Enabling Self-Organization in the Coordination of International Development Assistance

 

DEVELOPMENT

Enabling Self-Organization in the Coordination of International Development Assistance

Ricardo Hausmann Faculty ResearcherRicardo Hausmann, Professor of the Practice of Economic Development, Harvard Kennedy School, Director, Center for International Development at Harvard UniversityPaper Title
The Structure and Dynamics of International Development AssistanceCoauthors
Michele Coscia, César Hidalgo, Center for International Development at Harvard University

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and a Harvard Kennedy School alumna, came to Cambridge to address the graduating class of 2008, she expressed a desire to have the Center for International Development (CID) involved in her country. What followed for Ricardo Hausmann, professor of the practice of economic development and the center’s director, was a visit to Liberia that highlighted the inefficiencies inherent in the hierarchical structure of efforts to coordinate international development. It strengthened his resolve to facilitate decentralized self-organization in this arena.

“My colleagues and I talked to numerous aid agencies in Liberia,” says Hausmann, “and what we found was that they were all on hold, waiting for the country to finish its poverty reduction strategy paper (a requirement of the current approach to aid coordination), so that they could then write their own country assistance strategy papers, so that they could then hold consultative groups to determine who could do what, so that they could then start solving problems. We saw problems everywhere in the country that had easy, immediate solutions, but there was extreme inefficiency in the ability of these big organizations to be responsive to reality. They are coordinating in very cumbersome ways between organizations that have developed their own bureaucratic procedures, which makes the solution of simple problems almost impossible.”

What Hausmann saw in Liberia is representative of problems faced worldwide in the coordination of aid efforts. In “The Structure and Dynamics of International Development Assistance,” Hausmann and his fellow CID researchers Michele Coscia and César Hidalgo note that “international development is a highly complex global enterprise that must confront coordination problems of paramount proportions.” “Since World War ii,” they write, “the proliferation of states, organizations, and issues has created a space that is large, complex, and rapidly evolving.”

Before the 1940s, when international development assistance became an explicit policy issue, there were fewer than 50 sovereign states; today there are more than 200. Whereas once there were essentially two donor agencies—the United Nations and the World Bank—there are now hundreds of specialized agencies, regional development banks, and private foundations. And although initial efforts to overcome obstacles to development focused on the availability of capital and infrastructure, the issues addressed in today’s world include education, public health, human rights, macroeconomic stability, and environmental sustainability.

“When you multiply these three things — the number of donors, countries, and issues involved—you make the need for coordination increase to the cube of that number,” Hausmann says. “We argue in our paper that the dynamic of the aid industry has become too complex for top-down, centralized coordination, and needs an effective mechanism for self-organization.”

This type of organizing is, indeed, already happening, and the purpose of Hausmann’s paper is to describe some of the features of this emergent structure and study the degree to which the system’s self-organization has been successful. It also presents itself as a ‘proof of concept’ of the potential for using readily available information. To this end, Hausmann and his colleagues created an accompanying web application called Aid Explorer, which provides “information that may help donors and recipients coordinate their efforts in a more decentralized and self-organizing manner.”

Ready access to information is the key, Hausmann confirms. “If you’re an aid organization and you want to get the biggest bang for your buck with the goals you want to achieve, you want to know what everybody else in the field is doing. Because then you know what is not being targeted, and you know which other organizations care about the issues you care about, in the places you want to work.” Aid Explorer provides that data, offering users more than 30,000 visualizations in terms of the questions they can ask. As a prototype of a cheap information tool, it expresses what Hausmann believes the world of international assistance needs to recognize: “Top-down approaches to coordination are bound to be ineffective and costly. We need to have a de jure that looks more like the de facto.”

- by Susannah Ketchum Glass

“We saw problems everywhere in the country that had easy, immediate solutions, but there was extreme inefficiency in the ability of these big organizations to be responsive to reality.”


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