Doing Development Differently

Jumping through the rabbit hole without the parachute of pre-determined assumptions

Natalia Adler, Chief of Social Policy, UNICEF Nicaragua
Children learn and play in a community based preschool in Santubong, Sarawak.
12 January 2015

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

Orpheus, The Matrix

When it comes to development, my choice is a no-brainer: I will always take the red pill.

Perhaps that’s why I was invited to participate in a conference in Boston organized by the Harvard Kennedy School and the Overseas Development Institute, where I saw myself falling even deeper in the rabbit hole of Doing Development Differently.

It was an amazing two days filled with other cubicle warriors and bureaucracy insurgents who have been doing 50 shades of different development in different parts of the world. The list of participants, albeit small, was impressive and rather intimidating. Many were part of my reading list during graduate school not long ago…

But we all had something in common: we have taken the red pill at different dosage levels some time in our professional lives. But instead of jumping up and down, dodging bullets like Keanu Rivers in tight latex, we have been sort of ‘muddling through’ and experimenting with different ideas of development under a set of common principles:

It all starts with problems, not only identifying them but also, and perhaps most importantly, understanding them. This feat requires jumping through the rabbit hole without the parachute of pre-determined assumptions.

The process of problem identification is also a process of self-discovery. Taking a page from the Toyata Way, it’s about engaging coalitions of partners to adopt a Genchi Gembutsu approach: “go and see it for yourself.” Immersive experiences, service trials, shadowing, interviews, and other Human Centered Design techniques help you relearn how to listen with empathy, by putting yourself in the shoes of end-users.

Doing Development Differently (DDD) is not a one-hero show (sorry, Keanu!). It’s about smart mobs embracing complexity and sharing responsibility for tackling problems disguised in black-cladded suits.

Far from being a panacea (or a drugstore), DDD also involves another set of pills. This time it’s the Entrepreneur Vitamin, with the drill of experiment + adapt + learn + repeat, a practice commonly adopted by ‘lean startups.’

"It's easy to kid yourself about what you think customers want. It's also easy to learn things that are completely irrelevant. Thus, validating learning is backed up by empirical data collected by real customers."

Eric Ries

This involves constantly testing value hypotheses to determine whether interventions are actually delivering value to end users. Here it helps to fail fast and cheap, avoiding ‘vanity metrics,’ and placing lots of emphasis on learning.

These principles are now featured in the Doing Development Differently Manifesto – a far-from-perfect yet important call-to-action to build a community of skeptical folks: not super heroes, but those who bother to look.

A word of caution. Going down the rabbit hole (aka, signing up for the DDD Manifesto) is not for the faint of heart. While not fraught with fighting dark-suited men with sunglasses, the path of inducing commonsense change – even the smallest ones – is by no means an easy one.


So given the choice, which pill would you take? Sign up for the Doing Development Manifesto here.