Big Plans vs. Real Plans

This guest post, by Jeffrey Barnes, Portfolio Manager at Abt Associates, is in response to yesterday's What must we do to end world poverty? At last, an answer. Aid Watch and other Easterly work, notably “The White Man’s Burden,” rail against the big plans of development. As this body of work rightly points out, there is a lot of paternalism involved in the Big Plans to “save” the poor. Easterly’s preferred alternative is “searching,” which at times sounds like semi-spontaneous experimentation that miraculously results in solutions to social and economic problems. Clearly, this is an exaggeration.

Top down vs. bottom up is not an either /or option.  It is a question of balance.  Top down plans made in Washington, New York and Geneva by people with little stake in or understanding of local situations are generally worthless. But bottom up approaches can also benefit from outside expertise, new technologies or external support. At some level, even searchers must plan.

Planning in the commercial world can be hugely successful.  A good business plan can mobilize a lot of capital and create significant wealth. What is it about this type of planning that can be emulated in the development world?

My experience of development planning leads me to the conclusion that there are, in fact, very few real plans in development. There are a lot of documents that are called plans, but these documents don’t really qualify as plans. A real plan describes in specific detail how the human, financial and technological resources that are under your control will be mobilized to produce a measurable result in a given time period.  This is what business plans do.  An entrepreneur (think searcher) would never begin implementing a business plan until all the financing, staff and equipment were in place.

Development plans fail to meet this definition of plans, either because the resources described in the plan are not under anyone’s control, or because the plan lacks specificity.   In the first case, development plans are better described as wish lists or advocacy documents. Think of all those national AIDS plans that describe every possible strategy against AIDS, but with the sources of financing and the implementing agencies to be determined. Such non-plans don’t serve as a guide to implementation—they are simply advocacy tools for governments to get donors to make pledges for different parts of the national wish list.   Even as one part of the plan starts, other parts of the plan remain inactive awaiting donor support. This is akin to starting a bicycle trip and hoping to find the handlebars and pedals along the way.  Little wonder that so few of these plans arrive at their intended destination.

The second kind of non-plan one sees in the development world is more accurately described as a process statement.  While financing may be in place, this kind of plan lacks specifics on who will be doing what, when and where. Most project proposals fall into this category. A proposal will name the principal staff and the stakeholders to be consulted, and it will describe the technical approaches and working principles to be adhered to (e.g. pro-poor, environmentally safe, gender equitable). But all the details of actual implementation are to be worked out later.

Eventually, such proposals might lead to some real plans, but this means that a large share of project “implementation” time is actually spent making and revising annual plans.  Sometimes, proposals lack specificity because so many of the variables (government stability, complementary activity by other groups) are outside the control of the plan’s authors. In business, plans with too many unknowns are not financed.  But in development, wishful thinking gets the better of such assessments.  Little wonder that so little is achieved in the typical project life cycle.

So please, Aid Watch, don’t give planning a bad name. Searchers use real plans, not wish lists or process statements. A real plan is made at the operational level, with little or no ambiguity about what resources are available, and who is to perform what activity at which time. If the development industry would ensure that all its plans met these criteria, it could prevent the top down processes that are so often doomed to failure.