A closer look at development aid: understanding the obsession with measurement

March 28, 2024

In their latest book, Obsessive Measurement Disorder or Pragmatic Bureaucracy?, authors Susanna Alexius and Janet Vähämäki explore the complexities of development aid. Leveraging their expertise in organizational research and hands-on experience in the aid sector, they offer valuable insights on the complex dynamics at play.

Photo: mizoula / Getty Images.

Written by Ilona Kazaryan / Published on 25 March 2024 by SEI.

Susanna Alexius, an associate professor at Stockholm University, and Janet Vähämäki of SEI discussed the concept of Obsessive Measurement Disorder (OMD) in the aid sector at a book launch event hosted by the Swedish Development Research Network (SweDev) and SEI earlier this month.

Drawing from 80 interviews with Swedish development aid leaders, their book uncovers how OMD can impede aid projects by prioritizing regulations and measurements over progress and effectiveness in aid organizations.

Rethinking approaches to aid effectiveness

At this launch event, Alexius and Vähämäki shared fresh and timely insights on aid effectiveness and organizational resilience from their book and challenged aid professionals to embrace adaptability and rethink approaches in an ever-changing aid environment.

As the aid chain becomes more complex and aid flows through different actor groups, including civil society organizations, research organizations, national agencies and the private sector, the pressure to measure and regulate is large. The authors challenge the notion that deregulation is the answer to this increasing complexity, instead suggesting a deeper look at the interplay between regulations, relationships and aid effectiveness.

The book challenges the typical portrayal of aid organizations as purely donors, recipients or intermediaries, showing how they often switch roles. It introduces the concept of proper organization proxies (POPs) to handle uncertainty in the field. Alexius and Vähämäki argue that the current focus on making sure that aid is channelled through proper organizations may sometimes overshadow its actual impact.

Striking a balance between bureaucracy and pragmatism in aid organizations

OMD occurs when there is high external criticism and a need for certainty in an organization, which prompts the implementation of more measurement schemes to legitimize work. This can result in short-sighted decision-making, a focus on immediate results, lack of learning opportunities for new and experienced staff, high turnover, stress, and a shift of decision-making power to technical staff rather than those with thematic expertise. OMD results from a quest for legitimacy and efficiency, lack of practical knowledge and supportive culture, and a disconnect between bureaucrats and the impact of their decisions on recipients.

The book explores finding balance between hyper bureaucracy and hyper pragmatism, highlighting the drawbacks of both. It introduces the concept of pragmatic bureaucracy, defined as “the use of judgment to identify a sweet spot between the extremes of bureaucracy and pragmatism, where rules and systems are used rationally when possible, and pragmatically when needed”.

At the event, Alexius and Vähämäki argued that pragmatic bureaucracy is an antidote to OMD. Pragmatic bureaucrats know when and how to bend rules and navigate complex systems, dare to take responsibility, and have the courage to walk the extra mile to protect the fundamental objectives of aid.

The authors also stressed the importance of understanding and making sense of these bureaucratic systems rather than blindly following them, noting that the highest risks of OMD come about when a bureaucrat becomes indifferent and stops taking responsibility for how bureaucracy impacts the parties involved.

Exploring development practices: insights from a seasoned expert

Duncan Green, Professor in Practice at the LSE and strategic advisor to Oxfam GB, offered commentary at the event on the intricacies of development work, noting that it involves navigating the balance between certainty and improvization. He expressed his support of the concept of POPs, recognizing that they can have both positive and negative effects. While this concept encourages supporting organizations that show potential for positive impact, exclusively backing organizations that mirror our own could potentially stifle diversity and innovation in the sector.

While he is enthusiastic about funding organizations over projects, he noted it is important to exercise caution when approaching this strategy. While external experts provide valuable insights, over-reliance on them can lead to dependency and uncertainty. As such, the right consultant in the right role is key to steer an organization in the right direction.

Establishing a chain of trust between donor, senior management and delivery teams is also paramount, and it is key to understand donors’ needs and serve as a supportive manager to field staff. As such, it can be valuable to explore the heuristics used by bureaucrats in decision-making processes.

This trust chain can be fragile, however, with a great potential for misunderstandings, One common weak link is the donor, as staff turnover and the challenges of measuring benefits like women’s empowerment that are seen as more qualitative can potentially cause donors to prioritize more easily measurable programs.

Moving beyond certainty towards effectiveness

Obsessive Measurement Disorder or Pragmatic Bureaucracy? serves as a valuable resource for aid practitioners, policymakers and researchers seeking to enhance the impact and sustainability of their interventions. By challenging conventional wisdom about the possibility to reach certainty in development aid, Alexius and Vähämäki explore new avenues for creating positive impact.

The book is a must-read for anyone committed to making a difference in the lives of vulnerable populations, and reiterates the importance of critical thinking and collaborative efforts in driving meaningful change.

You can read the open access book here, and the book launch recording can be viewed here.