What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
In my last post (Orgasmatron Moments) I compared re-hashed development and aid work ideas to re-makes of songs, lamenting that often people don’t realize that their favorite new innovation is more like a cover of an old idea.
Dave Algoso at Find What Works commented:
So my question is: Linda, what’s next?! … What principles of good development are already being implemented by smart groups, but are still unnoticed by the academics and other commentators? To continue the music analogy, if you’re the fan who liked the hip new band before they were big — what are you listening to now?
Hmm. A tricky question if you ask me. There are a lot of people who write and blog about development trends and who know a lot more about this than I do, (Owen Barder, for example) but I’ll take a stab at some things that I’m hearing about, working on, discussing and/or seeing nowadays.
The fact that I can link to most of these ideas means that they are not going unnoticed. Or maybe the development blogosphere is akin to the underground music scene. In any case, none of these are totally new. There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).
Some mash-ups/re-mixes that together create a new, interesting and good sound to my ears:
Cynefin, aid, development. I first heard about Cynefin when reading @morealtitude’s post ‘Embracing the chaotic: Cynefin and humanitarian response‘. Cynefin draws the world’s systems into four paradigms: Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic. Each paradigm has its own characteristics, and systems can shift from one paradigm to another. Not new, as the concept is at least 10 years old… but I love the connection between these paradigms, development/humanitarian aid work, and the way that organizations market themselves. A good resource on complexity theories in aid and development is Aid on the Edge.
Social media and ICTs to broaden participation. I’m digging the use of social media and ICT tools to bring marginalized voices into discussions about development, aid, governance, accountability, corporate abuses and other related areas, and to get broader input from ‘beneficiaries’ on approaches, ideas and initiatives. I’m liking how they are being used to simplify information and expand the number of people with access to information that was hidden or inaccessible before. (Update: This cool effort to geo-code aid data could make a lot of foreign aid project funding data more available.)
Not a new concept, as people have been ‘popularizing’ and sharing information for ages (think town criers, jesters, printing press, cartoons or ‘child friendly’ versions of legal documents) but social media and ICTs continue along this path. Issues of accessibility, language, gender, literacy, electricity, and disability need to be overcome, but things are moving forward, and organizations are more and more thinking about how to use ICTs for these purposes. This makes aid transparency, budget transparency come alive, and it becomes easier to see who is doing what where and who is spending what where and who is funding what. Kind of like that cool website Source Watch where you can type in a name (eg., the name of the guy who did that research saying that climate change doesn’t exist) and find out who he works for and who pays his salary is spreading to new areas and new levels.
Crowdsourcing/crowdfeeding in humanitarian and development work. Linked to the above, I’m increasingly interested in approaches that combine broad and quick information gathering with good quality information gathering, are based on experiences in past emergencies or development initiatives, that find ways to speed up information processing and response, and that improve on quality. Those efforts that consider proper management of expectations and privacy; child and witness protection, and that do not create parallel systems score extra points. Use of these technologies internally in organizations and among/across organizations, and with /by affected populations all fall into this category, which is closely linked with the one above. Check out this cool presentation on interaction design and crowdsourcing or this brilliant piece on Social Media and Humanitarian Response.
Online + offline combos. Not everyone is online, and not every context is the same. I’m really interested in approaches that use a variety of communication tools and methods to reach their goals and that are flexible and seamless across the initiative. Looking at how to better connect knowledge and information from the local level to the global level and back again, and to link horizontally is key. I’m a fan of initiatives that are goal, results, impact driven, but that also consider good process and take local context into great consideration. I like initiatives that are not technology driven, but where technology is incorporated strategically if and when and where it actually adds value. An example of this is where hand drawn maps and digital maps work together in participatory mapping to meet the needs of different groups.
Data and information collection and sharing by mobiles. Data collection – not new. But use of low cost mobile phones and data decentralization to district and community levels is a relatively new phenomenon. When data is owned more closely to the source, it seems more likely that people will care more about data validity and that the data will become information that they can use to manage their own processes and their own development. This is happening in many areas, from health to education to financial transactions a la mPesa and mKesho, to civil registration (eg, birth certificates) to government budgets to emergencies.
