Development solutions often gravitate toward the obvious: Start with a problem, and then provide the opposite. If a region has poor health outcomes, then build more clinics. Long transport times? Pave more roads. Unemployment? Job training and business capital.
While these solutions may be obvious, projects designed with this thinking often run afoul of development’s inherent complexity and uncertainty. Too often, project funds end up serving political purposes but not social outcomes, new policies get caught in existing institutional cultures, and capacity building offers little more than free meals.
Disappointed by these sorts of results, a growing set of development professionals have been advocating for a different approach, captured in the “Doing Development Differently” manifesto. It highlights the importance of focusing on locally defined problems rather than predetermined solutions, blending design and implementation in rapid iteration, and navigating political and contextual realities. Crafted at a Harvard workshop last October, the practice was further refined in April at a gathering of practitioners, researchers and activists in Manila.
While in Manila, I was able to meet with a few local reformers working with The Asia Foundation, one of the DDD event’s hosts. Under a broad approach called “development entrepreneurship,” they have made measurable progress in a number of policy areas, including education reform and property rights. Their work shows the importance of the team assembled to pursue reform.
School congestion: Changing strategies by the minute
I met the education reform team at the closest thing it has to an office: a pizza restaurant. Over lunch, the core team members and TAF staff described their work.
The team came together in mid-2012 to address poor educational outcomes in the Philippines. Its initial mandate was intentionally broad, with neither a solution chosen nor a clearly defined problem to start. Instead, it spent several months meeting with teachers, school boards, mayors, ministry officials and community members. In addition to building relationships that would be critical in later stages, these meetings helped the team narrow in on a problem to address.
After a series of hypotheses and pivots, the team focused on school congestion. This problem affects an estimated 4 million elementary and secondary students in the Philippines, with some classrooms holding over 100 students. Addressing congestion at scale would improve educational outcomes, and these months of meetings indicated that there could be a politically feasible solution.
However, congestion was poorly understood at the Department of Education, which had been viewing it through the lens of classroom allocation: When a school had a high pupil-to-classroom ratio, the department distributed funds for construction. Unfortunately, because schools in the Philippines often use donated land, many urban schools had nowhere to build.
The reform team created a new analytical framework and accompanying tool to help the government understand the problem better. The tool leverages existing data sets on pupil-to-land ratio and residential mapping of school enrollees per barangay, the local term for neighborhood. The immediate result was better identification of schools where congestion cannot be solved through classroom construction.
The team then sought ways to address congestion in these schools. In one test, it worked with a city council to redistribute students to less crowded schools. The ordinance language was carefully crafted to work around a rule that prohibits schools from turning students away. This approach is now being shared with other cities. In another test, it helped a school try to buy more land, only to find the proposal caught in the bureaucracy. The team continues to work through the congestion problem from multiple angles.
Having lunch with this team, I was constantly reminded of the DDD principles. It was tackling an education problem that was locally defined by a team of Filipino reformers working with partners at all political and managerial levels. It has pursued “small bets” to test several policy solutions and avoid getting locked into a single solution. The team uses the data already available from the government, rather than building new systems for data collection — in parallel with the way that it uses part-time consultants and meets in pizza joints, rather than establishing a permanent presence.
The team itself has evolved over time, with none of the members focused full time on education reform. Toix Cerna, a veteran activist, leads the team while also working on infrastructure and social accountability projects. Other team members include professors who bring policy expertise as well as networks with their former students, many of whom now work in the government. Finally, the team has a few former government staff. For example, creating the new analytical tool required the inside knowledge of Abram Abanil, formerly with the Department of Education’s planning office. Cerna and the rest of the team had seen Abanil’s name in a report, and then contacted him through Facebook.
This combination makes it possible to work adaptively and learn from both success and failure. Made possible with Australian aid funding through the Coalitions for Change program, this is a different way of working, even for the team members. As Cerna told Jaime Faustino, the team’s program manager from TAF, early in the project: “We’re changing strategies by the minute!” Faustino’s response was: “Yeah … Get used to it!”
