If you have been working in development for a while, it is difficult not to feel jaded. The malaise of the sector has been dissected from every angle. Periodical calls for structural change and a “new normal” in international aid sound increasingly hollow.
Has the development sector the capacity, and, perhaps more importantly, the will to renew itself? And how do we ask this question in a meaningful way, during a global pandemic? These were the questions that guided us as we drew up the program for Istanbul Innovation Days (IID), UNDP’s corporate R&D event. After all, as Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, reminded us in her opening dialogue with Sudanese activist Alaa Salah, “It is not enough to throw rocks at the castle. We need to be the architects of a new future”.
It would be impossible to summarize the richness of over 30 conversations and experiences covered by the eight-week journey. They ranged from Beirut Urban Lab questioning the financial infrastructure driving the city reconstruction after the 2020 ammonium nitrate blast, to a performance by space artist Nahum challenging our use of language, from Societal Platforms’ efforts to develop non-extractive technology in India to Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr’s remarkable experience of winning an election by promising to raise property taxes.
Rather, I will focus here on three key takeaways.
1. The biggest innovation for development? Ceding power
At this juncture, the development sector will credibly show that it is capable of renewal if it shows that it can relinquish power. In other words, the ultimate innovation challenge is institutional: the willingness to question who takes decisions and whose knowledge matters. Not necessarily technology prowess nor delivery at scale. The experience of the Africa Visionary Fund, as shared by its co-CEO Katie Bunten-Wamaru, is a good case in point. As they moved forward with their vision to cut out intermediaries and traditional donors to provide unrestricted funds directly to African-led organizations, they were challenged by their own recipients to change the decision making processes to reflect a genuine devolution. Herein of course lies the conundrum. Historically, bureaucracies have not proven to be particularly willing, to put it mildly, relinquish power. As Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam, said; “Money and physical resources can travel fast from the North to the South. Power, however, doesn’t”. Has the development sector the appetite to change the status quo? When it comes to UNDP, Kate Raworth of Doughnut Economics fame had telegraphic advice: “Go find the changemakers. They are everywhere, and they know their context better than you. Be mindful of power unbalances when it comes to funding them. You have to let go.”
2. Of Trojan mice and societal change
From the powerful organizing of Alicia Garza and Alaa Salah to the political leadership of cities like Marica or Bologna, IID 2021 was a showcase of different approaches to bring about societal change. Amongst this breadth of experiences, what stood out for me were examples of tactics reminiscent of the “Trojan mice”: relentlessly pursuing perhaps a non-obvious entry point into a system to eventually radically question its underlying logic. Natsai Audrey Chieza’s story is emblematic in this respect. The founder of Faber Futures, she succeeded in modifying bacteria to produce natural pigments at scale that can replace highly toxic chemicals in the textile industry. Most people would have rested on their laurels upon such an achievement. Instead, she used this as a starting point to engage on an ever more radical quest: what is the point of substituting a chemical with a natural substance, if the overall logic of textile manufacturing and the fashion industry is still driven by overconsumption? Likewise, and in a very different context, Pyrou Chung is using indigenous data sovereignty to trigger a structural transformation in land ownership and peacebuilding. Do we have what it takes to pursue this powerful combination of pragmatism, commitment to change , or are we more likely to be swayed by the pursuit of the latest innovation fad? Mayor Aky Sawyerr threw the gauntlet at us: “Development organizations, always remember. I was not elected to show to my citizens what change could look like, no matter how brilliant it might sound. I was elected to improve their lives, now”.
3. Being comfortable with discomfort
IID opened with a discussion featuring “artifacts from the future of development” as a way to help us imagine different, and at times contrasting, trajectories. Nanjra Sambuli captured perfectly the spirit of the experience: “we need to learn to be comfortable with discomfort”. Throughout the event, we saw easy dichotomies that often capture the headlines of development news being challenged: north vs south, informal vs. formal, public vs. private sector, quantitative vs. qualitative, etc. The renewal of the development enterprise will be dependent also on all of us being able to let go of “used futures”, mental models that are now obsolete. It was really interesting in this respect to hear from Hannah Ryder, CEO of Development Reimagined, about their experience challenging the dominant narrative of Chinese aid in Africa or their efforts in radically reframing African debt as an opportunity. Likewise, Blockchain Chicken Farm author Xiaowei Wang took us through her journey of rural China to uncover how we got the rural urban divide all wrong. Time to upgrade our mental frames and refrain from the rush to “provide solutions” and hold instead the space to explore complexity and its contradictions.
If there is one sentence that captured the imagination of many IID participants is Danny Sriskandarajah’s remark, that “we thought development was about the science of delivery. We found out it’s about the art of transformation”. Though some pointed out that this in itself might be another false dichotomy, it lays out quite well the challenge ahead at this juncture of our innovation journey. Providing an institution with the will and capacity for renewal starts, at the very least, with asking a different set of questions, many of which are uncomfortable. It’s an art, and there is no app for that.