Expanding innovation. ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance) talks about the 4 Ps model (pages 3 and 4 of this really relevant .pdf file) of innovation in humanitarian aid, and expands on the typical thinking that ‘innovation’ means ‘creating a new thing/product’. ‘Innovations can be directed towards improvements or new developments of four aspects: (i) products, such as improved cooking stoves or food products to counter malnutrition; (ii) processes, such as methods for stockpiling goods, improved coordination, or improving learning and quality assurance; (iii) the position of an organisation and its work in relation to key stakeholders, for example by changing an organisation’s public profile or by changing attitudes to an area of work such as shelter; (iv) paradigms or combined attitudes and beliefs determining the fundamental approach to humanitarian work, such as the calls for paradigm shifts in humanitarian business models towards beneficiary participation, local ownership and capacity development. Exploring these ideas in the context of humanitarian work gives a new way of understanding and harnessing organisations’ creative potential.’ Yeah. I guess Marketers have their own 4Ps, (product, price, place, promotion) and marketing innovators have theirs (population, penetration, price, purchase frequency), so having 4 P’s is not new, just maybe it’s new when thinking about innovation in humanitarian aid.
Questioning capitalism’s influence on aid and development. By that I mean looking more closely at things like Corporate Social Responsibility (sometime I think that term is an oxymoron — check this animated video version of Slavoj Zizek’s Marxist reading of charity). Questioning capitalism is not new. (Hello Marx). But it’s still relevant to pick apart capitalism and to wonder if things will ever change if we keep pushing the same system with all its flaws and inherent inequities. Questioning CSR includes thinking critically about ‘philanthrocapitalism’ in the sense of 1) the application of business models/ approaches to aid and 2) doing things to benefit the poor at a profit.
Related to that, thinking critically about cause-based marketing and its link to consumerism and the destruction of the planet and having clear program-driven policies on if, when and how to engage volunteers, take gifts in kind, and work with corporations and other funding bodies; and having mechanisms in place to ensure before accepting them that the above are actually necessary and contribute to program goals and actually benefit communities in the long run. Then again, a lot of people are on the trade-not-aid kick (thanks to Dambisa Moyo) and the two sides are a bit at odds with each other. It’s a battle of the bands that I’m still not ready to vote on yet. Can someone please come up with a new political and economic system that is fair and works?
Along these lines is questioning models of social entrepreneurship, social innovations, innovation contests, and design for the BOP, design for the ‘third world’ and other similar initiatives. There is a great article that opens a lot of questions around that model and a cool initiative called “Design for the First World.” Not to mention the Bruce Nussbaum et al. debate around ‘Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?‘
Transmedia activism. I first heard about Transmedia Activism from Lina Srivastava (@lksriv) and I still don’t fully understand it, but then Lina is way smarter than I am, so that could be why. I quote: ‘Transmedia Activism is a framework that creates social impact by using storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share assets and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media to raise awareness and influence action.’ Again, not new is the concept of transmedia storytelling, used in marketing and product sales for quite some time, but it’s only recently that it’s being applied and used in advocacy work and non-profit causes.
Organizing your workers with the times. Rather than top-down, super structured, cubicle-based working environments, some offices are (and IMHO, all should be) looking at management styles that encourage innovation, collaboration and global teamwork. Time Magazine, a mainstream news source, talks about “global teams that use social media and collaborative decision-making that might involve team members scattered around the world, from Beijing to Barcelona to Boston, whom the nominal leader of a given project may never have met in person…. By 2019, every leader will have to be culturally dexterous on a global scale.” If you ask me, not enough INGOs are paying attention to this and are still embracing old-fashioned structures and work environments. (Update: Google is known for stimulating innovation, and Netflix also seems to be doing this well.) (Update #2: Recommend subscribing to the Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. Love this post – now, can I just get the organization where I work to see the light?)
Global warming and climate change. Whether because of the global meetings (COP15), because of the increase in disasters, because a younger generation is entering the workforce, or because we are finally realizing that it is for real, there are more programs dealing with climate change and its effects, especially looking at the differential impacts on women and children. Organizations are starting to think more about how they themselves contribute to climate change. Again, this is not a new thing, but it’s coming into vogue again. It makes us think about consumer based advocacy and cause based marketing, travel and carbon footprints, and starts asking why people are still coming up with ‘send your old crap to Africa’ schemes rather than working on changing consumer-based cultures in their own territories to stop buying so much stuff and producing so much waste.
