Damien Sweeney and I were fortunate enough to participate in the Australian Aid Conference 2018, hosted by the Crawford School at ANU.  The conversations in the halls between panels were just as good as the presentations themselves, sparking many nuggets of thoughts to take us through 2018.  So, the Three Golden Nuggets that we will take away from the conference: 

Firstly, complexity is everywhere and we need better ways to deal with it particularly in terms of M&E.  The presentation from Damien and I highlighted the point that good M&E systems don’t necessarily lead to learning and adaptation.  As long as the aid program continues to work in complex environments (such as conflict affected areas) and on complex issues (such as governance), it is essential that learning and adaptation forms the basis of good M&E.  One manner in which we can improve this is through better context monitoring – the humanitarian sector is excellent at this because they are working in chaotic environments, but how good are we at doing context monitoring in governance programs?  Certainly, this is something to consider when designing your Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Frameworks.

Secondly, that we don’t need to innovate when we can adopt.  This may come across as heretical to some (what, no need to innovative?!), though there are plenty of opportunities out there for aid practitioners to adopt what is working well in different contexts.  In particular, there are some amazing individuals and institutions (The Australian Centre for Social Innovation springs to mind) working on super-complex problems in Australia that have excellent approaches to user-centred design, learning / adaptation, etc.  The Australian challenges (health, education, closing the gap, etc) have deeper pockets, longer time-frames and greater incentives to identify solutions, so let’s spend more time looking at what they are doing and learn from them.

Finally, let’s be fit-for-purpose in our approach to accountability.  This perhaps is the most provocative of my golden nuggets.  Though rethinking what we mean by accountability, and framing that differently depending on the investment or the aid portfolio, may enable us to mitigate the principal-agent problem: risk aversion instead of failing-fast or learning-quickly.  A practical example for this is with regards to Facilities, which are set up to be flexible by defining the outcome rather than the actions – accountability can be honed in on the investment decision making criteria and process of the managing party, rather than focusing on the accountability of the actions or even the accountability of achieving outcomes.  This golden nugget ideally would lead to greater focus on improving programs and knowledge generation, and may even lead to better relationships between investor and manager.