Walking in our participants' shoes, Doing Development Differently
You and I like to make informed decisions. We go to restaurants recommended by Yelp or Facebook friends. We refer to Consumer Reports' rankings before we buy appliances and read Amazon reviews before we purchase items, or at least ask random friends what works for them. I just bought a fridge and looked at energy star ratings to buy one that was efficient and climate-friendly. Would you buy an expensive appliance without market research reassuring you of the likely success?
Yet that is what we ask millions of development participants to do every day. In international development, community participants don't have such luxuries as knowing which projects worked well before, or that success in terms of health, income, education is replicable using this model. They invest their time and resources, blindly, hoping for a good return.
Doing Development Differently is a very encouraging initiative by UK's Overseas Development Institute (ODI) which focuses on learning from bottom-up, country-led development. Leni Wild tells us via a Malawi Country Scorecard example that NGO-led innovation during implementation is key as is creating coalitions of shared responsibility to meet participant needs. Natalia Adler shares a Nicaraguan Human-Centered Design where policy makers literally walked the lives of participants, learning from being participant-observers and supporters, not omniscient experts.
For our projects and policies are but a piece of participants' lives, but an important input if done for appropriate impact and sustainability. But do we know if we all mean the same thing? Years ago I asked what 'food security' meant in several Malian communities. In addition to expected answers- 'being able to feed myself and my family'- I got answers such as 'many children' (both the cause of having food and that more children generate sustained food security once adult, employed), and 'children's schooling' (having surplus to send their children to school year-around).
Not only do we need to understand what impact looks like to our participants, and start putting in systems for them to track it and report back to us, but also what does sustainability means to our participants? Also what can they self-sustain? What can we do more skillfully in future project design, learning from what worked best?
* Imagine what project impacts we could learn about if we returned to see, 2-5 years after projects closed out, to see what remarkable unintended impacts were created as in Niger.
* Imagine how self-sustainable project activities could be if we designed future projects based on past project successes (trackin which activities communities around the world were most able to replicate after projects left)?
* Imagine being the non-profit able to claim that the majority of activities were self-sustainable by communities 10 years later, and receiving the best Star ratings by them?!
* Imagine being the Minister of Development in Africa, Asia or Latin America being able to vett incoming projects based on likelihood of achieving Development Star results?
Using national evaluators, building national systems of online IATI-compliant documentation of what their own people consider to be the most sustainable impacts of projects, as well as are missing pieces of the 'development' puzzle. Listening could teach us a lot more than our logical framework (logframe) expectations of impact from our (donor’s) view — especially what communities imagine projects will lead to. Even farther out, imagine if together we calculate projects' economic benefits/ the Return on Investment to participants (crudely put, the 'bang for the buck") of our projects in their view, as well as our efficacy in terms of resource use, that scary thought…
Doing Development Differently is as exciting as are initiatives like USAID Forward in supporting development toward countries, e.g. starting to channel funds directly to local implementers under which falls USAID’s CLA (Collaborating, Learning and Adapting). Another great example is UK’s DIFD’s BRIDGE which incorporates Strategic Learning and adaptation into projects (adapting the during implementation, rather than the quite fixed straight-jacket most projects are tied to on signing agreements or contracts).
For we need to put ourselves out of a job by training local NGOs to supplant us, to support capacity/ create systems in Ministries to take over all but our funding, and especially, to listen to those who know best- communities whose lives we are to improve. Where are you seeing success brewing?
Times are a Changin' in those who Fund Listening… then Doing
So you've been helped by an organization. You think it has a good mission and have actively participated in its activities yet one day (somewhat arbitrarily in your view), it takes you off its list, shuts its doors and moves to another state. What would you feel? Angry? Perplexed? Disappointed?
So a year or two goes by and you get a knock on your door from a similar organization, wanting you to participate with them, that their mission is great, that you will benefit a lot. While you may really want their help, you are understandably wary and wonder if the same will happen. Heck, the last ones didn't tell you why they left, even with unfinished work, nor came back to see how you were faring…
Maybe that won’t happen anymore. Until recently many of our international development participants (some call them beneficiaries) could feel the same way. Our projects came (and went) with set goals, on fixed funding cycles, with little ongoing input from them to influence how projects accomplishes good things, much less learned what happened after projects ended. Rarely have we put into place participant monitoring systems with feedback loops much less listen to participants on how to design for self-sustainability.…
But times are a changin'; there is much to celebrate among funders and implementers, programming and policy makers.
1) There is a happy blizzard of interest in listening to our participants. From Feedback Labs "committed to making governments, NGOs and donors more responsive to the needs of their constituents" and Rita Allen Foundation funding for the Center for Effective Philanthropy's "Hearing from those we seek to Help" to now the Rockefeller and Hewlett Foundation's Effective Philanthropy's beginning a joint Fund for Shared Insight which "provides grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results…".
Independent voices abound that are advocating for participants' voices to be heard in design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation: "While we may have a glut of information and even the best of intentions, our initiatives will continue to fall short until we recognize that our ‘beneficiaries’ are really the people who have the solutions that both they and we need." And others call for even more than recognition – participation of the funders in discussions with participants: A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy heard from recipient NGOs that the "funders who best understand our beneficiaries’ needs are the ones who visit us during our programs, meet [those[ served by our organization, spend time talking to them and being with them.”
2) Information and Communication Technologies for Development) has created options of listening to our project participants, learning from them/ with them through mobiles, tablets and other mechanisms (e.g. Catholic Relief Services' ICT4D 6th annual conference with presentations from donors and government as well, Ushahidi which we've celebrated before); IATI, the International Aid Transparency Initiative has spent 6 years fostering sustainable and foreign aid transparent development, now reaching 24 signatory countries, and 290 organizations. A data revolution is taking shape to join donor data, national government statistical data and civil society socio-economic data. There is a brand new initiative at IDS named Doing Development Differently. Listening and learning indeed!
3) And even more importantly, an understanding that development is not a one-size fits all endeavour, is arising. I blogged about Rwanda's success in nutritional impact from allowing communities to address their specific needs and this week New Republic published an excellent article by Michael Hobbes which says "The repeated “success, scale, fail” experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another." Hobbes goes on to add that what we need is a revision in our expectations of international aid. "The rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?… Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there. This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers."
4) What does change the game in the view of Valuing Voices is who we listen to and what we do, for how long. Often, project participants have been the implementers of our solutions rather than the drivers of their own ideas of development; much is lost in translation. As Linda Raftree reports from one Finnish Slush attendee, "“When you think ‘since people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail:…“People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.” Hallelujah.
Let's listen before we implement our best answers, adapt to specific communities, think of how to foster self-sustainability rather than just successful impact, ask what that is in their terms. Let’s return to listen to participants’ views on sustained impact, on unexpected results… let’s fund this and do development differently!
So how are you listening to participants today?