Continuum between emergency and development. The gap between what is an emergency/humanitarian program and what is a development program continues to close up a bit more as organizations realize the importance of community ownership and engagement as soon as possible after a disaster. Again, not new. This was signaled as early as the 90s with the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct, but it’s taken awhile for it to hit home. The dangers of too much doing by external agencies and the damage it can cause to longer term development are coming more to the forefront and entering mainstream conversations a bit more. Here’s one blog post and related discussions that sort of gets at what I mean…. I’m sure there are many other discussions happening in the humanitarian world that I’m not currently participating in.
Some ideas I’ve been listening to a bit less/conversations I’m not very engaged in and (in keeping with our metaphor of music) where I’m trying to figure out if I want to buy the album:
RCTs: There is quite a lot of debate around RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials) and the importance of evaluation. This is one of AidWatch’s favorite topics, and there’s a lot of debate every time they do a post on it. Here’s one such post by Alanna Shaikh.
Cash transfers… conditional or un-conditional, universal or targeted. Not new. Lots of agencies have done cash transfers in the past. Sponsorship agencies for example used to do only that, but they moved over to community based development in the 1970 and 80s. I’m trying to find some information on why, but haven’t been successful yet. Also trying to figure out what exactly is new about the current cash transfer model, and what makes it work better than the old sponsorship line-up-to-collect-your-$20 models. There’s more information on cash transfers here. If anyone has concrete information from back in the day on why sponsorship organizations made this change in how they work, it would be much appreciated. I plan to do some more homework on this when I have time, as I do agree with giving people more control over the ‘aid’ and ‘development’ that is coming their way, but there must be a reason that organizations stopped giving out cash, and I’d hope some studies on that decision and its impact on ‘beneficiaries’ for better or worse.
Cash on Delivery aid is being discussed quite a bit. I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion one way or another, but you can check out the Center for Global Development’s site. As I was in the middle of composing this post, Amanda Makulec commented on my last post, saying: In some ways, CGD’s Cash on Delivery Aid idea isn’t entirely new either (and I’m not the first to call them out on this), though it’s gotten a lot of press from everyone from DfID to Nick Kristof who have heralded it as a “new” way of doing development. Programs in Haiti, Rwanda, and other countries have relied on the idea of making either financial incentives or even specific percentages of an annual budget contingent on meeting specific service delivery targets. I’d have to go back into old files from my grad school internship for specifics, but, for example, in a past program in Haiti funded by USAID, NGOs received funding to accomplish certain program outcomes (vaccinate X children, for example). By meeting their targets, the NGOs ensured they received continued funding.
The CGD proposal does, however, advocate for taking the principles behind performance-based financing (or results-based financing, if you work for Abt or the World Bank), and applying those ideas to how governments spend aid dollars. So perhaps it could be held up as a good example of a new way to apply an existing idea, elevating it from a program to a policy.”
So, time will tell which of the song categories each of these development trends will fall into…. and there are certainly many more trends. Feel free to add your own in the comments section or challenge the ones I mentioned above… But maybe more fun than that, what do you think? Which of the ideas above or the new ideas you’re seeing will fall into which of the categories below?
- Instant Classic –good enough to get played on the Classic station even when it’s only been out for a year
- Alternative – but eventually you’ll hear it at the dentist office, or feel obliged to comment when you see the next generation be-bopping to it at wedding receptions because it used to be so provocative
- Underground – edgy and radical, still waiting for pop stars to water it down or to cover it when the time is right for it to go mainstream
- One Hit Wonder – great idea, doesn’t last past evaluation stage or burns out
- Child Star – forced to mature before its time by too much media attention and too much donor money
- Pay to Play –not necessarily bad, but forced on everyone because it’s backed by big corporations/ donors and crowds out the other ideas that have less financial backing
- We are the World – feel-good idea that most people buy into that is actually bad development / bad aid and a waste of everyone’s time
- Next Bono – seemed pretty cool at first, but overrated
PS: thanks to everyone who contributed directly or indirectly to this post for constantly challenging my thinking and taking it to new levels.
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