In the last decade, luminaries in global development like Dani Rodrik, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, Francis Fukuyama, Ha-Joon Chang, Peter Evans, and Merillee Grindle have rejected one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions. Instead, in response to the persistence of failed interventions in places ranging from Bali to Afghanistan, they stress the merits of tailoring solutions to each local community's situation.
"Going local" means to account for the specific needs and particularities of a community, whether national or subnational. It also entails using local resources and knowledge in a manner that goes beyond just setting up local offices and hiring local staff.
Although going local is widely embraced in principle, it may not be carried out in practice. For global development agencies to move forward, they must first reform themselves to overcome three major obstacles: lack of knowledge about non-best-practices that work, lack of diversity, and lack of incentives.
If we fail to address these organizational constraints, calls for change risk turning into nothing more than platitudes and buzzwords that exhaust practitioners and drive away true solutions.
Reforming global development agencies is difficult, but not impossible. I propose a number of ideas to help professionals who best know their organizational constraints change the way their teams work.
But first, it's helpful to look at examples of good intentions gone wrong.
Failure to Listen
In the early 1980s, working together with the Indonesian government, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) launched the Bali Irrigation Project. Stoked by the grand vision of modernizing Bali's irrigation infrastructure, the project aimed to replace ancient subaks—a system of water temples and terraced rice fields that had been autonomously managed by local farmers for centuries—with a high-tech, centralized network of canals. It intended to "provide employment," "reduce rural poverty," and "strengthen institutional capability." Increased rice production and exports, planners expected, should adequately offset the projected cost of US$108.9 million.
The farmers weren't resisting modern technology; the new, expensive devices made it impossible for them to schedule water distribution among themselves, which they had done for centuries through temples and religious rituals. From there, the situation worsened. Encouraged by policymakers and experts, the Balinese farmers bought "technology packets"—pesticides and fertilizers—on credit. Whereas the traditional subaks provided natural fertilization and pest control, the technology packets increased the resistance of rice crops to pesticides. The destructive insects' populations exploded. Excess fertilizers flowed from the paddies to the river, clogging the coastline with damaging levels of nitrogen and algae growth.
In his book Perfect Order, Lansing recollects his failed attempts at persuading foreign consultants to recognize the cooperative and ecological functions of subaks:
"Whenever possible I have seized the opportunity to invite them [consultants] to visit a water temple and talk with the farmers directly. This never worked out quite as I hoped. … The views of the farmers, and indeed all the particularities of the Balinese case, are largely irrelevant to this task. When I returned the consultants to their hotels, the image that often came to mind was that of a team of specialists vigorously treating a patient for what might prove to be the wrong disease. Why, I wondered, do the consultants believe that the details don't matter?"
This tragedy is a sobering reminder of a long-standing problem in global development assistance: Interventions that try to help local communities often end up hurting them. Failures similar to those in Bali have occurred all over the world, from ineffective humanitarian efforts in Haiti to damaging resettlement projects in Afghanistan. Why?
One answer stands out, as Lansing's account underscores: The details that matter to local communities don't matter to the foreign technocrats who are tasked to help them.
Fortunately, policymakers and global development practitioners today increasingly stress the value of going local. The "Doing Development Differently" Manifesto, spearheaded by the Harvard Kennedy School, collected signatures from more than 400 professionals who pledged to uphold principles of "solving local problems" and "working through local conveners." Under the Obama administration, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) prioritized local ownership and set the goal of distributing more funds through local sources. The United Kingdom's Department of International Development (DFID) now evaluates the performance of aid projects by their relevance to individual country contexts. "Going Local" has become nothing short of a movement in global development and even has its own hashtag: #GoingLocal.
We must confront a practical issue: how to reform development agencies internally so that practitioners want to and can effectively localize.
This is hugely encouraging, but we must confront a practical issue: how to reform development agencies internally so that practitioners want to and can effectively localize. The reality is that many organizations' evaluation criteria, incentives, training, knowledge infrastructure, and more are not set up for the mandate. Facing this situation, practitioners may pledge to do development differently in principle but do nothing differently in practice.
To shift from "Going Local 1.0"—just agreeing that we should tailor development assistance to local conditions—to "Going Local 2.0"—actually practicing it routinely—we need to examine not how international development organizations (IDO) differ from one another but how they are similar. So what do they share? They are nonprofit, hierarchically managed bureaucracies with mandates to foster development in poor countries, and their staffs are largely made up of educated professionals from wealthy democracies.
These commonalities shape the challenge of going local and "making details matter," so exploring them is a critical step.
Why Don't Details Matter?
As the story from Bali illustrates, donors and technocrats often do not understand or do not care to understand what Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramon call the "fine grain of actors and interests."
Why might that be? Or as Lansing puts it, "Why, I wondered, do the consultants believe that the details don't matter?"
For one, the details can't and won't matter to donors and aid professionals who already believe they know the solutions to problems in developing countries. The ideological tyranny of "best practices"—essentially practices found in wealthy democracies— blocks the search for local solutions. Translated into policy, the instinct is to transplant best practices from the wealthy North into the poor South, regardless of whether they fit.
