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?