Development: It’s Time to Rethink How We Do Development

December 1, 2014

A group of development experts issues a plea for reform.


Last month, a group of experts tried to set a different tone. Coming together in a workshop entitled Doing Development Differently, we tried, rather unusually, to focus on what the development community has been doing right — to share stories about projects, policies, and reforms that fostered real change by not doing development in the usual way.

Rather than getting stuck on what doesn’t work, the workshop participants set out to examine recent development successes, and attempted to understand precisely why they worked.

Check out Natalia Adler describing how she worked with a team to promote a “user- centered” approach to public sector reform by giving public servants in Nicaragua a 100 day challenge to experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of services (by registering a child’s birth or visiting a health clinic, for example). Or take a look at Zac Brisson‘s work on coming to grips with the realities of fiscal behavior in Nigeria (as a prelude to trying to reform this behavior), or at Jaime Faustino‘s presentation about transformational change in the Philippines, achieved through clever work with teams and coalitions to change the status quo on issues like property rights or public health tax.

These and other examples are inspirational. When presented alongside each other, however, they generated more than inspiration. Attendees at the workshop identified a number of core principles that seem to characterize successful development initiatives across very different country contexts and program objectives. The findings highlight that, while development comes in many shapes and sizes, the success stories offer some overarching lessons about how change happens, providing valuable clues to how development support can have the most impact:

First, these initiatives tackle local problems by inviting local people to debate, define, refine and address the issue at hand in an ongoing and iterative process.

Second, they involve agents at all levels (political, managerial, and social), which legitimizes the initiatives by building ownership and momentum into the process. They are “locally owned” in reality, not just on paper.

Third, the initiatives work through local conveners who mobilize all those with a stake in progress (in both formal and informal coalitions and teams) to tackle common problems and introduce relevant change.

Fourth, they blend design and implementation through rapid cycles of planning, action, reflection, and revision (drawing on local knowledge, feedback, and energy) to foster learning from both success and failure.

Fifth, these approaches manage risks by making “small bets,” pursuing activities with promise and dropping others.

And finally, these initiatives foster real solutions to real problems that have real impact, thus building trust, empowering people, and promoting sustainability.

These principles aren’t entirely new, having been central to the “structured flexibility” and “learning process” approaches produced by people like Derek Brinkerhoff and David Hulme in the 1980s and early 1990s. They are found in recent work as well, including the Overseas Development Institute’s Politically Smart, Locally Led work and theProblem-Driven Iterative Adaptation approach currently being adopted in research projects Harvard’s Building State Capability program.

We recognize that many might find the above principles to be common sense. Unfortunately, however, common sense is not always the most common of the senses.Indeed, what is striking is that many development projects, policies, and reforms still do not adhere to such principles. This is true for many initiatives that are externally supported and for many that are driven by developing country governments. We therefore see the need to identify these principles clearly. We also believe it is vital to state our belief that development initiatives will have more impact if these principles are followed.We aim to keep identifying initiatives that follow these principles and to help diffuse their positive impacts more broadly than is currently the case. We will work together as an emerging community of practice and welcome any and all who agree that development can and should be done differently. To start in this direction, our community at the workshop ambitiously decided to capture all this in a statement — the Doing Development Differently manifesto — that reflects the views of those at the workshop, many of whom have signed onto it. It reaffirms commitments for locally led problem solving, for mobilizing multiple stakeholders to take action, for managing risks by taking “small bets” and, above all, maintaining a focus on real results — tangible improvements that have real impact.

Our hope is that this is just the beginning.

Starting small, we want to expand. Limited by time, resources, and our locations, the workshop brought together a group that was necessarily small. But it’s clear that there are people and groups around the world already doing development differently, and their voices deserve to be heard. Practically, our manifesto includes an open invitation to all those who share our principles to join a growing community of practice that can share experiences and strategies adopted in the field of development. As part of this, we made the commitment to host our next convening in a developing country, with much more representation from different regions.

The workshop generated a rich set of cases and examples of doing development differently. They’re now available on the Harvard and ODIwebsites (where you can watch individual talks, or link to related reports). But we’re all too aware that this can look like cherry picking. To overcome such reservations, we aim to launch a dedicated “library” and to crowdsource evidence from around the world on programs that have achieved results (and those that haven’t) based on these principles. We also want to bring in historical experience, too — there’s a long history of at least the past 40 years of attempts to work in this way. This should provide a practical resource for anyone wanting to know more.

We are also dedicated to supporting others. We’ve already begun to work with some of the major donor funders on changing how they do development. We want to support much more peer-to-peer learning, too — connecting Nigerian “small bet” innovators with those who’ve already tried and succeeded (or failed) elsewhere. So watch this space.

It’s time to build on development’s positives, rather than singing an old and sad song about its failure. We are committed to becoming builders, by identifying agents and organizations doing great work, often at the margins and at great risk. Will you join us by signing the manifesto and sharing your experience?

UNICEF/Nicaragua-2013/ Terán

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