How to remove roadblocks to more inclusive and effective development work

The government’s International Assistance Review wraps up this month. In Part Two of our recommendations for Canada’s development sector, Julian Dierkes explores how to make funding and expertise more accessible.

By: /
July 12, 2016
Marie-Claude Bibeau
In May, Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau launched the International Assistance Review (IAR), which wraps up this month. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

An International Assistance Review is a rare event. It should be used as an occasion for a comprehensive examination of goals and processes, but it is also a rare opportunity for innovation. 

In a recent contribution to this site on the International Assistance Review, which launched in May and wraps up this month, John Sinclair makes the case for enabling Canadian development assistance to engage in more partnerships and to pursue “policy coherence” more actively beyond the initial integration of CIDA into Global Affairs Canada.

Sinclair is quite right in highlighting partnerships as a new norm and in calling for better integration of international assistance into foreign policy.

But to build on his argument, I see two very significant stumbling blocks to the pursuit of partnerships and to an integration of development assistance into foreign policy: the inflexibility of Government of Canada expectations in terms of reporting, and, perhaps curiously, the professionalization of the development sector in Canada.

Convoluted reporting requirements

“Accountability” has been a worldwide policy mantra that was initially kicked off by the Reagan-Thatcher sales pitch for “small government.” Clearly, some versions of introducing accountability measures in government policy-making are important in orienting such policy toward actual outcomes rather than aspirations.

 This is important in international assistance as well.

The Liberal pursuit of “deliverology” speaks to a similar desire to match the means that policies embrace to the pursuit and achievement of ultimate outcomes.

Yet, accountability can and clearly has gone too far in some areas. Other than committed ideologues, few still argue for the publishing of standardized test scores from schools as a beneficial form in educational reform, for example. The elimination of flexible funding, typically derided as “slush funds” in all manners of organizations, has also implied the elimination of the ability of organizations to react to challenges, whether that is on university campuses or in large public bureaucracies.

In international assistance, the focus on accountability and the pursuit of results have contributed to the development of convoluted reporting requirements that lock experts and all kinds of potential partners out of offering their expertise to Canadian projects. Ask anyone who has ever been involved in a CIDA or Global Affairs-funded project about the requirements and the predictable response is an audible groan.

That does not mean that reporting requirements are bad; after all, filing income taxes is not an enjoyable activity even for those of us who fully support collective solutions to social problems and progressive taxation. But, like many of the micro-tax credits introduced in Canada, at what point do the reporting requirements kill the desire to benefit from the funding, and more to the point, when does this “accountability” stand in the way of developing partnerships? As Sinclair rightly points out, such partnerships are increasingly needed to respond to direct requests from potential beneficiary countries.

Instead of bureaucratic rules and endless, arcane logic models, partnerships could be built around genuine openness in international assistance, for example through the championing of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) which Canada chairs at the moment. Compatibility in reporting requirements means that those requirements are potentially eliminated as a hurdle to partnerships.

Excessive reporting requirements are not only an obstacle for partnerships with organizations that do not operate exclusively or predominantly in Canada, but they have contributed to an on-going trend towards the professionalization of the development field in Canada.

Professionalization, another word for bureaucracy?

In most contexts, we think of professionalization as a generally positive development because it suggests more expertise in the tasks that are being performed by professionals. However, just as Max Weber wrote about bureaucracy, professionalization also constructs its own “iron cage.” In particular, it often institutes barriers to entry by mandating formal training for tasks. That is very clearly the case in the development field where the ability to write a proposal to submit to Global Affairs involves so much (arcane) knowledge that it represents a barrier to entry for all others. 

"The ability to write a proposal involves so much (arcane) knowledge that it represents a barrier to entry."
Note that those others might be not-Global-Affairs-savvy professionals who offer expertise that may be much more important for the success and impact of assistance. Sector and country experts who are not affiliated with development consultancies are essentially locked out of contributing to assistance at the moment. From calls for proposals that require five years of experience in development projects explicitly, to the tea-leaf-reading that is involved in picking up hints at “unsolicited proposals” from Global Affairs, the knowledge that is required to respond to a call for proposals is decidedly arcane. This also represents a significant risk of collusion between current officials and former officials who have joined the ranks of consultants.

The organizational structure of the development sector has become “decoupled” from its intentions, in the parlance of neo-institutional sociologists. That means that while accountability may have been the goal, professionalization has led to structures that promote that goal in name, but does not actually lead to accountable outcomes.

I have written elsewhere about the need for Global Affairs to “think out loud” to build more openness into policy-making. Such openness combined with more flexible and open-funding mechanism in international assistance will present many opportunities for a more comprehensive integration of international assistance into foreign policy.

Three recommendations

1. Make funding flexible: Allow more flexibility in the nature of International Assistance funding. Not all projects require multi-million dollar funding. Smaller projects, and projects with different purposes, are only possible if reporting requirements can be re-thought. Some partnerships require flexibility in negotiating reporting requirements when different donors or coalitions of donors are involved. That does not mean dropping expectations of a results-based focus, but it may mean changing the format and frequency of reporting, for example, to bring it closer to other donors’ procedures or to enable in-country partners to collaborate.

2. Yes to the IATI: Embrace and champion the International Aid Transparency Initiative, not only to promote standardization of some reporting requirements, but also to take steps toward giving “accountability” more substantive meaning in the development field, by promoting research and analysis of donor activities and impact on purported beneficiaries.

3. Remove barriers: Beware of the ossification and barriers to entry that come with professionalization. Development professionals should be experts in development, not in soliciting funds and reporting on activities. One way to balance different kinds of expertise is to insert more sector and area expertise into proposal evaluation. Another possibility is to create a greater variety of funding mechanisms (see Tri-Council research funding for examples of different funding mechanisms).