Emergent approaches v ‘blue print’ approaches to intervention design

I’ve just completed an appraisal of a project design for an AusAID NGO Cooperation Agreement.  I found the design document to be well written, and in some ways innovative.

The design embraced the complexity and systemic nature of development challenges in rural Cambodia, and proposed an iterative/emergent approach to tackling these issues based on a form of action-learning cycle (GTZ’s Participatory Extension Approach (PEA)). 

Although I appreciated the gist of the thinking behind the design, I raised the following questions:

  • Is there a risk that adopting such an emergent/organic approach could be beyond the capacity of the implementation team on the ground?  Given the typically high workload associated with implementation, does this approach carry additional risk because of its inherent ambiguity? 
  • Is the life of one Cooperation Agreement sufficient to enable iterations of the PEA learning cycle?  Shouldn’t an NGO’s operations (in their entirety…i.e. from one project to the next) involve action-learning cycles?  My concern is that given the seasonal nature of rural life/agriculture, the few short years of a Cooperation Agreement are likely to be insufficient to tackle the breadth of rural issues in an unstructured/emergent way.  I would lean more towards taking a smaller mouthful of the problem (and adopting the proposed conceptual framework as the parent strategy within which individual interventions are implemented (over say the next 10 years) rather than trying to cram it into a few short years of a single Cooperation Agreement.
  • Am I correct in believing that the core of the intervention is captured in the sentence “The result of this will be that farmers will be motivated to think for themselves rather than just copy, as well as to take a longer term perspective in all they do”?  If so, (aside from the implied ethnocentric view concerning farmers) this suggests that promoting farm-level experimentation and problem solving skills is the central focus.  If this is correct, why not cut to the chase and make this explicit from the outset?

This appraisal raises an interesting issue that has emerged in recent years.  With the growing appreciation for the complexity and ‘open systems’ nature of development interventions has come increased criticism of conventional ‘blue print’ approaches to project design.  While much of this criticism is well placed, I wonder if some of it has taken us a little too far to the other extreme?

While the conventional approaches have been criticised for being too ‘linear’ and simplistic, adopting a completely emergent approach carries at least two potential problems:

  • it renders the intervention unwiedly to implement on the ground…with implementation teams using phrases like “rudderless ship” (and hence carries greater risk);
  • it makes learning much more ambiguous and difficult.

Ironically, while emergent approaches are implemented in good faith to improve development effectiveness, there is a risk that they may impede learning, and hence our pursuit of effectiveness.  By adopting a completely emergent/unstructured approach to design in which no ‘theory of change’ is explict, it becomes virtually impossible in the wash-up at the end of the intervention to decipher the causes of failure and the drivers of success.  In short, the learning that we can extract becomes ambiguous.

For this reason, I argue for smaller, tightly defined (less ambitious?) interventions with succinct/explicit theories of change.  The emergent/iterative/responsive thinking is best applied at the level above…i.e. the ‘program’ level…across individual interventions.  In this way, an individual intervention can cease to be an end in itself; but rather be a means.  Each intervention can be conceived as a kind of ‘social experiment’ within a wider program of learning.

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