The Messy Art of Saving the World: Three Things Every Designer Should Know About International Development

This is the first post in a 7-post series published at Core77 by Reboot principal Panthea Lee, exploring the role of design in international development.

International development and governance projects have a notorious track record. Every day, it seems, we hear another report of foreign aid siphoned off by corrupt officials and projects losing money to bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Take this story, published last year in The New York Times: The Egyptian government, hoping to increase internet access, had established over 2,000 telecenters across the country. But an independent researcher found that almost none of the centers were functioning; in one city, just four out of 23 were active. The telecenters weren’t being used in large part because they weren’t even necessary—the rise of internet cafes in Egypt had made them redundant.

“The failure, in other words, was in not understanding the ecosystem in which the telecenters would be operating,” said the Times.

Too often, projects like these are born and developed by corporations, foundations, governments, and other institutions without a day-to-day understanding of the lives of the people they’re meant to help. There’s no shortage of good intentions, hard work, and committed individuals. Where the field of development falls short, however, is in process.

This is where the discipline of design can help; its tools and principles can help address the flaws in strategy and process that plague the field, and help develop programs that impact people’s lives in concrete ways.

Right now, many disparate voices—both from development and governance and from the field of design—are working to articulate how design can improve societies all over the world. It’s thrilling to see so many talented designers excited about the possibilities. But this movement is still new, and while a lot of people are talking, too few are putting the practice into action.

One challenge lies in the gap between the discipline of design and the fields of development and governance. The latter two, like any other field, are fraught with history, political complexity, and operational challenges that a newcomer cannot fully grasp. Colleagues in the development sector and from other public institutions have complained that they are being bombarded by enthusiastic designers who have little understanding of the fields they’re so set on revolutionizing.

Just as the Egyptian government needed to look closely at a city before throwing in a telecenter, designers need to build an understanding of these fields before jumping in to innovate.

Over the coming weeks, we at Reboot will use this series to explore the use of design in solving governance and human development challenges, using concrete examples from our own recent experiences. As practitioners with backgrounds in policy, development and advocacy, we understand the histories, philosophies and processes of the institutions responsible for the public good. We’ll share our own success stories, as well as what we’ve learned from failure.

To kick off the series, I wanted to share three patterns of failure that plague development—and that design is well-suited to address:



1. There are empathy gaps between program administrators and beneficiaries.

Many decision-makers in development are located in global capitals, such as Washington, DC, Geneva or Rome. In many projects, program managers’ only local contact comes from a week-long trip to “the field” (read: the country in question), where most of their time is spent in meeting with government or NGOs in the capital city, with a single, obligatory trip to the actual community. Emphasis on community is common in rhetoric but limited in practice. When efforts are made to understand beneficiaries, the approaches used can be laughably misguided and often fail to create an accurate portrait of day-to-day life: I’ve seen poor, rural farmers bussed in to hotels in the major cities for “participatory research” exercises. This fly-over approach creates major gaps in empathy and prevents effective program design.



2. Program design is often determined by quantitative metrics and best practices which lack context and nuance.

Program design—and resource allocation—is usually based on national data, such as large-scale surveys, and on conventional wisdom (“best practices”) from existing literature or expert consultants. Armed with these checklist items—”Column A lists the indicators that need to be addressed, and Column B lists the approaches that have been known to work for these same challenges”—the setup and development of a program can be very formulaic, a little plug-n-play, if you will. Data and rigour are important, as is learning from what’s already been done; but in emphasizing quantitative tools and past experiences, many programs fail to accurately capture and successfully design for the context in question.



3. Politics is always complicated.

I think people outside of the field forget that development is as political as any other sector. Internal politics between organizations’ staff, funders, and other stakeholders have a complicating effect—and that’s not to mention the influence of national and international pressures. I’ve been on projects where the priorities of the funder and those of the community are widely divergent. Sometimes, an area is over-saturated with organizations working on similar issues; in other areas, money “needs to be spent” for political reasons, even though the chances of success are low. (We generally decline those engagements; life is too short to waste on projects that will have no impact.) Navigating these myriad pressures and guiding a project to success often means keeping all stakeholders focused on the priorities of the program beneficiaries. In these instances, design—with its evidence-backed, outcome-oriented perspective—can help push back against the distortion field of politics.


In future posts, we’ll talk specifically about ways that design can address these challenges, drawing from our own experience from humanitarian relief in Pakistan to governance reform in Egypt and Tunisia. We’d also like to explore further opportunities for designers in this emerging space.

Today, we face serious challenges in the fields of governance and development; but there’s a dynamic community committed to translating and evolving the design discipline to help solve these challenges. Here in New York, educators such as the School of Visual Arts, through its Impact! and Design for Social Innovation programs, are educating a new generation of designers to use their talents towards social progress. At the United Nations, we applaud groups like UNICEF’s Innovation Unit (full disclosure: a past employer) and UN Global Pulse, who are using technology to revolutionize how one of the world’s largest institutions serves marginalized populations globally.

Futher reading.