The critical role of the “first mile” in development

by David Week on 12 February 2011

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I keep seeing the term “last mile” used in a development context. This terms seems to have currency in North America. I’ve never heard it used professionally in our hemisphere.

Troublesome words

The problem with language (as feminists and racial minorities well know) is that it perpetuates a mindset.

In development, the classical mindset is the “delivery” paradigm. Diagrammatically, it looks like this:

“Rich” countries, on the left, send resources (usually money) to “poor countries”, on the right, to help them develop. The rich countries have resources. The poor countries have needs.

Development is seen as a process of delivery from one, to the other. This can be expanded from cash, to technical assistance: but it’s still delivered. It’s out of this mindset that we get the terms “donor” and “recipient”, and terms like “target population”, “delivery mechanism”, and… “last mile”.

“Last mile” apparently grew out of the telecoms industry, where it originated to reflect the high relatively cost of rolling out cable to more remote customers. It assumes (as with the classical paradigm of development) that a network is “rolled out” out from the centre. But a paradigm which implicitly  uses donor-centric language (think about it), is in this day and age suspect. Only from the perspective of a donor “delivering” development, can the area close to the village be called “the last mile.”

To a villager, it’s the “first mile”.

From targets to partners

There are many reasons why this paradigm took hold in development discourse. Among them:

  • The grandmother of all aid programs — the Marshall Plan — did pretty much consist of nothing but delivery of resources.
  • Early development assistance programs also tended to follow this model: send money, doctors and stuff to poor countries.
  • We still (including me) sometimes conflate emergency assistance with long-term development, and the early stages of emergency assistance is well-represented by the delivery mindset: get food, water, tents, health kits to affected people.
  • Aid is often funded by governments, who see themselves, in their home country, as in the business of “service delivery.”

But this mindset is shifting. Over the last ten years, I’ve noticed that the language defining the relationship is increasingly “development partners.” And behaviour is changing to follow. Culture and systems… slowly, they too are grudgingly coming along. Of course, some agencies and organisations at the front of the change curve (the early adopters, the early majority) and some are behind the curve (the late majority, the laggards.) I won’t name names. You (or at least your employees) know who you are.

This new mindset looks like this:

The key difference here is the shift from:

DELIVERY

  • we have resources (cash, knowhow)
  • you have needs (problems, deficiencies)
  • we will send you resources, to (ful)fill your gaping deficiences

PARTNERSHIP

  • we have resources, which we’re interested in sharing with you, because it serves our interests
  • you have needs, but you also have capacities, which are critical to the effective use of what we share with you
  • we need to combine our strengths, and cover each other’s weaknesses, to produce the best mutual outcome.

The idea that poor countries and capacities have capacities is not new. But the idea that donors have “needs”?

They do. Donors share their resources for a reason.

  • build a strategic partnership in the national interests
  • bolster trade relationships
  • prevent the overthrow of a friendly government
  • satisfy the electorate
  • serve organisational or institutional objectives
  • feel good
  • add meaning to life
  • add your own here…

What needs to happen, in the partnership model, is that the interests of the donor partner need to be foregrounded and tabled as transparently as are the needs of the beneficiary partner.

Meeting halfway

If you are using “last mile” metaphor in your thinking, implicit is the following:

Of the, say, 10,000 miles between you and your development partners: you have to do all the work. They are incapable of walking a mile. You are strong. They are… inadequate.

Let me get out of the realm of concept here, and tell three stories that, in my mind, blow this metaphor to hell. The first two also blew my mind at the time, and forced me to reconsider my view of the world.

1  East Timor ESRP

I played a role in the East Timer Emergency School Reading Project, which aimed to rehabilitate burned out and looted schools for to re-open on the first day of instruction. The project was based on a World Bank methodology called “community based contracting” (CBC). Under CBC, the World Bank provided a grant to the Government of Timor Leste, who in turn made agreements with 650 villages, and provided them with grants of cash, materials and TA to rehabilitate their own schools.

In our design, we spent endless hours thinking about logistics. The forestry people had warned that East Timor’s forests were already stressed by the demand from people reconstructing their own houses, so it was not a good idea to get the communities to supply timber for school reconstruction as well. We thus ended up with a materials supply chain which started with suppliers in other countries, brought timber and other materials to the port in Dili, where it was unloaded and repackaged into village-size bundles, each based on a damage survey.