Dani Rodrik sees this as a problem of hubris. As he observes, aid professionals typically enter developing contexts to prescribe, rather than to learn. Urging humility, Rodrik writes, "We can be far more useful when we display greater self-awareness of our shortcomings."
West Is Not Always Best
On top of hubris, I highlight a different problem: By insisting on one universal standard of good governance, practitioners become blind to numerous possible solutions in developing communities.
For decades, influential development organizations have benchmarked the quality of governance worldwide by a single standard — that of wealthy Western democracies. The World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) is a prime example. It assigns a single governance score to each country, with countries like Denmark and the United Kingdom predictably scoring the highest, while poor countries always rank bottom. This measurement reinforces the assumption that Western forms of governance are the universal best, and all other aberrations are deficiencies, rather than qualitative differences.
As Victoria Hui aptly expresses, citing historian Bin Wong 's research, "When we take the European experience as the norm and non-Western experiences as abnormal, we are led to search for what went wrong in other parts of the world." This is exactly the logic seen in the Balinese case. As subaks did not fit Western-modern models of irrigation, they were perceived as a backward anomaly to be removed, rather than a local resource to be used.
The effect of normative blinders is illustrated by another example: the Integrated Diamond Management Program, spearheaded by USAID in Sierra Leone in 2005. The program aimed to liberate diamond miners from exploitation by mine owners — referred to as "supporters" by local communities — by helping the miners form cooperatives, a measure that USAID believed would help peace. In the end, the initiative barely produced any revenue and shut down after only one season. A cause of failure, according to Estelle Levin and Ansumana Turay, was that "the project assumed that supporters are the problem and should be eradicated. ... It did not understand diggers' dependence on their patrons or the level of trust between them."
When we view governance in binary terms—either you're like a wealthy democracy or something's wrong with you—then existing traditions and practices in non-wealthy-democracies are seen as obstacles to development, be it Balinese subaks, patronage ties in Sierra Leone, or nomadic practices in Afghanistan. Yet, as I argued elsewhere, normatively weak institutions in poor countries may provide the best available resources for kick-starting development, as compellingly illustrated by China, which revolutionized its economy without first establishing conventional best practices.
Too Much of the Same Expertise
The failure to make details matter also occurs when technocrats share similar training and backgrounds—and hence similar assumptions and blind spots.
Although international development organizations (IDOs) come in many varieties, leading organizations like the World Bank are traditionally dominated by economists. As Catherine Weaver describes the bank's Young Professionals Program: "These prestigious slots have until recently been reserved for those with advanced degrees in economics and finance." Citing another study, she estimated the ratio of economists to non-economists on the bank's staff at 10 to one. "Moreover, these economists tend to share the same theoretical and methodological training," she adds.
When causal inference is the holy grail of econometric rigor, we can expect economists to focus on statistical techniques for isolating the causal effects of an intervention on rice production. But how a traditional subak system functions? Or how Balinese farmers cooperate through religious rituals? These details generally don't matter to this particular group of professionals. Yes, economists are essential to development work, but their value decreases as more and more individuals with similar expertise join the same team — consistent with the law of diminishing returns.
Straitjacket of Metrics
Thirdly, "details don't matter" if organizational deliverables constrain aid professionals, even those sympathetic to voices on the ground.
As agents in top-down bureaucracies, aid professionals are evaluated, rewarded, or penalized according to their annual key performance indicators (KPI). Unlike the private sector, where profit easily measures performance, the impact of development work is hard to quantify. Hence, development agencies favor large projects with easily marketable results or interventions whose impact can be precisely measured and proven through randomized experiments. But they have little motivation to pursue local solutions that may fit only particular communities and pose uncertain outcomes.
Practitioners also face strong pressure, from governmental bodies with oversight on their activities to philanthropists eager for results, to design projects aligned with best practices. For aid professionals, the safest defense against criticism is following best practices like everyone else. In an organizational environment where the penalties for deviating from conventions are high and the rewards of conformity are certain, practitioners need protection from the risks of failure and censure before they can seriously explore best-fit solutions.
3 Ways to Make Details Matter
Targeting the problems outlined above, I highlight three ideas that outline broad directions for reform rather than prescribe specific policies. After all, the individuals most qualified to recommend specific organizational solutions are the professionals who work in IDOs.
Getting to Going Local 2.0
My ideas echo various adaptive movements in global development, most notably Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) from Matt Andrews, Michael Woolcock, and Lant Pritchett at Harvard Kennedy School. PDIA makes a powerful impact by introducing a different set of problem-solving principles to development professionals around the world.
My take on adaptive management and localization complements PDIA by going a step further to underscore the organizational reforms that incentivize and empower practitioners to really go local and do development differently. This is the meta-challenge of adaptive development—designing institutions to alter the process of problem-solving itself, which will in turn affect every aspect of development assistance.
The application of these reforms must vary across organizations. Some may be able to hit every mark of changing measurement standards, creating new depositories of knowledge, diversifying expertise, matching different competences to different problem-solving tasks, forming experimental teams, changing evaluation criteria, permitting failures, and more. Others may not. But organizational reform must occur for global aid agencies to move beyond buzzwords and slogans and truly transition to "Going Local 2.0."