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My Development Philosophy

It was a sunny afternoon in the hillside of Chautara, Nepal, with a crispness reserved only for the cusp of winter. The fresh air kissed our faces as we set up our program for the neighborhood children: kite decorating followed by a hand-washing demonstration. Each fall Nepali children celebrate the return of clear blue skies by filling them with kites. As our attendees arrived, we provided them with tissue paper and glue sticks with which to customize their vessels. They took to the task with smiling faces and emerged with sticky fingers, as had been our intention. We next presented a simple snack of cut up fruit, but begged the question: “what must we do before we eat?” Without further prompting they replied in sloppy unison, “Haat dunu parchha – we must wash our hands!” As one mother demonstrated a six-step, thorough hand-washing sequence with plenty of soap and suds, I was surprised to see many of the children gesturing along with each step as they watched. When their turn came, they executed each step with an authority that showed this was not new to them. Actually, it became quite clear that these Nepali children knew the six steps better than any of us, four twenty-somethings from the United States about to graduate from our training program and be sent across the country to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.

While we walked away from the program with a feeling of mild success, I couldn't help but question what I had observed, for it seemed apparent that the children had not learned anything new. And yet how was it that both the mom and children knew all the aspects of hand washing so well – when to do it, six special steps for it, and to use soap – but I had never seen them following these rules at home? While I came to understand and expect this phenomenon in time, a concise phrase for it came nearly three years later from the lips of Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) professor Beryl Levinger: a change in knowledge does not equal a change in behavior. I came to realize that, while education is an important first step, information alone will not succeed in creating change. As the economist authors of Poor Economics point out, people require incentives. But what's more: we're all human – none of us do all of the things we know we should do. Thus development cannot be measured by knowledge alone – it must be measured by actions, by behavior.

The two years of Peace Corps service that followed that first program gave me a solid beginning of on the ground international development experience. The DPMI program at MIIS helped me to further process that experience, to better articulate my vision for both the field of development and my role in it, and to build a tool kit as a change-agent.


Defining Development

As the present is always informed by the past, a discussion of development must begin by examining its roots. Born of the modernist period that followed WWII, the field of international development began as a modernization program with the basic premise that the conditions of poorer countries could be improved via modern infrastructures, which would in turn assist industry and lead to greater prosperity. While a sense of moral obligation on the part of wealthier countries undoubtedly influenced this beginning, it is clear that cold war politics also contributed, as the promotion of democratic systems also became part of the western development agenda. Over the decades that followed, these concepts gradually morphed: from modernization, to industrialization, urbanization, economic growth, human rights, equity and, currently, to ideas of sustainability, resilience and capacity development. With these changes in framing came changes in indicators; while a country's level of development was once measured almost solely by GDP, an array of additional measures are now considered (Human Development Index, Life expectancy, GINI index of income equality, the social progress index, Institutional capacity, to name a few).

The current standard for development is perhaps best captured by the UN Millennium Development Goals and their recent predecessor, the Sustainable Development Goals. Both of these attempt to include a full spectrum of past and present concepts of development while providing precise targets for measurable indicators over a fixed time frame. Concisely, this latest conceptual framing for development is as measurable behavior change. By creating a set of standards, both the MDGs and SDGs appeal to a sense of global responsibility – of a shared goal for humanity for each of us to work toward together.

Given how far the field of development has come, I am optimistic about it's future. I am pleased at the conceptual growth, especially the shift from a purely economic focus more toward an idea of mutual human and environmental well-being. But my vision for the future goes beyond simply implementing these concepts in development projects; it reaches farther to incorporate them into our global systems. My vision for development echos Lincoln’s notion of democracy: it must be truly of the people, by the people and for the people:

Of the people – development projects must include stakeholders in both the leadership structure and implementation.

By the people – individuals must have a say in their own development agenda and how development projects manifest. Ideas for development may be sparked by outside inspiration, nudging, or technical support, but the ultimate task of change must come from within, determined by those living it (Implied in this are the ingredients for sustained behavior change: both external support and internal drive).

For the people – both the process and the results should benefit the local people.


The Role of International Development Professionals

Historic attempts by outside agents to “bring development” to other countries via giveaways, large scale infrastructure projects, technology drop-ins, and one-time trainings have mostly lead to disappointing results. Thankfully this legacy of development lead by technocrats has changed profoundly – and must continue to. Many of these past mistakes spawned from false assumptions and limiting the discussion of other cultures to a single-story (that is to say making inferences about an entire culture based upon a single example). As international professionals we must always remember that cultures are complex and dynamic, not singular or static. Further, the single-story trap often leads to a sense of “us” the development experts, helping “them”, the powerless. This framing is both wrong and detrimental. Moving forward, I see empowerment as a crucial role of development professionals. We must move beyond the idea of “provider and recipient” and toward a genuine sense of partnership and collaboration.

Consequently, our role as international development professionals must be a humble one. We must start by listening, rather than prescribing. Development problems are complex and extremely nuanced. Assumptions, especially those made by individuals or groups outside of a community, are generally untrue. An outsider who assumes they know what locals need, without first consulting them, is a fool indeed. The book Poor Economics demonstrates this in droves throughout its pages. For example: many development professionals assume that cost is the main barrier to healthcare for impoverished families. Studies conducted by the authors found that the issue was much more nuanced: the amount of money spent was less significant than what they chose to spend money on, prioritizing expensive surgeries rather than cheap prevention. Thus, cost was not actually the main barrier to preventative health services for the poor – the main barrier was motivation (whether due to lack of perceived usefulness or lack of incentive to travel long distances to see doctors). It is our role as international development professionals to tease out these nuances by working with the locals to determine the problem.

