01/11/2013 05:17 EST | Updated 03/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Why CIDA Should Plan for Failure

It may be that the inherent complexity of international development initiatives -- which occur in dynamic and unpredictable environments, such Haiti's -- precludes a quick or linear path towards development results. Within this framework, failure may actually be a necessary stepping-stone on the path towards success.

A recent statement issued by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) laments the "slow progress of development" from foreign aid efforts in Haiti. From the perspective of the Minister of International Development Julian Fantino, whose name was attached to the statement, the problem is simple: weak governing institutions, and a resultant lack of accountability, transparency, and tangible results. But a different perspective suggests the answer is more profound.

It may be that the inherent complexity of international development initiatives -- which occur in dynamic and unpredictable environments, such Haiti's -- precludes a quick or linear path towards development results. There is an emerging movement among scholars that rejects the common view of a planned prescription for development as the best medicine for addressing the symptoms of "underdevelopment."

Instead they suggest that the way to deal with development problems is by making small changes, observing the results, and then adjusting. Within this framework, failure may actually be a necessary stepping-stone on the path towards learning, adaptation, and successful development results. Should this be true, development agencies like CIDA may have to start planning for failure, rather than planning against it.

This is the exact opposite of the planning-for-results model that CIDA currently utilizes. Results-based management (RBM) is being used by CIDA -- officially since 1996 -- to help achieve, measure, and to report aid outcomes, and -- nominally, at least -- to learn from and adapt aid experiences.

But while RBM explicitly references learning and adaptation, it typically has an almost-exclusive emphasis on results and planning. The aforementioned statement from CIDA, for instance, cites results four times, with not one mention of learning or adaptation. Overemphasizing planning and results creates a logic model that assumes a linear path towards development results, along which the right resources, planned in the right way, within the right timeline, will achieve the right results.

There is evidence that in dynamic and unpredictable environments, the value of predictive approaches and expertise of this sort are limited. An intuitive example may be drawn from economics, and the inability of the vast majority of financial pundits to, in the lead up to 2007, appreciate an impending global financial crisis of immense proportions.

Now, of course, through hindsight, many profess 20/20 vision. Planning and expertise in complex settings have also been tested empirically, and have been found lacking. For instance, in 1984, Philip Tetlock evaluated the ability of almost 300 experts -- among them government officials, professors, and journalists -- to make political forecasts.

On average, the predictions were about as accurate as randomized forecasting. The study also found that styles of thinking that are flexible and attuned to many different perspectives preformed better than those that obstinately favoured grand narratives.

Are lessons from complexity thinking applicable to the Haitian context? It would appear so. As many as 20,000 non-governmental organizations, 12 government ministries, 10 province-like administrative departments, and almost 10 million Haitian citizens make up the dense network of Haitian development.

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These actors all interact with each other, either directly or indirectly, amid the poverty of the lowest-income country in the Americas. They are all also acted upon by numerous and ever-changing social, economic, political, and cultural forces.

Complicating matters, this tangled web of interactions is embedded in a history that includes a legacy of debt, occupation, and 50 years of dictatorship. Even moments of relative stability and progress have been broken by explosive surprises, such as a 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people and flattened much of the country's infrastructure. Approximately 16,000 of those killed were civil service employees, leaving a massive institutional deficit that continues to hinder the country's governance.

Not long ago, Africa was the go-to example of development dysfunction and lack of results, and was on the receiving end of a considerable diplomatic disengagement. Embassies and consulates were closed in part in favour of Canada's Americas strategy, to which Haiti was central.

In 2009, our aid focus also shifted to the Americas, displacing eight African countries from the list of priority recipients of Canadian aid. Though many problems continue to persist in Africa, an analysis by The Economist finds that over the last decade no fewer than six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not surprisingly, there are now indications that the Government of Canada is reneging on its own bets against the continent, and seeking to reengage with Africa.

All this to say that development in Haiti will not come easily, will not come quickly, and will not necessarily follow a predictable path. Think the butterfly effect, where small changes to complex systems can have large and unforeseen consequences. In this context, questions about the effectiveness of aid are legitimate and needed. But in the scramble for results, Canadians should not forego a more nuanced discussion of how best to achieve results.

In this discussion, failure should be a legitimate strategic option. Not to say that planning and evaluation have no place in a model of international development that is based on adaptive learning. Interventions are planned, chosen, and pursued, and evaluation provides feedback for what is effective and what is not. In many ways, this is RBM.

Let us hope that a review of Canada's aid performance in Haiti takes past lessons into account, instead of regressing into simplified condemnations of poor institutional strength and simplistic demands for more accountability and transparency, and pawning this off as review.

A results-driven evaluation of Canadian aid in Haiti must take accurate stock of our successes and failures. These, then, should be used to inform and adapt the way Canadian aid is implemented. The Minister of International Cooperation is right in saying that Canadians "should not take gratification in the simple transaction of international aid."

Aid is not a simple transaction. It is a complex process that requires continual self-examination and a steadfast commitment to learning and adaptation -- all in the pursuit of tangible results from Canada's foreign aid.