Monday, August 30, 2010

Air-Traffic Controllers' Lesson for Development

Guest post by Felipe Cabezas.

Thinking about the recent buzz about aid transparency on my flight from Milwaukee to Washington, DC, I wonder if we will use more information to improve programs’ effectiveness or to conduct business as usual. Of course, a large part of that depends on how we gather – and display – information.

Perhaps we should turn to air-traffic controllers for guidance.

Air-traffic controllers oversee specific airplanes within a specific flight zone – not the entire air space. When trying to land an airplane, they communicate directly with the pilot and elicit pertinent information. They already know some things (for example, current weather conditions) but rely entirely on the pilot for airplane-specific information (for example, mechanical issues). When assessing information from multiple airplanes, air-traffic controllers discuss among themselves and develop a plan to land all of the airplanes within their flight zone. But this plan continually evolves. At any moment, an unexpected problem could occur which would cause the air-traffic controllers to adjust their initial plan. And because air-traffic controllers are not flying the airplanes, they need to constantly share their updated plans with each pilot to ensure that no airplane lands unsuccessfully – or worse, collides with another. All of this occurs from the moment an airplane enters a flight zone until it reaches its terminal gate.

So, what do air-traffic controllers teach us about aid? Just as Dennis wrote earlier, actionable, transformative information comes from the right sources and is provided to the right people at the right time.

From the Right Sources: We must communicate directly with beneficiaries as well as other stakeholders who have been the primary source of information in the past. Beneficiaries have critical information that experts do not have. But experts also have information – including lessons from experiences elsewhere – that beneficiaries do not have.

To the Right People: Aid agencies and stakeholders must collaborate not only ex-ante but also during implementation. Aid agencies devise programs that are intended to help beneficiaries. Due to unexpected problems, no aid program works perfectly as designed. Stakeholders (especially beneficiaries) must provide feedback, and aid agencies must listen and readjust their programs accordingly.

At the Right Time: A donor-stakeholder feedback loop must exist in real time. Beneficiary feedback is key. An unexpected problem must be identified and corrected immediately to ensure that a program remains on course. If not, then the program may not serve – and may even harm – the beneficiaries.

Air-traffic controllers want their airplanes to land successfully and rely on a robust, real-time feedback loop to prevent a pile-up of airplanes on the tarmac. Errors have catastrophic – and visible – consequences, which is why good feedback systems have been invented.

The costs of failed aid programs are less visible but no less tragic. The good news is that the right kind of transparency can lead to feedback loops that improve program impact significantly. A recent study in a small area of Uganda showed that improving transparency around the performance of health clinics reduced infant mortality by 33 percent, thereby saving an estimated 550 lives – the same number of people that a Boeing 747 holds.