Monday, December 23, 2013

Assumption is the mother of all development...

(Ok good people, this post is long and based on ongoing inquiry into development mechanics. Given the fact that Sri Lanka's economy is aid+development driven, I thought I'd write this up a bit but apologize in advance for the rhubarb) 

The point: 


In December 2012, at the annual symposium of the Center for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and titled “Reimagining development”, Dr. Harni Amarasuriya, in her address, made one of the most significant observations on development that I have heard in recent times from anywhere in the world. Referring to log-frame analysis, she said “We discuss in particular the column that is titled ‘assumptions’ and we reflect on how the assumptions columns describe in detail the context within which development is practiced. However, the ‘logic’ of the log-frame places the assumption column outside of the project - what is listed in this column is usually regarded as those issues that may impede the successful implementation of a carefully constructed development project. In other words, the social, political, environmental and cultural processes that shape our lives are seen as ‘external factors’ beyond the control of the development project. Herein lies one of the greatest contradictions of development: while professing to be about transformation, development is also particularly uncomfortable with risk, or uncertainty. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that more than after 50 years of development, we are still debating its worth”.

She goes on to pick apart the nature of development as essentially a process through which “global and local interests converge with a sufficient level of incoherence so that multiple interests can be served” through a delightful and insightful anthropological treatment of the issue, the full text of which may be read here. I propose, through this post, to consume a few hundred words to try to start the process of unpacking the implications of her assertion from a more procedural / mechanistic standpoint.

The first, most obvious assumption made by development practitioners is in the singularity of the meaning of the word “development”.  There is, amongst them, a refusal to acknowledge the multiplicity of meanings associated with (and implied by) any set of phrases identifying a given “development project”. A determination to studiously ignore the essentially subjective nature through which different parties and players, planners and ideologues, targets and beneficiaries view the same set of actions, initiatives and objectives.  What results from such a multiplicity of attitudes and views is neither certitude, nor peace nor help for pain.  Instead, we land on a darkling plain, swept with loud alarms of struggle, fight and flight, where selectively knowledgeable armies clash by day and by night (sorry Matthew).

This is why the “assumptions” column is so important in project design. It gives the practitioner a false sense of safety from such skirmishes although they are intrinsic to the implementation process and critical to address if any semblance of success is to be achieved. Removed from the social, political, environmental and cultural attributes that background the development tapestry, it gives the practitioner an impetus to start with enthusiasm what will essentially end in catastrophe.  It lulls the practitioner into a false sense of security and calmness and, at least initially, shields her from the fact that the situational implementation of a project will quickly degenerate, disintegrating into chaos.

The possible mathematical parallels to the point: 

Towards informing us on the issue, I believe that perhaps, theoretical mathematics might provide some helpful insights.

On the one side, development practitioners might be informed by deterministic chaos theory (DCT), based on the fact that when the present determines the future, the approximate present does not determine the approximate future under certain conditions. I am not completely sure if development adheres precisely to the theoretical base of the math modeling but it is certainly interesting to note the parallels between development dynamics and chaos dynamics – both are sensitive to initial conditions, both are topologically mixing (in the case of development, via social, cultural, political and environmental metrics), and, both have periodic orbits that are dense (in the case of development, many if not all instances of a contiguous set of anthropological occurrences is approached by the involved entities over a specific period of time).   Therefore, the approximation outcomes of DCT seem applicable to development at least in a general sense.

Now, assumptions are not simply approximations. They are very large, built in errors in identifying the present and therefore, can yield wildly differentiated results from the ones intended. I surmise that the inability of development mechanics and project programming to substantially address the chaotic nature of development or, its fundamental incoherence, is one explanation for the very low global achievements of the project of development. Additionally, I surmise that if a development goal is in fact achieved it is despite of the programming and designing but rather, results simply as a chaotic outcome of a highly inexact process.

On the other hand, development practitioners can be informed by catastrophe theory. Small changes in one or more specific parameters of a non-liner system such as development (for instance the amount of funds periodically skimmed off a development project or the amount of money paid to families that lost land to it) can cause the stability or equilibrium to appear and disappear or to change from attracting to repelling and back again, causing sudden (catastrophic) changes in its behavior. Depending on the number, intensity, pervasiveness and type of phenomena that impact each exercise, any of the catastrophic models can be identified and applied to a given development project.

For example, projects can annihilate according to fold models (such as might exist when fund embezzlement reaches a critical bifurcation point), get dropped leaving residual identifiers such as land and buildings according to cusp models (such as might exist when funding has not sufficiently addressed sustainability or when the continuity of application of state/donor policies and priorities reach into a project up to a given point and no further) or more complex models such as those applicable to say the STPD project which waxed, waned, waxed again, given up on, re-initiated, complained about…finally ending up with a road that neither completely satisfied nor completely dissatisfied the many thousands of citizens who got involved in it.