We all assumed that the international part of the supply chain would be unproblematic. International logistics, procurement, corporations, supply chain management, international telecommunications, modernity, technology, efficiency, blah, blah, blah. Instead, we spent all our time thinking about how to distribute it within the country. We looked at military maps, which showed many roads as “unpassable”, since road maintenance had stopped, and they were difficult to begin with. We worried about the absence of trucks, which were in high demand.

Here’s what actually happened during implementation…

On the international side:

  • big corporate supplier in another country says timber is ready
  • we call a colleague in that town, and ask him to drive by
  • colleague reports: yard is empty
  • when the supplier finally delivers, ship goes first to Singapore: international hub
  • there it is offloaded, because shipper got a better offer for his cargo space
  • eventually, timber arrives in Dili.

On the local side:

  • East Timorese teams bundle the timber and mark it for a village
  • remote village, through means mysterious to us, hears about this via some grapevine
  • next day, they show up with an “unavailable” truck over “unpassable” roads to pick it up
  • materials are in the village the following day.

In other words, our expectations were topsy turvy. It was the international system that created chaos, and the local logistics that ran smoothly.

So much for the “last mile” problem.

2  Lao EDP2

I also played a role in the Lao PDR Second Education Development Project. As usual, it took a while to get the project prepared, and then mobilised. In fact, it took years: not unusual.

As with ESRP, EDP2 utilised CBC. However, because this was not post-emergency, the villages were given fuller responsibility: to procure all materials and labour, and then manage the construction to a set quality standard.

As the project was mobilising, we went out to visit some far Northern villages. Here we saw people preparing sites, and breaking rocks by hand to make gravel, months before the project was ready to issue Grant Agreements. Hmmmm, we pondered… is this wise? Shouldn’t you wait till you have the agreement in hand? No, they said: by that time the river will have risen, and we won’t be able to get the stones to make the gravel.

Later, they proved that 400 villages can build 400 new schools in about 18 months, on a rolling basis. More money was tipped in, and another 120 villages also built their own schools. Some of these were in remote places, up to two days walk from the nearest road. None the less, villagers would come to the road, go to the provincial capital, and procure steel, hardware, cement, roofing iron and paint for their new school, get it trucked to the point nearest the village, and then hand-carry these building materials for two days, from road to village school site.

So much for the “last mile” problem.

3  The Finschhafen-Kabwum Development Authority

I did not participate in this project, and have only heard of it many times, but from people whom I consider reliable.

Many years ago, in the heady post-independence days of PNG, a German development worker, Klaus Zwanzger, convinced the Government of Papua New Guinea that a remote rural road would be better funded and built, if control over construction were given to the beneficiary villages, than to a roads contractor. Amazingly, the Government agreed, and set up the Finschhafen-Kabwum Development Authority by statute. The Authority was governed by elected representatives from the beneficiary villages. The Government gave a grant to the Authority to build the road at commercial rates. The Authority, as well as building the road, paid special attention to providing benefits to the villages, by way of jobs, and by way of health and education projects funded out of profits.

Zwanzger anticipated a risk: if they built the road from the sea up into the highlands, then as the road reached a village, that village might stop cooperating, since it now had its road. Therefore, he proposed an unusual strategy: airlift all the equipment to the farthest village, and start building from there, towards the sea. This they did. No village got the road, until they all got the road.

In this case, the first mile was literally the most remote, and the last mile the mile nearest to town.

The real problem of the “last mile”

Villages have capacity. This has been shown repeatedly — and not just in my stories. If villages are really behind an idea — if they really want something — they will mobilise that capacity, in sometimes amazing ways. In fact, their willingness to do so is a good test of the true local opinion of any development activity.

The shift from “delivery” to “partnership” is not just a nice idea about equal relationships, or the use of diplomatic language. The shift comes about because experienced development agencies have learned through hard knocks that many projects are just not feasible when conceived as “delivery”. If you consider the task of rural schools in remote Lao and Timor Leste, described above, it would have cost a mint to organise deliveries of materials centrally. And in some cases (think of the schools that are two days walk by road) it’s not clear how you would achieve this at scale, at any budget.

So: “last mile” is a mode of thinking that sees villages as incapable of walking even that mile. But when villagers are really in favour of a program, they will conquer that mile. They will conquer it because they have conquered it many times before, as inspection of almost any village in the world today will show: they bring into their village many things from far away — lamps, stoves, kerosene, steel roofing, chainsaws, roto-tillers, knives, batteries, radios, TVs, tinned food, Coke, beer — because they find value in them. They conquer it because for them it is the first mile, not the last, and they know it well.

