FYI: What We're Reading

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David Jacobstein

Jun 30, 2023, 5:48:25 PM6/30/23
to LCD TA SUB Working Group Mail List (USAID), TWP.Learning, Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev
Hi all,

Hello all, it's been a lovely spring in DC though we're now dealing with outdoor activities being cancelled due to smoke drifting down from Canadian wildfires - changing climate always comes up with something new. For those of you who are unexpectedly stuck inside, as well as those who can find a shady park bench to read on, here are some of what has caught our attention lately:
  • One of the most innovative scholars working today is Yuen Yuen Ang, and a couple of her pieces this quarter really illustrate her thinking and its implications for development work. First, a review of her latest paper helps to illustrate the ways officials act within constraints - more implicit than defined - and how, taken as a whole, this paints a picture of co-evolution within a state. Seeing how the authorizing space enables or constraints adaptiveness, not by saying "be adaptive" but by setting parameters and incentives broadly, is really interesting and gets at the real drivers of variability in how change happens. You can see more of her thinking in this interview, which has a great digression into a critique of various experiments tied to "publication-friendly rigor" and how they are unhelpful for addressing real questions about development. She points to a different paradigm: "in complex systems, outcomes can only be influenced, not controlled, by shaping the way people interact, learn, and adapt. That leads to my focus on “meta-institutions” that enable adaptive processes of problem-solving, as opposed to a particular institution for a particular problem." This paradigm of development - can we not only work to improve institutions that address given problems, but meta-institutions that enable systems to themselves address evolving problems - is at the heart of pretty much every debate in development today and will ultimately shape whether development as an industry can remain relevant across the globe.
  • In terms of trying to apply this paradigm, we've previously highlighted USAID's Local Capacity Strengthening Policy - you can now see a very cool set of microlearnings tied to each principle of that policy, which is both nicely bite-sized (5 minutes for microlearning) and really unpacks the approach and its application. 
  • crystal clear summary of what smart accountability aimed at locally-driven, long-term change looks like and hinges on. The diversity of topics that could motivate local actors - and the very real questions of how to value real breakthroughs in difficult places - are fascinating.
  • This review from Indonesia of effective coalitions and ways they leverage donor support over time, one of several gathered in the Asia Foundation studies shared last quarter, really shows both the way coalitions evolve and the importance of relationships and engagement. In particular, I was struck by their takeaway around learning what precisely is valuable in the process of making change:  "When people, relationships and working partnerships take center stage, a coalition-building modality valuing desired longer-term results such as greater solidarity, stronger and more effective networks and improved collective action.
  • A new book looks at the application of a political economy lens in the space of climate, focusing on illustrating how a better understanding of the underlying political incentives can lead to more effective approaches to tackling this major global problem and that even global problem sets need to be addressed in ways that matter in places, not to those who care about the issue at global scale only. It also offers relevant language around how to use complementary reforms to offset costs, though even then, there is often a political price to be paid to gain positive change. Good food for thought for advocates of using a political economy lens, that it entails more than a silver bullet, but some true acceptance of tradeoffs.
  • In the political economy space, there were also some excellent discussions of research into how a PEA lens is applied in practice and what difference it makes for programming. A summary here also provides further links and some of the topline takeaways - which decisions PEAs should inform, how to evolve them into an ongoing lens, and the importance of support from actors along the chain to take this approach and share the risk appetite this demands.
  • And a few quick hitters that describe something interesting in quick format:
    • A good discussion of how a particular MERL effort addressed real questions that are meaningful beyond counting for donors.
    • A webinar on the use of political economy analysis in health supply chains is a nice overview of how the tool is being applied to a tangible space.
    • Stefan Dercon's book on elite bargains has attracted a lot of attention; here is a discussion that runs through it and its implications, in particular, the key role of existential dilemmas in driving bargains (those making them aren't always consciously making them, just rents being sacrificed in pursuit of survival) that might imply ways to make these bargains meaningful in other countries.
    • A short but detailed Timor Leste blog tying together a political economy lens, constructive engagement, platforms for civil society, and locally-led development to address health equity in practice.
    • An interesting reflection around partnership brokering in light of inequities within development, with nice ideas on how to challenge both practices and ideas that reinforce unequal relations.
    • A fascinating twitter thread by Alice Evans reviewing The Light That Failed that examines some underlying dynamics within cultures around how the promise of liberal democracy has faltered in the eyes of many, in diverse societies, even as others hold it more important than ever - the book and her discussion nicely highlight the place-specific drivers of rising authoritarianism and the importance of connecting the world of ideas and the shifts in geopolitics and economics.
Happy reading, hope you find them interesting!


David Jacobstein 

DCHA/DRG Policy, Coordination and Integration Team

United States Agency for International Development

T: (202) 712-1469

Context-Driven Adaptation Collection:

Alan Hudson

Jul 4, 2023, 5:15:37 AM7/4/23
to David Jacobstein, LCD TA SUB Working Group Mail List (USAID), TWP.Learning, Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev
Thanks for this great seasonal selection David.

I've followed Yuen Yuen Ang's excellent work closely (here are my notes on her first book) and share your enthusiasm about her work and focus on nurturing adaptive processes (or systems) for problem-solving.

My more recent explorations have led me to appreciate the connections between Yuen Yuen Ang's take on how change happens and what can be done to shift the dynamics of complex systems, and the approaches set out by folks such as Dave Snowden (Cynefin, Estuarine Mapping, and managing for emergence), and Glenda Eoyang's Human Systems Dynamics (intro). 

Some fertile ground to explore in those overlaps I think, around listening to the system, getting a sense of how the system's dynamics might change, and then exploring if there are things that can be done (e.g. Black, Red, Grey directives in Yuen's analysis of China) to shape constraints (governing and enabling) and incentives which shape behaviours and the dynamics of the system.

For folks keen to learn more about the ideas that Yuen is exploring/developing/testing, this provides an inspiring summary.

best wishes,
Alan Hudson: Embracing complexity, nurturing relationships & catalyzing collaborative learning, for social change

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