In Today’s Language: “Dudes, WTF? STFU and let me do my job!”

Historically accurate depiction of the Duke of Wellington

Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters. We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence:

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remain unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain.

This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…
2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

Wellington

—Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, during the
Peninsular Campaign, in a message to the British
Foreign Office in London, 11 August 1812.

Reader Duncan gets a virtual high-five for pointing this letter out to me. It’s taken from the introduction of the CGD Essay by Andrew Nastios, the USAID Administrator, entitled The Clash of the Counter-Bureaucracy and Development. The central thrusts of his argument (and I confess here to having given it only a skim) are that bureaucratic regulation of aid agencies is extremely cumbersome and is the focus of far too much ‘development’ work, and that this is counterintuitive, since the most easily measurable development programmes are the least transformational, and the most transformational are the least easily measurable.

In the first aspect of his argument, he is certainly right. In the last five years, I would estimate that of the brightest and most intelligent development workers I have worked with, between one quarter and one third have left the field altogether. The single biggest reason for this has been the overwhelming dominance of bureaucracy in their day-to-day work. The worst part of this is that the bureaucracy is almost entirely generated by the donor agencies – most of my colleagues who left the profession altogether have argued that they were doing no or little ‘development’ work while working for donors, and were simply employed to fill out forms and maintain accounting systems that would not exist at all if the donors didn’t demand them.

That said, there is a reason why we spend a lot of time measuring things in development: we don’t really know what works yet, and when things succeed or fail, we rarely have a good idea of why. Development work is not like war. In war, certainly in Wellington’s time, victory was easily assessed: did you get the colony or land you sought to conquer? Did the other side submit or were they completely routed? In development, what constitutes success is far more chimeral and takes much longer to measure. It’s also far harder to apportion blame or praise. We need a lot of information.

The problem lies in the kind of information we collect. We focus far too much on inputs, and across all of what we assess, we focus far too much on strictly quantifiable and attributable change. I don’t think Andrew is correct to say that the most transformational activities are the least measurable. They may be less quantifiable but this is not the same thing. Economists tend to think of data as numbers, but this isn’t always the case: almost every other discipline in the world (that doesn’t delude itself that it is a science) uses a range of information sources.

There is recognition that outcomes need far more attention, but not enough that we need to reduce the burden of reporting overall. Instead, development workers are overwhelmed with information requirements: inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact are all expected to be measured in most monitoring frameworks these days. I have colleagues who are unable to work on implementation at all because of the pressures this generates.

What’s more, the emphasis remains firmly on what is quantifiable and attributable, an undertaking that has led to the overemphasis on areas of work such as health and education, where measurement is relatively easier. This is something that randomised evaluations seek to remedy, by measuring impacts of interventions where causality is harder to establish. This is by no means a panacea, though, and much that is intuitively likely to be useful in development work (such as strengthening of Government capacity) remains very difficult to quantify in terms of impact – simply because the time scales over which it operates and the ways in which in first manifests itself are unclear.

In short, the information burdens on development work are far too high – but the problem here is not simply of bureaucracy, but of the extreme difficulty of knowing how our work garners results. We need a lot of information, but we could be simultaneously a lot broader and a lot more selective in what we collect.

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