Challenging The Development Paradigm

By Ranahnah A. Afriye

Historically, racism and colonization have had significant influence in the context of development. For decades, the Global North directed development initiatives without meaningful consideration or feedback from communities who were intended to “benefit” from foreign aid. The power differential within this approach has been called out as neo-colonial, leading to calls to de-colonize development. The new vision of development that USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently outlined seeks to dismantle many of the previously accepted ways of doing business.

Often, development practitioners discuss the implications of the colonial legacy on development. The idea of local versus international comes up again and again. But from a social justice perspective, we need to go further. The movement out of a neo-colonial development model must put communities at the center of our work. Administrator Power has acknowledged this and spoken at length about directing 25 percent of funding to local organizations and ensuring 50 percent of every dollar USAID spends places local communities in the lead to either co-design a project, set priorities, drive implementation or evaluate the impact of our programs.

Rather than prescribing solutions, listening for context and content must come before taking action. Focusing on root causes and on how and who we engage will always achieve more than working only to resolve surface-level symptoms. 

While working on a project in southern Africa for Pact, an international NGO, our team first used applied political economy analysis to understand the dynamics of power within the community. This process was guided by key informant interviews and surveys to better understand the lines of power within the community and leverage influential people and organizations to effect positive change. This process meant starting with a mindset of raising critical questions and facilitating dialogue. These participatory processes get to the systems level drivers that often underlie social challenges and contribute to the depth of our work with communities being felt and observed long beyond the traditional project life cycle.  

Our mindsets as leaders and as development workers shape the quality of the activities we undertake. We can’t claim to promote individual or social behavior change, yet focus only on reaching program targets alone. Community engagement and participatory learning platforms are central to deep listening. It is only through deep listening that we can address root causes and promote lasting change. 

For instance, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has shifted its focus and approach to community engagement quite dramatically from the initiative’s inception in 2003. There was a point when PEPFAR’s programs moved from being people-centered to target-centered. The focus became very narrowly about how many people were being put on treatment for HIV. When we neglect to see that our targets are actually people, the quality of our interventions is severely degraded. We fail to understand the context and the discrete needs of the individuals we are serving. In particular, if I do not understand the context of health service delivery in southern Africa, my focus on adherence does not calculate the lost day of work required when someone joins a line at 4 a.m. for their monthly appointment. 

In Eswatini, Pact implements the USAID/PEPFAR DREAMS program, which is reducing new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women. Recently, the program organized a forum that brought together adolescent girls and young women with DREAMS implementers and policymakers from the Ministry of Health and other government agencies in Eswatini. The adolescent girls and young women voiced their concerns, challenges and needs to all project stakeholders. They spoke about what is working for them through the current DREAMS program and proposed areas for improvement. Their feedback has informed concrete actions for promoting HIV prevention services among youth in an appealing and exciting way in community and health facility settings. This is only one example of how we are working hand in hand with our clients to better serve them.

Fortunately, over time, there has been a transition away from a target-centered approach. We’ve turned to behavioral science and a commitment to lasting social and behavior change communications. Those won’t provide the quick results that development practitioners or funders often want, but they are the lasting interventions that will be embedded beyond any immediate funding or programming. And they support communities to sustainably lead and own their own development—the ultimate goal and what we strive for every day.

A key challenge facing development practitioners is that with resources comes power – conscious and unconscious. We must intentionally examine power dynamics in our work and become allies with local partners that are moving into leadership roles within the sector. Each of us must personally examine our individual power and find ways to use it as a force for positive change and the empowerment of others.

Ranahnah Afriye is the Regional Director, Africa for Pact, an international development organization. For over twenty years, Ranahnah Afriye has managed community development initiatives, both in the United States and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As country director for Pact South Africa, she led a team of over 130 staff, supporting South Africa’s Department of Social Development in social service delivery across six provinces and 10 districts. Before joining Pact, she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development as a Senior Technical Advisor. Ranahnah holds a B.A. from Vassar College and a master’s degree from Cornell University. She is fluent in English and Kiswahili and conversant in French.

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