Dealing with unintended development policy consequences

Bruce Byiers and Dirk-Jan Koch during the book launch at ECDPM – Photo by ECDPM


Unintended policy consequences are the stuff of urban legend and anecdote. Many years ago, the town of Quelimane in Mozambique was infested with rats. Having struggled to exterminate them, a scheme was set up to pay 1 Metical per rat to encourage wider participation in the roundup. From that point, legend has it, breeding rats became more profitable than catching them. Other examples abound, with projects to inform or build capacity leading to better avoidance of the rules rather than compliance and other such outcomes. People are creative and will often find ways to game systems – and development policy is no exception.

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    An important issue back on the table

    That was the crux of a discussion we hosted at ECDPM on Dirk-Jan Koch’s new book, ‘The Unintended Consequences of Aid’. Though not an ‘aid project’, the rat example reflects his idea that projects can trigger unintended knock-on effects and responses, and that there is a value to understanding those and their consequences.

    Though maybe not a new idea – it was at the heart of the seminal 1994 book ‘The Anti-Politics Machine’, describing technically designed projects that went astray in Lesotho – it is worth putting the point back on the table. It also comes from an employee of the Dutch foreign ministry and therefore may impact on those actually creating development policies.

    Projects can trigger unintended knock-on effects and responses, and there is a value to understanding those and their consequences.

    The right words can help

    Koch provides a taxonomy of ten different types of unintended consequences. These go from backlashes against development actors to conflict effects, price and behavioural effects, governance and marginalisation effects, climate effects, negative spillovers, displacement/migration effects, and positive spillovers. For each category, he shares examples of where well-meaning ‘donor’ interventions went astray, sometimes with dramatic consequences beyond the waste of money or creating a market for rats. He therefore helpfully illustrates an issue, but also provides a language for people to discuss it, which may be key for how useful it is for policymakers.

    As the book explicitly seeks to be a starting point for discussion, three thoughts came to mind that could build on this thinking.

    Aid versus international development?

    Though the author motivates his interest in the topic with the Dodd-Frank Act on conflict minerals, and the need for global solidarity to address global problems, the title is about aid, and most of the examples are about ‘aid projects’. But the categories are arguably applicable to wider development policy – or any public policy.

    Even if aid projects are important in international cooperation, this framing seems more restrictive than necessary. Some may criticise the shift from aid to development to cooperation to partnerships as more rhetoric than substance, but aid is only a small part of how international actors affect outcomes in emerging economies.

    The wider policies and approaches of development agencies, but also foreign and finance ministries, can have unintended consequences, hindering or undoing progress in other areas – what is generally referred to as (lack of) policy coherence. Examples are tax or trade policies, the introduction of new technologies, or climate-focused policies such as the EU’s carbon border tax. Those will also trigger a chain of development effects at multiple levels.

    Indeed, any policy or socio-economic development process will bring positive and negative (unintended) effects. The author’s discussion of how aid projects contribute to domestic resettlement, for example, seems to underplay the wider role of economic incentives beyond aid, where rural-urban migration is often more about livelihoods, avoiding conflict and moving off increasingly unproductive land. The book’s focus on aid may therefore limit the readership of what could be a useful tool more broadly.

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    Bruce Byiers and Dirk-Jan Koch during the book launch at ECDPM – Photo by ECDPM

    If, then, what?

    Having identified the issue of unintended consequences and dispelled the myths around these – that they are unforeseeable and unavoidable, for example – the question then is what to do.

    The book gives recommendations for the ten types of unintended consequences. These can be boiled down to: being clear about one’s own positionality and motives, transparent and honest in one’s communication, and discrete where it can help; working inclusively and using local knowledge; knowing and adapting to one’s context and people’s interests; mapping, researching and measuring the potential indirect effects of actions; coordinating among donors and partners; and trying to offset negative effects or finding positive ones.

    The author is aware of the risk of ‘white gaze’ that may distort one’s reading of a context, including his own, thus his repeated emphasis on calling for development practitioners to work more with people at the local level and, ideally, have locally-designed and -owned projects.

    While all those may be easier said than done, and even if the author’s key recommendation is to ‘embrace complexity thinking’, there is still a risk that the underlying ‘project’ approach oversimplifies the way of thinking about these unintended consequences. To put backlash effects on a par with price effects, behavioural effects or governance effects, for example, seems to give the impression that ‘project designers’ can still come up with their proposed solution and then simply select the potential consequence to look out for and work on that.

    There is still a risk that the underlying ‘project’ approach oversimplifies the way of thinking about these unintended consequences.

    In reality, any project or policy could face a combination of the ten consequences. If one thinks of climate and fuel subsidies – as McCulloch does – one can envisage the price effect of removing subsidies leading to both desired and undesired behavioural effects, but also marginalisation effects, with likely governance and maybe even backlash and conflict effects, while the rising cost of fuel could lead to displacement and wider negative spillovers into other economic activities.

    Those involved in alternatives to fuel-based transport may indeed see some positive spillovers. That then suggests a sequence or hierarchy of connected, unintended consequences at different levels rather than discrete types, where some might have more harmful consequences than others.

    Rather than the project-then-consequences approach, this multi-layered picture of unintended consequences might be better addressed through a bottom-up, ‘problem-driven’ approach – a more learning-focused approach associated with identifying key unintended consequences at different levels – and exploring who has the interest and power to address those. Though maybe dated, part of the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation approach was precisely about iteratively adapting measures as the consequences of a reform unfold. In fact, ‘project thinking’ itself may be at the root of many of the unintended consequences.

    As such, the taxonomy remains helpful, but could be further helped if practitioners (1) start from problems, not projects; (2) prioritise according to the largest negative consequences; and (3) examine where they can actually have an impact – it would unlikely to be the same for governance and price effects.

    What does the boss say?

    Although the book seeks to avoid being overly critical of aid, it nonetheless is triggered by what the author describes as aid failures – so the fact that it emerges from a government ministry merits some kudos. But of course, the real question is how the book and its ideas will be received and used by those ‘doing development’, such as the author’s colleagues.

    Donor agencies and ministries are often pushed to spend money and follow guidelines in ways that do not leave much space for looking for and addressing unintended consequences.

    While putting words on things and promoting a more honest conversation around aid and development policy is undoubtedly useful, donor agencies and ministries are often pushed to spend money and follow guidelines in ways that do not leave much space for looking for and addressing unintended consequences. Explicit acknowledgement of taboo topics – like hidden power relations – can also create diplomatic tensions, while some can find such analyses ‘paralysing’, reflecting everything that could go wrong while offering no simple solutions.

    Does such explicit acknowledgement of unintended policy consequences run the same risk? And can donor agencies adapt their own practices to adopt more reflective adaptive approaches? That remains to be seen.

    Even if not, perhaps the greatest service of the book then is simply to remind us that any project, policy or reform – whether aid- and development-focused or not – will lead to some kind of behavioural response. If policymakers can already be on the lookout for those, it will help lower the risk of undesirable outcomes.

    The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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