FYI: What We're Reading

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David Jacobstein

Jun 14, 2024, 2:21:53 PMJun 14
to LCD TA SUB Working Group Mail List (USAID), Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev, TWP.Learning
Hi all,

We're just finishing a lovely stretch of DC weather, the not-yet-humid but very warm days of late May and June, but I can see the summer muggy days coming. I'll be on leave, and wanted to get reading out before everyone is too buried by humidity. So it feels like time to share some material for when it's too hot to stroll or the thunderstorms chase you in, or for whatever season it is where you are. Here's some of what we've found interesting this quarter:
  • The first article to share is probably the most meaningful reframing of work in the democracy, rights, and governance space that I've encountered in several years - in search of a new paradigm by Hahrie Han. It leverages robust data to suggest a third, complementary paradigm that is needed for effective democracy promotion; in addition to directly engaging with citizens around participation and reducing polarization, and improving institutional structures to enable democratic action, it emphasizes spaces for democratic practice and growth of norms between state and society. The shifts it traces in how civic engagement has manifest through the years is striking, and resonates with my experience at USAID. My favorite quote that summarizes both the necessity and typology of this work (my emphasis): it "reframes the question of reforming democracy from “How do we get people to do a thing?” to “How do we equip people to become the kind of people who do what needs to be done?” Unlike existing paradigms, this approach focuses on the importance of collective experience instead of individual incentives, and prioritizes reforms that build (evidence-based) capabilities for responding to contingency instead of those that yield immediate effects on democratic outcomes.” To me this echoes what we are aiming at through the new DRG Policy and more broadly the evolution of democracy promotion to today's era, linking being locally-led with shifting power and trust to local actors in service not of fixing problems as we define them but strengthening meta-capabilities of problem solving that are the heart of democracy, allowing and trusting that citizens who muddle through problems together will also be citizens who value and defend democratic practices and innovate their own specific institutional forms.
  • The application of a political economy lens to issue sets and geographies saw a number of good reviews recently, including:
    • A thorough note from the Policy Practice on political economy considerations within energy transitions, looking at Ghana, Zambia, and Vietnam to specific both common patterns and context-specific challenges, a great illustration of how PEA can inform the design of campaigns for change.
    • Reflections from Warren Krafchuk and Peter Evans on the Open Movement, highlighting lessons learned from 20 years. For me the notion that resonated most was that the positive and normative aspects of the movement had been important, and that moving forward is about maintaining that while linking the concepts to more specific felt issues belonging to citizens to generate entry points and demonstrate value.
    • A great "research-to-practice" report on the role of social norms in corruption that unpacks the abstract ideas into the particulars of how certain norms support behaviors and what this means for change efforts.
    • A striking article on how political economy considerations underpin a durable equilibrium in Latin America of poor quality democracies, challenging the common wisdom that democracies are in motion either improving or backsliding, and instead finding a recurring pattern in broadly the same level of quality.
    • For Spanish speakers, an interesting article on social protection issues in Colombia
    • A brief on state-society synergy, I think usefully complicating the simple idea of the "sandwich strategy" toward something much more similar to other pathways to scale. In particular, the idea of state capability as relational (something Dan Honig identified and is conducting eagerly-awaited research on) and the broader sense articulated in the Han paper as well that collective action grounds legitimacy, rather than directly achieving aims of institutional change or specific gains against corruption, resonates with me.
  • The Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice is also hosting a global webinar series, and their recent conversation on politics, development and change has a great diversity of voices highlighting practical ways that a TWP lens is informing efforts by a large number of development actors.
  • A couple of USAID-produced or related products that I thought were worth sharing more broadly:
    • The first of our DRG Bureau webinars on Local Capacity Strengthening lessons, focusing on the power of connection as capacity, featuring Selma Sijercic from Bosnia and Lucila Serrano from Mexico, two real experts with strong insights.
    • A blog from Valeria Scorza on the connection between equity and capacity strengthening.
    • A set of promising practices from the Local Health System Sustainability project around integrating migrants into national health systems, a great embodiment of cross-sectoral integration. Speaking of integration, I was also interested in this article using network analysis to ground health policy advocacy efforts in Nigeria and identify lessons learned that became visible through network analysis.
    • Internews produced an excellent review of the role of analyzing trust through a framework to focus efforts on misinformation and quality of media and reporting. It's a good example of factoring in local perspectives into the fabric of the concepts being supported, defining accuracy e.g. in relation to local users, including proximity - a nice and simple but powerful framework to set goals/objectives around specific situations in a local-systems-driven way.
    • The ClA Case Competition has now been going for 10 years! It's a trove of examples of projects and ideas, and you can now search through it all in this repository.
    • A blog from Monalisa Salib around getting smarter on localization that is very simple and clear, because there are only three rules - use the LLD spectrum, co-create, and maintain local system awareness.
  • I'm happy to share a provocative piece from Ken Opalo offering advice on how philanthropies can be more disruptive usefully. While most of the readership won't be his primary audience, I particularly wanted to highlight how he describes the challenge around what we "know" and what we do: "Perhaps an example might help. In education, there are lots of studies of how to improve learning outcomes in the classroom with varying results. However, there are few interventions that set out to understand how to run an effective education system in a specific low-income country. The reasons behind this reality aren’t strictly justifiable on the merits. The former approach dominates simply because it yields publishable papers for PIs (including for yours truly), is easy to fit into funding cycles, and can readily be justified with reference to the promise of global scalability. The latter is totally messy and operationally open-ended in absolutely scary ways — basically, a bean counter’s nightmare. Yet it also comes with potentially very high rewards, not just from the possibility of igniting competition and learning among comparable low-income countries, but also the valuable lessons it would teach philanthropies about the complexities of getting things done in low-income countries."
  • Florencia Guerzovich and Alix Wadeson continue to drive the conversation on how we can prospectively examine and understand complex systems change through the use of rubrics, in what I think is a very clear and compelling blog post. Highlighting relationships, but not divorcing them from other underpinnings of progress, allows a fairly straightforward way to engage in examining whether change is likely to happen in sustainable ways, and/or link to scale, and is pretty easy to use. Seeing such an effort tested and proven useful is very promising and something that more folks should be copying/drawing from!
  • Finally and sadly, this quarter marked the departure of Duncan Green from his remarkable blog on From Poverty to Power, probably the single greatest online gathering space for people interested in conversations around how to improve international development efforts. It's impossible to share how much value I've gotten out of his musings and the various guest voices he has featured through the years, and I know this is true for many, many others around the world. Of course he'll still help shepherd through good ideas, but I wanted to give him the last word this quarter, with his reflections on his hits and misses, and most of all, his very thoughtful farewell blog post. Happy onwards and thank you Duncan!

David Jacobstein 

DRG Policy, Learning and Integration Office

United States Agency for International Development

T: (202) 390-1333

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