Vision for International Development in Practice

by Lisa Sandoval

October 28, 2017

Upon completion of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ International Development and Social Change Certificate program, my mind is full of the potential, and pitfalls, of international development. As students completing the program for credit, we have been asked to write an essay describing our vision for international development that reflects our learning from the course. My vision is at once as cautious and idealistic as I am. The assignment asked us to be specific, so after describing in general the foundations of my vision, I delineate practical methods that align with it and where I stand regarding logic models.

The foundation of my vision is respect for cultures and ways of life. I studied French in high school and college and Arabic starting in college; I studied abroad in France during college and Syria after graduation. As a result of my language-learning abroad, my mode of interacting with other cultures is as a student of them. While I do not necessarily agree with or adopt every aspect of the cultures I have encountered, I have always taken the attitude of learning rather than judgement. I have imitated and tried on new things with an attitude of not knowing as opposed to believing I already know what was best or what was needed. Therefore, I shudder to imagine working on the design team of a development project whose purpose, priorities and methods have already been sketched out by agency protocol and without intimate knowledge of the primary stakeholders. I aspire to bring that same attitude of study and not-knowing to my participation in efforts to help others, reduce poverty, and uplift lives. Specifically, I want to get to know people and communities and find out what their priorities are and what they think they need.

I am concerned about development projects bound up in the normative framework of the culture to which I belong and the modernized world I inhabit and which reflect an absence of understanding of the regimes of truth of the people the projects are intended to serve. Brown and Wyatt (2010) observe, “Time and again, initiatives falter because they are not based on the client’s or customer’s needs and have never been prototyped to solicit feedback. Even when people do go into the field, they may enter with preconceived notions of what the needs and solutions are.” It is just so hard to know what you do not know. But to act without understanding the lives and mentalities of the people you are supposedly helping leads to actions that do not actually help and may even harm, and to me this is completely unethical.

People have been actively questioning the very foundations of the development enterprise for some time. I have not yet worked in international development, but what I have heard so far in my studies tends to make me uneasy. Even if the intentions are good, the results sound highly imperfect at best. Furthermore, an industry of aid primarily from Western countries to the rest of the world makes me feel very uncomfortable, evoking as it does a system of neocolonialism. My studies in the fall of 2017, specifically Dr. William Arrocha’s class on development theory and practice, gave me some words for my feelings and helped me sort through my questionings. In the poststructuralist critique of international development,

[T]he very notions of “progress” and something being “beneficial” became suspect in terms not only of “beneficial for whom?” but also, more revealingly, in terms of “Who determines what ‘beneficial’ means?” or even “Why does something being ‘beneficial’ presuppose that its effects on life constitute ‘progress’? (Peet & Hartwick, 2015, p. 244)

This statement describes exactly where I was stuck in terms of questioning the entire development industry. From that point of doubt described by the poststructuralist critique, the next logical step and the easiest solution for the armchair theorizer is simply to throw out the whole development effort. Peet and Hartwick (2015) describe this extreme in the views of Austrian anarchist philosopher Ivan Illich:

For Illich, the “benefits” of the modern world, even as reflected in its finest medical systems, education, and democracy, were far from being obvious. Illich instead called for counter research on fundamental lifestyle alternatives. The direction his approach takes is toward total abandonment of development because the latter inevitably involves growth that will ultimately prove fatal. (p. 245)

And I have to admit that I was heading in this direction of thinking myself.

There is a very real temptation on the part of those of us who have every material comfort to dismiss all development efforts as vain and misguided and to romanticize the life of the poor and simple. Peet and Hartwick (2010) point observe this tendency and suggest that instead of looking for “alternatives to development,” we can and should advocate for “alternative developments” (quoted in Peet & Hartwick, 2015, p. 264). Faced with the choice of rejecting the field I was studying or looking closely to find the methods and goals of development I could support, I chose to focus on the methods that reflected the foundation of my vision, an eagerness to learn from others’ way of life.

