“Venture Capital” approach to accountability initiatives in East Africa

Duncan Green recently posted about a promising and straightforward approach to developing effective interventions in Tanzania, which he likens to a venture capital model. Oxfam and other donors sponsored a set of projects designed to build accountability largely through various awareness campaigns, and within a relatively short time, relevant donors and stakeholders convened themselves to review the projects. Of particular note, they killed off the ones that seemed to not be working.

Seems logical, I know. But surprisingly rare in the development world where the incentives and timetables are often set up to recognize failure only after millions of dollars and hours have been invested.

I certainly would not advocate that development projects should be subject to the types of quarterly performance expectations which often drive publicly traded companies towards pathological investment patterns. Many projects, by design, take a long time to implement and observable change may not be immediate. A bad quarter doesn’t mean that a project is a failure. But, rapid assessment and feedback, including learning from problems, mistake assumptions, etc., seems to be an obviously good strategy. The challenge is to mobilize relevant evaluators to invest the time and energy to reflect quickly and for project implementers to be willing and able to digest the feedback.

Green highlights some of the key lessons learned from failures:

What didn’t work and why?

Geography: The active musicians were not able to work well in Ngorongoro, because the communities were too widely dispersed to reach.

Government obstruction: The community radio never got off the ground because the government did not issue a licence.

Informal v formal power: The farmer animators’ work was unsuccessful in spreading awareness beyond the groups that the animators belonged to. This might have been due to their lack of a ‘formal’ position in community leadership.

Attitudes to youth: Students were able to make demands within their schools, but were unable to take this approach into the community– there was simply not enough respect for young people’s viewpoints.

I’d be curious to hear more about how well the initially successful projects (i.e., those that didn’t get axed) were able to incorporate the new information from the failures and whether this led to better outcomes overall.

China’s growing influence in South Africa may displace the U.S.

China’s huge investments in Africa are a source of concern for many observers. On the optimistic side, at least some of the resulting infrastructure, growth, and investment, will benefit at least some African citizens. But the pessimistic story is also pretty compelling — the Chinese government has been using its economic clout to push its strategic and normative agendas, both of which are at odds with democratic and human rights principles. In some countries, citizens are standing up to what they perceive as negative influence – the recent Zambian election was won by an adamantly “anti-China” candidate. But in other countries, China’s influence is growing, and with some alarming consequences.

Of particular note, to me at least, is the growing influence in South Africa – the continent’s political and economic juggernaut. The most recent example of China’s influence is the SA state’s delay/potential refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama, who was planning to come celebrate Desmond Tutu’s birthday with him. That the ANC government would so insult a man who was a beacon of solidarity during the anti-apartheid days has left the former Archbishop is piping mad.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, has been in China, meeting with their top leadership, and negotiating huge trade and infrastructure deals.  The Chinese have agreed to $2.5 billion in infrastructure investments, and Motlanthe did not respond to questions about the Dalai Lama.

And back in November, when the Chinese government agreed to extend a $20bn line of credit to SA for nuclear and renewable energy, it did so alongside heavy pressure on SA to join its stance on climate change – in other words, to go easy on the emissions standards for rapidly growing, developing countries.

So what’s abundantly clear is that the Chinese have clear interests, and they are using their economic power to gain allies. Frankly, who can blame them? The better question is why the U.S. isn’t doing more of the same? While I certainly support our country’s unprecedented commitments to global public health and HIV/AIDS in particular, as Princeton Lyman has argued, this strategy has the potential to leave the U.S. vulnerable to high criticism if we fail to keep people on treatment, and may lead to the aphorism, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Why is the U.S. not doing more to promote trade and investment — the types of things that win the hearts and minds of citizens and leaders alike — in South Africa? South Africa has already joined Russia and China in the BRICS (also India and Brazil) group, and the fast growing developing economies are finding that they don’t need us very much any more. Given the billions and billions we are spending on military missions in other countries, where we have no clear strategic allies or well developed end games, I can’t believe that some of those dollars wouldn’t be better spent promoting investment in South Africa.