Human-centred international development

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Edwards published his highly controversial and scathing critique of international development: “The irrelevance of development studies”. He argued that development experts have consistently been arrogant expats with no knowledge of, or interest in, local and indigenous knowledge systems. New developments in research and innovation only make his assessment even more damning. In fact, with the benefit of new knowledge, it is fair to say that international development really never had a chance. It was doomed from the beginning because it lacked humanity. That is, the objects of international development have not been real human beings.

After some years in the Canadian public service, I went on a sabbatical to teach international development at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. My interactions with students in the lecture halls made me realize the meaningless and futility of expert-expat-driven development theories, policies, strategies and ideologies: e.g. structural adjustment programs. First, I found students completely baffled with a hodgepodge of abstract economic development jargon in textbooks and lecture halls: e.g. Deepak Lal’s dirigiste dogma. Second, I found expat-expert-led ideologies, policies, programs and practices of development meaningless from the standpoint of the supposed beneficiaries.

The failure has been consistent. So one must ask: Why the insanity? Why, as Albert Einstein noted, do the same thing again and again and expect different results? How else might we seek explanation for this insanity? How might we attempt to cut through this impasse?

Let’s give human-centred design a chance.

Human-centred design, also known as design thinking, puts the beneficiaries, the end-users, the clients, at the centre-stage of the solution design process, whether we are designing policies, programs, processes, products, services, etc. Tim Brown’s Change by Design is an excellent read on this way of thinking and doing.

Human-centred design process entails:

Immersion and Understanding –At this initial phase, the policy designer must display humanistic sophistication, sensibility, sensitivity and flexibility to take on the roles of the anthropologist, the sociologist, the historian, and the psychologist. He must immerse himself into the cultural, social, historical and emotional life of those for whom he intends to design the solution to the problem. This is an opportunity for the designer to experience the problem from the point of view of those who live the problem in their everyday lives. Does this sound like ethnography? Participant observation? Dorothy Smith emphasises in her book The Everyday World as Problematic that those who live the problem we seek to solve are “the experts in their everyday lives”. Therefore, it stands to reason to learn from them. Immersion is the opportunity for the designer to empty himself, to get out of himself, and look at the world through the eyes of those for whom he seek to design the solution. It requires humility and letting go of power which enables the policy designer to developprofessional empathy. Here the designer transcends his technocracy and becomes humanized as he enters into the humanity of the end-users. In turn, the end-users of development policies and programs become transformed into co-designers. Christian Bason’s article “Empathy is the new black” makes a compelling case for professional empathy in policy design. Were the infamous structural adjustments policies and programs designed in this way? No, not once.

Ideation – Having put themselves in the shows of the end-users and gained insights into the problem, in this phase, the designers generate ideas for the solution to the problem. As the ideas are generated, they must suspend judgement to encourage more ideas. The goal is to produce as many potentially useful ideas as possible. The arrogant and control freaks in the team must civilize themselves, control their impulses, and let the ideas come forward. Which ideas are the best will be decided later. Ideas can be combinations of ideas already put forward. At the tail of this phase the team narrows down to the best ideas. Frankly, I have a hard time picturing the technocrats in these international development institutions doing this.

Prototyping and Testing – In this phase, the designers take the best idea and craft their solution model. They take this solution model to the end-users, that is, the people who will be stuck in their lives with the policy or program. If done properly, the end-users will interact with the solution model and provide input for improvement. The beneficiaries are not passive but active participants and makers of this process. This means the design process is not mono but multi-directional. It is interactive in the true sense of the term. It is based on observation, listening and changing accordingly. The solution designers take the end-users input and go back to the drawing board to redesign the solution, change or discard it entirely. Have international development organizations (IMF and World Bank) done this in their international development policy design? No, not once, it seems.

Implementation and Scaling – In this phase, the tested and proven solution is implemented and scaled. Unfortunately, international development organizations have focused on implementation and scaling of ill-conceived and badly designed technocratic solutions. Often solutions have not been human-centred; have been expat-expert driven and led; have been dismissive of local knowledge systems; have excluded and positioned local people as passive objects of development. The real beneficiaries of international development policies and programs have been imagined, fictitious non-human individuals and communities. The real end-users have been abstract entities without context, culture, history, emotions, souls, flesh and blood. They do not exist.


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