Thursday, September 30, 2010

Paul Polak ... seems like someone whose knowledge is worth a damn

Dear Colleagues

I don't know Paul Polak's work very well ... but my early impression is that he makes a whole lot of sense, and is well worth listening to.

His blog is an easy way to get an idea of what Paul Polak thinks about and how he sees things.

I have not spent a whole lot of time researching Paul's work, but this post with a story from Maputo touched a chord with me.

I have done my own share of work in Mozambique and have experienced something of what Paul describes. In this case the Government official thought of irrigation as "big civil works" rather than being "getting water in the most effective way to plants so they flourish". The government official had his views and was in his office. Paul saw fit to do some visiting of his own and found success where the government saw none.

This is, of course, a big part of the problem with the international relief and development community ... the World Bank, the UN agencies, bilateral organizations like USAID, the UK's DFID and so on ... they are bureaucrats talking to bureaucrats, and very well educated, but God forbid, that reality on the ground should get in the way and that good little things should be encouraged.

Another post starts off:
The single biggest reason that the appropriate technology movement died and most technologies for developing countries never reach scale is that nobody seems to know how to design for the market.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve looked at hundreds of technologies for developing countries. Some provided elegant solutions for challenging technical problems. Some were big and clumsy. Some were far too expensive. Some of were beautifully simple and radically affordable. But only a handful were capable of reaching a million or more customers who live on less than two dollars a day.
This is my experience as well. My perspective is that there is the need to get economic activity so that it is appropriate to the market and the community where it is located. The debris that is littered around developing countries that once were "projects" of the official development assistance (ODA) community is enormous ... and, of course, a disgrace. Worse is that few people in the ODA world really want to learn from it ... the system works quite fine if the goal is simply perpetual existence and a suitable leaky system.

Some years ago, when I was working on an assignment in Africa I was travelling with a very experienced development expert who was about as mad as I was about the way the system had become dysfunctional. He told a story of an assignment (secondment to a developing country's government contracts office) where he had the role of oversight of big international contracts ... mainly to address the issue of over-invoicing on contracts. This practice works so that the business profits are not affected, and there is an adequate surplus to fund bribery. An example he described was a contract invoiced at around $18 million that in this expert's opinion should have been more like $12 million ... and he refused to OK the contract and its payments. Nothing happened ... a delay of a few months, and then a re-billing but this time at $27 million rather than $18 million. The justification for the higher billing now simply that the cost of bribing everyone to progress the contract had gone up substantially. In other words the contract process is highly dependent on the "built in leakage" and not much to do with the technical quality and the price.

I will look a lot more at Paul Pollak's work ... it sounds very much like his knowledge is worth a damn.

Peter Burgess

1 comment:

  1. Really happy to have your imput on paul's new blog. We will be sharing your post on twitter and facebook. Would love to keep interacting on these issues. Paul has written a great book on the subject. There is a great sumary of the book in video. The video is twelve steps to practical problem solving. Thanks again and I hope Paul continues to inspire you. It's my passion to see that pauls wisdom is spread. Paul is driven to see one billion come out of extreme poverty. Sounds like a pipe dream but by listening and acting he isn't alone there are one billion already fighting for a better life and survival. We are really joining there cause not the other way around.