Let’s start turning the oceanliner of development to dignified sustainability – today!

Let's start turning the oceanliner of development to dignified sustainability – today!

No time like the present, our participants are waiting for dignified development to fully arrive. Dignity is the "quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect." When we design projects with communities with long-term self-sustainability as the core value, we are respecting them.

And we must start local. As Acumen Fellow Natalie Grillon says from Uganda: "Ask more questions, listen and learn.  I’m always trying to get better at listening to learn before I act so that my actions can lead to productive results based on consensus and conversations rather than assumptions. Don’t believe that you know the full story. The farmers for whom I work know their crop, know their land and know what they want."

She goes on to tell us how she stopped doing things for the project staff: " I could offer more in working alongside my colleagues to learn how to do new things together, like using a new database or thinking about ways to motivate teams… I could feel the sense of empowerment and excitement that could come from learning even a simple new thing and which only required a few minutes of our time" rather than just doing it herself for them.

This is what Valuing Voices is all about — seeing our participants as our true clients, as listening to what they want rather than designing development requests for proposal and even project proposals themselves in capital cities far from input by these very clients. Would any corporation in their right mind design without asking potential clients, without pre-testing and tweaking interventions before a full launch? Imagine how products would fare without marketing campaigns touting their benefits over other products? This doesn't happen often in development because participants are most often seen as 'price takers', grateful for what we offer, not matter if the fit is not perfect.  Such an approach is not only inefficient, it is deeply disrespectful.

On the other hand, there are successes to be seen along the lines of localizing development. In addition to successes found in my other blogs (see Plan, Mercy Corps, LWR and even PACT – forthcoming), Devex recently posted an article praising Nuru and Millenium Villages for "working to develop local leaders who will fully take over the various programs they’ve begun after the foreigners leave in two years… [using] the opportunity to build up local leaders and engage them in developing their own communities." Hallelujah! Devex says Munk's critique of Millenium Villages is that "Millennium violates two basic principles of good development: It’s not scalable and it’s not sustainable". Nuru believes "poor people hold the keys to their own development."

Absolutely! Not only should design and implementation center around community wants and capacities, there are all sorts of project activities that communities can help sustain themselves:

* Agriculture and livelihoods (income generation, micro-credit, marketing), 

* Natural resource management (climate-smart agriculture, reforestation),

* Literacy and numeracy.

While there are other things larger than communities that need ongoing external support for, how often are there referendums on what they would prioritize? The UN recently named 2014-2024 the sustainable energy decade and infrastructure such as roads, water systems as well as trade including the World Trade Organization's Doha Trade talks  for improve the trading prospects of developing countries are vital, how often have citizens been asked? Ashoka's Changemakers supports projects that create feedback loops (like our own in East Africa: http://www.changemakers.com/project/valuing-voices-kenya). 

Communities are deeply grateful for assistance yet they want to to have a voice, to steer the ship more themselves.  The Listening Project found that "agencies should slow down and take more time to understand people’s capabilities, priorities, preferences, and ideas… [participants] don’t want to have aid agencies to be more extractive in how they gather information. They want to be part of the decision making process of aid efforts. This goes beyond two-way communication and requires rethinking many of our assumptions and processes to find ways to truly collaborate and support those who are affected."

Among the project's 6,000 interviewees, some wondered "why no one seems to check on whether the assistance provided has made a positive difference in recipients’ lives. It is important for aid agencies to have processes and mechanisms to receive and provide feedback to communities and to be accountable for their actions—and particularly for any harm that has been done."

Yes! We need to help those projects such as Nuru whose farmers are supported in self-sufficiency, countries that support communities evaluating our projects, for a start.  That is the dignified life path to take as a development professional – as their peers. 

Development= A Jeep (motor optional).. Resilience? If within 5 years!

Development= A Jeep (motor optional).. Resilience? If within 5 years!

Imagine being given a lovely new Jeep. You get a driver (remember driving school) to help you learn to steer it around the pothole-strewn, scantly lit roads. Eventually you take over the controls of the Jeep and control the steering wheel directly, driving offroad, with the copilot praising your good driving and steering only to avoid catastrophe. You are told that one day the Jeep will be yours.


That day arrives. The development agency hands you the keys to the Jeep. You wave good bye to them, return to the Jeep, turn the key. Dead.

