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.

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The Three Worlds of an Aid Worker in Lagos

by Jeffrey Barnes, veteran aid worker I start my day in World One, the world of international flights, business class lounges, laptop computers, four star hotels and Internet. Although power in the country is expensive and infrequent, the hotel management has installed stand up air conditioners in all the public spaces, including the hallways, to ensure that the temperature is always low enough so that clients with three piece suits are comfortable. The hotel generator run constantly to maintain the chill, but this is only noticeable to clients when they smell the diesel fumes in the parking lot

After breakfast, my driver is waiting for me and drives out into the midst of World Two, the bustle and struggle of the city streets. Our trip to my meeting can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. We have allotted one hour. I admire the nerves of my driver as I watch him navigate around the potholes, the taxis, the bikes and the pedestrians who jump in front of us. The hawkers congregate at the traffic choke points to sell—kitchen appliances, toilet seats, bootleg CD’s, fresh fruit, clothes, plumbing, tool sets, furniture, toys, rugs and more. The guys selling cellphone recharges are everywhere, with their long strings of cards. My driver needs a recharge, but first insists that the seller open the recharge and enter the code. It works, but the additional time reminds me of costs of doing business in a low trust environment. “Low trust environment” is development jargon for “everyone for himself” that is the core principle of World Two.

I notice a huge cloud of black smoke in a nearby residential neighborhood. I ask my driver what he thinks it is. He hadn’t noticed it. Later, I hear that the fire was caused by the explosion of an oil tanker that shouldn’t have been in a residential neighborhood. Several deaths, homes destroyed. Apparently tanker explosions don’t merit special attention when you are working the streets of World Two.

Surprisingly close to our one hour estimate we arrive at our destination in World Three—a large ministry of the state government. Although it takes a while to attract the attention of the receptionist who is busy reading her newspaper, my obvious status as a foreigner gives me rapid access to World Three and she directs us to our destination without questioning our purpose or demanding any credentials.

The elevators are not functioning and apparently haven’t been for some time. As we walk up the seven flights of stairs to our destination, I notice that the walls are amply decorated with posters for every conceivable campaign, every vertical program, every pet donor cause—World AIDS day, Roll Back Malaria, Campaign for expanded vaccination, Women’s Day, World Effort against TB, Millennium Development Goals, World Population Day, etc.

When we arrive at our destination, our contact is not there and her secretary seems uniformed of our arrival, in spite of repeated calls to set up and confirm the appointment. When our contact finally arrives forty-five minutes later, she greets us warmly and we discuss the conference we attended together. We discuss another team building exercise for her and her staff. Our conversation is filled with development buzz words, “capacity building”, “leadership development”, “public private partnerships”. Ultimately, the deal we are discussing is about helping the ministry with their internal processes. I wonder what difference it will make to those people working the streets in World Two.

After the meeting, we plunge back into World Two. The traffic has become even more chaotic. Enterprising drivers have added two more lanes by driving on the sidewalk, but the four lanes still have to merge into one as we access the other road, so traffic has slowed to a crawl. A tall man wearing a dirty white boubou limps over to me. He thrusts out both his arms in my direction. His left arm is amputated below the elbow and his right hand is extended in anticipation of my charity. I have no change, and I don’t dare reach for my wallet while we are stuck in traffic with the windows open. I gesture with empty hands and apologize for not being able to help him out. Instead of moving onto the next car as the others have done, he glares at me and thrusts out his arms again. His eyes speak to me: “Don’t you see I am an amputee? Didn’t you come here to help people like me? Why don’t you build my capacity to eat a decent meal? When is World Amputee Day?”

I have no answers. The car finally lurches forward. I am thankful to escape back to World One, but the questions remain. Why are these three worlds so disconnected? Can we international travelers of World One really make the comfortable bureaucrats of World Three more responsive to the struggling masses of World Two? Or are we just making them even less accountable?

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