Leland Hunger Fellow Dan Robinson began his fellowship in the Iringa region of Tanzania, working with ACDI/VOCA on the NAFAKA Cereals Market System Development Project. Now in the second year of the fellowship, Dan is back in Washington, D.C., at ACDI/VOCA headquarters. We talked with Dan to hear about his experiences in the fellowship: read on to hear his thoughts on leadership, accountability, and what we can do to make foreign assistance more effective and efficient. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
“Until we have truly reached a system where the program is designed and implemented by the people who are benefitting from it, you’re not truly going to be at full accountability, nor full ownership.”
Could you say briefly how the scope of your work has changed between Tanzania and Washington?
I’ve been working on some of the same ideas, but on several different projects. I actually just got back from Bangladesh. I was there for about two weeks at the end of May. I’m working on systemic change case studies, looking at how our Rice and Diversified Crops project, also a USAID project, is working with farmer groups, seed companies, mechanization companies, and other things to create systemic change. In particular we’re working with a seed company and a company that makes rice harvesters. We are helping them to provide the rice harvesting technology to the farmers at an affordable rate, which saves the farmers money and tons of time because they can harvest all their rice in a day instead of three weeks. Hopefully, the outcomes will be sufficiently positive that other companies will say, “Oh, this has been an effective model. We should also do this for our farmers.”
Thinking back to your time in Tanzania, can you name an example when you witnessed the principle of aid accountability being put into practice? Did it lead to a good outcome for people in Tanzania?
I’m trying to think of whom you mean accountability to, because you can be accountable to different sides. This has come up quite a bit in our Leland activities and discussions. There’s accountability to the donors, there’s accountability to the local governments hosting the donors, there’s accountability to the beneficiaries (there really should be a better word), and there’s accountability to the taxpayers who are giving you money to spend in the first place. There’s a lot of different forms of accountability that are not quite irreconcilable, but there’s not exactly direct overlap between the different options.
The most important one is accountability to the people who the aid is supposed to be helping. For our work in Tanzania, we definitely had good accountability, in part through local immersion—the aspects of the project where we’re directly working with farmers and things like that. At the same time, one challenge of accountability goes back to making sure that the project is leaving a mark that’s actually going to be sustainable. I think that in that area it’s been effective, but at the same time, it was still a project that was designed in large part by the foreign donors. Until we have truly reached a system where the program is designed and implemented by the people who are benefitting from it, you’re not truly going to be at full accountability, nor full ownership.
There’s definitely a lot of work going on in the form of evaluation and learning to make sure that we know what the goals of the project are. They’re transparent [in one way], because they’re making sure that the U.S. taxpayers can access the information. But if you’re someone in rural Tanzania without a laptop and internet access, or full English abilities, then are you really going to go to the website of USAID and read about the NAFAKA project’s information? Highly unlikely. So, there are different levels of transparency, I think.
“If we find a way to use that money that is both beneficial for the investors and beneficial for the target areas, it could have the biggest impact.”
Do you still see accountability and/or country ownership being applied, from your new perspective in Washington?
I think there’s the steps of country ownership; I remember we talked about the various steps toward local ownership during the most recent midyear retreat. One level was ensuring that the people who will be running the project there are local, but not necessarily the ones who are designing the project. But I think that’s where we’re at on some of these projects: the staff in Tanzania, or in Bangladesh or wherever, are almost entirely locals: they are well-educated people from Bangladesh who want to help other Bangladeshis by running this agriculture project. To that perspective, there’s certainly more accountability than the alternative, an organization of 20 Americans coming in, doing the project, and leaving. I think that in theory, best-case scenario would still be to have projects almost entirely owned and implemented by the locals, but that’s not likely to happen in the short term for various reasons, some of which are political.
If it can’t happen in the short term, do you see something in the long term that would prompt that change?
I think one of the factors that affects whether you ever reach that development actualization phase is where the funding is coming from. As long as it’s primarily money coming from the Western countries with their various political dynamics, there’s definitely still a power dynamic of whose money it really is. As long as you have to be accountable to your taxpayers, it’s harder to justify having less control, even if it isn’t necessarily the most effective. Which is the same reason why, very often, regardless of how many evaluations show that unconditional cash transfers are effective, it’s unlikely to be the most common strategy, because it’s so intangible. I feel like there are many U.S. taxpayers, or lobbying groups, who would prefer to build a bridge or a power plant in Tanzania, because you can see it; that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most effective use of money.
