Aid agencies can learn from other industries to advance integrated development approaches

A version of this post originally appeared on Learning Lab. Reposted with permission.

The years leading up to the 2015 benchmark for global goals saw enthusiastic calls for doing development differently, reaching a crescendo as the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted to guide our work through 2030.

Specifically, the new SDG era’s focus on integration among previously siloed social, economic and environmental aims has aid agencies wondering how to better address complex, 21st-century development challenges through meaningful cross-sector collaboration. In this industry, we like staying in our lane: doing what is familiar, what we are good at, and what we can count. As a result, we’ve become so focused on a plethora of micro-targets in isolation that we’ve lost sight of how families, communities, and societies actually work. How can we start moving beyond the long-entrenched, single-issue programs run by highly specialized staff? What can we do differently to better respond to people’s multifaceted lives?

To flip the script and make decisions based on actual problems (and their many root causes) rather than shaping them to fit the status quo development siloes, we designed a decisionmaking tool called the Development Sector Adjacency Map. The map offers insights about common relationships between development fields (called adjacencies) and strategic considerations to leverage those linkages through strategic adaptation and expansion.

Importantly, the map draws significant inspiration from the private sector. Indeed, businesses are skilled at customizing their products and services based on a deep understanding of what their customers need or want. Corporations and development organizations are both trying to meet people’s needs. Yet, given the different end goals (profits versus improved quality of life), the latter too often ignore opportunities to learn from the former. Now would be a good time for that to change.

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One specific lesson that businesses offer development is smart diversification. Described in a Harvard Business Review piece as growth outside the core, companies often deploy a strategy using “adjacent markets” to examine other goods or services their current customers want, and then expand or diversify accordingly. For example, the strategic expansion by the sporting goods giant Nike from shoes into the adjacent markets of clothing and sports equipment was a critical factor in the company’s emergence as the leader in its industry. In the context of global development, adjacencies are represented not by commercial products and services but by typically siloed sectors (e.g., health, education, agriculture or livelihoods) that are closely related and provide ripe opportunities for strategic integration. Different fields of development can be connected by two types of adjacency relationships.

  • In the first type, some adjacent sectors of development have a ripple-effect relationship in which the success or failure of efforts in one area eventually affects the progress of another. For example, data increasingly demonstrate that poor sanitation and hygiene often affect the proper nourishment of children. Pathogens in human and animal feces can inhibit the body’s absorption of key nutrients, so children who live in unsanitary conditions can be malnourished even though they receive adequate amounts of nutritious food. As a result, nutrition interventions that focus only on food can fall short of their goals. Though it’s typically considered a separate field of work, nutrition programs may also need to improve sanitation and hygiene practices to have the highest impact.
  • In the second type of adjacency, the joint delivery of multiple sector services may produce a cost-savings or amplify a program’s impact. For example, when conservation groups also integrate efforts on community health and livelihoods, they have achieved more impact on their original goals than if they had focused solely on the environment.

The Development Sector Adjacency Map underscores that no single program can or should offer everything to everyone. By contrast, the concept of adjacencies for breaking siloes in global development offers an opportunity to deliver smart, customized integrated approaches.

Excitingly, the map is just one tool in a new FHI 360 suite of resources developed to advance integrated development approaches, including:

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