• Chris

In the face of uncertainty, let us not reject novelty

What would it be like if in an application process NGOs evaluated other NGO’s proposals?

Reading Adam Grant's "Originals" this weekend sparked some thoughts about global development sector. I paraphrase a section in one of the chapters.


In a study of circus acts the most accurate predictor of whether a video (of a circus act) would get liked, shared and funded were peers evaluating each other.  Creators (those who invented the act) were too positive about their own work.  While managers (i.e. people who might invest in and introduce new acts) tended to be more risk averse, and to under value, almost 50% of the time, novel ideas that were successful.

Peers lacked the risk-aversion of managers, were open to the potential in unusual possibilities and because they have no investment in the ideas have enough distance to offer honest appraisal.

How does that relate to international development?

Most grant applications submitted to donors are likely to be reviewed by an individual with the characteristics of a “manager”. As a result they are likely to be risk averse and focus greater effort on the cost of investing in bad ideas - and thus avoiding it -, rather than the benefits of piloting good ones.  If we assume that their percentage of success is like circus managers, then the world may be potentially losing out on twice as many opportunities to achieve the sustainable development goals than it currently does.

If an NGO had to rate their own application they would probably be more optimistic and lenient about how good it really is.

But a peer NGO, someone of a similar size, a similar context would be able to assess the application with a more critical and honest eye.  Because they would have experience in implementing similar projects, and the challenges that can occur, they could determine with better accuracy whether another NGOs approach was likely to work or not.

Why is this important?

As we approach the second half of 2018, we also take one further step closer to 2030, the year that the world committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  While achieving the targets is not only the responsibility of non-profits, they will have a crucial role to play in shaping and moving civil society.  The current system though does not nurture enough new actors to tackle these development problems.  Actors who are closest to the problems society faces and have novel ideas on how they can be addressed.

If we want to eliminate inequality and poverty by 2030, we don’t only need a lot more money.  We urgently need all the novel ideas from all the actors we can support.

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