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How to write the recommendations to a report on almost anything: introducing Friday Formulae

October 22, 2010
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I really enjoyed (if that’s the right word…) the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, but when it got to its recommendations, it struck me cover_generalsynthesisas incredibly formulaic. In that respect, it resembled an awful lot of the stuff I read (and, I fear, write) from thinktanks, international organizations and NGOs – fascinating diagnosis; shame about the cure.

So based on the MAE, and in the spirit of a jaded Friday morning blog, here’s my ‘Friday formula’ for how to write the recommendations section of a report on almost anything:

Start with Governance: Any issue requires improved governance, including integration of issue X with everything else, coordination between all actors working on issue X and of course, transparency and accountability. Motherhood and apple pie an optional extra.

Voice: Who’s not at the table, but should be?

Move onto economic incentives: getting rid of bad ones (eg fossil fuel subsidies), introducing good ones (eg feed in tariffs) that align economic activity with the activities you are trying to encourage.

Social and behavioural aspects: Include something on curbing northern consumption, but if you want to be a bit edgy, talk about the need to change attitudes and beliefs in developing countries too

Technologies: OK, now it’s getting tricky, but there’s a technological aspect to most discussions on development, so you can’t ignore it. You may want to distinguish between nice and nasty technologies. Always say there is no magic/silver bullet.

More and better data: Phew, back on safe ground again – there is never enough, it’s never gender disaggregated, and it omits vital aspects of the issue in question.

How to achieve all this? Political will, of course (aka, we’ve got no idea).

And end with what I now call by its initials, NMR – Needs More Research. After all, we don’t want to be out of a job, do we?

There’s nothing wrong with these recommendations – most of them are entirely sensible, but they aren’t sufficient. What’s missing? Power, politics, argument. These reports seem to inhabit a cosy world, in which enlightened technocrats endlessly seek (and find) win-win answers to any given problem – such solutions do exist, but not always. That may explain why the diagnosis is almost invariably more enlightenening than the recommendations. Real solutions often emerge unpredictably, often involving ‘contestation’ (i.e. win-lose) and shocks (economic meltdowns, conflict, natural disasters). Much trickier to predict, write about, or even understand.

What have I missed? Please add your bits to the recommendations template. Next week: The five standard excuses of (all) politicians.

8 comments

  1. Or in other words development is done by people mired in all kinds of competing forces, is inevitably clunky and much of the best of what emerges is wholly unintended! So as well as ‘governance’, how do we help people build the capacities they need to navigate intelligently all the ‘stuff that happens’ – not only giving people voice but levers of change – knowledge, skills etc – to build an informed politics!

  2. Indeed Duncan, it is power and political analysis that is often lacking. Wishful thinking about how we are going to create a better world, but fear to name and shame. Most of the institutes and researchers that write the reports do not want to be explicit about the power relations (or the persons, ministries, institutes or even NGOs) that inhibit this creation of a better world. They want to stay friends with everybody… that is part of the same political game they (we) are all in. The illusion of win-win

  3. The thing about naming and shaming, and why people don’t do it (or at least people in countries where it matters don’t do it), is that those in power have a way of closing down debate. Quite swiftly in many cases. We had an interesting situation a few months ago on the Eldis Community site (http://community.eldis.org) where an interesting debate amongst Malawian researchers about food security rapidly dried up when people (not those debating, I should add!) started getting banged up for critiquing govt policy on food security. While the two were not related (as in, it was a coincidence that the clamp-down occurred around the same time as the debate), we had to remove the whole discussion as we didn’t want those involved to feel exposed by their online comments.

    In Duncan’s example, I guess the technocrats are aware that playing politics involves getting your hands dirty in some way, whereas not committing themselves one or another means they can retain a sense of objectivity and apolitical bias…

  4. The misunderstanding has come into play. And the excessive politics of growth skepticism has caused more trouble – even more, I think – because it could get worse.

    It is time to reflect the realities of economic and social policy efforts in the making – before trouble sets in.

    The consequences of this is especially distracting to many people around the world such as me, and too much politics can be problematic to those who shape history past and present as well as the future because of the effects of growth skepticism have on people’s minds.

    The real aspect of such a phenomenon is yet to be known. It needs proof before undertaking the better path towards a kind of governance format.

    It would be foolhardy to announce the details of any sort of plan to take as it is difficult to define the aspects of what I call a “governance dilemma”.

    It is important to remember the really philosopical and ideological existence of growth skepticism – and empower people who are taking up the struggle against the spurrious ideas that are detrimental to economic resilience and growth and social progress.

    It is up to them to decide on whether to carry on or not. But they need to be cautious about the need for a case to bring the topic about the real economy into the public discussion.

    It is time to make it real in understanding the merits (and relevance) of the real economy – and there is no turning back in shaping the history of economic growth and accompanying social progress in various countries around the globe.

  5. I was LOLing when I read this blog! It made my day, especially on the Political Will part. Thanks, Duncan!

    I just want to add that not only in reports but even in conferences, workshops, seminars, fora and gabfest, we hear a lot of brilliant analyses and insights but poor recommendations.

    In the Friday template, might be helpful to identify “Blockers, Champions, and Floaters”.

  6. Good one, duncan. I see myself here, to my horror.

    Don’t forget the vital role of leveraging the private sector (for relevant contexts) – usually without naming any specific member of this esteemed group, nor why they would realistically have the slightset interest in pursuing the goals beyond CSR.

    I had two thoughts in response:

    1. all recommendations should submit to SMART criteria.

    2. we should stage ninja interventions whenever “political will” is invoked, tie down the speaker, and demand they name 5 specific individuals for whom “political will” is the issue.

  7. A bright start for my week-end.

    These “reasonable” assessments are so boring, and they don’t really advocate change, but repeat the consensus. Consensus is nice, but we don’t need an assessment to know it, although voicing it might be a nice advantage.

    With all these balanced views, what we miss is some good zealots, taking on just a few things that seem unchangeable, and attack them until it moves.

  8. It is better to look more closely at the assessments because they are so varying mainly in numbers – can anyone else know how to accurately assess the criteria?

    To Sam: Please tell the truth regarding the “good zealots” right now, and what do you say about “taking on just a things that seem unchangable, and attack them until it moves”? Where is the true logic behind those ideas that invoke political will? Thank you very much.

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