Donors and foundations spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year providing technical assistance to developing countries.

Some of this assistance is excellent. Much of it is well intentioned. But most of it fails to really make a difference. Many projects are successful failures – they achieve their own goals, but fail to really make a difference for the people they set out to help.

Why? Because most projects, most technical assistance, is focused on the easy bits.

When you reform government services, there are easy bits, and there are hard bits. Identifying problems is the easy bit. There are lots of them and if you talk to the right people they can tell you all about them. Developing workable, scalable, battle-tested solutions is the hard bit. Writing reports is the easy bit. Most governments have thousands of them already. Making change happen on the ground is the hard bit. Piloting in a village or a school or a clinic is the easy bit. Scaling up to tens of thousands of villages, schools or clinics, is the hard bit.

The easy bit The hard bit
Creating recommendations Implementing recommendations
Writing reports Affecting change
Identifying problems Developing solutions which work
Deciding what to do at the start Recovering from failure in the middle
Creating the strategy Getting all of the small details right
Coming up with innovative ideas Making them work in practice
Piloting interventions Scaling up interventions
Developing budgets Executing spending efficiently
Delivering training workshops Changing practice on the ground
Designing and building data systems Ensuring data is current and reliable
Aligning with other donors Aligning with political leaders

The problem with technical assistance is that most of it focuses on the easy bits. In a series of large projects we reviewed, funded by a range of different donors, all of the support was focused on the easy bits. Yet on their own, the easy bits do not help change people’s lives. Budgets, reports, recommendations and strategies only make a difference when somebody does the far harder task of implementing what they describe.

The real work of reform, the changes that make a real difference to people’s lives, comes from doing the hard bits. The hard bits are difficult, complicated, unpredictable. And they are the only way to make a difference to people’s lives.

Focusing on the hard bits will require more than just changing the scope of assistance. It will require a greater tolerance of risk and failure (because if you work on the hard bits, you are going to fail, often). It will require completely different ways of managing providers (because the hard bits are unpredictable, and do not fit neatly onto a work plan). It will require different types of people and provider (because the skills required to do the hard bits are very different from the ones required to do the easy bits). And it will require a much deeper commitment to helping governments solve the really difficult challenges they face.