Dr Duncan Green is, for my money, one of the most lucid and outward-facing figures currently working, in the UK at least, in the aid and development sector. The sector is often rather insular; Dr Green, by contrast, writes with regularity for The Guardian, and also maintains a well-read and engaging blog, From Poverty to Power, detailing his thoughts and hosting those of other development professionals. Currently Oxfam’s Senior Strategy Advisor, he was previously their Head of Research; before that, he was a Senior Policy Advisor for the UK Government’s Department for International Development, and alongside his commitments for Oxfam he is also now a Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics.
I encountered Dr Green while working as an intern for Oxford University Press. I was based in their Global Change Management Office; he had written a book, published with OUP, entitled How Change Happens. Interested in the development sector –and also hoping for guidance in my change management role— I took it out of the OUP library and found it, somewhat surprisingly after previous experiences with turgid, acronym-packed development tomes, a clear and even enjoyable read. Notably, it very explicitly sets out a description of change which is focused upon networks, systems, and their actors, acknowledging the chaos of development and indeed almost anything, but proposing that we accept this and try to work in a way that doesn’t presume an illusorily packet-mix version of reality.
We’ll get back to that. Dr Green himself, his opinion now sought after on development, did not in fact begin in the field or intend to enter into it: he studied physics at university, and afterwards “sort of wandered around Latin America”, he says, where he “got enraged by the politics [present] at that time.” His anger was turned to action: first as “a human rights activist; then I became a journalist, and then I became a publisher; and then at the age of forty I went into the development and aid business, or sector, and worked on— mainly on advocacy, which is trying to influence government policy, private sector, trying to influence the actions of bigger players.”
I note that this is a rather peripatetic career. He agrees, but suggests that it indicates that the development sector is – good news for the many at St Andrews keen to enter it— far from inaccessible. He points out, firstly, the importance of advocacy: it’s “a sort of growing area in the aid and development sector”, “born of a realisation that there’s no point having nice little islands of project success if the big political and economic currents are going in the opposite direction”; and secondly, observes that it’s –relatively— easy to get into: you can enter it “as a campaigner, as a sort of lobbyist, or as any combination of the two”. He himself was able to enter it off the back of his work as a journalist, having ‘a) proved that I could write, and in a way that people find vaguely intelligible’, and b) ‘acquired the ability to synthesise complex issues into reasonably clear language’.
His description of his work in advocacy, trying to ensure that development projects were not occurring as ‘islands’ insulated from the ‘big political and economic currents’, leads neatly onto his thoughts on systems, and their impact on the future of development. He suggests that the wider socio-economic climbs of countries historically recipients of aid will mean that ‘traditional development’ –focusing, often, on getting people and things out to the target locales— will have to adapt to a burgeoning middle class. With ‘rising levels of qualification, rising skill levels’, he notes, in lots of nations, those wishing to enter the development sector need to consider which skills ‘would still be useful’. ‘If,’ for instance, ‘you’re comparing an engineer from Britain with an engineer trained in Kenya, the Kenyan engineer will have local language, local knowledge, and be far better, at being an engineer in Kenya, than your British engineer would.’
There will still be ‘very nasty, messy places,’ he agrees, ‘fragile and complex defective states, where the aid business will carry on in some sense’; but otherwise, ‘it’s much more likely to be a post-aid kind of relationship’ of shared knowledge, transmitted through communications channels, rather than shared physical resources or manpower. For instance, a development strategist might say: ‘‘Mexico has a problem with obesity, and so do we; so how do we exchange views on that?’ Or— road traffic is a major killer in developing countries, it kills three times more people than malaria. So how do we broker conversations about road traffic safety, road safety? So there you’re in a situation where it’s not a development issue, it’s a shared issue’, an equal exchange of knowledge rather than an injection of information into a society from outside. This being the case, and quite possibly the future of long-term aid, the prospective professional must ask themselves what the skills are that would ‘make you useful in encouraging the exchange of knowledge and ideas: and it’s about emotional intelligence, whether you can meet people across cultures and have conversations… It’s a whole different set of skills to an Indiana Jones-type engineer saying ‘well, I’ll go and drill holes and save lives!’’
In this vision of the development future, a far higher number of issues are going to be shared. ‘We’re going to have to stop pretending that there’s a North and a South,’ he says, ‘and start thinking much more about how countries come to cooperate to tackle shared problems— and then that’s at a national level’: ‘at a global level even more so: climate change, tax evasion, the arms trade, nuclear weapons; there’s a whole bunch of areas where there will be collective action problems’ requiring a coherent approach to tackle them ‘in terms of global campaigning and so on; there will be national problems which may well be shared and rely on exchange; and then there will be a small number of traditional development problems such as poverty and violence and fragile conflict states where the traditional aid business will still have a role.’