Looking under the hood, you realize the motor is gone. Checking the rest of the Jeep you realize there is no fuel and the tries are flat.  That is what it is like from the community's view of development projects after close-out. The local NGO to whom the project has been 'handed over' has scant financial or human resources to continue (no engine), and in the last few months' scramble to close out, the implemeneting agency put in few systems for communities to continue doing the programming without support by the local NGO or all the resources they had poured in (no fuel).  There is little to help you move the Jeep (even on flat tires) except your own feet, other than the capacity building that was learned early on, as it wasn't built to last based on local materials. Sustainability isn't programmed in projects that have set timelines and donor-set markers of success which mandate close-out.

So you own the Jeep but with little power to move, very much like countless well-meant tractor for development agriculture before you.tractorPalms

There are several glimmers of hope.  What communities have is the human power that exists locally, fuelled by participation coupled with information transmission such as WorkWithUs and MakingAllVoicesCount (based on the moral imperative of it's Their Development as well) and ALNAP's push to use evaluation for learning in international development.  

We could also help donors springboard to learn from sustainability via the latest buzzword in development: "Resilience". At USAID and DIFD this is the "ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to, and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth" and "helping communities and countries to be better prepared to withstand and rapidly recover from a shock", respectively. 

Resilience could be the doorway to getting community-defined sustainable programming to break the cycle of recurrent emergencies that divert resources from long-term development.  Imagine: we could ask citizens what will make them resilient! A rare, shining example is a USAID-funded Ethiopia project with a mandate to use participatory impact assessments (process monitoring plus participatory input to capture local perceptions of benefits) to learn from communities. A USAID Solicitation tells us "seventeen impact assessments on different program activities were undertaken to inform best practice and to develop guidelines and policies. A major impact was the development and adoption of Emergency Livestock Guidelines by the Ethiopian government. These were based on best practice assessments in many countries (including Kenya) and action research on different types of interventions. Emergency de-stocking–selling livestock early in a drought to preserve their price and leave more fodder and water for remaining animals — was found to be particularly effective, with a 40:1 benefit cost ratio. Emergency livestock vaccination campaigns, on the other hand, were found to have no impact on livestock mortality, and were dropped in favor of other health interventions including parasite control and de-stocking." 

Excellent Valuing of pastoralist Voices!  How are such locally-informed excellent processes and findings being widely shared and implemented? What do you think?

Time is ripe for incentives to change….

Time is ripe for incentives to change….


There is so much promise now in returning international development to the hands of those who we mean to ‘develop’. Here are a few examples:


•Accountability has been proposed as a core feature of the new post-2015 development agenda, according to UNICEF.

•The UN’s 2011 Busan Declaration focused on improving sustainable development, aid effectiveness through international cooperation

•Major foundations (Rockefeller, Gates) are promoting participatory evaluation and program effectiveness (respectively), looking for long-term impact.

•An industry acceptance of how mobile technologies and knowledge sharing democratizes information and power, e.g. USAID’s mobile applications and the power of crowd-sourcing, evidenced by amazingly robust African applications of Kenya’s Ushahidi, and sectorally specific ones such as Ghana’s Esoko for agricultural value chains and Microplanet's microcredit, to name a few.


Many of us have come to sense that we’ve had the incentives wrong in development.  While many of us go into international development feeling the strong need to work with communities, to support their own path to sustained well-being, it doesn’t often work that way once we begin.   Following on another blog, we push ourselves to get more, do more, but we end up doing work for- or to- rather than with- our participants. Many of our projects still refer to them as beneficiaries (a more passive term was never coined). Many of our project timelines and result expectations are so rigid that there is no luxury to involve communities in the detailed design, implementation much less getting their feedback on how sustained impact of the project is likely to be (or how the project could be adapted to yield sustained results). 


This is not to say our projects don’t do good! We do. We train participants and transfer a dizzying array of resources to them during the 2, 3, 5 even 10 years we intervene. We work within often dysfunctional national systems with scant resources.  But how often have we built capacity for communities, regions and country-level nationals to continue doing development ‘right’ after we go?


Ironically, this lack of sustained capacity is in large part this is due to our deep desire to do it ‘right’. Right means getting as many resources out there as possible, getting to as many people as possible, getting as many projects done, and getting as many new awards for our firms to do more good as possible.  And therein lies the problem. In our desire to do things right for ourselves, we leave our participants behind.