It might be of note here, that the stability point of the generally catastrophic outcomes of most development projects is in the extraction of two phenomena that comes very strangely labeled as “lessons learned” and “best practices”. These are the job savers and safety nets of the industry. Commonly, from each initiative, we stabilize our feel-goodness and salvage our professional dignity from program disintegration and chaos with a very large number of lessons learned and a very small number of best practices. Development practitioners might be informed by the fact that in most human endeavors, history has shown us that very few lessons are actually learned and very few best practices have actually been replicated.

Addressing the point: 

Once the uncertainty principle of development is understood, the problem changes from an identification issue to a response issue. The denseness of the anthropological occurrences that exist in a given development situation are, at least for now, far too complex to chart to any degree of measure-based validity. However, a key requisite to at least move towards a less uncertain development environment is to integrate the “assumptions” column of log-frames directly into the programming. Instead of the classical matrix of “Goal/ purpose / output / outcome / activity / responsibility” against “description/ indicator / verification / assumptions” I propose that the entire process starts by removing the “assumptions” column.

Then,a) create a risk map of the social, cultural, political, environmental and economic parameters b) replace the “assumptions” column with an “assertions” matrix of anthropological phenomena against groupings/sectors of entities impacted by them and informed by the risk map) move that in the priority lists to a point above the log-frame. “Assertions” should be deep thought and not brought under silly little labels such as “power analysis”, “situation analysis”, “background” etc. but encompass as much of the spectrum of life parameters of the group(s) and sector(s) involved in and targeted by the project.

Next, remove goals and objectives and replace them with accomplishments (like-to-haves that are less certain) and achievements (must-haves that are more certain) both of which are informed by the assertive factors associated with as thorough a reading as possible of the social, cultural, political and environmental realities of the scope of control and scope of effect of a given development exercise.

Then, since moving from assumptions to assertions and from achievements to accomplishments is fraught with high levels of applicability of the chaos principle, for each activity, output and outcome, have a column named “reflections” which inform the project qualitatively on the fuzziness of the entire project process through language based on probabilistic logic that explicitly takes uncertainty and belief ownership into account and is based on thoughtful reasoning that understands that in development initiatives, there are no absolutes and that the truth value of an idea is simply an informed approximation based on consideration of the assertive factors.

Finally, perhaps most radically, change the name of the logical framework of action (LFA) to the estimation framework of probability (EFP).

Such a course of action would remove us from making wild claims about the behavior or outcome of a project initiative and move us from assuming things to approximating things. Chaos certainly does exist but it is not completely incoherent and the truth value of our efforts, the level of trust of those who are part of its ownership matrix and the ability to manage the vector resultants would perhaps be substantially higher.

The problem associated with addressing the point: 

Well, simply put, going in this direction would be an absolute nightmare for development practitioners not only in terms of the massive amounts of additional work/expertise/resources required for it but also in terms of inertia to change of ingrained belief systems with respect to the procedural aspects of development programming. With the classic log-frame, scoping or designing a project is relatively simple, requires very little qualified expertise and very easy to tag to results frameworks. Indeed, an entire industry has developed around MFDR (Managing for development results) which is strange given the fact that our accomplishments in the development arena are so few and so bereft of both qualitative and quantitative results as meta-research has shown us. At present, though development modeling is relatively easy, we are merely engaged in a lot of busywork with very little practical take-home for those involved.

The key resource that is at a premium for development practitioners is time. Through no fault of their own, they are always pressed to deliver strategies, plans, programs, projects – mostly by self-imposed temporal norms (funding cycles, election cycles, employment contract cycles etc.) that are unnatural cleavages, mostly short or mid-term that negatively impact efforts that require long-term “sameness of thinking” to produce results. The basic ideology of development seems to be based on “never mind what it accomplishes in the end, just make the target, process, management and M&E look good on paper. We can take heart in our MFDR, lessons learned and best practices and discuss the outcomes through a report we can table at the next annual meeting”.

This, to put it mildly, is a copout. It is a virtual comfort-zone for development practitioners that is hard to attack and has the added advantage of ensuring job security.  Additionally, this type of thinking results in risk-aversion and removes the absolutely essential requirement for reflection that can actually result in some real lessons learned (for example: “we must stop this method of trying to get development to become effective since it has failed over 40 years”) and best practices (for example: “we must insist on working with a broader, tougher, harder, sweatier set of parameters that can actually yield sustainable results).

But, no. I don’t think that people will be really interested in actually accomplishing something using a more inexact set of reference tools. I believe they will continue with the status quo until an annihilation parameter reaches its critical value with respect to the project of development. I believe we shall take comfort in the fact that we have no clue as to why that happened. I did not complete the title of this piece. I shall do so now:

Assumption is the mother of all development ef-ups.

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