Let’s start the New Year by looking at how we talk about development. It is striking how certain concepts and buzzwords rally people around ideas and mobilize us into action. The buzzwords themselves become powerful change agents. Yet, when they mature into unquestioned orthodoxy, they can restrict our vision and dull our understanding. Here are two buzzwords we love to use in development that are ripe for a deeper look.
Development and sustainability go together like bricks and mortar. But this term now has two distinct meanings in development parlance. One meaning refers to policies and actions that safeguard the environment and do not deplete our natural resources. This meaning has gained currency over the last 15 years. The second, and at least in my experience more common use, refers to a recipient partner’s interest and ability to continue projects or reforms financed by donors once donor funding ends. This use is closely associated with the concept of country ownership. When USAID adopted sustainable development as its credo in the mid-1990s, it was a response to the criticism that donor-funded projects collapsed when the funding ran out, often up-ending years of effort. This was partly a result of donors not wanting to take on recurrent costs that were seen as the partner’s responsibility. The lack of serious planning for recurrent costs remains a major challenge in international development.
Yet, should sustainable development even be an objective in a world where technology is changing everything around us at an exponential rate? Do we really want to sustain yesterday’s solutions? I think not.
Adaptive development is probably a better term in an era where rapid change requires continuous retraining and organizational restructuring. In a world where disruption is the new normal, sustainability is obsolete.
This is my new favorite buzzword. The idea is that impact depends upon the size of the intervention, with the clear implication that small is not beautiful. The clamor for projects to go to scale is rooted in a legitimate critique that developing countries are littered with projects that never grow beyond the pilot stage. In contrast, digital technologies have spread like wildfire, maximizing the number of individual users and delivering stunning progress without relying on public finance. Mobile technology, for example, has revolutionized communication, money transfers, health care and access to information. No wonder that techno-philanthropists, whose wealth derives from this business model, are champions of the concept of achieving scale.
The problem is that a lot of fundamental human development challenges won’t be solved by an app. Many interventions are neither replicable nor scalable, because they address specific situations and behaviors bound by culture, politics and history. Public services require infrastructure (facilities, staff, training) that simply is too costly for poor countries to finance and maintain at scale without external resources. We know there are insufficient resources to meet critical needs, so we design projects to do the best we can with what we have. Failure to recognize resource constraints undermines program design and can lead us to see successful actions as failures because they failed to meet unrealistic expectations.
The terms sustainable and scalable have become ritual incantations that we use to support our aspirations or cloak difficult realities. Progress is often the accumulation of thousands of small actions and incremental changes in behavior over time. While it is true that one measure of a technology’s success is how quickly it goes to scale, this does not mean that all development projects must be sustainable and scalable to be effective.
What do you think? I welcome your thoughts on these and other development terms that have more power as dogma than in informing good development practice.