Why it’s time to stop thinking of development as a project

From the American People“From the American People.” The classic USAID sign stood outside of a lifeless craft center in a sleepy town set on top of an imposing hill in the middle of Jordan. Tourist buses stopped by briefly, letting people off to wander like ants around the ruins of a crusader castle before shooting off to another location. The castle boasted sweeping views of the surrounding chartreuse, emerald, and toffee colored valleys below, and the sparkling, topaz Dead Sea in the distance.

My friend and I were the only travelers who stayed around past sunset to stay the night in Karak. The town and people were charming, and that view…well, the picture below doesn’t do it justice.

But I couldn’t forget about that sign. The sign seemed to be yet another example of a development project carried out without inviting local people to take part from the beginning.

And maybe that’s because building that craft center was considered just that – a project. Not part of a process.

Projects have a start and a finish. They have goals and objectives to meet. There should be some sort of visible result at the end. They are designed in advance, often from a distance. Their design usually struggles to adapt to different or changing realities on the ground.

Processes are fluid. They adapt to their environments. They are not seen as ends in themselves. They adjust as needed and are part of long-term, systemic change.

We know that development is hard. We know it takes time. We know that it means something different in each context and culture.

Yet international development activities continue to be funded as isolated projects. If we’re lucky, it will be a series of projects meant to build on each other. But even these often don’t get to the root challenges. The lack of coordination, and lack of focus on processes and institutions remains troubling.

Granted, selling projects is sexier and easier than making the case for a somewhat nebulous idea of a process. Slow, long-term change has always been difficult to market.

But changing the way we think and talk about development is an important part of this. Language reflects culture and attitudes, and it can also shape them.

Along these lines, if development is truly to become a process, rather than a series of uncoordinated projects, we need to create space for people to tell their stories. This kind of participatory communications might begin with a project, but it can feed into a process. Equally, processes might lead to specific projects that support the greater process.

We also have to be careful that “process” doesn’t become the next meaningless devspeak buzzword. But ultimately, we must remember that processes allow the people we work with to see themselves as part of the solution. And that matters.

The view from Karak. Photo by Stephanie E. Buck
The view from Karak. Photo by Stephanie E. Buck



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