“Development partnership” involves asking villages to meet you part way. This is not a nicety. It’s a recognition of our own limits, and that the best people to traverse the “last mile” are the people who are expert at it. If you have a “last mile” problem, you have a conceptual problem, a design problem, and a partnership problem. And it may be early indicator that your program will soon hit severe limits, or even fail.

On the other hand, the best indicator of future success, and the nicest compliment any village will ever pay you, is when they show up unbidden at your program office in the city, having travelled a hundred miles, to ask:

“Hey. When is your program coming to our village?”

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  • “Last mile” apparently grew out of the telecoms industry, where it originated to reflect the high relatively cost of rolling out cable to more remote customers.

    In fact it pre-dates telecommunication by quite a lot. It was first used in logistics, where it related to the challenge presented by door-to-door distribution (as contrasted to distribution to consolidated distribution points, retailers, etcetera).

    Great post otherwise.

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  • Hi David,

    Interesting piece, and a bit of epistemiological deconstruction is always good to challenge received wisdom. But I couldn’t help but note that all of your examples involved delivery of goods (building materials), whereas a lot of non-emergency aid is based around delivery of services. Planning a project like this typically involves one small group of people from the donor / NGO / whatever sitting down with a small group of people from the government: planning logistics are simple and can be viewed as a one-to-one interaction. In contrast delivering that project involves getting ‘extension workers’ out to each and every targeted community. Often the whole point is to take the service to the community thus obviating the need for, e.g. sick people to walk 10+ miles to reach medical care. The costs and logistical challenges are 99% at the delivery end. These challenges are often simply delegated to the recipient country government who lack the management capacity at the local level to cope. Even where an NGO is keeping that responsibility in house you have to ask yourself how capable are the field agents compared to the senior managers?

    Like many things, languages evolve. The aid / development industry has appropriated the term “last mile” from the logistics industry, and may therefore come with some unwanted baggage. (Tho surely any good logistics company would care about what its customers think, and would therefore not treat service delivery over the “last mile” with disdain.) However, that’s life. Donors have re-labelled themselves “development partners”, but a spade is still a spade, and most people still call donors what they are. Similarly I am loathe to indulge some PC-like linguistics over “first mile” v “last mile”.

    On the other hand, I really do think most aid organisations should give a lot more thought to last mile delivery.

    MJ

    • David Week

      Hi MJ

      I’m not suggesting that we replace “last mile” with “first mile”. Rather: that we should not think in terms of miles at all, because in most cases the whole service delivery metaphor is wrong, and unsustainable.

      It may work in the case of vaccination, for instance. This is an infrequent event, which involves very little thought or action from the “recipient”. It can be treated as service delivery. On the other hand, health cannot. Education cannot. SME development cannot. Agricultural development cannot.

      When I hear development theorists talk about the “last mile problem”, I cringe, because in 99% of cases, it’s simply the wrong mental model. What they are talking about doesn’t even look like development.

      Donors are still donors, but donors do not need to adopt a service delivery model. Adopting such a model suggests that either (a) they are attempting to replicate Western social services in a country that cannot currently afford them, or (b) carry out those services themselves. Instead, most donors now adopt a capacity building model: you do not go the last mile. You simply support others that cover that distance, one way or another.

      A good examples come from the recent merger of Smile Train with Operation Smile.

      Smile Train, it turns out, trains doctors. That’s sustainable, is not a service delivery model (it’s a capacity building model), and has no “last mile” problem.

      Operation Smile, on the other hand, mobilises foreign teams to go in and do a blitz of patients directly. That’s a service delivery, has a “last mile” problem, and is wholly inefficient and unsustainable.

      So my view is still: unless you are in a very limited sphere — post-disaster emergency food delivery, one-off vaccinations, or you are an actual telco — then if you have a “last mile” problem, I am going to look at you hard in terms of whether you are being efficient, sustainable, and are using the in-country systems and resources the way you should.

      Your mentioned sick people walking 10+ miles to reach medical care. Well, delivering medical services to those people would be hugely expensive, is not feasible, and has, to my knowledge, never been done. Grameen tried it, and failed.

      The common solution is to get one or more of those people to come to a district centre and train as a community health worker, in a group, with workers from other villages. They then return, to help sick people. When that happens, it is someone from the village will have covered the “last mile”, and the trainers from the donor or the government will have gone only as far as the district.

      David

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