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Peer Group processes – good or bad for innovation?

Donor agencies, bilateral and multi lateral alike, have enthusiastically developed peer group processes that they claim lead to improved aid outcomes. No longer, so the new wisdom says, can a lone ranger jump ahead of their colleagues, dream up their own wacky project and push it on the poor of the world.

Undoubtedly there is truth in this. Sector specialist, external experts and contractor staff  can, and often must, participate in peer group meetings. Senior staff - often the task manager's (TM) boss - chairs the peer meetings. This all sounds very reasonable and has probably reduced the number of “dud” project/programs. But are donors now strangling innovation through an over controlled, lengthy and highly prescriptive process?

TMs need quick agreement at peer group meetings because their work performance is to a large extent assessed on the basis of whether they can meet the assigned time lines for submitting the project for final approval. Their work is also judged by how they perform at the peer group meetings. Here in lies the problem: innovative project designs can slow things down – particularly given that many at the peer meeting have a range of interests and are not under pressure to deliver the project: policy, risks, and the views of individual specialists hold sway. Innovative design can also generate debate and criticism.

This all leads to TMs normally adopting a risk adverse approach to their work - tick all the boxes; and don't do anything to alienate the peer group or cause the process to be extended.

Sure the projects that are prepared this way are safe. But is innovation encouraged? I would argue not. The time has come to take a critical review of this "process" approach to aid and ask whether a different approach to project/program design and to evaluation of performance could produce better results.

Comments

Colin Lonergan is, essentially, opening up the question of "How to deliver good aid." There is certainly no easy answer to this, partly because (1) donors have many different objectives when designing aid programs, and (2) there are many different ways of delivering aid. Further, (3) aid recipient countries and individuals have their own preferences as well, and these preferences naturally affect the aid process So arrangements for delivering aid are basically very complex.

Nevertheless, it is surely fairly clear that the current processes are often very bureaucratic and unwieldy. The global aid industry is weighed down with a thick bureaucratic superstructure of pre-feasibility studies, feasibility studies, program and project documents, reviews, evaluations, and often an extremely paper-intensive and red-tape approach. And this complex system is used to try to deliver programs in poor countries where, as we all know, administrative systems are essentially very weak! No wonder agencies in dozens of developing countries have great difficulty in coping! All of this in the name of ensuring that aid is "efficient and effective."

The global aid industry has lost its way. Somehow, we need to simplify our systems dramatically. The first step is to recognise that the sea of red tape that we are drowning in does not really contribute to the delivery of better aid at all.

Peter,

Thank you for your comments. You are exactly right. Poor developing country bureaucrats. They normally do not get a chance to particpate in the peer group processes. Rather they are required to negotiate against a preprepared huge document with hundreds of pages and tens of annexes. And with every donor having different reporting, and often contracting requirements they are over burdened. Added to this they are often the first ones to be hosted to the donor country for a "study tour". What a mess.

I believe Colin's article touches on another important angle as well - i.e. are peer-processes good for innovation or do they stifle it? Taken outside this specific context there are certainly cases where peer groups working effectively together come up with outstanding results. Academic research (when it works well) is one example. It is perhaps the make up of the group and motivations of the participants that are critical to success. If motivated by a common goal, if there is a level of trust and professional respect, peer groups may produce great innovation. If however, the participants each have a different priority as is often the case in large international agencies (the TM needs to get the project approved; budget and procurement people want to maintain control and avoid risk; sector specialists have their own viewpoint on suitable solutions) then the result is often the lowest common denominator, not the highest.