Enabling environment: Operational implications for country partners and donors


It is a key finding that CD and change will meet more resistance from the context the more comprehensive it is, and the more it is at odds with the context. The stronger the resistance, the more power is needed to overcome it and sustain change.

In this perspective, successful CD is possible when it matches available change readiness.  Change readiness is shaped by: i) an existing situation that is enabling – the subject of this Note; ii) an appealing vision that leads the process to capacity development; and iii) the availability of capacity to manage change (EuropeAid 2009c; World Bank 1999).

This has three sets of concrete implications that are further detailed below:

  • Successful CD must build on a thorough understanding of the drivers and constraints in the context. To be operationally useful, this understanding must specifically identify and build on the change readiness in the situation.
  • In constrained environments, CD agendas must temper ambitions so that they match the present context while at the same time seek to influence binding contextual constraints.
  • Successful CD demands endogenous leadership and management that are able to harness energy and power sufficient to influence stakeholders, build pro-CD coalitions and institutionalize progress despite adverse context factors.      

These implications are all phrased in a language of dynamics – energy, power, leadership, pressure, resistance etc. This section will add further emphasis on the importance of strategy. Simply stated, dynamic situations require a strategy -- while static situations require a plan. CD and change take place in or create dynamic situations where classical planning tools often are inadequate.

Charting a course in these waters of change is likely to be new for country partners as well as development partners, and it requires a frank dialogue about opportunities, tensions and dilemmas that is part and parcel of CD efforts. 

Make the understanding of the context operationally relevant

Over the last couple of decades, there has been increasing focus on understanding the context.  Studies of drivers of change, power, governance and political economy have all sought not only to understand what is going on “behind the façade”(Harth and Waltmans 2007), but to draw operationally relevant conclusions from these studies.

This last step has been difficult (Dahl-Østergaard, Unsworth, Robinson, and Jensen 2005; GOVNET 2005). Despite an increasing number of toolkits for political economy and stakeholder analysis, the results tend to stay at the level of understanding – rather than helping actors to do better.

There are various reasons why it has been difficult. Firstly, most of the political economy analysis has been undertaken by donors.  This mostly helps donors to abstain from doing things, realizing what will not work – but donors are, obviously, seeking what they can do, and less enticed by an understanding that limits their scope of action. Secondly, country partners have not welcomed the plethora of donor-driven assessments which often end up passing judgment on them from normative viewpoints  (DAC 2008; Rakner and Wang 2007). Thirdly, analysis has often been at national level, rather than on concrete groups, individual stakeholders or in relation to well defined problems.

Box 6: Making context analysis operationally meaningful – public sector reform in Vietnam

Vietnam has an ambitious Public Administration Reform programme running, in place for the last 10 years, as well as other initiatives including devolution, simplification of rules and regulations, and an anti-corruption drive. These different initiatives have had different degrees of success and impact – but they all address systemic capacity issues across the public sector. Among the constraints are weak incentives to coordinate across units, agencies and ministries – a phenomenon also visible in the different attempts to enhance capacity across the public sector.

In a learning event about CD in Vietnam, held for the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI), a small group of Vietnamese officials and Vietnamese staff in a donor agency discussed whether and how it would be feasible to think of a renewed push to speed up public sector reform and CD. They analyzed both wider context factors – including century long traditions of public administration – and the interests of concrete stakeholders that might support or resist change.   . 

This assessment of “change capacity” or “reform readiness” led to the conclusion that for the time being, a modest, incremental approach to CD that would supplement other ongoing initiatives might be feasible, but not an attempt to create a more comprehensive, coordinated and coherent initiative. The basic analysis was that addressing the wider incentive issues in the public sector would require a much more decisive and powerful push than what the MPI would be able to muster on its own – but that there were, nonetheless, significant room for making small improvements in capacity that could lead to visible improvements in service delivery, regulation, service orientation and relations with citizens. 

The learning event demonstrated that context analysis can usefully help domestic stakeholders bring CD down to earth, shaping a CD framework that has a good fit to the drivers of and constraints to change.

Source: EuropeAid (http://capacity4dev.ec.europa.eu/article/path-many-small-steps-forward)

These observations also point to promising ways forward for converting understanding to action:

  • Get roles right – those who matter need to factor in the context. An understanding of the environment is worth little if staying with those playing second fiddle in relation to CD and reform processes. It is the primary change agents – pro-CD country partner managers, politicians and non-state change champions – that must integrate and “own” the understanding of the context. They may have the tacit knowledge about what their context allows and does not allow – but making it explicit and shared in an appropriate manner is helpful. 
  • Focus on a specific agenda:Political economy analysis should be linked to a specific agenda for CD or reform, enabling it to focus on the concrete drivers and constraints in relation to this agenda. Structural and institutional factors are important as they are setting the stage– but it is the focus on stakeholders – eventually individual persons – that makes analysis actionable, because stakeholders can be influenced.
  • Work in protected spaces and respect them. A soccer coach, analyzing the likely strategy that the opposing team will employ, will never do this publicly – nor will she reveal her strategy for winning the match. Organizations – like individuals – do not and should not share all information about themselves with others. Part of the work around “systemic factors” and stakeholder interests is better suited for informal dialogue than for web-wide publication.

The message to partner countries is to more explicitly factor context into their strategizing about reform, change and CD. Donor concerns should primarily be to assist partners, if necessary. This may cause donors deliberately to stay at arm’s length of such endogenous analysis of the context and subsequent strategizing about CD, and to limit their involvement to provision of analysts and facilitators with whom country partners can work comfortably.

