A Farewell Reflection on CzechAid: What a Remarkable Transformation!

Although the Czech Republic has provided development cooperation since mid 1990s, the Czech Agency for International Development (CzechAid) was established only in 2008. I joined the agency five years later and since then, it has gone through a genuine transformation. Across the world, from the Caucasus to Gobi and from the Dead Sea to Zambezi, we have achieved tangible results in the fight against poverty. CzechAid is now recognized as a competent body and an emphatic donor by our peers and partners.  The transformation is manifested in ten distinct ways.

From charity to investment. In theory, the Bill which was passed in 2010 clearly separated development cooperation from humanitarian aid. In practice, however, many people still mixed these two together. CzechAid was perceived as pure money-giving by charitable organizations and other do-gooders without much room for business entrepreneurship and innovation. I helped to change this perception with a catchy slogan: “Development cooperation is an investment in our shared prosperity and security”. The migration crisis also helped to raise the awareness, although one must be careful not to overplay the argument.

From top-down to bottom-up. Development as an investment has not only become a household phrase but also the source of innovation in our portfolio. In 2015, CzechAid launched a new Business Partnership scheme. Scores of Czech companies have taken part so far by submitting their plans to invest and create jobs in poor countries. CzechAid makes sure that the business plans bring positive development impacts, and it provides up to 50 % of the funding while the other half comes from the private sources. Solving all development issues from top-down with limited public money has always been a daunting task. Instead, we try to catalyse development by creating the environment for bottom-up initiatives by private individuals and private companies.

From headquarters to the field. This transformation was closely related to the previous one. Top-down approaches were not successful, because CzechAid was too centralized. All the staff was permanently based in Prague, and consequently, all principal decisions were made in the headquarters. This was no longer sustainable, hence we had to change our business model. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have found a solution that enables CzechAid experts to be posted at embassies in our partner countries. We are also going to decentralize project management so that our people on the ground can make better informed and more flexible decisions.

From management to leadership. This is the transformation I am personally most proud of. A manager sets objectives with deadlines and then manipulates all tools, including humans, in order to achieve them. A leader, on the other hand, outlines a broader strategy, leads by example and uses indirect incentives. In my professional life, I have been surrounded mostly by managers, either good or worse, but very few natural leaders. Nobody is born with charisma. I was lucky to learn this somewhere mid-way through my term: “I would succeed only if I helped my colleagues to succeed”. From that moment onwards, a successfull transformation of CzechAid was guaranteed.

From information to knowledge. One way to help colleagues succeed was to create good conditions for their work. This applied to both the material conditions, like new IT equipment, and the social conditions, like the team spirit. I have also invested a lot in human resource development. My colleagues got a lot of training, courses and internships. But to acquire skills and information is not enough if the organisation does not systematically analyse and disseminate the information further. Development without feedback is no development at all. After four years of effort, I can state that CzechAid has a solid feedback and knowledge management system in place.

Mind map of the CzechAid transformation.
Mind map of the CzechAid transformation:”More and better aid provided by Czechia to poor countries”.

From outputs to results. The most crucial knowledge for any aid practitioner is to tell the difference between outputs and outcomes. This is something that outsiders have persistent problems grasping. “Buy medical equipment, preferably from us, deliver it to the African hospital and the problem is solved,” they often say. But how would the delivery relate to development outcomes such as the reduction of child mortality? What if the cause lay in cultural prejudices that forced mothers in remote villages to deliver at home without skilled attendance? The modern equipment would be of little help to them and their babies. I am proud that CzechAid focuses solely on outcomes, even though we sometimes have to say “No” to output-driven clientelism.

From fragmentation to synergies. CzechAid used to run too many projects that were too small. Its activities were fragmented with little overall impact. Today, we design complex programs and seek synergies among different contributions that come from the government, businesses and civil society organisations. Our support to the higher education reform in Ukraine is a good example. We combine capacity building of state institutions at the central level with local university-to-university partnerships. Czech support to ecological agricultural in Moldova is another case of such a coherent program. It is no wonder that USAID and other big players now partner up with CzechAid in these particular domains.

From niches to excellence. So what exactly are the domains in which CzechAid can play such an important role? In the past, CzechAid had tried to fill any gaps that were left open after big donors. Solar power here, medical equipment there. Our main advantage used to be our flexibility. Alas, flexibility has not always led to sustainable results. The evaluations have shown us that we need to better define what our comparative advantage is. Today, we focus on a limited number of priorities where we have an added value. The prime example is our aid to countries in transition and integration into the EU market, where CzechAid can truly excel.

From national to global. Once we knew what our field of excellence was, we could start thinking more boldly. CzechAid used to have a small budget which came exclusively from national resources. But it was simply not large enough to make a measurable impact on such global variables as hunger, diseases and poverty. We have, therefore, initiated joint projects with other partners such as the Austrian, German, Swedish or Israel’s development agencies. We have recently launched new alliance with EBRD in order to multiply our business partnerships. Most remarkably, CzechAid has been accredited for delegated cooperation by the European Commission. This has opened new opportunities for scaling-up Czech contributions to sustainable development.

From invisibility to indispensability. When I joined CzechAid in 2013, it was a small, fractured and rather timid organisation. It was overwhelmed by internal procedures and had no appetite for much public outreach. I knew we had to start with some housekeeping. We passed critical controls by OECD and the Supreme Audit Office. Soon, a growing competence was followed by a growing confidence. We launched a new website, engaged on social networks and organised several public events. The Czech Agency for International Development became the main voice and indispensable part of the Czech foreign aid. Eventually, we started using the brand “CzechAid” for the agency itself.

Helen Keller
Helen Keller, an American author, political activist, and lecturer.

The ten transitions of CzechAid over the past four years demonstrate how much the agency has changed. However, the global environment has changed as well, and the global challenges have multiplied. Conflicts, terrorism, uncontrolled migration, infectious diseases, water scarcity, and climate change, to name just the most common. I am confident that CzechAid is now better placed to face them. As Helen Keller once said: “Confidence is the faith that leads to achievement.” I thank all our partners for their valuable support and wish my successors lot of achievements in their pursuit of ending poverty and saving our planet.

Michal Kaplan, Outgoing Director of CzechAid