I have decided to continue my theme of exceedingly geeky analogies by today comparing international development to a chemical reaction. I don’t know if you remember when you learnt chemistry at school but one of the few things I can remember is drawing these little ‘enthalpy graphs’ that show how reactions proceed. The graph shown here could for example represent setting fire to a very flamable thing – you need to put a bit of energy in at the beginning, but then the overall you get more energy out than you put in. The little bit of energy you put in at the beginning is called the activation energy.
I think that the very best international development projects are similar to this activation energy. They are projects which inject a little bit of additional funds, know-how, coordination or whatever to people and organisations who already have huge potential to make a difference. This is why I really like the new advertising campaign from Oxfam America – it highlights how relatively small amounts of investment can be enough to support people to really make a difference. It makes a welcome change to the dominant narrative in international development fundraising campaigns – think b-list celebrity rowing down a remote African river, giving out bed-nets to the poor (but happy) Africans. The Oxfam campaign, in contrast, highlights people living and working in developing countries who are working day in day out to make a difference in their community – and it demonstrates that the contribution that external actors can play can be important but is relatively minor.
I think many capacity building programmes would do well to consider the ‘activation energy’ phenomena too. The fact is that capacity buildng programmes – whether they involve mentoring, training, organisational development or whatever – generally only make a marginal change. As an example, lets say that capacity building will lead to a 5% increase in ‘capacity’ to do something (yes I know you can’t measure capacity as a percentage but bear with me…!). You can see that if you offer that programme to people who have 30% existing capacity, it will increase their capacity but they still won’t really be able to do much. But if you are able to work with people who already have 95% capacity, your programme could be just the little bit extra input that is needed to make a real difference.
There are some ethical concerns about this approach – some would say that it is unfair to offer support to those who are already doing relatively well. I think this is a fair comment but I also think that we need to be really honest about how much a given project can ever achieve. If it can only ever offer relatively minor increases in effectiveness, our only choice is to provide this to those who could make use of that to make a real difference. If we aim to support those who are far less able to improve their own situation and those of others then we may need to rethink our project.
Of course this approach completely relies on being able to identify those who have the existing potential – the people and organisations who are at 95%. And unsurprisingly, this is easier said and done! But maybe that is another blog post…