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Big Plans vs. Real Plans

This guest post, by Jeffrey Barnes, Portfolio Manager at Abt Associates, is in response to yesterday’s What must we do to end world poverty? At last, an answer.

Aid Watch and other Easterly work, notably “The White Man’s Burden,” rail against the big plans of development. As this body of work rightly points out, there is a lot of paternalism involved in the Big Plans to “save” the poor. Easterly’s preferred alternative is “searching,” which at times sounds like semi-spontaneous experimentation that miraculously results in solutions to social and economic problems. Clearly, this is an exaggeration.

Top down vs. bottom up is not an either /or option.  It is a question of balance.  Top down plans made in Washington, New York and Geneva by people with little stake in or understanding of local situations are generally worthless. But bottom up approaches can also benefit from outside expertise, new technologies or external support. At some level, even searchers must plan.

Planning in the commercial world can be hugely successful.  A good business plan can mobilize a lot of capital and create significant wealth. What is it about this type of planning that can be emulated in the development world?

My experience of development planning leads me to the conclusion that there are, in fact, very few real plans in development. There are a lot of documents that are called plans, but these documents don’t really qualify as plans. A real plan describes in specific detail how the human, financial and technological resources that are under your control will be mobilized to produce a measurable result in a given time period.  This is what business plans do.  An entrepreneur (think searcher) would never begin implementing a business plan until all the financing, staff and equipment were in place.

Development plans fail to meet this definition of plans, either because the resources described in the plan are not under anyone’s control, or because the plan lacks specificity.   In the first case, development plans are better described as wish lists or advocacy documents. Think of all those national AIDS plans that describe every possible strategy against AIDS, but with the sources of financing and the implementing agencies to be determined. Such non-plans don’t serve as a guide to implementation—they are simply advocacy tools for governments to get donors to make pledges for different parts of the national wish list.   Even as one part of the plan starts, other parts of the plan remain inactive awaiting donor support. This is akin to starting a bicycle trip and hoping to find the handlebars and pedals along the way.  Little wonder that so few of these plans arrive at their intended destination.

The second kind of non-plan one sees in the development world is more accurately described as a process statement.  While financing may be in place, this kind of plan lacks specifics on who will be doing what, when and where. Most project proposals fall into this category. A proposal will name the principal staff and the stakeholders to be consulted, and it will describe the technical approaches and working principles to be adhered to (e.g. pro-poor, environmentally safe, gender equitable). But all the details of actual implementation are to be worked out later.

Eventually, such proposals might lead to some real plans, but this means that a large share of project “implementation” time is actually spent making and revising annual plans.  Sometimes, proposals lack specificity because so many of the variables (government stability, complementary activity by other groups) are outside the control of the plan’s authors. In business, plans with too many unknowns are not financed.  But in development, wishful thinking gets the better of such assessments.  Little wonder that so little is achieved in the typical project life cycle.

So please, Aid Watch, don’t give planning a bad name. Searchers use real plans, not wish lists or process statements. A real plan is made at the operational level, with little or no ambiguity about what resources are available, and who is to perform what activity at which time. If the development industry would ensure that all its plans met these criteria, it could prevent the top down processes that are so often doomed to failure.

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  1. This is a brilliant piece, and needed to be said. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘plans’ I’ve read (and even contributed to) that don’t do what plans should do. It’s a huge frustration.

    But there’s more to it than that. The reasons why we can’t plan effectively are just as important. We can’t fix the planning process without removing the constraints to planning. I’m drafting a post for Aid Thoughts on this now.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  2. I can see both sides. I think we do need big plans and big aspirations – otherwise we’re not going to achieve the big changes we want to see. Those things that are never going to be achieved by working on a micro-level.

    On the other hand, I can see the value of a less structured approach. Provide a community with working phones and see what they can do with them. Offer healthcare provision and see what their priorities are for spending.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  3. Luis Enrique wrote:

    Owen Barder’s new working paper, Beyond Planning might interest some readers, too.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 4:42 am | Permalink
  4. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    I like it!

    ..and then for the follow up.
    Are you sure, though, about the business plan analogy? While attractive, this ‘neither nor’ too seems worryingly simple.
    I’m not that confident that many businesses would enter the ‘development market’ in the first place. Simply because the conditions for planning in such a way are absent. As you say, uncertainties are overwhelming, and entry costs are huge, financing volatile, etc. Or are they?
    That’s what I would like to see addressed next.

    Nevertheless and as put by Dissanayaka above, it needs to be said.