Attention to contextual drivers of and constraints to CD is a primary task for country partners engaged in promoting CD. Kept in donor hands it is likely to remain an exercise that will tell donors what they should not do and what they should not expect their partners to do. Useful as that may be, it will not bring a CD agenda much forward. 

Get capacity development ambitions right

Taking context into account implies that country partners, when promoting CD, must adapt (ambitions, speed, scope and sequencing) to the systemic/contextual realities, influence these factors when possible, and/or work with stakeholders (political, economic and religious elites, popular organizations etc.) to address selected systemic issues directly when feasible.  Context should not be “assumed away”, it should be seen as an opportunity and a reality to adapt to.

There are no blueprints that will define a best path way across sectors, countries and situations. They have to be developed, tested and adjusted along the trajectory of CD and change. This is similar to other situations where management and leadership are involved: managers and leaders constantly decide and adjust – and do not act according to predefined blueprints.

Donors can help partners in this process of getting CD ambitions right by staying in the background, being helpful partners in dialogue and provide access to requisite knowledge that can strengthen the country partners’ processes. Donors can also broker networks and bring actors together in or across sectors. They cannot, however, convert CD to a process where it ends up being a donor conceived project where all substantial inputs are assumed to come from the donor(s).

Successful CD and reform hinges on a solid and practical ownership by country partners, demanding a corresponding investment of leadership energy, power, political capital and scarce managerial and technical resources (EuropeAid 2009a). Critically, donors must carefully avoid disenfranchising country partners from investing in change by overwhelming them technically, financially or even politically, thereby undermining the ownership.     

There is a tendency for aid to put the bar of ambitions for CD too high – expecting comprehensive CD and reform to happen over short time spans. There are strong incentives behind this both among country partners and donors: Reform can be high on the political agendas of both, and politicians want appealing agendas, and short-term results. This tends to push aid agendas – and accompanying CD and reform agendas - upwards in ambition and downwards in time horizon. 

In fragile situations and aid dependent countries it may be particularly difficult to “keep the feet on the ground”. “Capacity-deficits” may be abundant, service delivery appalling and regulatory efficiency a rather distant dream(International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding 2010; OECD 2010).    

Facing the reality of these incentives, country partners and the donors assisting them need to:

  • Dialogue explicitly about CD ambition levels, and set them close to what realistically can be achieved. The dialogue should be informed by the assessment of the context, stakeholder interests and the capacity to manage CD and change.
  • Include “quick wins” and pitch at the right level. CD is often dismissed because it is seen as not delivering politically relevant results within a reasonable horizon. Or it is seen as focusing on donor-delivered processes: training courses, workshops, reports etc. Successful, marketable CD has to do better: it has, in relatively short time,  to deliver at least slightly better services and products from the organizations it occurs in, and an improved capacity to perform of these organizations (Boesen and Therkildsen 2004; EuropeAid 2005).

Identifying and achieving concrete, tangible quick wins that give stakeholders some sense of progress is obviously not easy in constrained environments. But identifying where small change may have a visible impact – e.g. using IT to transfer salaries to teachers so that they don’t have to travel for two days to collect their pay – may make or break the wider CD process.

Harness the leadership and management for change

Making context matter for CD consistently points to a perspective on CD and change where assessments of existing capacity, standard prescriptions and elaborate logical frameworks play a lesser role.  Instead, the emphasis is on scouting the context, identifying those who will press for change and those who will resist it, and managing change as a process of harnessing a coalition strong and persistent enough to see CD or reform through.

Change management continues to include strong attention to good technical design, and to lessons learned about what has worked and not worked in other contexts. But the leadership and management issues related to CD – roles that cannot be delegated to donors or to e.g. technical assistance – need to be the centre of attention from the start if CD is to be successful within the odds set by the context.      

This is not a search for leadership despite all constraints, or an inflated expectation that leaders can break deeply engrained patterns of power and behavior at will. They cannot. However, they can go against some of the grain, some of the time. Whether and how far that ends up becoming a new, institutionalized pattern depends on the support they generate and how well they can appease opposition to change.   How well CD adapts to and influences the environment depends on the change management capacity that can be made available including, critically, leadership by country actors.  

For country partners, this means that ownership of CD and reform very concretely is about investment of visible leadership resources – whether it is with the aim of enhancing the capacity of schools to perform in remote rural areas; or with the aim of developing the capacity of an account unit to deliver monthly balances accurately and on time.  

For donors, this means a better understanding of and respect for the realities – including the political realities – that shape and constrain change readiness in organisations, sectors or countries. Looking for country leadership (and understanding its limitations) is paramount. As important, donors need to abstain from trying to replace this leadership by their own and from behaving in a manner that de facto undermines and even de-legitimizes domestic leadership, e.g. through donor-driven parallel units or projects that are broadcasted as donor projects rather than domestic projects.

This creates dilemmas and tensions for donors and partners alike – between short and long term goals, between the distribution of control, power and authority in the aid relationships, between donor field staff and headquarters, between civil servants and their political masters, between discourse and realities on the ground.

For both country partners and donors, the first helpful thing they can do is to talk about these matters. It will lead to more modest, but eventually more ambitious approach to CD that patiently delivers a more dynamic fit to context, influencing it when possible and adapting to it, as needed.