20 July, 2014

If development were soccer

By Rakesh Rajani

If there were a prize for global organisations most at risk of corruption, FIFA, the International Federation of Football (Soccer) Association, could be a contender.

In several respects, FIFA’s inside dealing and lack of transparency is reminiscent of the poor governance of many developing countries. For some countries, this is associated with malaise and dysfunction, misuse of public resources, poor public service delivery, and entrenched inequities. But the state of soccer, far from being a basket case, is vibrant and thriving.

Look at the excitement among billions of people all over the world tuning in to the World Cup 2014. Walk through East Africa’s bustling communities on weekends, and you will likely see animated people listening to the beautiful game. You can see much of the same across large parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Why does soccer work? Why, unlike so many badly governed public agencies, NGOs, and projects, is soccer so powerful, lively, and engaging?

Might it provide useful insights for how we think about development in countries where the intractable problems of supra-governance will not be sorted out soon? Soccer and development, while very different, have several features in common.

Both have purposes or goals to score. Both need someone deciding whether conduct is right, imposing sanctions for foul behavior, and judging the final outcome. And both need a diverse set of actors who need to be motivated and work together to deliver.

But each handles these features very differently.

twawezaSoccer as a metaphor for international development may seem frivolous, except that the features that make the game work may be essential to motivating and realizing success in development.

Focus on goals

All soccer players focus clearly on goals. In development, there are also goals and purposes. While some are clearer than others, too many initiatives suffer from three kinds of problems. First, they try to do too many things at once. When an organisation does this, it tends to get distracted, pulled in too many directions, and energy and focus dissipate. Ultimately, it fails to reach important goals in any meaningful sense.

I have seen this in Tanzania’s education sector, for example, where programmes have tried to initiate reforms with teachers and books and infrastructure and curriculum and pedagogy and examinations and finances and governance and gender and HIV/AIDS and environment, all at the same time.

Second, because achieving goals can take time and require several steps, there is a tendency to develop many interim markers of progress. Keeping track of these intended signposts toward ultimate goals can become so time-consuming that one loses sight of the goals themselves. This would be the equivalent, in soccer, of players focusing so much on counting the number of passes, height of their headers, speed of their runs and the like, that no one remembers the score.

Third, incentives are not aligned to reward development success. The health worker who toils nine hours a day delivering quality care is likely paid the same as an absent and discourteous colleague. And whether a project gets renewed, or a ministry receives more budget, or a country receives more aid is determined largely by factors other than its track record of attaining goals. Ideas such as the Centre for Global Development’s Cash on Delivery, a version of which we are testing in Tanzania to improve learning outcomes, need more attention from development partners.

Soccer is Radically Transparent

Assessments of outcomes don’t get fudged in soccer, in part due to the clarity of goals and rules, as well as the independence of the referees. Assessment is also clear because the game is radically transparent and played out in the open. This means that everyone can have an informed opinion about the game. There’s increasing opportunity to voice those opinions – be it on the manager’s strategy, players’ performance, referees’ calls, or fans’ behavior— through social media and traditional media. Players and managers know they need to do well and to play it right. This sort of deep public transparency fosters accountability like nothing else.

The field of development is also moving toward greater transparency, aided by technologies that make it easier to collect, store, analyse, visualise, and share data; and by pressure of citizens from India to Sierra Leone to Brazil, demanding their right to know. For example, on the issue of transparency, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral effort run equally by government and civil society, which now involves 64 countries, is a powerful new platform to do some of the things soccer does best. By joining, each member country is nudged to advance the frontiers of transparency and report on progress on an annual basis, which is subject to independent review. While there are challenges, the OGP is enabling reformers worldwide to learn from each other, and to innovate, collaborate and solve problems. In the process government is slowly being reinvented to work better for people.

Soccer’s vitality derives from the clarity of its regulatory framework; clear alignment of goals, success, and incentives; and the open nature of its play. Soccer as a metaphor for international development may seem frivolous, except that the features that make the game work may be essential to motivating and realizing success in development.

Perhaps, when it comes to solving complex challenges in governance and development, play may be just the verb we need.

As with soccer, getting a few key things right about the core aspects of development may matter more than sorting out the intransigence of its supra governance. For a great game of soccer, and possibly for development, everyday governance and incentives writ small matter more than the election of officials who hand out the trophies. Observe the young people who play soccer every day, how they think, how they make their moves, how they make the game flow. Observe the intensity and delight in their play. You will know that they’ve got something deeply right.

RR mugshotRakesh Rajani is the founder and head of Twaweza in East Africa and the civil society chair of the Open Government Partnership.

This post is based on an essay that first appeared as part of USAID’s Frontiers in Development series. Read the original here.

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