Then, is it really the taxpayers of donor countries who are responsible here?
I think that’s definitely part of it. I think if there was more awareness of what was going on [among taxpayers in the U.S. and other donor countries], then there might be more pressure on the government to do things differently. But, generally speaking, Americans assume that development assistance is 20% of the national budget and are opposed to it; until they find out it’s really 1.5%, and then they think it should be more. It’s one of so many issues going on in the lives of a regular American that it’s just like not at the top of most people’s concerns. Which perhaps goes to another question, of the extent to which development should be more private sector…
How would increasing the role of the private sector in international development improve outcomes?
In all likelihood, development is a field like medicine, where there needs to be a balance. There’s the concept of blended finance, to bring together investment for development goals in areas where ordinarily the private sector wouldn’t be likely to act, because there’s too much risk; blended finance can be used to create the greatest impact in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I can’t remember the exact number, but the amount of money that is theoretically available for development work from the private sector is exponentially higher than the money that comes through donors normally. Hypothetically, if we find a way to use that money that is both beneficial for the investors and beneficial for the target areas, it could have the biggest impact.
“Trying to be more positive and optimistic throughout the future while also being realistic and pragmatic is perhaps the best strategy going forward.”
How have your thoughts on the nature of leadership changed since you started the fellowship?
I definitely learned a lot about leadership theory during the fellowship, through the retreats, primarily, and some of the speakers we’ve had the opportunity to meet with and hear from. One thing that I’ve learned from the fellowship is that you don’t need to be leading the team to have leadership qualities and implement them in ways—finding ways to be supportive and encourage the team to move in the right direction even if you aren’t necessarily the captain leading from the front. I’ve learned a lot from the other fellows and the people who we’ve met and talked with on their various strategies. But my day-to-day implementation of those strategies has been somewhat limited as a research analyst, essentially.
In your fellowship, you’ve seen the whole spectrum of development work, from being on a project in-country to being here in Washington. Out of everything that you’ve seen, what have all of these experiences taught you about how development can be improved?
Despite all the progress we’re making, I’m somewhat concerned that things may go sideways in the near future, thanks to climate change: in some of these papers we’re reading about a doomsday scenario that has a billion people displaced by 2050. It’s pretty overwhelming and scary for the implications, both for day-to-day life and development work.
But I think overall, we’re making good progress in the right direction. I think that efforts to bring together different voices, going back to the local ownership question, and private sector factors and blended finance, and everything else, I think, is a good strategy for getting most bang for a buck, and making the longest and most relevant impact. But there are still going to be challenges for many years to come, unfortunately.
One of our Leland book club books was Factfulness, which is about being more cognizant of positive things in addition to negative things: the general thesis is that we are making progress, and even though humans have a natural bias towards negativity, we need to be positive about the fact that development is making a major, significant impact. There are some quizzes at the beginning and inevitably everybody picks a negative, pessimistic answer, and his point is that for almost all of them, the impact is larger than we think; the percentage of people in poverty is dropping drastically, even though there are still large numbers of people in poverty. I think that trying to be more positive and optimistic throughout the future while also being realistic and pragmatic is perhaps the best strategy going forward. If you remember that there are gradual improvements on a day-to-day basis, then there’s more reason to keep pushing forward, rather than assuming things are just the way they are, that it can never be fixed. I think that applies both to the whole, and to us as Leland fellows, and future leaders in the field: of being optimistic about the progress that can be made, while still finding our correct places and not assuming that we’re going to be the one to fix it on our own.
This interview is part of a blog series with Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a reform coalition of international development and foreign policy practitioners, policy advocates and experts, concerned citizens, and private sector organizations, created to build upon the bipartisan consensus that the U.S. should play a leadership role in achieving economic growth and reducing poverty and suffering around the world, and that we can play this role more effectively, efficiently, and transparently. Learn more about MFAN at modernizeaid.net.