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Changing how development assistance is delivered


Jo Kemp

Much has been written in recent years on the need to “do development differently”. At the core of the debates are the principles of focusing on locally defined problems tackled through iteration, learning, adaptation and using systems thinking. By applying these principles, in our efforts to pursue, promote and facilitate development progress, it is assumed that development interventions can generate higher and lasting impact.

In the COVID-19 era, we again need to re-consider how development is delivered. With planes grounded, and inevitable donor budget cuts, the pandemic has forced us in the sector to think creatively and change behaviours. It is a difficult time but also an opportunity for us, as development practitioners, to reconsider how we work. But what can we adjust in how we design and deliver programmes?

At present, most development programmes focus on the delivery of technical solutions. Team members may be placed long-term in-country to deliver technical assistance, their efforts supplemented by fly-in/fly-out team members. I have been both. It is what development practitioners are primarily trained to do through their tertiary education or professional qualifications and it is what donors and client governments often ask for. However, this approach only gets us so far.


We might get a good policy enacted or a new approach adopted but that alone doesn’t make the system stronger. This is because genuine development progress is complicated: solutions are not simple or obvious and when an input doesn’t have the expected output, you are probably faced with a complex system. So how do we best work with complexity?  

- Understand first, then act. Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within the system to understand how they interconnect, relate and act in a complex system. From here insights can be used to develop interventions. Voice or draw elements of the intervention and its stakeholders that may not be being said.

- Re-evaluate our role as development practitioners in the process of change. Moving away from technical solutions – and working with complexity - inevitably shifts our role from ‘doers’ to ‘facilitators’. This shift in mindset enables us to think and act in different ways and move beyond a focus on technical delivery.

- Take time to learn, think and adapt. Sadly, this is often seen as a luxury with ever tighter programme budgets and timeframes. However, it is arguably even more important in times of scarcity to ensure that what money is spent will deliver an impact.  


- Build the skills needed to work in new ways. This may include a focus on strengthening our listening skills - listening to deepen awareness rather than jumping to solutions - and communicating with open questions to facilitate understanding. These core “soft” skills can help to work side-by-side with country partners and help resist the urge to provide ready-made solutions, models or rigid advice.

Working in the COVID-19 era is an opportunity for us, as development practitioners, to work in new ways. I, for one, am excited about continuing to work in new ways.

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