Written by DesignThinkers Group Team
With the scope and scale of the challenges international development projects tackle, it can be surprisingly difficult to maintain focus on the people whose lives are supposed to be improved. Factors such as funding, reporting, or simple desire for consistency can sometimes trump the hard work of putting people at the center.
However, a movement for change is afoot. We recently revisited the work DesignThinkers Group has done to enable a human-centered approach to take hold in an industry where, for decades, solutions have tended to come from people thousands of miles away from where the problems are. Local needs are assessed, but the design and approval happen in distant offices, and local concerns and issues are frequently lost in the process.
Since 2015, we’ve partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) localworks program to help manifest this shift toward viewing problems through a local lens and developing solutions from the ground up. In November, we again gathered with the Agency and its partners to recount successes and problem-solve challenges.
CHALLENGES OF GOING LOCAL
USAID launched localworks in 2015 through their first round of funding to “advance locally owned development and enhance the Agency’s ability to empower local actors to take the lead in addressing their own development challenges.” The Agency hoped to enable local communities to tap into their own creativity and resources to drive development – a huge step beyond “participatory” methods that mainly collect input on a project that’s already been fully designed by outsiders. USAID engaged DesignThinkers Group to solidify the collaborative framework and innovation mindset that development professionals would need to rethink and remake conventional approaches to development.
DesignThinkers Group designed and continues to manage an immersive two-day co-creation workshop for USAID and 17 pre-selected organizations to collaborate on localworks-funded projects. USAID asked leading thinkers in locally led development to address two questions:
1. How can USAID more effectively support locally led development?
2. What are some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to reach this goal?
The co-creation workshop generated four new collaboration teams, or consortia, with which USAID has partnered on research and activities to implement entirely new approaches to development. One example, Stopping as Success, is a three-year project to build case studies on the complex dynamics at play when development programs end, and to provide guidelines on how to ensure locally led development. Another, Capacity 2.0 (including Root Change as a partner), is testing alternative approaches for supporting, sustaining, and measuring locally led development in Malawi. (See more consortia here).
Factors such as funding, reporting, or simple desire for consistency can sometimes trump the hard work of putting people at the center.
LESSONS AND RESULTS
Fast-forward to our recent two-day workshop with the localworks refgrantees. This high-energy engagement also served as a retrospective. Examining the common obstacles among the group members shows us the distinct challenges of truly localizing development and gave us valuable takeaways that apply beyond the international development context.
1. Development Challenge: A common obstacle was securing timely approvals to move money to the small, village-level non-profits that don’t value the paper receipts and documentation that are crucial to conventional development reporting and tracking. Technology is helping, but is not always a solution.
Design Thinking Lesson: Think hard and deeply about the resources people have and the experiences they’re going through. Put yourself in their place as much as possible by conducting on-the-ground research and using human-centered design techniques to ensure solutions take their context into account.
2. Development Challenge: Data gathering had to change. Several people were used to essentially quizzing local community members, usually to answer questions of interest to a far-away donor organization, but local-first development required engaging with people to find out their thoughts and priorities. Seasoned development professionals had to acknowledge their limitations as outsiders and turn to trusted local interlocutors to facilitate meaningful information flow.
Design Thinking Lesson: There’s listening, and then there’s listening. It can be hard to get around your own objectives and biases even while trying to assess others’ needs. True empathy, however, means making an extra effort to check yourself and your approach and opening your mind to unexpected and powerful information.
3. Development Challenge: “Exit strategies” to turn over projects to local organizations emerged as an important need, so one consortium set out to compile relevant literature, policy, and practices from throughout the development world on how to end development projects well. Even the quest to create this reference document met obstacles symptomatic of the problem, such as finding documents and people involved with projects and programs that had been closed for some years. Ultimately, the question was, “How could project managers buck convention and start handovers sooner, yet avoid looking like they’ve somehow failed?”
Design Thinking Lesson: The beginning of the end is probably earlier than you think. Exercises like prototyping your plan and mapping multiple stakeholder journeys can help ensure you’re not diminishing impact by failing to plan for a clean and effective project end.
4. Development Challenge: One of the most energetic discussions centered on lessons learned about how to involve local people. Most participants had extensive experience working at a local level (in the U.S. and elsewhere), but international contexts brought new challenges. Not the least of these was how to avoid getting in the middle of local politics. In response, the consortium from Macedonia developed a Local Systems Approach, conducting a social network analysis of who knows whom, one of the first such efforts to formally explore the uses and risks of social network analysis for local development.
Design Thinking Lesson: Know the territory. Even if you’re not working on an international or municipal level, every situation has “politics” that will impact solutions. Value-mapping is an effective way to visually reveal those issues, so you can prepare and accommodate as needed.
We’ve been privileged to help explore and challenge the collective understanding of what “local” and “collaborative” can mean in the development context.
In fact, these are issues that all sorts of organizations wrestle with. The literal and metaphorical distance between people making decisions about strategy, policy, products, and services, and the clients, customers, employees, or citizens they serve can seem vast. Through our work with USAID, we’ve seen the use of human-centered design approaches result in impactful collaborations and breakthroughs for localworks consortia. Most importantly, we’re beginning to see how transformations in the way development professionals think and work enable progress for the communities they serve.