits. Like, it would never occur to me to be all "huh, this one thing seems to work in this place, let's scale it up next year to five hundred locations". That just seems so bizarrely counterintuitive and risk-ignoring that I have real difficultly understanding why intelligent people seem to do it again and again. And this isn't a new critique; it's the same critique that I got in a course I took about international development back in 1994 when I was a mere slip of a thing.

Posted by: Frowner | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:26 AM
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That's an excellent piece.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:29 AM
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6: Hubris. Not that many people have it, but the ones that do tend to make big messes. Also sometimes genuinely great achievments ,but more often big messes.

Posted by: peep | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:30 AM
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6: too much money looking for places to go... the article makes the point about how grant-giving organisations prefer this sort of thing to "we did it last year in one school and it worked, so this year we are going to do it in.... two schools!"

Posted by: ajay | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:31 AM
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4 is good.

Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:50 AM
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Well, the need is great, and people are suffering now, and there's money available now, so do you try more small experiments and wait until more evidence comes in, or do you try and fix things based on the available evidence?

Posted by: Benquo | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:52 AM
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I think "wait and learn more" is likely right, but not very impressive or charitable-seeming when looked at from the outside; you need nerves of steel to take that approach. Or enough friends who get it.

Posted by: Benquo | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:53 AM
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It's also expensive, and expensive as overhead -- I get the impression you do 'learning more' by, at least partially, paying developed-country researchers to learn about conditions in each specific location. It might be the right thing to do, but "We need to spend most of the money we've raised to help poor people on salaries for people with degrees from developed-country universities," is going to be a disturbing position to take.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 10:58 AM
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do you try and fix things based on the available evidence?

Isn't this the "we need to do something, and this is something, so let's do it" approach?

Posted by: nosflow | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 11:12 AM
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6: too much money looking for places to go

It's also the fetishization of running everything like a business. That running a lot of nonprofit and govt. endeavors like a business is a terrible idea never seems to get in the way.

Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 11:19 AM
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15: Agreed. Plus, people expect problems to be "solved" instead of muddled through or other options that are as good as you are going to get given the human condition.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 11:24 AM
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Reiterating 6 basically, but look at it from a donor's point of view. There are endless conference rooms with someone articulate and possibly well-intentioned suggesting something to be done with convincing slides. Some of them are like the Red Cross, preferring to drive visible trucks around over helping people, some are worse (ie, donated funds just disappear), others will really try to help.

Once a donor finds one of the latter, I think there's temptation to say "more of that!" without asking further questions.

Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 11:29 AM
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I just read the linked article and it is very good. Thanks for posting it.

Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 12:28 PM
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A problem we are seeing down here in Tropical Archipelago is that, there are all these development projects but the money that gets spent all goes to Booz Allen or Microsoft, instead of going into the pockets of local people. Turns out, when you get your money from the World Bank, the World Bank expects you have open procurement, without showing any favoritism to the local guy. Which is good for fairness in contracting, reducing corruption, and, in the short term, for keeping costs down.

But it also undermines government's traditional role of being a customer that can support local businesses and help them mature as an industry. Instead, local industry can't get these contracts to help them develop the skills they need, and so they remain in the position where they can't compete with big North American consultants. And, when those consultants leave the island, the expertise needed to keep the systems running leave with them.

Posted by: Rutherford B. Hayes | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 1:52 PM
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More to 15: specifically the get-exponentially-big-or-die, startup-type business that's overrepresented even in business ideology. As opposed to `lifestyle' businesses that keep a family comfortable for a lifetime, or ... I forget the nickname for getting bigger arithmetically, as it were, by re-investing actual profits.

Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 3:38 PM
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the get-exponentially-big-or-die, startup-type business that's overrepresented even in business ideology.

An actual thing: If you are a highly indebted developing country, the World Bank will be happy to lend you the money to build a Y Combinator-style business accelerator so you can create your own get-exponentially-big-or-die startup ecosystem. It can be just like Silicon Valley, except featuring participants with higher levels of economic vulnerability and more usurious equity conditions on the part of the venture capitalists.