Knowing how to solve these ‘shared’ problem areas, and what information needs to be distributed in order for responses to be formulated and effectively implemented, is self-evidently vital to this effort— as, too, is making sure that the knowledge doesn’t stay within development circles, and that ‘the right people are looking at it. Ie.,’ he says wryly, ‘not us.’ Knowing what is needed to solve a given problem requires, he explains, ‘soft eyes’, drawing on a summary given in The Wire. He describes it in his book: ‘Bunk, a dissolute but brilliant detective, advises a new recruit that the key to success is learning to spot the important clues that lie in your peripheral vision or that you weren’t looking for.’
Often, those clues are standing in plain sight, located not on the periphery of society, say, or a particular village, but on the edge of a graph. This is the work of the field of Positive Deviance, an approach that Green wishes would be better embraced: ‘this has been a really, a pioneering piece of work which has failed to catch on— it hasn’t caught fire.’ First codified in Vietnam by Jerry and Monique Sternin, then working there for Save the Children, it proposes –in a wholly common-sense manner— that a good way to go about improving something is to see how it is done better by others in the same situation. In the case of the Sternins, this was a matter of looking at rural Vietnamese families in an effort to understand why some children were malnourished while others, in the same region, same village, and even same street, were healthy.
The Sternins noticed in their investigations that the mothers of poor but well-fed children carried out a number of easy tasks, such as feeding them easily-accessible shrimp from the rice paddies, which had enormous results. They published these findings as a poster nailed to a board in the village square, and soon the methods were adopted, with enormous impact, by others. Green notes, however, that the crucial part in this is that the information was given to the communities by those also in the community: it was ‘home-grown’. Positive Deviance takes as its starting point the maxim ‘look for outliers who succeed against the odds’; the discoveries of the outliers and their methods, however, must ultimately be made by the communities themselves, rather than taken away and repackaged by external ‘experts’ before being reintroduced, if they are to be embraced and utilised fully.
Getting that information from those who have it to those who need it is thus a key part of the future of development. As a methodology, however, it runs up against accepted process within the sector. Green suggests that this is the result of both cultural and structural problems. ‘There’s a culture,’ he observes, ‘of being allergic to failure, which actually prevents you from being innovative, and learning faster. There are some real, I think, structural problems in the way aid thinks: it wants zero tolerance for failure, zero tolerance for corruption, everything to be working from day one,’ but with this risk-averse mentality, opportunities are lost. ‘It’s a bit like Keynes talking about the financial markets: you’re not punished for failing in the same way as everybody else, you’re only punished for failing differently. So you just do what everybody else is doing, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine; everybody else is doing it, so it’s ok.’ This mentality prevents new approaches, particularly multiple new approaches at once, from being taken— and therefore makes it hard to ensure that the most effective strategies are used.
Much of this, he suggests, rests with donors, although he is quick to note that some –the Australian Government, for instance— are better than most. A short-termist mindset, he admits, is prominent in the sector: securing funding for long-term projects is extremely difficult. Even more difficult is securing funding for projects which run multiple miniature programmes at once, expecting the majority to fail but one, by a process he likens to natural selection, to work as a tailored response to the problems of the region. He mentions a ‘fantastic project happening in Tanzania, which is the ultimate parable of this kind: a ‘genius project officer, who didn’t quite know what to do when given some money to work on governance, set up eight parallel experiments, and sat down with the communities concerned after nine months, and said ‘this one’s working best, let’s put the money in that.’ And that’s so much more efficient than doing one thing, and then one thing, and then one thing, until they all fail. But I’ve only ever seen that one example because it’s very difficult to get funding for something that’s acknowledging that seven out of eight projects will fail.’
The reason for this, he says, is that same cultural and structural failure of mentality within the sector: a mentality, he writes in How Change Happens, which assumes that events occur linearly. He illustrates this with a metaphor of a cake. You make your cake by choosing a recipe and following it in the intended and expected stages; even if you don’t follow the recipe particularly well, you’ll get a cake out at the end, and you can probably eat it. Development professionals and organisations, similarly, ‘decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.’ The trouble is, though, that ‘real life rarely bakes like a cake’. Instead, it’s quite simply messy: development, part of real life rather than encountered only in neat books, is far more like raising a child, responding to the multitudinous alterations in situation, than it is like baking a cake.
What, then, are the necessary attributes for the successful modern development professional? For a more full answer, I urge that you read his book: wonderfully, it’s available through open access. In our conversation, however, he emphasises several qualities. ‘Curiosity and humility are two of the most important— curiosity about lateral vision and the things you haven’t spotted before, and being open to learning about those rather than just tired when some new information comes up; and humility about recognising that however much you know, you can only know a tiny part. So you’re always aware of the limits to your knowledge, either about the future or the present or the past. And therefore, how do you get around that— by talking to other people, by involving them in your process, especially people from different walks of life, with different knowledge bases, and just— be comfortable in the fog; you’re always going to be in a fog, and it’s not like if you try really hard you can get rid of the fog; fog is essentially par for the course, and you’ve just got to get used to driving in the fog.’ It’s not like you’re baking a cake, after all.