Musings on research, international development and other stuff

The enthalpy of aid


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 enthalpybut 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…


5 thoughts on “The enthalpy of aid

  1. Interesting post and reminds me a bit of the Pareto Principle in business/economics a.k.a. the 80/20 rule. See for fuller explanation. The other rule is that life is unfair, so inevitably some will be better rewarded (they would argue they deserve it!) unless that is we wish to return to the terrible, mass scale social engineering experiments of the the 20th Century.

  2. I admire this thinking about how something can catalyze a change – that is a metaphor that has long been used in development, and of course fits well with a complexity view of development.

    But given your general take on evidence, I’m a bit surprised at your example of capacity development. There have been rafts of independent evaluations of capacity building programmes, dating all the way back to the 1960s, and I regret to say that the story is not good. I am not saying that capacity is not important, nor that no capacity building programmes ever work; but on balance the evidence suggests that they do not make the ‘real difference’ you suggest.

    • Thanks for this comment Owen – its a really good point. Evaluations of capacity building programmes do indeed make sobering reading! Having said that, I think that there is evidence that capacity building can work but it might not be found where we expect. For example, we know that individual capacity can be built because we know that universities the world over do succeed in getting high school leavers to a stage where they can pass final exams and apprentice schemes succeed in taking teenagers with few skills and support them to become qualidied mechanics. Similarly we know that organisational development approaches can work because there are well documented cases from the world of business of dysfunctional organisations being revitalised. So the question for me is, given that it is possible to support an individual or organisation to build capacity, why are we in the international development field failing so dismally to do so?!

      I suspect it is because most of the stuff that we call capacity building is very poorly designed and delivered. We ignore crucial elements like selecting the right people, fitting CB to areas which people are motivated to learn, ensuring appropriate pedagogical approaches, ensuring it is long-term etc etc. Therefore the evaluations you mention, are actually evaluating a whole lot of ‘capacity building’ projects which are doomed to fail – but this does not mean that capacity building is not possible. That’s my hypothesis anyway – but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

      From my work I have certainly seen a LOT of poorly designed capacity building work but I have also witnessed a few really outstanding projects that, from initial evaluations, do seem to be achieving impacts. I think it is a priority for those who fund capacity building work to properly evaluate these promising approaches to find out if they do really work and to stop fundng the stuff we know does not!

  3. Kirsty – I agree that there is such a thing as successful capacity building; but I regret to say there is precious little of it in development. I was very struck by a point made in Elliott J. Berg’s seminal study, Rethinking Technical Cooperation in sub-Saharan Africa (1993) – which notes the way we do technical cooperation in development (typically parachute in an outsider for a year or two to do the job) is not used in any other sphere as a way to build skills. The donors said then, as they said before and have said repeatedly since, that they will reform technical cooperation and do it properly, but it appears that they just can’t help themselves. The incentives to do bad TC are just too strong. Good evidence about good capacity building might help at the margin, but I have a bookshelf full of evidence about TC which has elicited promises of reform but little real change.


  4. I’ve been thinking about your 95%/5% rule. A couple of problems strike me.

    Firstly, I think that there’s a problem here in using a notion of capacity as something you can have 100% of, and can thus lack 5% or 10% or 30% or 70% of etc. (I know you although you acknowledge it’s just a way to explain your point, but there’s a danger that it also begins to hide some of the issues at the same time). If we understand capacity as the capacity to continually develop, and that no organisation is at a steady state, then there’s always going to be additional capacity needed somewhere.

    Secondly, I think there’s an issue of equity and access here. Taking the higher education example, if we only chose to support those who had 95% capacity, we might be drawn towards supporting only those students who (by the ways we assess secondary school learning) achieve the highest grades, but not those who were hampered by circumstance, not ability. On paper they might have 60% capacity, but the investment and support could enable them to achieve much more than someone who on paper has the 95%. Perhaps this links to your tiddly winks stuff about being able to measure capacity at the outset.

    Perhaps there’s also a link here to which institutions we might choose to support too. A ‘95% capacitated’ ‘top’ university might not really need the additional support – it can get to the 100% mark (if that’s every possible) in its own way. But perhaps the external investment can do most to unlock something for a ‘lower capacity’ institution, which enables it to move to the next stage, and thus begin to achieve more on its own. This is all woefully lacking in specific examples I realise, and I’m aware that there’s a danger here of falling into the technical assistance trap Owen points to. But say there’s an institution which is struggling to get somewhere, but support to negotiate a particular obstacle could help it to begin to move forward again. So perhaps the capacity is the capacity to negotiate a specific problem – and the extra 5% helps – rather than the overall capacity of an institution to deliver it’s full programme of work, deliver on its objectives etc.

    It probably all comes down to detailed, slow analysis of the problems and context – something which I think is often lacking in the schedules within which programmes are designed and funding bids but together, and thus lots of assumptions are made. Perhaps it’s to do with the modesty of our aims – so many programme plans now have to make such huge claims of overall impact (often to get funding) that something more modest (we’re going to try and support people to tackle this one little bit) and the recognition that change is often incremental and slow, doesn’t seem to be rewarded. But then tackling little bits is perhaps part of the problem we have already – lots of micro-interventions that don’t take account of context, and join up to other interventions, and thus not much is sustainable in the long run. I think there’s a lot more to explore in this – and I definitely need to think about this a bit more deeply.

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