As the COVID-19 pandemic swept over the United States, the stark observation that African-American, Hispanic and Native American populations were disproportionately affected was met with justified shock and anger. After all, the United States has the world’s largest economy, a high standard of living and a sophisticated health care system and is often held up as a model for many countries.
How can we make our work more relevant and effective?
Earlier this summer, FHI 360 held its first summit on integrated development, Greater Than the Sum of its Parts. Ben Ramalingam, a researcher and the Leader of the Digital & Technology Cluster at the Institute of Development Studies, delivered our keynote address. While Ben was in town, we talked about how to maximize the effectiveness of international development and how we need a paradigm shift to generate real change.
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.