The research and project design methods I am interested in for their potential to produce culturally-appropriate solutions that meet the needs of primary stakeholders include design thinking, action research, and positive deviance, among others. Positive deviance refers to the phenomenon of something being superior to the norm, in contrast to deviance, which indicates a perversion of the norm and often has a negative connotation. The positive deviance approach to developing solutions to community-wide problems involves looking for examples of people in a community who exhibit a desired result such as superior nutrition, learning what they are doing to achieve it, and finding a way for them to share their better practice with the rest of their community (Brown & Wyatt, 2010). The approach acknowledges from the start that someone from outside the community cannot know what will work best in the community to reduce violence, for example, and assumes that someone in the community already holds the answer, even without being aware of it.

Searching for examples of positive deviance in a particular community and inquiring as to what those individuals are doing differently can allow researchers to sidestep their preconceived notions of how to solve the problem at hand. Rosenberg (2013) observes that this method challenges traditional development methods of planning a solution ahead of time in agreement with a donor. The practitioner of this method would have to find donors willing to fund the attempt to discover an appropriate, context-specific solution to a particular problem in a particular community. It sounds risky to launch a project not yet knowing what solution the project will implement, but on the other hand, importing cookie-cutter solutions has its own risks of failure. 

The next method in which I am interested is design thinking, a design method emphasizing creativity, observation, and direct experience. From the perspective of Brown and Wyatt (2010), although the traditional research methods of surveys, interviews and focus groups may ask people what they want, these efforts usually do not reveal what the people in question really need. Rather, it is more useful for the researcher or designer to “observe the actual experiences of smallholder farmers, schoolchildren, and community health workers as they improvise their way through their daily lives” in order to understand more intimately what people’s feedback can only partially convey. Thus the directive of design thinking is for designers to “observe, engage, immerse” (d.school) until they gain sufficient understanding of the situation or problems. Once the situation is somewhat understood, the key element of design thinking is to prototype solutions quickly and cheaply - the “fail fast” mindset. The idea is to try out solutions on a small scale to get rapid feedback about what is and is not working, and to incorporate the feedback immediately in design improvements. Prototyping seems like plain old common sense: who would think of launching a thousand-, million-, or billion-dollar initiative without testing it first? Yet to consider prototyping quickly and cheaply requires humility, admitting you do not know everything and being willing to work with failure.

Design thinking techniques can be used to come up with innovative solutions to development problems in foreign countries, provided designers are willing to work around language and cultural barriers. Brown and Wyatt (2010) say that a local contact who is able to interpret and explain the language and culture and make personal introductions can “[help] build credibility quickly and [ensure] understanding.” The idea, I take it, is that by observing with a certain amount of help in understanding the language and culture one can understand people’s needs well enough to design an effective product or service for them; it is not, in fact, necessary to live as a member of the community for years. I suspect it could be difficult to find the right guide and build credibility as quickly as the authors imply. But cultural and other social barriers exist between people even in one country where everyone speaks the same language, so the suggestion of finding a local guide, working to understand the beneficiaries, and building trust and credibility could apply anywhere.

It all comes down to local, local, local. Even USAID, which I consider a mainstream development funder, emphasizes the need to tailor solutions to the realities of primary stakeholders’ lives rather than importing ready-made solutions that work, at least in theory, somewhere else. USAID staff share that their “central insight is that external aid investments are more likely to catalyze sustained development processes when they reinforce a country’s internally determined development priorities (country ownership) and arrangements (country systems)” (USAID, 2014, p. 2). The international non-governmental organization CARE has also arrived at the conclusion that “localness” is critical, saying that stakeholder buy-in or involvement in the design process is key to project success (CARE, n.d.). This local focus feels appropriate to me and my learning orientation and it reminds me of why I decided to study at the Middlebury Institute in the first place: because of a deep curiosity about other people’s lives and a strong desire for connection, especially across cultures.

This assertion that social change only really works when the change efforts are made through and within the social fabric reminds me of participatory action research (PAR). In PAR, researchers try to blur the line between their role and that of the primary stakeholders in determining what solution may be best for addressing a particular local problem. Peet and Hartwick (2015) describe these “radical PAR theorists” as those “who admitted that their knowledge was irrelevant if local people did not regard it as useful and believe in full participation” (p. 243). Although PAR takes longer than administering a survey or collecting data through other, more streamlined methods, it promises to allow researchers to truly understand a community and to discover the solutions that could really work there.

