The best way to tackle sustainable development in Africa

Despite setting out to achieve the ‘best’ impacts or results, many development initiatives implemented by governments and organisations around the world do not achieve their intended results. It must be acknowledged that each development initiative or program is different; these differences range from budget, to country of implementation, to focus area, to targeted community, to many others. Despite this, the reasons put forward for failure are usually the same: a lack of action, money, local support, partners, and resources, amongst others. People are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the inefficiencies in social programming, which is prompting many governments and organisations around the world to re-focus their efforts on increasing accountability for their performance and results. The Results-Based Accountability (RBA) methodology, also known as Outcomes-Based Accountability (OBA), used in many parts of the world offers a fresh approach for organisations and governments wishing to set, and more importantly achieve, measurable sustainable development outcomes.

Why is RBA particularly relevant for African governments and communities?

In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Development reported that Africa received more than $55 billion (USD) in official development assistance in 2013. Of the total amount received, more than half of this amount (over $US 30 billion) went to least developed countries, yet many of these countries and their governments continue to face serious sustainable development challenges across all facets of society. The RBA methodology is one potential solution for these countries and governments as a tool for helping them design, measure, and report on initiatives and programs intended to eradicate or overcome sustainable development challenges. Further, RBA would help them to increase accountability so that clear performance measures can be reported at regular intervals to those the programs are intended to impact or support. This would also lead to a more efficient way of spending development aid. Understanding whether programs are actually achieving the intended results will help government officials channel resources into the programs that actually work.

Usage of RBA has already begun to take hold in parts of Africa and it has been recognised as a conceivable path to improvement. Tsitsi Masiywa, one of Africa’s leading philanthropists and Executive Chairperson of the Higher Life Foundation, has advocated for the use of RBA to tackle social issues. For example, in a keynote speech delivered at the world’s first international RBA Africa Summit (which the author was present at) in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2014, Masiyiwa stated that “with the power of RBA and breakthroughs in technology, it is conceivable that every child has the right to learn and will attend school, that no child will die from preventable diseases, and that no child will suffer from absolute poverty.” She concluded her keynote by stating that “RBA is an opportunity for us to invest, collectively, quality time to reflect on the impact we are making in building better communities.” 

So what is RBA?

RBA is a data-driven framework for decision making that helps communities and organisations go from talk to action quickly while improving their wellbeing. The core process of RBA, called ‘Turn the Curve Thinking’, is an ends-to-means process whereby communities or organisations establish the results they want to achieve and then work collaboratively to measure and improve progress using appropriate data measures. According to Mark Friedman, creator of the methodology and author of the seminal RBA guide Trying Hard is Not Good Enough, “RBA is a disciplined way of thinking and taking action that can be used to improve the quality of life in communities, cities, counties, states and nations. RBA can also be used to improve the performance of programs, agencies and service systems.” Adam Luecking, CEO of Clear Impact, the United States based organisation that provides executive coaching and education to governments, individuals, and organisations wishing to implement RBA, states that RBA is important because “it provides the core concepts and language discipline necessary to help sustain collaborative initiatives and achieve measurable impact in any community.”   

How does RBA work?

The RBA methodology approaches sustainable development challenges differently from other methodologies in that it begins with the desired end conditions first and then works backwards to determining the means to get there. According to Friedman, ‘ends’ at the programmatic level are “how customers are better off when the program works the way it should such as the percent of people in a job training program who get and keep good paying jobs.” RBA can be used to develop improvement strategies at both the population level (like a collaborative strategy intended to benefit all school students in Kenya) and the performance level (like an after-school reading program). In order for RBA to be successful at both levels, the collection of data relevant to the development challenge is necessary. Without data, it is difficult to implement the measures necessary to improve performance and the well-being of a community. For example, without measuring the number of children who are not attending school, it is difficult to then know if the goal of improving school attendance is actually being obtained or whether the strategy or program needs to be modified in some way.

Commenting on the simplicity of the approach, Luecking says, “achieving results for a given population works best when stakeholders agree on the desired end, understand their roles, and use data to mark their progress. While RBA might sound complicated at first, it’s actually based on two very simple principles. One, that knowing where you want to end up will help determine the best way to get there. And two, that using data-driven, transparent, and inclusive decision making will allow others to share in charting a path to achieve those results.”

Where has RBA been successfully implemented?

RBA thinking has been utilised by many organisations and governments (of different levels) around the world for more than twenty years. It has been used in more than forty states across the United States, where it was first developed and tested, as well as internationally. In Africa it has been used, or is currently being used in Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Outside of the African continent it has been, or is currently being used, in Australia, New Zealand, and across the United Kingdom. The achievements attributed to the use of RBA vary widely across sectors, including public health, education, economics, safety, transportation, child welfare, and others. There are many documented cases of success that can be found in Friedman’s Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough and Turning Curves: An Accountability Companion Reader, as well as Adam Luecking’s The Holy Grail of Public Leadership.

A key feature of RBA is that it does not depend on distinctions between developed and developing countries and can be used in both types of countries with equal success. Luecking, reaffirms this important point, by noting that “the great thing about RBA is that it relies on people coming together to determine the common-ground, common-sense conditions of wellbeing that they want for their community – things like safe neighbourhoods, prospering economies, and healthy people. These are ideas that can transcend cultural differences, political ideologies, and economic systems. RBA also relies on utilizing simple, jargon-free language so that anyone can participate. Finally, RBA emphasizes the importance of developing both low-cost and no-cost ideas as part of an improvement strategy. For all of three reasons, RBA can be applied to virtually any problem anywhere around the world.”

The results achieved to date from programs across the world using RBA, prove that it is successful and that it has the power to effect positive and meaningful sustainable development. Africa, a continent that has incredible potential yet is facing many such development challenges, also has the power to achieve long-term positive change through the wide-scale implementation of RBA.

Written by Ken Fullerton