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Marta Foresti of ODI responds to AGI case study

This case study makes a very interesting and compelling read. What I found especially fascinating is not only - or not so much - the analysis of the successes and achievements of the Liberia 150 days plan itself, interesting as it is. Rather, this case study offers a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what is behind the scenes of policy reform processes, something which is often not documented or at best only hinted at in case studies of this kind. This story explores questions such as where is the reform process coming from? What was its impetus, whose idea was it and how and why did it come about? What were the incentives for the main actors to get involved and commit to the process as it developed?

As such Liberia’s 150 Days plan and the processes that made it possible are a very good example of what Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett call ‘Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation’ and its four main key features. First, the Plan is aimed at solving particular problems in particular local contexts,. Second, the Plan appears to have emerged via an ‘authorizing environment’ for decision-making that at least to some extent has encouraged if not proper experimentation at least some elements of ‘positive deviance’. In turn, the experience as a whole seems to have allowed on-going learning and adaptation (including from failures). Finally, the initiative has clearly engaged broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are politically viable, legitimate and implementable.

The experience of AGI supporting the plan also resonates with the work we do in the ODI Politics and Governance programme on working politically: in particular, the case study offers a useful example of what a ‘semi-autonomous change facilitation organisation’ such as AGI can achieve by operating at arm’s length from traditional donors and other external actors who often undermine domestic reform processes. More generally the analysis points to the importance of brokering relationship between key stakeholders, seizing windows of political opportunities as they arise, and helping to resolve collective action problems. There is an increasing convergence and consensus in academic and policy circles on the centrality of these issues in supporting policy reform processes; it is therefore both useful and timely to document practical examples of what these approaches look like in practice.

One particularly interesting insight of the case study is the analysis of the role played by the Liberia Media Centre (LMC) in tracking the progress of the 150 day plan and pressuring the government into delivering on its promises. This is a very good example of what the enabling conditions are for meaningful engagement between civil society and government, something that is too often taken for granted and promoted as a one size fits all solution for all kinds of accountability problems. In reality, for this to work it takes specific competencies and a constructive approach to building a mutual relationship of trust between state and non-state actors.

The fact that the case study reflects on the failures as well as the successes of the Plan is the icing on the cake of this interesting and useful story.

There are aspects of the story that I have not found entirely convincing though. First, the broader lessons on ‘how to do’ 100 day plans effectively in different contexts seem slightly at odds with the main findings of the Liberia case. These point to the importance of how the plan evolves, not just what it delivers, who supports it why and how; and more broadly to the importance of navigating the political space. But in contrast, the general lessons for future plans appear to fall back on general principles or ‘gold standards’ of ‘good reform processes’, largely drawing on performance management principles.

Finally, I was left feeling that I wanted to know more and understand better the role of AGI in supporting the Plan. It is a little unclear the extent to which this was part of the original purpose of the case study, but in practice it would have been interesting to know more about how AGI got involved in Liberia in the first place, its history engaging with the Sirleaf presidency and government, some reflection on the opportunities but also on the limitations of the specific model of engagement adopted by AGI. More specifically, it would be useful to know more about how AGI gained and maintained the level of trust necessary to ‘be at the table’ in a role that over time seems to have evolved from a mostly supportive one to a much more engaged role in the actual policy process, unlike much traditional technical assistance.

Overall, this case study is a compelling read and a worthwhile contribution to the governance debate. It is also encouraging that an organisation like AGI is willing to share its experiences and engage in a critical discussion about its interventions. I’d encourage not just governance specialists but the wider development professional network to read it.