Work by ODI’s Social Protection team in recent months offers a prime example of the innovative networking that makes ODI a leading think tank. Building on two ODI research projects, Social Protection researchers were instrumental in bringing together a like-minded group of researchers. The aim was to find solutions to recurring problems in the uptake of social protection approaches by Governments in developing countries. This was achieved by clearing a space for ideas – escaping meetings, emails and phone calls to work together intensively for three days. Where? In a 13th century chateau in Tennessus, western France.
This story of change has its roots in two pieces of work, a three year research project into the design and impact of cash transfers, financed by the Swiss Development Corporation, 2006-2009, and a piece of field work for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Southern Africa in October 2009.
Again and again, the research found that Governments were not taking up social protection in the way practitioners and donors hoped. For some reason, social protection initiatives were failing to gain traction. ODI research found that, while there were some large-scale nationally initiated social protection programmes being implemented in a few countries, in others there was a multitude of donor initiated pilot programmes that were intended to stimulate particular social protection approaches. It was clear that these pilot programmes were rarely achieving the intended national ‘take-up’ or having a significant impact on government policy, and that many were dogged by problems of donor policy intrusion and even inter-donor competition relating to differing social protection approaches and instruments.
‘Maybe the Governments are not the problem’, says ODI Researcher Anna McCord. ‘Maybe the problem is that social protection initiatives are, very often, imposed from outside and have their own agenda. And maybe the research community needs to do thing differently, to become part of the solution. What’s more, it is clear that others in the research community feel the same. Our interviews in Southern Africa, in particular, convinced us that it was time to sit down and talk.’
The findings led ODI to work with the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP) to convene a meeting of key UK researchers working on Social Protection internationally, from the Centre for Social Protection in the Institute of Development Studies and the University of East Anglia, as well as from RHVP and ODI.
Realising the need to escape from conventional meetings and workshops, to speak freely and openly, the group met at the Chateau de Tennesus, in western France. The Chateau, owned by a member of the group, was offered gratis and, in April this year the researchers boarded bargain flights to Poitiers, with the ODI team paying their own fares from last year’s stories of change prize money.
For the next three days, the team sat in the castle keep to thrash out the core principles that should guide Social Protection research in the future. The aim was ambitious: a fundamental review of how the international donor community (including researchers) works in the social protection sector, what we are achieving internationally, and how we might work in a more developmental and constructive way in the future to improve social protection outcomes.
‘We knew and respected each other’s work, so there was already a level of trust,’ says McCord, ‘but this took things to a new level of honesty about what had been achieved, and what was needed.’
Ideas were exchanged and, as new ideas cropped up they were pinned to the tapestries that lined the walls.
The end result was The Tennessus Principles: ten principles to guide the future engagement of development partners with national social protection policy in Africa. On the basis of these principles, a joint statement setting out five approaches to effective programme development and policy interventions was crafted jointly by the group. These include the need to learn lessons for national implementation from government-driven programmes, rather than from pilot projects.
The Tennessus statement has been communicated worldwide, influencing debates, policies and programming in DFID, AusAID, UNICEF, IDS, the European Union, the ILO, the World Bank and international non-governmental organisations. Within ODI, it has also affected the way the Social Protection team work, and also the assignments which they agree to take on.
The ‘Tennessus model’ of convening small expert groups has also been recognised as a success by DFID and is currently being adopted in other key policy areas.
One key question is whether this kind of approach should be used more widely across ODI to clear the space for ideas, foster creative thinking and encourage open dialogue. One step removed from more conventional networking, this informal approach may well punch above its weight, given its intensive and focused style.