Weekly Insights and Analysis

Doing Development Differently: Report from Manila

April 29, 2015

By Steven Rood

On Monday and Tuesday in Manila, The Asia Foundation, along with Harvard University and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and with media partner Devex to get the message out, hosted the second Doing Development Differently forum (DDD). It was the sequel to an event held in Boston last October, which produced a Manifesto signed by over 400 individual development practitioners from bilateral and multilateral donors, NGOs and international organizations, and academia.

The second Doing Development Differently workshop was held in Manila, Philippines. Photo/Karl Grobl

The second Doing Development Differently workshop was held in Manila, Philippines. Photo/Karl Grobl

That first meeting arose from a widespread frustration that overseas development assistance was failing to deliver the development outcomes that practitioners had hoped for. Participants shared a growing sense that the remaining problems of development are complex and full of uncertainty, and that many typical approaches to aid cannot handle complexity and rapidly changing realities. Looking around, organizers thought they had begun to see examples of how to make progress in the face of complexity, and brought together participants who could share those examples.

There was a conscious effort in that forum to spread the word through blogging and short videos of the presentations. The Manifesto was carefully crafted, and a website now hosts the #DifferentDev materials. Communication on this topic continues to flow and gain momentum.

The second forum was held in Manila in the belief that meeting “in the field” would allow more practitioners – from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, etc. – to attend and share experiences both as donors and as implementers. There were 23 articles and blogs cited as background reading, 13 seven-minute presentations, hours of discussion, and the showing of an ODI video about land rights reforms in the Philippines.

Instead of attempting to boil down all this information here, I propose to take up a challenge posed by ODI’s David Booth, who noted that in some of the discussions, the language of the Manifesto was felt to be too broad or imprecise. Different areas of development have different challenges, so it might be worthwhile, in the spirit of letting 1000 flowers bloom, to allow customized versions of the DDD Manifesto.

The Asia Foundation has a long-standing series of efforts to manage conflict in the Philippines, whether at the community level (over resources, or from clan feuds) or at the regional level (with respect to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front). So, with due apologies to the original crafters of the DDD Manifesto, here is Doing Development Differently with Regard to Conflict:

Too many attempts at conflict resolution “are based on weak evidence and normative objectives, and make problematic assumptions regarding the actors and conflict structures involved [and] the conflict resolution strategies employed.” Time horizons are too short, incentives are mischaracterized, local elites and politics are ignored, and evidence of what works is often not systematically collected.

This is because successful conflict resolution is complex: solutions are not simple or obvious; those who would benefit most lack power; those who can make a difference are disengaged; and political barriers are too often overlooked. Many development initiatives fail to address this complexity, promoting irrelevant interventions that will have little impact.

Some conflict resolution efforts, however, can have real results. The best are driven by community or national actors, but chances of success are improved with appropriate external support from the international community. They usually involve many players – governments, security forces, insurgents, civil society broadly speaking, international agencies, and the private sector (to help provide jobs) – working together to deliver real progress in complex situations, despite strong resistance from those who benefit from the unsatisfactory status quo, and multiple stumbling blocks such as unexpected upsurges of violence or breakdowns in peace processes.

In practice, the most promising initiatives reflect common principles:

  • They focus on local community or national context, on how political and social factors shape the conflict, and on the effects of any efforts to manage or resolve those conflicts.
  • They focus on managing conflicts in ways that are debated, defined, contested, and refined by local people in an ongoing process, overcoming, through time, experiences of loss and injustice.
  • They derive legitimacy from both state agents and conflict actors at different levels (community through national), and build social ownership and momentum throughout the process in order to be “locally owned” in reality (not just on paper).
  • They work through formal or informal coalitions and networks of local conveners – official and unofficial, mainstream and marginal – who have a stake in achieving progress, to define common problems, explore alternatives, search for solutions, and introduce relevant change.
  • They understand the incentives faced by elites, local and national, to foster or to resolve conflicts, and that sustainable and scalable conflict resolution needs to involve formal structures and processes.
  • They blend design and implementation through rapid cycles of planning, action, reflection, and revision, drawing on local knowledge as well as international experiences. Listening, engaging in dialog, and soliciting feedback foster learning from both success and failure in an iterative process of attempting solutions.
  • They manage risks by making “small bets,” pursuing activities with promise and dropping others. At all times, they attempt to “do no harm,” testing the waters before proceeding.
  • They foster real results – real solutions to real problems that have real impact. Wishful thinking does not reduce violence.
  • Above all, they build interpersonal trust, empower people – men and women – to manage their solutions, and promote sustainable peace processes and change in institutional imbalances that underlie violent conflict.

I hope that other customized versions of the Manifesto emerge over the coming weeks. Other takes on different ways of doing development can be seen in “thinking and working politically” or “problem-driven iterative adaptation.” This is ferment in thinking about development, and it is lots of fun to take part.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets as @StevenRoodPH, and he can be reached at [email protected]. Follow the Doing Development Differently community on Twitter at #DifferentDev. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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