Take the initiative: design your own support plans

7 May 2013

A few years ago I was involved in a (very big) water and sanitation project for which I had to go to Burkina Faso for a planning event. As a distraction from the workshop environment they took us to visit one of the communities where the local NGO sub-contractor had been working. About 20 or so women from one of the tiny villages we visited were ushered into a classroom and sat next to the visitors from Europe. Then the NGO gave a presentation, in English, about what they had done in the village. I never quite understood what was the point of the women sitting there with us. Surely, they knew what the NGO that done already and none spoke English anyway. They sat there, bored, some looking out the window, others desperately trying to keep their babies from crying and interrupting the speaker. It was a trully embarrassing situation.

These women, like the think tanks that this blog write for and about, were missing a great opportunity to claim power to themselves.

I hope that the readers of this blog recognise that all the authors writing here always have think tanks’ best interests in mind. While we try to be useful for think tanks and their supporters we want to make sure that think tanks are always the primary audience. Other blogs and organisations deal with other primary audiences.

I have been meaning to write this blog post for some time but over the weekend a number of conversations have prompted me to give it a go.

Here is the usual scenario: passive

A funder announces a new project or fund for think tanks in a country, set of countries, region or sector (sometimes even earmarks the funds to a set of pre-defined think tanks). In some cases it launches a call for a contractor to manage the project or fund; and in other cases it decides to go at it directly.

What do the think tanks that stand to benefit from this project or fund do? They wait for instructions. They attend ‘consultation events’ when they are invited, they answer questionnaires, receive the ‘experts’ who come to check them out, and eventually write a proposal to be included in the project or fund.

All this, usually, is done independently from other think tanks even though it is quite likely that they all know each other and their leaders interact with each other on a regular basis.

There are two problems with this scenario. First, think tanks are unlikely to get what they need if they let others design the projects and funds that are supposed to help them. After years of intensively working with a handfull of organisations I can honestly say that the best places to really understand how think tanks can be supported are the men and women working in and with those think tanks. Goran Buldioski’s call for more a more intelligent demand for support cannot be stressed enough.

The second problem is that this is a missed opportunity. By waiting, think tanks, are showing an unfortunate lack of strategic capacity. Here is a bit of information that some think tanks may not know. The Aid community always talks about southern organisations’ dependency on northern organisations. But the fact is that the opposite is just as true. Donors are hugely dependent on the think tanks they fund. Once a donor has made a commitment, once they project’s business case has been approved, the consultants have been identified, etc. there is no going back for them. The money has to be spent. (Of course it hasn’t, but I think it would be hard to find a funder that sends the money back home.)

This means that think tanks have an advantage. Once the commitment has been made think tanks have a much greater negotiating power that they think they have. Before, think tanks needed the money so funders could lay down the rules. But once the funder had made the commitment (specially for a large project) think tanks can lay down their own rules, too.

A new scenario: proactive

A funder announces a project or fund for think tanks. The think tanks that stand to benefit from it get together independently of the funder or the contractors and develop a support programme that works for them. They develop their own diagnostics and find their own preferred ‘expert’ support.

When the funder or its contractors come around to share their plans the think tanks respond by sharing their plans, instead. Some negotiation between the parties take place, the think tanks take on some of the better ideas of the funders or contractors and develop a refined plan for support. A plan that works for them.

Will the funders accept this bottom-up plan? Of course they will. Imagine if the funder, after receiving a well carefully developed plan from the think tanks it says it wants to support, decided to dismiss it and go ahead with its own plans. I am not a headlines writer but this could be the title of quite a few articles on the subject: “Donor XYZ tells its grantees: ‘your ideas to not count!'”

And the same would be true for contractors. They would have to go back to their clients and review their logframes and contracts.

Most importantly, funders should want this to happen. They should even demand this before funding think tanks. This kind of proactive behaviour is an excellent way of identifying the organisations that deserve to be supported (I bet that many of the larger and better funded ones will not even bother; they will probably prefer to keep things as they are -after all, they have worked for them in the past). It can help to establish the basis of real and sustainable networks that do not require to be constantly subsidised by third parties. And it would transfer the responsibility for the success of the intervention from the funder to the grantees.

Finally, and this is something that funders would definitely be interested in: their could count this as an early success of their projects and funds. Impact? Check! (and the project has not even started yet.)

The women in the village in Burkina Faso could have several valid excuses for their passivity. I cannot begin imagine the problems they face on a daily basis -they make our problems pale in comparison- and their understanding of international development policy and practice is likely to be limited and highly mediated by the NGOs that control their access to the big players. But think tanks really have no excuse. They are supposed to be, even the least developed, politically savvy agents.