Stirring up some mixed reactions was this post on ICT Works this week urging the development community to reconsider its views on scale. It’s a thought I’ve had many times over the years and not the first time it’s been addressed, so I thank Wayan Vota for bringing it back into discussion. It’s something that we need to constantly be addressing until we overcome this senseless desire to ‘scale’ everything beyond reasonable proportion. It feels to me that part of the problem could be the concept of ‘sustainable’ development itself. Do you remember a time before we talked about development when charity was the way to make positive changes for those less fortunate? Not to say that the two haven’t co-existed for a while, but in recent years and in certain circles, the word charity has become almost dirty. Charity has no after-thought, it’s not sustainable, yet when I was younger, the notion of sponsoring just one child was in itself seen as life-changing and impactful. When did we get to the stage where that wasn’t enough? What has shifted our perspective? Why is it just a numbers game? As mentioned in a recent Ted talk I referenced some weeks ago by Gary Haugen, it was highlighted that in the last 35 years of development, the same 2 billion people remain in poverty. It’s important to remember that the impact of all those billions spent on ‘sustainable development projects that scale’ sadly hasn’t amounted to much.
Another issue, and for me one that cuts right to the bone, is well written about here in Jordan Levy’s article stating that “for many donors, thinking about small, prudent steps forward is just not exciting”. Make no mistake, development is as much as business as any other commercial activity. We all know that our project ‘impacts’ are better conveyed and received via glossy images or over-blown stories of the positive effects of internet access. Additionally, if you can’t prove your project to be efficient, it will be pulled from the market so to speak – or not funded at all.
I'm certainly not suggesting that all development projects are failures, but maybe now is a good time to open up discussions on how to reset our thinking on what success and impact means. As a community, we have created and accepted this idea of scale that we are now accountable to, and therefore we have the power to rethink and redefine new and realistic measures. When so much funding spent trying to scale projects in unrealistic scenarios, how can we say that a project which changes the life of one child, one women, one farmer, one school, one community, be considered anything other than a success? Let's turn this into a positive discussion. What are your measures of success? What realistic metrics should we be writing into our projects? I’d love to hear thoughts and suggestions from the community!