This idea - of development as collaboration - is consistent with the the concept of development of the people, by the people and for the people. But more, this concept implies other shifts in the role of development professionals. We must act as enablers, change-agents, supporters, connectors, mediators, facilitators, partners, and innovators - empowering local communities to improve their own lives and influence their own futures. It is only through these roles that projects will achieve sustained benefits. I would argue that sustained benefits, or the behavior changes that endure beyond the life of a project, are the most accurate measure of development success. Through these roles, we may more naturally design projects that:

  • start with the people, rooted in local problem determination, participation, adaptation and ownership of the results;

  • address the root of the problem as defined and understood by the locals;

  • determine locally appropriate solutions;

  • build local institutional capacities; and

  • influence long term behavior change.


Tools for Change-Agents

As international development professionals – as enablers, change-agents, supporters, connectors, mediators, facilitators, partners, and innovators – in order to design projects with sustained benefits, we must work to: promote connectivity, encourage behavior change, practice smart monitoring and implementation, and be effective and innovative leaders. Several tools are nested within each of these areas:

Promote Connectivity: Build networks, practice strategic partnering, and empower stakeholders

  • Foster Social capital. Capital is anything that may be used to create more of itself. Social capital are the bonds of trust that enable people to come together to work for the common good. Trust breeds trust, and social capital leads to an extended network. It's important to build social capital with people who share common skills and interest (bonding), but also with people who have different skills or interests (bridging).

  • Teams can see it all, individuals cannot. As individuals specialize, we may each miss out on other important aspects of a problem situation or solution because we see things with our biased lens. Diverse collaborative teams may both better understand the problem and come up with more creative solutions.

  • Radical collaborations. Mobilize and utilize diverse talents.

  • Promote local ownership through active, genuine participatory process. When stakeholders are included in both the planning and implementing process of a project, they are naturally more inclined to gain a sense of ownership and thus a sense of responsibility for its success. With this, they are more likely to want to see a project succeed and the benefits sustained.

  • Promote local systems and networks. (USAID). Maximize collisions between actors in a field. Create ways to make relationships between actors bilateral (mutually beneficial) as much as possible. Fight organization network centrality (ie dependency; project should be able to function without the central agent).

Encourage sustained behavior change

  • A change in knowledge does not equal a change in behavior (Beryl Levinger and Poor Economics). Design projects that go beyond knowledge sharing and try to influence both attitudes and behavior. Provide external support and to foster behavior change.

  • Create programs to include both internal and external performance drivers. Include necessary information, resources, and incentives; promote skills training, capacity development and motivation.

  • Practice upstream thinking; spend your energy targeting the cause rather than mitigating the effects. Problems should be solved as close to the source as possible. Utilize problem trees and stakeholder knowledge to work backwards from the issue at hand until you get to its roots.

  • Change the defaults. Nudge individual decisions by making healthy choices the default.

  • Fight corruption. Promote policies that create incentives for compliance with local laws, especially among law enforcement officers. Support programs that empower citizens to speak out, report, and shame instances of non-compliance. Build institutional capacity with local policy makers and support strong accountability measures.

Smart monitoring and implementation

  • Work smarter, not harder. (Aka the Pereto principle). Determine the causal streams that are responsible for the brunt of the problem and work to mitigate them. In other words, target the issues that have the largest impact on the problem. And don't forget, stakeholders usually have a better idea about these that we do.

  • Develop SMART indicators. In order to measure the impacts of any intervention, we must develop indicators with which to establish a baseline, set a target and measure the outcome. SMART indicators need be: valid, reliable, sensitive (such that they convey the extent and direction of change), simple, practical and useful. As an acronym, SMART provides another way of framing these same qualities: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and with a time frame.

Effective & innovative leadership

  • Know thyself. One must know how to manage oneself before one can manage others. Understanding your own style as well as your own triggers will enable you to work effectively.

  • Understand others - practice deep listening. Often people resist change out of fear of losing something. Try to understand their perspective by listening deeply: display affirmations of attention per cultural norms.

  • Practice adaptive leadership (a concept gleaned from Grashow, Heifetz, Linsky). Focus on mobilizing others and adapting best practices from the past in order to tackle tough challenges and thrive.

  • There are not leaders, only acts of leadership. Acts of leadership are interventions that enable the group to get its work done, and can come from any member.

  • Utilize participatory brainstorming. Include stakeholders in judgment-free, divergent brainstorming sessions (using tools like SCAMPER and powers of ten); make sure to emphasize that the brainstorming process is separate from the assessment process.


Development for a brighter future

Whatever the definition of development, all share a common ideal: the desire to create a better future. Development is the act of growing, improving and progressing. However, what constitutes a “better” future varies as much as the ideas of how to achieve it.

In my vision for an ideal future:

  • I see equality - in opportunity, in treatment, in voice, in power.

  • I see the term “sustainable development” as antiquated – because the concepts of sustainability will have been fully adopted as the norm. Long-term planning will be incorporated into policy, and the well being of both humans and our ecosystems will be nurtured.

  • I see rural people with access to quality education, quality health care, quality services, and a diverse array of jobs.

  • I see governments that are no longer crippled by corruption but instead are held accountable and fully transparent.

  • I see citizens who have the ability to influence their own future, and who are empowered enough to realize and stand up for it.

I realize my vision strives for a high ideal - but I have always been one to aim high. And I believe with the right sent of international development professionals (acting as enablers, change-agents, supporters, connectors, mediators, facilitators, partners, innovators, and effective leaders) to promote development as collaboration (development of the people, by the people and for the people) and design development projects that are empowering (promoting connectivity, encouraging behavior change, smart implementation and monitoring), we can get achieve this vision, one step at a time.

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