by Max Aaronson

Over the past week, I have had the pleasure to attend the Pacific Conference for International Development (PacDev) at Stanford and helped host an Impact Design Workshop at UC Berkeley’s very own Blum Center. Putting aside the obvious rivalry with our Bay Area neighbors (go Bears!), the two events highlighted a critical juncture regarding the future of international development.

At PacDev, development practitioners and academics showcased some truly pioneering development research; from incentivizing low-income Afghani men to save through mobile applications, to understanding how prenatal interventions which improve maternal health affect early childhood development. At the Blum Center, Liz Ogbu, an innovator and social entrepreneur, led an interactive workshop highlighting the importance of human-centered design, participatory development and how critical it is to create development innovations with the end-user firmly in mind.

This is what I see as the key divergence in the field. Traditional academic research and the work of multilateral organizations such as the World Bank propagate top-down interventions and back up their claimed successes with econometric data. Yet oftentimes some of the most critical stakeholders, the end beneficiaries, are excluded from the planning of these interventions. Without their input, how can we ever create development solutions specifically tailored to them? How could we create an energy efficient cookstove without first understanding the behaviors of the persons who will use it? These sorts of questions are what made Ogbu’s event all the more interesting, and provided further rationale for participatory development practices.

As countries continue to develop, the most successful development I foresee will be with end-users being a part of the entire process, from start to finish. No longer should Western governments and organizations come in and propagate their ideas for how people should behave and how countries should develop without first fully understanding their current livelihoods. Surely this will create more trust, more understanding, and a greater shared sense of human growth and success. And is that not what international development focus on in the first place?