Sunday, January 29, 2012

SPA – what is it, really?

Below is a description on Peace Corps Moldova's Small Project Assistance (SPA) fund, which our review board put together early this fall to clarify the purpose of the program for the new group of volunteers.  The background to this post can be found here.  We've recently undergone a pretty thorough review of our SPA program, refocusing on the overriding goals and tweaking some of our policies to match that.  If there are any readers out there who work on their country's SPA program - or a similar program for that matter - I'm curious to hear thoughts on this.

SPA – what is it, really?
SPA exists through a special inter-agency agreement with USAID (plain English: it’s their money, we just get to spend/administer it). As such, the program is unique in that its goal furthers both USAID and Peace Corps’ missions (plain English: we can’t do whatever we want with the $). SPA has one overriding program imperative: "to increase the capabilities of local communities to conduct low-cost, grassroots sustainable development." This objective is significantly different from a goal of simply “conducting sustainable development.” It also informs the only success indicator against which we report: # of HCNs who demonstrate new capacity to guide a project through the complete PDM cycle as a result of collaborating in a SPA project.

The reason that USAID funds PC projects through the SPA program as a part of the Participating Agency Program Agreement (2009) is to teach HCNs all stages of the PDM cycle, including proposal writing, as a form of community capacity building. The focus of the program is not to fund volunteers' community projects or to teach volunteers about project design and management (though it has these positive effects).

USAID considers giving this money to Peace Corps an efficient use of funds because we have long-term, deep relationships with partners whom we can guide through the PDM cycle step by step. It's not so much that we know any better what communities' needs are, but that the process of working very closely and intensively with a project from start to finish is one of the best ways to teach these skills. In short, the project itself is of significantly less importance to USAID than the skills partners develop that can be applied in future community project work. We might not always agree with this sentiment when considering a potential project. With any other program goal, however, USAID would feel better qualified to implement the project itself. As a rule of thumb, the best projects come from the space where donor and implementer goals overlap, but this also requires the honesty to be able to walk away from projects sometimes. SPA is no exception, though we are fortunate in having a very broad donor goal.

On a deeper level, this program design speaks to Peace Corps’ broader philosophy of sustainability. We are not here simply to do, but instead to teach through collaboration with others. In the classroom, we don’t just teach students, but teachers as well. With mayors, we help to teach technology, not simply type documents. The idea of sustainability is no different with any other community project, even when it includes outside funding.

Sometimes this fact is mind-numbingly frustrating – it’s a much higher bar, so high that few organizations engage in the process on the level we do. This level of support is inconceivable for USAID (or any big development organization). But this is also the brilliance of the program: it plays to Peace Corps’ unique strengths in the development field as well as each of our unique relationships that are built on mutual trust and collaboration. Thus, this same difficulty is also the unique value of SPA – in all the grant making development programs our committee members have examined, there is nothing else like SPA out there. And it’s also one of the reasons we have so much respect for all of you.

What is Capacity Building, and what is Capacity Building Through Education
Business defines "capacity building" as "planned development of (or increase in) knowledge, output rate, management, skills, and other capabilities of an organization through acquisition, incentives, technology, and/or training." In easier terms, capacity building means increasing the organization's ability to do what it does, to fulfill its mission and its goals. For the SPA program, projects must include two forms of capacity building: 1) the aforementioned increase in project design and management skills, and 2) a capacity building element through education (classes or trainings).

Here's example of how this might look: If your project sets out to bring running water to the school in order to improve students' health and to decrease the number of absences, the project may also do something like conduct health classes on the threats of infectious diseases -- or maybe conduct a hand washing campaign to decrease illness and a civic engagement campaign about taking care of "our" school so students will keep the indoor bathrooms clean. These training are matched with the goals of the project. For the trainings to increase the capacity of the school, they should not only be conducted by the PCV, but they should be conducted with a one or more HCN who will be able to conduct such classes themselves later on. In this way, the project uses education to increase the capacity of the organization, and in so doing, increases the sustainability of the intervention as well as the likelihood of meeting project objectives.