What better way could there be to employ your country's very limited pool of technology talent? They can develop apps! Everybody loves apps, right? Maybe one of them will be the next Facebook!

Posted by: Rutherford B. Hayes | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 5:34 PM
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4, 15, and 20 get it right, with the additional note that it's less nonprofits, in my experience, than donors.

I have spent half my life (!!) dealing with philanthropy, and it is my deeply considered opinion that grantmaking both a) selects for people who are susceptible to simplistic thinking, and b) reinforces those tendencies among its practitioners after they arrive in the field.

Relatedly, I honestly don't know what it is about wealth that seems to make people disproportionately less likely to be good critical thinkers. I wonder if it is because wealthy people don't have their beliefs questioned very much.

Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 6:52 PM
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Nah, most people of any kind aren't good critical thinkers. Rich or poor.

Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 7:02 PM
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20: bootstrapping.

Posted by: Josh | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 7:30 PM
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soon, an R package.

Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 7:52 PM
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13: I suppose metacharity is even harder to evaluate than charity.

Posted by: Benquo | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 7:54 PM
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25: bootstrap is already an R package.

Posted by: Turgid Jacobian | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 8:11 PM
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The great economist Albert Hirschman, best-known for Exit, Voice and Loyalty and The Rhetoric of Reaction, or perhaps for his role with Varian Fry in helping so many people escape from occupied Europe, probably wrote more about development projects than any other subject. These books from the 50s through the 70s, and the graceful essays revisiting his subjects which he wrote over the last few decades tell the same story as the OP and our comments.

The knowledge is there, and has been there for a long time.

Posted by: idp | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 8:57 PM
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Bootstrapping is one of the things R is known for doing well.

Posted by: Moby Hick | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:05 PM
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27, 29: but only for stats, not for states.

Posted by: clew | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:13 PM
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My own experiences earnestly fundraising for a worthy cause as a board member are drearily consistent with the observations in the article. Particularly the truly mindless chasing after the latest pseudo-corporate speak description of the latest fashionable silver bullet.

A particularly nauseous character is the consultant with "radical" or "authentic grassroots" credentials who has a certain facility with the suck up speak that works with the current crop of donors and whose retention is seen as an essential signal of "seriousness" bon the part of the nonprofit, even though he/she/they contribute little of substance compared to the (astonishingly underpaid) regular staff. And to cap it all off, while I work my ass off for a nonprofit as a board member, at heart I can see no earthly reason our organization exists outside the publicly funded educational system except that in the US we have such a wretchedly dysfunctional relationship with public education.

At least in the direct service I do (for a different organization), there is a legitimate reason for what I do to be done by a volunteer rather than a paid staff member.

Posted by: gracefully presidential | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:19 PM
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The article in the OP is indeed very good. I'm always interested in discussion of international development because there are a lot of similarities with the work I do in rural Alaska (as well as a lot of differences, of course).

Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 11-21-14 9:32 PM
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Wow, that was a very well written article and a fun read. And he identifies a lot of problems endemic to international development (the researcher / practitioner divide, perverse incentives all over the shop, counterintuitive fundraising strategies, different priorities between donors and NGOs vs beneficiaries, etc). However - and this might relate to the "rich people's pet projects" approach of US philanthropy - he misses out a lot of ideas that have been around for a while in the development community:

MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning). He seems to bring up a lot of initiatives that don't have this. Donors will pay you for this, and big UK donors will send you on courses to make sure you understand it as soon as youve been longlisted for funding. Larger NGOs and larger projects should have MEL specialists. These are the people that help to plan the project so that they can then collect the evidence he's asking about. And, just like in science, you're supposed to know what you want to happen beforehand and then check whether it did during / after. Of course, you could argue that development is sociology done in very difficult conditions and that sociology is far from an exact science itself. Still, if you're realistic about meaningful things that you have the capacity to measure, you can work out whether your project seems likely to have done what it was supposed to.

Participatory approaches. A lot of fairly ugly, borderline neocolonialist projects identified in the article. This isnt what NGOs should be doing these days. Fashionable happy-clappy muesli-eating NGOs should be doing things like participatory appraisal to understand what beneficiary communities actually want, then delivering those things. And - just like participatory appraches in education - some responsibility for project success needs to be put on communities, too. This can be a harder sell to donors ("Dude! We dont know how many latrines will get built for your money! We're just motivating the community to do it and explaining how to build them") but OTOH more and more donors look for this.