And most egregiously, we stack the deck against sustainability from the start. The incentives are framed by the Requests for Proposals written in donor offices in Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo and even Beijing.  Today, USAID alone has 1075 opportunities on FedBixOpps.gov.  Were these drafted with national governments, local community based organizations or communities? Unlikely.  Mostly these opportunities are informed by updated versions of past work, sometimes by new policy directions, possibly by new think-tanks research or international non-profit fieldwork, yet the country Missions, implementer offices or community-based organizations can only do so much to ‘fix’ things in the field to retrofit what communities may actually want to do specifically but what was not a priority in the RFP.  Having also been part of a few proposal development teams that wrote proposals answering RFPs based on little field research, this sadly exacerbates the original RFP-wasn't-drafted-in-country problem. It is again our lack of time, our rush to do good (including getting our overhead from projects to maintain our organizations) that is our barrier to actually doing it sustainably. With communities leading. 


But "times are a changing" and new incentives and directions are appearing at USAID such as IDEA's Local Solutions or PPL's Evidence Summit.  New opportunities have been used to engage countries in public-private-partnership agricultural livelihood collaborative programming such as via NEPAD's CAADP (and USAID's Feed the Future programs in a dozen countries). Combined with above-mentioned new funding for capacity building evaluation by Rockefeller Foundation, and new mobile technology ways to value and pass on grassroots voices are all promising. These provide ways to dramatically tweak incentives, to feed in local voices.  Hallelujah.  


What do you think? Are our incentives righter than I see? Are our Requests for Proposal actually mirroring more closely country-national desires for development their way? Please share your learning… so we can truly support their development their way. 

What do we know… about international development, ourselves, ‘them’ and the intersection?

What could we know… about international development, ourselves, 'them' and the intersection?

How would international development look from the eyes of the participants? What works best? What fails? Who decides what success and failure is, and how much do we even know what they think, 3, 5, 10 years after projects end?

And who is 'we' in the sentence anyway?

This blog will stream my view and those of and my colleagues in my field, many of whom have been working as I have over 20 years across Africa, Latin America, Asia, Balkans and many corners of the world, as well as those from these very corners. I hope to be a bridge for knowledge sharing between 'old timers', those new in my field, as well as between the 'North' and "South', sharing evidence, trends, stories, and promoting ideas like:

* Using Appreciative Inquiry to celebrate what works best and how to do more of it, as I did for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and Johns Hopkins University et al, leads to more knowledge sharing, excitement and nurtured souls than a focus on what is broken.

* Country nationals should evaluate their own projects and programs – it's their countries, after all

* Participants best know what success looks like in their own communities – including them in their own discovery, design, monitoring and evaluation is paramount for success and sustainability

* No 'development' project with behavior change as any part of it should be shorter than 10 years, heck it takes 3 for communities and non-profits to get to know and trust each other…

* Donors should go back 3, 5, 10 years later to see what exists now, what communities valued enough to keep up themselves after project funds and staff left.

* There is great need for compassion in development. Parts of the system are broken when we development workers push projects designed abroad, don't have time we know is vital to take to involve participants, feel such pressure to perform, to prove impact that we work 80 hours a week, race to meet donor reporting requirements…

There are so many fascinating trends out there right now which we need to address mindfullly, and understand how our participants need our help to address:

Over 50% of the world's population is under the age of 30! So should we design youth-centric development? Have them as our main respondents and designers?

Even though we produce 1 ½ times enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet, nearly a billion people go hungry while over a billion are malnourished …. but social movements are changing that. How to address redistribution issues, water scarcity, food waste, etc, together?

Women produce 60% of the world's food, get 10% of its income and own 1% of the world's property. We are making progress on women's rights by deeply embedding women in development, looking at activities through a 'gender lens'. How much more could we do if they designed programming to fit their circumstances?

By 2100 both China and Nigeria will have over a billion people. What will this do to trade, demands for food, and equity (to name a few)?

* Financial and Youth demographics in Africa show will tip the scales in terms of country-led development as "Africans are perfectly capable of representing themselves and developing in ways of their own choosing. The African diaspora is making massive contributions to their countries-of-origin, not just in terms of sending back money (about $50 billion annually), but also in terms of reclaiming the development discourse."
How are we addressing, including these as well as 'lessons learned' from the past and envisioning a collaborative, kind future for all of us, where happiness reigns?
What else could we know?…