05/04/2012 11:14 am
Returning from a recent mission in Rwanda where I was involved in undertaking a scoping study for one of ISSAT’s Governing Board members, I was reflecting on the constraints of, and presumptions made in, designing programmes to support SSR. It was precipitated by a discussion with a Dutch colleague, who in the course of the conversation quoted General Colin Powell in saying that ‘hope is not a planning tool’.
It struck me that much of SSR planning is based on hopeful assumptions: of political will, capacity, the ability to change behaviour and the eventual impact of the programme. Besides the obvious tendency for people to be overly optimistic, it is worth reflecting on whether there are institutional reasons for the lack of realism in SSR programming and what the potential consequences are as a result. One reason is no doubt the risk-adverse nature of development assistance, but also the bureaucratic hoops that programmes have to jump through these days in terms of log-frames and value-for-money analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, ensuring that programmes are designed logically and ensuring clear accountability for results is important, but are we creating perverse incentives for people to build their programme on hopeful assumptions? The steady descent into programming based on hopeful assumptions is driven by funding being conditional on the quick turn around of visible results (something you can count), and by the competition for diminishing resources. Reversing this trend is not about breaking the ‘tyranny of the log-frame’, it is about arguing for us to get back to the basics in terms of good programming, accepting and managing risks associated with this work, and acknowledging the fact that institutional reforms take time. There seems to be a tendency to believe that we can manage all risks or that we should focus funding on low risk activities as a way of ensuring effective aid or value-for-money. The development community might take a lesson from the financial world, where expecting high yields from low risk endeavours could be seen as self-delusion.
Supporting the reform of security and justice institutions is a high risk endeavour, as is operating in conflict-affected countries. The international community is drawn into high risk environments due to the risk of the re-emergence or outbreak of conflict, so our benchmarks for acceptable risk need to be altered to take this into account. The potential ‘yields’ from supporting reforms to create an effective and accountability security and justice system are high, but these are long term investments which are difficult to fit into our short-term budgetary cycles. There have been certain exceptions to this where donors have accepted high levels of risk and engaged for the long term, the likes of the UK’s programme in Sierra Leone, or the Dutch SSR programme in Burundi come to mind.
Post-conflict environments are fluid and unpredictable, development programmes are influenced by national politics, personal interests and incentives. We all know this, yet planning for multi-year programmes rarely take these issues into account. For example, elections are a foreseeable event and we know the impact that elections have on the rate of programme implementation, yet we rarely integrate this into our planning, nor make adjustments for expected outputs in election years. What prevents us from integrating these issues into our planning and accepting limited (and non-linear) progress? Is it because we have become incentivised to minimise risk, and yet expect unrealistic results?
What can we do to put a realistic assessment of risks on the table? What can we do to convince donors to undertake high-risk projects and to accept that a certain number will fail? What can we do to employ a more coordinated and coherent approach that better minimises risk and failure?
Some might blame the rules and regulations of development organisations and donors for many of these woes. But let me finish with a quote from a speech from Martin Dahinden, the Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, to a gathering of senior managers from bilateral donors and multilateral actors ‘People always say that procedures or institutional barriers to cooperation prevent them from taking a more coordinated or coherent approach, but we have to remember that procedures, institutional cultures, policy and planning are created by people like us and therefore can be changed by people like us.’
Friday 01 June 2012 5:03:32 pm
A great witty title for a blog on a very serious matter. The trend towards risk avoidance in projects and programmes has led to an increasing number of 'SSR' projects retreating to the safety of simply 'train and equip'. In other parts of business, risk is seen as an opportunity to harness innovation, enable change and create value - see Christelle van Ham's work on social innovation and risk.
Elsewhere, there are hard questions being asked on, for instance, the obligations of private businesses to adhere to human rights - see the UN Human Rights Council session on this on 21 June in Geneva. It will take a while for the answers to become reality, but it is more than just hope that such reality is on its way. The question is how can we bring it to fruition more quickly?