Down with best practice; up with policy learning!

Development Policy27 Oct 2011Simon McGrath

Aid effectiveness has come to be seen as an empty concept without national ownership being placed at its heart. Yet, in too many aspects of the development field, the notion of national ownership runs up against notions of a set of “international best practices”. These are areas, supposedly “evidence-based” but often based more in belief systems, in which a significant part of the international development community are sure of what constitutes effective development. Aid effectiveness, itself, is a prime example. Led by the OECD, a group of international development agencies have defined best practices and others have been invited to believe in this, whether this be “new” donors or Southern “partners”. Yet, as we can see from the recent evaluation of progress towards the Paris targets (with 1 out of 13 being met), best practice is actually hard to find in practice.

In my own area of research on skills development, this tendency for Southern partners and new donors to be able to choose “any colour as long as it’s black” (as Henry Ford said of the Model T), is also very apparent. Whilst Southern countries are free to choose whatever set of skills policies they might think is appropriate to their particular context, there is a helpful set of best practices that can be applied seemingly without any worries about context. National Qualifications Frameworks, for instance, are now being introduced in more than 130 countries, even though recent research by the ILO could find no clear evidence of their positive impact some two decades after their initial introduction. Equally, there are best practices about other parts of a “skills development tool kit” such as competency-based approaches, provider institution autonomy, new funding regimes, etc. that are touted by a variety of organisations even though the evidence that they have ever been a best practice in their countries of origin is hard to find. Indeed, ironically, many of these best practices originate from Britain, yet both policymakers and academics alike bemoan Britain’s poor performance in developing skills What complicates this story from an aid effectiveness perspective is that much of the impetus for the spread of these “international best practices” does not come through the ODA route. In the British case, DfID has little interest in these matters as the issue of skills is not seen as central to their narrow understanding of development as the MDGs. Rather, there are a range of other public and private bodies that are involved in exporting the British model through policy advice, qualifications vending and consultancy services. This means that the narrow understanding of both development and international cooperation at the heart of the aid effectiveness agenda misses the wider picture again by ignoring key actors. Is there an alternative? Yes, but it is not simple. At its heart is the notion of capacity development, as suggested by the UNDP. This sees the need for a genuine country ownership that is broad and deep. Such an ownership cannot be built by the simple technical injection of improved skills. Rather, it needs to be constructed iteratively by an active learning process that seeks to learn how to make good national policies by engaging national stakeholders in making policies and reflecting on them. This approach of policy learning is preferable to the policy borrowing that too often occurs even when national ownership is talked about. However, it is constantly threatened by the tendency for quick fixes; through the power imbalances that make international seem better than national; and because of the mythical status that international best practices can take on. If Busan can break away from the fetishising of international best practice, it will be on the way to making a real contribution.