A last important element of international development work as well as almost every other type of work is strengthening and leveraging social networks. Working through social networks is simply how things get done, like the African proverb says: “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Hargadon (2003) writes that it is not an individual’s superior traits that lead to that person’s creative success but rather his or her ability to work with others. Likewise, Battilana and Casciaro (2013) find that “[n]etwork centrality is more important than formal authority in implementing change,” whether in a company or a community. Many cultures around the world retain their emphasis on the importance of relationships and interpersonal connections, but in many workplaces and corporate cultures of the United States, a relational focus has given way to an individualistic or efficiency focus. The key is to return to people-oriented thinking and understand that “people are the means and the end,” not just a means to an end (Simmons, 2013). One way of better understanding any social network, including your own, is to map it as suggested by Uzzi & Dunlap (2005). Social network mapping can help ensure that even in the most hectic work environment, the power of relationships stays central to an organization’s work.

The methods outlined above with their emphasis on fieldwork and understanding local communities appear antithetical to the more traditional pursuits of logical framework (logframe) development and problem tree design, often carried out in sterile corporate offices far from the project implementation site. But I believe these tools and procedures still have their usefulness, as long as they are seen as tools and as such, imperfect reflections of reality. The great benefit that I see to tools like these is that they force one to think through every eventuality and identify assumptions, a process which requires a lot of mental discipline and would likely otherwise go undone. They help minimize unnecessary failure and waste (Cropper, Berg, Culligan, & Radstone, 2010). Similarly, CARE finds that a formal planning and design process has a higher success rate (CARE, n.d.). USAID (2000) writes in its results framework guide that “critical policy, operational, or resource problems were not adequately recognized” (p. 2) when the organization failed to follow proper planning procedure. Without a logical planning process a great idea could be implemented very badly.

Logic models need to be used with an understanding of their limitations and their proper place in the overall project design, planning and execution process. They are better suited for planning and refining a project after sufficient field research has been carried out than they are for coming up with innovations. Too much time spent thinking logically and linearly between assumed causes and effects squashes creativity and closes the space for the spontaneous arising of new combinations of ideas. And finally, all parties much resist the urge to be married to the logical framework, building into the original plan opportunities to reassess and the flexibility to admit when things fail or underlying assumptions prove invalid (USAID, 2000; CARE).

To summarize, the certificate course allowed us a deep dive into the international development toolbox and an opportunity to consider the best role for each tool, whether social network mapping, participatory action research, design thinking, positive deviance inquiry, the logframe or one of the countless others. Based on my vision of approaching situations humbly with an attitude of open-mindedness and learning, I prefer the more open-ended and creative approaches, although I still understand the helpful role of logic models and I personally enjoy constructing them.

Global development for me is as complex as a philosophical question and as simple as the desire to understand others. If I can be part of it, by making this world a safer, saner place for anyone and particularly those who have suffered unjustly, my life will have been worthwhile.

References

Battilana, J. and Casciaro, T. (July-August 2013). The network secrets of great change agents. Harvard Business Review, 1-8.

Brown, T. and Wyatt, J. (Winter 2010). Design thinking for social innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 30-35.

CARE. (n.d.). Lessons learned about why projects succeed. Class handout.

Cropper, J., Berg, E., Culligan, M., Radstone, L. (April 22, 2010). A guide to the PMD Pro1: Project management for development professionals – level 1. PMD Pro1. Class handout.

d.school (Institute of Design at Stanford). (n.d.). d.school bootcamp bootleg. Class Handout.

Hargadon, A. (July 2003). How breakthroughs happen: The surprising truth about how companies innovate. Audio-Tech Business Book Summaries, 12(7), 1-12.

Peet, R. and Hartwick, E. (2015). Theories of development: Contentions, arguments, alternatives. 3rd Ed. Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.

Uzzi, B. and Dunlap, S. (December 2005). How to build your network. Harvard Business Review, 1-9.

Rosenberg, T. (February 27, 2013). When deviants do good. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/when-deviants-do-good/?_r=0

Simmons, M. (July 22, 2013). If You Want to Go Fast, Go Alone. If You Want to Go Far, Go Together. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelsimmons/2013/07/22/power-of-relational-thinking/#6161c6010e3b

USAID Center for Development Information and Evaluation. (2000). Performance monitoring and evaluation TIPS: Building a results framework. Class handout.

USAID. (April 2014). Local systems: A framework for supporting sustained development. Class Handout.