Is Development Doomed? No! Youth and community input are key to sustainability

Paul Theroux has a deeply depressing, if quite realistic, view of how development has failed Africa. "Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid a "debilitating drug," arguing that "real per-capita income [in Africa] today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades." He notes that our desire to help is the very death knell for Africa: "50 years later, the education system in Malawi is still faltering. Why? Because teaching as a profession in Malawi, and many parts of Africa, is undervalued, if not despised, and poorly paid. Besides, you can always find a foreign teacher willing to do the work: American, British, Japanese, Australian." Later he notes that in our desire to help, we can harm: "A mud hut and thatched roof is, in fact, renewed every few years; the cement structures and tin roofs built by well-meaning NGOs create maintenance problems." If we keep doing things For Africa and the 'developing' world and don't support their own self-development, who wins? If we keep designing development projects because we know what they need, how sustainable will they be?

So what is to be done? What already exists is the OECD's DAC. It has lovely and broad-ranging criteria for evaluating impact at project's end. They use five kinds of measures. Now we need African, Asian, Latin American evaluators to see how relevant these are and how they'd change the measures with communities. I suspect that looking at projects from the participants' viewpoint rather than the donors could change how we look at these categories, and measure them:

1) Relevance (e.g. are the activities and outputs of the programme consistent with the overall goal and the attainment of its objectives and intended impacts and effects?)

2) Effectiveness ( (e.g. to what extent were the objectives achieved / are likely to be achieved and why?)

3) Efficiency (e.g. were activities cost- and time-efficient?)


4) Impact (e.g. what real difference has the activity made to the beneficiaries?)


And this is key:

5) Sustainability – "measuring whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn. Projects need to be environmentally as well as financially sustainable… e.g. to what extent did the benefits of a programme or project continue after donor funding ceased? What were the major factors which influenced the achievement or non-achievement of sustainability of the programme or project?")


Some organizations use these measure for final evaluation, the worse news is that there are very few of them, there is pretty faulty knowledge sharing within organizations and across projects, so there's no guarantee that lessons from one project will be learned by the next. Even worse, no communities are at the helm of these evaluations, and the very way in which they are structured lead to skewed results. What can go wrong? In Ashoka's great Feedback Labs, project participants' "feedback was excessively positive. In focus group discussions we asked participants how comfortable they felt giving us feedback, including criticisms and suggestions.  Their message was consistent: “you are our benefactors, we are grateful for any help provided, we would never criticize you"

We can:

* Minimize respondent bias by using national evaluators independent of project or donor staff, working with communities;

* Involve community feedback on its effectiveness from the project's start, building their buy-in ONLY if we make changes during implementation based on it, and use it to shape future projects.

* Involve youth as key respondents as their lives and livelihoods depend on vibrant communities who have been supported to create their best futures (rather than implementing projects that we international donors feel they should have and that help us get more funds while feeding our development industry).  We can use SMS technology to crowdsource and inform what works versus what doesn't as UNICEF Uganda did to check on aid received, and we can use it to inform knowledge youth need to know as Pathfinder International for Mozambican family planning knowledge.



Why should we do that? Because they are the future. As Forbes cites a new Ashoka Article on youth as changemakers: "Currently, 70% of Africans are under the age of 30. By 2040, 50% of the world’s youth will be African, most of whom will be women and girls. With nearly half of the youth population in Africa currently unemployed or inactive—and 72% living on less than $2 per day—communities are finding it more urgent than ever to enable new avenues and solutions for the creation of quality jobs that make way for youth livelihoods and productivity. How these communities address this challenge could shape the future of the world in unprecedented ways….[one path is supporting] community-rooted innovators, social entrepreneurs with a long history of working to help communities become “unstuck” and help youth become changemakers. These innovators build solutions based on a deep understanding of the socio-economic context within their specific communities. They weave initiatives that flip problems into cross-sector, sustainable, community-driven solutions."  We can support this through having them be the key engines for innovation in communities, shaping our development projects to meet their current needs.

So let's get started! Where have you seen success? What are the dangers of these approaches?