SPA - Peace Corps' Small Project Assistance Fund

Many friends and family back home by this point have heard me talk about SPA, a USAID grant-making mechanism for Peace Corps Volunteers and one of my more time-consuming secondary activities.  As with almost all PC programming, posts administer their SPA programs separately.  I've been serving on Peace Corps Moldova's SPA review board since last winter, meaning once a month during the winter-spring funding cycle I get a stack of 8-16 grants to examine before travelling to the capital for a day of reviewing which will get funded.  Our total annual budget is $140,000 with the maximum grant being $5,000.  The money comes from US Agency for International Development, but can only be used to fund community-led projects that are conducted in collaboration with a volunteer.

Obviously, there's a lot of paperwork and minutia in reviewing grants, but it has nevertheless been one of my favorite secondary activities during my time here.  It's given me a chance to see the incredible breadth of initiatives volunteers support, from community youth radio stations to agricultural projects.  It's also proven true the maxim that the best way to truly learn something is to teach others - helping fellow volunteers through the grant process and continuously teaching the steps of project design and management has been great practice for explaining these steps to my own community partners.

As I spend more time around development organizations, however, I've also been gaining a deeper appreciation for the SPA program and the several ways in which it is unique.  Simply put, there is no other development program like it out there.  Because the overriding goal of the program is to teach project design and management skills, as compared to most grant-making programs which focus on particular priorities, with SPA there is no restriction on project domain.  We've funded initiatives running the gamut from democratization and technology to health and business development.

We just held our first meeting this weekend, and as always, I was impressed by the creative, sustainable, low-cost and community-led solutions volunteers collaborated with community partners to design.  I learned about rocket-mass heaters and the first school for the deaf and blind in Moldova, saw the most innovative reading promotion program that's probably ever been done in Moldova, and even got to see a high school student student give a very professional presentation to a committee of adults and foreigners.

The present entry here is meant for readers back home as a background companion post to this piece, which takes much of this information for granted.  But it's also an insight onto how I spent upwards of 25 hours this past week.  Seeing the great proposals we started the year off with yesterday, it was all worth it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Behavioral Economics and Healthcare Study by Center for Global Development

Just saw this pop up in my inbox from the Center for Global Development, one of the best think tanks out there working on development issues.  It's a new study they're doing together with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that will be looking at how practitioners asses the potential for behavioral economics based solutions in health (click images for larger).

Here's the key lines out of the email: "Behavioral economics approaches may be particularly relevant for health policy: people around the world, regardless of their income or social status, often act in ways that don't reflect what would "rationally" be best for their health. Yet the value of its application in health policy in low and middle income countries, from the view point of practitioners, has yet to be assessed."

And from the start of the survey: "Many...policies [in low and middle-income countries] are based on traditional economic models that assume individuals will behave in a rational manner. However, evidence suggests that individuals deviate from such models. For example, individuals make decisions in the short-run which are inconsistent with their welfare over the long-term, their choices are influenced by how options are framed for them, and they often conform to a dominant social view instead of choosing what is really best for them."

The study caught my eye because it relates pretty strongly to my own work with behavior change here in Moldova.  In fact, three recent books in the behavioral economics line have essentially changed the entire way I look at human behavior and health, and convinced me that the standard economic models aren't sufficient when it comes to health systems.  (The books are Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, Sunstein and Thaler's Nudge, and Rosenburg's Join the Club; book reviews forthcoming.)

Behavioral economics has also played a big role in Vitality's work; the three aforementioned books in fact are at the top of our recommended reading list, which is how I first came across them.  (Vitality's founder, after all, is a labor economist by training.)

The field has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years; as Rosenburg points out in Join the Club it's related to one of the biggest public health successes of the last two decades in the U.S.: the reduction in teen smoking.  Nudge, meanwhile, was wide read by incoming Obama administration officials who had their sights set on our healthcare system.

But the CGD study reveals a very interesting fact: despite the fact that it's been getting a lot of academic attention from upper-level policy makers, behavioral economics has yet to filter its way down to tangible policy prescriptions for the development worker in the field.  I would wager that in part is due to the fact that the theory still hasn't been boiled down into programmatic suggestions, making it somewhat daunting for the average programming staff person who struggles to keep abreast of the most recent policy suggestions, let alone have time to redesign new programs from scratch.

Regardless, it will be very interesting to see the results of this study, which should provide the best look yet at the prospects of behavioralism going mainstream in development programs in the near future.

For those interested or unfamiliar with the field, here is a great TED talk by Dan Ariely that gives the basic gist of what behavioral economics is all about.  Enjoy!