I thought his point about overhead was intriguing, but the place he worked sounds completely insane and mismanaged, or he's exaggerating. You really couldnt have an excel spreadsheet with fundraising leads on it shared between offices?? You have donors that wont accept any running costs at all in their projects budgets, even on a nod and a wink? (OK, these exist, but theyre the exception rather than the norm.) And one way around the problem of overhead is... MEL. The personalised report card he's talking about (is the soup nutritious / have we delivered it to enough recipients / did they have {outcome}) is something you write yourself, before you apply for funding, then you do specific, low cost, preplanned activities that answer those questions for you as part of the project activities. It's not the same as a number that donors can use to compare different charities working in different areas, but in my experience theyre not looking at your overhead anyway - if theyre the lazy kind of donor, theyre looking at your project's cost / beneficiary.

Ultimately, his final point is the best one. If you work in international development, you're working either on a small scale with relatively few people, or a 'large' scale with all the sketchiness about monitoring and outcomes that he identifies. Either way, if you really wanted to make a difference, you should have focused on being someone who gets photographed shaking hands with other world leaders at G20 summits. Those are the people who turn the taps on and off.

Posted by: First person, person who lives here, after person, at first (9) | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 2:42 AM
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Presidential because I was tempted to go into more detail about how to fund overheads without compromising the 10% number, before I realised that the management of his former employer probably wasn't reading this thread.

And I've just realised that UPETGI and I have the same solution.

Posted by: First person, person who lives here, after person, at first (9) | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 2:56 AM
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I can't decipher your name, FPPWLHAPAF. Hint?

Posted by: Eggplant | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 9:32 AM
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I was guessing "person who lives here" is 'resident' and that somehow this is encoding that the comment is presidential, but 'president' is already nine letters and I don't understand how all the other clues would amount to the single letter 'p'.

Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 10:18 AM
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Working backwards, I think it's just supposed to mean "president".

"First person" = leader
"Person who lives here" = resident
"after person, at first" = put the word "resident" after the first letter in the word "person"

Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 10:33 AM
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I am unaware of all cryptic crossword traditions.

Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 10:40 AM
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The Guardian has a beginner guide, some example clues with solutions (the majority of which are a little more advanced and dont necessarily conform to the "definition - subsidiary indicator / subsidiary indicator - definition" structure described in the first article) and a whole series of articles on cryptics for beginners. They also have a free searchable database of crosswords by named setters. Of their more famous setters, Paul is playful but his puzzles are relatively straightforward, and Araucaria (RIP) is nails.

The guy who wrote my first link, Sandy Balfour, also published an autobiography with a focus on crosswords: Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8), which I enjoyed when I read it.

And all of the other UK broadsheets do daily cryptic puzzles, AFAIK. The Times crossword is justly famous. Private Eye has an obscene political one.

My pseud is traditional, and Minivet's solution is correct:

First person, person who lives here, after person, at first (9)

"First person" is the definition = PRESIDENT

So "person who lives here, after person, at first" is the subsidiary indicator.

"Person who lives here" = RESIDENT, which is literally after "person, at first", or (as my second link would have it) an acrostic of "person" = P.

Posted by: First person, person who lives here, after person, at first (9) | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 11:48 AM
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So, this isn't a development thing exactly, but when there's a huge disaster, the organization I generally feel most comfortable donating to is Episcopal Relief and Development. And not because it's a Christian group. When there's a disaster, they work with the churches on the ground who know their communities.

They do, however, do development work. From their website:

Instead of imposing "one-size-fits-all" solutions, we support unique, local long-term initiatives that address the effects of poverty, disaster and disease. Through our Asset-Based Community Development methodology, we work with communities to recognize their existing skills, gifts and resources. Thus, we empower and work alongside local leaders and residents who are best equipped to identify and address the most pressing needs.

Posted by: Bostoniangirl | Link to this comment | 11-22-14 8:39 PM
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