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February 17, 2010

Learn from History......or Change Will Not Happen! Musings on the Effectiveness of Technical Assistance

Posted by David Gentry 

As a schoolboy I learned about "foot pounds": work is measured by means of a weight (a pound) moved some distance (a foot). If I work up a sweat pushing against a brick wall that I move not an inch, then I was not working. Conversely, I can't claim transporting a feather long distances as a major accomplishment. The trick is to come up with a considerable weight that I can carry reasonably far.

Effectiveness of PFM technical assistance in the developing world might be described as making progress in solving important PFM problems. Maximizing the effectiveness of technical assistance, if we could all agree on the measures, might be the degree of importance of a problem times the degree of progress made. Even though we don't have consensus on such measures the logic seems compelling.

Let's ignore "importance" of PFM issues for the time being. And it's good that we do so, because we are dodging some difficult issues. Ascribing importance means establishing priorities, which implies that we might deal with some issues but not others. This brings to mind: sequencing of change, pursing marginal rather than comprehensive change, adherence (or not) to international best practices, and how we defend to our peers priorities we conclude on the basis of judgment and limited information.

I'll focus on the somewhat lighter issue of "progress". Organizations are sometimes ready and able to change, and sometimes it seems that no amount of technical assistance will cause it to move off its comfort zone, usually the status quo. The effectiveness of technical assistance is decided, in large part, by what problems we choose to address – in other words, picking our fights intelligently. The challenge is to select problems that are responsive to the efforts of competent technical assistance. How do we do this?

I wish to offer one perspective on this challenge. Problems warranting technical assistance are usually identified at one point in time by means of short-term assessment missions or PEFA evaluations. We see a problem today and want to fix it.

This is a great way to evaluate the importance of a problem, but a dubious method for forecasting the likelihood of technical assistance success. It is easy to diagnose what the problem is, but much more difficult to assess why the PFM problems of today came to be, and identify the forces intent on keeping things as they are.

A reliable, though quite limited, proxy for forecasting the likelihood of technical assistance success is to see where there has been success before. If an organization has been responsive to technical assistance in the past, there is a fair chance it will be receptive to advice in the future. But this will not get us very far, particularly as good progress in the past means less need for progress in the future. And, past success may not be a guide when the pattern of past success is broken with the introduction of new technical assistance objectives.

This theme can be expanded to include all institutional change over a period of time, positive or negative and whether or not technical assistance was involved. History can tell us what has been tried, what succeeded and failed, and why. It focuses our attention. It can help us learn more quickly than we otherwise would.

I don't want to overstate my case. Historical information will not revolutionize technical assistance. But I am saying that greater appreciation for, and use of, historical information has the potential to give us a richer understanding before technical assistance begins of the benefits that might result from that assistance, and can aid an advisor in the field.

Recently, I have been working with a public finance organization that has a lengthy reform agenda. It is proposing significant new policies, a manual formalizing the procedures to implement those policies, and a new information system. The proposals seem reasonable, addressing problems that are real. However, I learned that since 1994 there have been seven donor projects focusing on the same general issues, of which three produced manuals and two produced working databases. No trace of them in practice can be found today.

While discouraging, this information can help me in several ways. I have events and names of people who were there who can explain what happened. I can investigate why these efforts failed or succeeded and identify how the working environment has changed since then. I obtain local knowledge that will add substance, in the eyes of my counterparts, to my judgment and international experience.

There are simple things we can do to preserve, highlight and demonstrate the value placed on historical information. Descriptions of technical assistance and institutional change that came before us can be included in the background and analytical sections of technical assistance documents. Repeated PEFA reviews for the same country can be compared to measure progress or lack thereof, which may prompt us to investigate why. Simply preserving, and making accessible, the deliverables of field advisors and contractors is a major achievement in its own right.

Looking backward in time as well as forward adds an important dimension to technical assistance. I wish to add one more item to the CV of an ideal PFM advisor: historian.


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An interesting piece. Yet another perspective (or another lesson from history) is to observe and measure the interest of the bureaucracy in the reform process. Quality TA notwithstanding, the main tool of implementing technical advice in any country is it’s bureaucracy. We also need to understand its motivations and time. A bureaucrat spends about 90% of his/her time in performing the routine functions of government. They would be replaced very quickly if they did not. This leaves them about 10% of their time to work on all the areas which all technical assistance recommends. Now, in this scenario, we need to factor in a disinterested and de-motivated, possibly dishonest, bureaucracy and we have situations described in the article- several donor projects with little result.
So the history of bureaucratic intervention is an equally crucial factor and must be considered and , if possible, addressed, to ensure success.

I agree with your point that "problems warranting technical assistance are usually identified at one point in time by means of short-term assessment missions or PEFA evaluations." But repeated and, supposedly, unsuccessful TA to address "the problem" simply demonstrates that the "short-term assessment mission" identified the wrong problem and then, by implication, designed the wrong solution. Lack of previous success demonstrates the extent to which previous (and no doubt future) assessment missions will continue to make the same mistake.

Agree with Joanne. If the problem repeated again and again, systemic intervention is likely necessary. This requires broader and longer time perspective. Quick technical fix failed to address the problem.

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