A long time ago a friend of mine was talking about how some organizations thrive by being under constant threat. His favourite example was the US Navy’s Marine Corp. The Marines are, operationally, the cheapest army corp in the United States forces, among the most mobile and, many would argue, possibly the most effective.Why, he asked, do you think the Marine Corp is considered so excellent? Why does it work so hard to excel in every way?
Well, he claimed, it was because the Marines are always an obvious target for budget cutters and larger rivals. If were looking cut duplicating services it would be easy to look over at the Marine Corp and ask… Why does the Navy need an army? Isn’t the army supposed to be our… army?
And trust me, this is a questions the Army asks regularly. Indeed, reading the Wikipedia page about the Marines – one can quickly see how the Marine Corps dissolution has been sought at various points in history:
The Marine Corps combat capabilities in some ways overlap those of the United States Army, the latter having historically viewed the Corps as encroaching on the Army’s capabilities and competing for funding, missions, and renown. The attitude dates back to the founding of the Continental Marines, when General George Washington refused to allow the initial Marine battalions to be drawn from among his Continental Army. Most significantly, in the aftermath of World War II, Army efforts to restructure the American defense establishment included the dissolution of the Corps and the folding of its capabilities into the other services.
So what does this have to do with International Development Research Centre?
I confess that I am not involved in development issues that much. But every time I do stray into the space and am impressed with a project that is innovative or interesting, it seems the IDRC has had a hand in funding it.
For example, readers of this blog know that I’ve become involved with OpenMRS, a community-developed, open-source, enterprise electronic medical record system platform specifically designed for doctors in the developing world. IDRC is a funder. Or, guess who is helping fund a community driven approach to bring connectivity and the internet to developing countries… IDRC is. There have been others over the years that I’ve seen, but can’t remember.
Some of this relates to part of the IDRC’s mission, which centres around the use of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) but I also believe that part of it has to do with the fact that the bigger and more amply funded Canadian International Development Agency is just a kilometer away across the Ottawa river the IDRC must always be demonstrating that it is leaner, faster and more effective to justify its existence.
Just like the Marine corp must always justify its existence by being both excellent, effective and cheap. So to must the IDRC. It is the organization in government that – from what I can tell – is more likely to embrace technology, promote an innovative culture and, to be blunt, get the job done. Why? Because it has to.
This is not a defence of duplication of services (and, to be clear, I do not think that IDRC and CIDA’s services directly overlap – but they do operate in similar spaces). But it cannot be denied that competition helps. But I’m not sure it is enough, either. Sometimes, duplications of services simply leads to two poorly performing institutions. I would love to be able to explore what it is about the IDRC and Marine Corp that enable them to channel the threat to their existence into innovation. Is it history? Was it the personality of their founders? Corporate culture? I suspect it is more than the threat of the budgetary axe wielder. But what… I’m not sure.
Perhaps someone will make it a thesis topic some day. I’m going to give it more thought myself.