Residential titles: Step-change progress
In a somewhat different venue, I met the reform team working on property rights. This team is a bit more structured, with an institutional home at the Foundation for Economic Freedom. Even still, I sat with them around a small conference table at the offices of an Internet entertainment company, which happened to be founded and run by FEF’s president, Toti Chikiamco. More than a dozen young people sat a few meters away with headphones and computers, making digital music for global markets, as we talked about the Philippines’ Residential Free Patent Act.
Insecurity of property rights is a problem around the world. Homeowners without formal titles are at greater risk of eviction or extortion. They are also unable to use their homes as collateral when accessing credit. In the Philippines, an estimated 12 million parcels (half of the total) of land are untitled.
Having seen previous donor-funded efforts attempt comprehensive land reform fail, the FEF team instead sought to build political support for a targeted reform. Before 2010, the only path to a title was through a costly and lengthy judicial procedure; only a few thousand titles were issued each year. The Residential Free Patent Act of 2010 created an administrative option that quickly boosted titling rates by an order of magnitude: Nearly 60,000 are now issued each year.
When they finally succeeded, it was through efforts that looked more like backroom lobbying than NGO advocacy. The team adapted specifics of the bill in response to the interests of individual senators, often in closed-door meetings, or working with allies to ensure the bill moved through a supportive committee. It worked opportunistically, flexibly and patiently over several years.
This adaptive approach was supported under U.S. Agency for International Development cooperative agreements through TAF. The team’s reporting was largely informal and it had no detailed work plans. At one point, the team even split in half so that it could pursue different options for the reform; an effort to create integrated titling databases in local governments was later abandoned.
As with the education reformers, FEF has a unique team. Team members proudly describe themselves as nerds who read a lot, but who also cut their teeth as student activists during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Chikiamco is a public intellectual as well as an Internet entrepreneur; his opinion columns and personal connections were both key to opening doors during the reform process. Another key team member, Erwin Tiamson, is a lawyer who previously worked at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Like Abanil on the education team, Tiamson joined the reformers with a zeal for putting his insider knowledge to use changing the system.
Following the passage of the act, the team is now focused on continued scaling of titling access. Even at 60,000 titles given per year, it would take over a century to cover the country. The team is working to enable local governments, in partnership with DENR, to provide titles. As with all reforms pursued under the “development entrepreneurship” model, the pitch to local governments focuses on self-interest: increasing titling would unlock property tax revenue and be popular with electoral constituencies. In parallel, the team is working on rules that would increase titling for schools, which also have insecure property rights.
What to draw from these examples?
These two reform teams and the development entrepreneurship approach show one form of what “doing development differently” means. Rather than taking a preplanned, linear approach to implement big solutions, these teams work incrementally toward better understanding of the problems they face and iterate solutions.
The convening agent for this sort of work must allow space for uncertain outcomes. TAF’s Faustino serves as both teams’ convener, while also coaching and providing cover. He has developed a few program management tools that serve a dual purpose of capturing the teams’ learning and, just as critically, communicating their work to donors.
Hearing these teams describe their work, it is impossible to miss the importance of their team composition. Both teams blend technical experts and political operators, mirroring the criteria that reform objectives be technically sound and politically feasible. Rather than setting a reform goal and then hiring a team to achieve it, the development entrepreneurship approach starts a general problem, assembles a team, and then lets the team identify and pursue solutions. Along the way, the teams must show a political savvy that is often overlooked when recruitment processes focus on academic credentials. One gets the sense that a slightly different team would take an entirely different path.
For decades, development thinking and practice has swung toward big plans and institutional reform projects with little acknowledgement that the staffing of those projects and savvy of the reformers are a key determinant of their success. Development entrepreneurship is not the only way to do development differently, but this emphasis on the specific people involved is a broadly applicable lesson. Assemble the right team, let them lead the way, and there is no shortage of development solutions we can create.
Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.