    Posted October 20, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  5. Dave wrote:

    I generally agree with you, although I take exception with the statement, “An entrepreneur (think searcher) would never begin implementing a business plan until all the financing, staff and equipment were in place.”

    As a founder of three venture-backed start-ups, I always began implementing the plans before financing, staff and equipment were in place. I understand the point you’re trying to make, but there’s nothing like “bootstrapping” and spending your own resources to keep you focused on the plan while you secure the much-needed financing, staff and equipment. It’s critical that a “searcher” is all in and firmly believes that the idea is great and can scale to experience success.

    However, it’s very important to realize that success is typically not a result of the plan, but a result of the adjustments and changes you make based on your experience and learning. All of the business models for the businesses I launched changed significantly as a result of continued/continuous “searching,”

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  6. Robert Vesco wrote:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) As Dave mentioned above, entrepreneurs rarely wait to have plans in place and their success is often a product of adjustments more than following a plan.

    2) In my own experience in both business and development work, plans only serve as a starting point for fleshing out ideas. Once you get into belly of the beast, almost all assumptions you made are wrong or change frequently enough to make any planning useless. Development “experts” would be wise to be honest in what they can actually accomplish and encourage donors to be flexible if they actually want to make a difference and not just mark off tick boxes on some plan.

    3) Top down planning can play a role, as Easterly mentioned, but downplayed for rhetorical purposes in his last article. Specifically, planners should focus on creating a hospitable environment for “searchers”. That is, reducing barriers to getting things done.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  7. D. Watson wrote:

    I like it. I also have a quibble and a disagreement:

    Quibble: It isn’t Easterly that has given planning a bad name. He’s just one person pointing out the emperor has no clothes. It’s the decades upon decades of “plans” that were called such that have given Prof. E so much material to work with.

    Disagreement: Even if governments planned properly, would ‘development’ occur? One of E’s points is that there is far too much out of gov’s control even if there were a proper plan. Saying these aren’t proper plans doesn’t actually change his diagnosis – in a way it strengthens it.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  8. Dave wrote:

    Robert is right. Planners need to create/provide the platform for searchers, much in the way that venture capitalists provide value to entrepreneurs through financing and their networks of resources that help to remove some of the risk and obstacles to starting a successful business. This is why I’m so intrigued by development venture capitalists like the Acumen Fund and their “patient capital” philosophy.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  9. George Roter wrote:

    I am very inclined to agree with Dave and Robert Vesco on this, and even state the case further that a focus on operational plans that have no ambiguity is actually a distraction for the real challenges we see on the ground around planning.

    Let me give an example around rural water points in Malawi, 40% of which are not functioning. Typical project proposals we’ve seen place great emphasis on getting wells drilled or piping laid, with some explicit operational plans around setting up maintenance committees, involving local water offices, etc. The plans are operationally specific, but they end up with results that are substandard. So the question is why?

    At a project-specific level, it’s clearly a question of incentives, government resources, technical skills, parts, etc.

    But more than that, what we’ve seen is that projects, and the people/institutions involved with them don’t have the “ability” to adapt, learn or change direction. By “ability” I mean both the capabilities of staff to adapt and learn, and also an environment that supports this type of flexibility. This is about organizational culture and behaviour, the policy environment, and the approach and relationship of donors, among other factors.

    Iteration is simply not happening, and as anyone who has started any new organization or project can tell you, the plans you create on Day 1 generally have little resemblance to what you are operationally doing in Year 5. So it’s all about the capacity to iterate.

    Without this culture of iteration, we should be very cautious about promoting operational planning for development projects. At worst it will result in greater operational rigidity. At best it will distract us from the real issue which is around a true “searching” environment.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Just to clarify my view somewhat….. I totally agree that plans cannot be rigidly followed and that a good searcher or entrepreneur knows when it is time to adapt the plan or shift course. But to be able to even do that, and engage in iterative learning, you must start with a plan with specific activities and responsibilities. Many of the “plans” I see in development are so broadly stated that you don’t know if you are “on course” or shifting course.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Mike wrote:

    As a former business person now in the development field I appreciate your insistance on well devised plans and agree too many are vague and ultimately not implemented. There are two reasons for this as you might agree: politics, at every level, dominates all. Even the “best laid plans”…are subject to hijacking or “change in strategy.” Second, bureaucrats and typical development workers have little acumen to think or appreciate a “business” plan approach. Innovation in our industry is more often reintepretation of the same thing-which is why the plans you describe take typical approaches in design and implementation-and have little success.

    Posted October 20, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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