Archives for September 2016

Applying the APT Approach to Wicked Problems in International Community Development.

Community Development

What are wicked problems? Can sustainable community development be considered a wicked problem? If so, what value does this this lens provide us, what changes in policy and practice does it imply and what is preventing international non-governmental organizations from addressing wicked problems?

In a perspective essay in the forthcoming October 2016 edition of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, noted scholars in the field of planning and complex problems Brian Head and Wei-Ning Xiang, building on earlier works (Xiang & Wei-Ning, 2013 & B. W. Head & Alford, 2013), argue for the expanded use of Adaptive, Participatory and Transdisciplinary (APT) approaches when dealing with “wicked problems” (Brian W. Head & Wei-Ning, 2016). In this brief blog post, I will attempt to reflect what this might mean for development NGOs.

 

International Community Development as a Dilemma for Traditional Project Management

Anyone who works in international community development understands the unique challenge of planning in such a complex and unpredictable socio-political context. Ika and Damiam (2014) offer some reason why international development projects are so complex from a project management perspective (Ika & Damian, 2014).

  • International development projects cover almost every sector of project management application
  • International development projects are public sector projects
  • International development projects are international projects
  • International development projects share managerial/organisational challenges with conventional projects
  • International development projects are different and more complex: unique goals and way of organising
  • International development projects are different and more complex to manage: unique context and institutional challenges
  • Different types of projects emerge with time and with an increasing complexity
  • Overall, international development projects are an extreme case of conventional projects

 

Image from Ika and Damian 2014

Above Image from (Ika & Damian, 2014)

 

International Community Development as a Wicked Problem

The term “wicked problems” was first uttered in 1967 by W.F. Churchman at a seminar he had organized to investigate whether lessons learned from the space program could be utilized to solve the various social problems tearing at fabric of American society at the time (Skaburskis & Andrejs, 2008). When presented with a list of differences between social and scientific/technical problems by Horst Rittel, Churchman responded, “Hmm, those sound like “wicked problems” – kicking-off an entire field of study. Rittel, later refined and summarized the list in a now famous 1973 article in Policy Science by Rittel and Webber called “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning” (Rittel & Webber, 1973).

Rittel and Webber’s 10 characteristics of wicked problems (quoted in B. W. Head & Alford, 2013)

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no “stopping rule” (i.e., no definitive solution).
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every (attempted) solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; the results cannot be readily undone, and there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.
  10. The planner has no “right to be wrong” (i.e., there is no public tolerance of experiments that fail).

Ok, anyone working in community development should relate pretty quickly to the lists by both Ika and Hodgson as well as Rittel and Webber, so how does the lens of “wicked problems” help? Well, according to Head 2008, traditionally, social planners have “coped” with complex social and ecological problems by “cherry picking” problems “[dealing] with manageable elements today, while recognizing that there will be other aspects to tackle tomorrow. However, because of their amorphous and interdisciplinary nature, wicked problems require an entirely different approach.

According to Xiang (2013, p.2), [b]y examining a wicked problem as a whole through a panoramic social lens rather than a scientific microscope, and working with it through an open and heuristic process of collective learning, exploration, and experimentation, the APT approach [Adaptive, Participatory, and Transdisciplinary] promises to be efficacious in fostering collaborative behaviour, reducing conflicts, building trust among all stakeholders and communities involved, and ultimately producing better and more satisfying results.

To be fair, the NGO community hasn’t been entirely in the dark when it comes to debates about the shortcomings of traditional project management models. In fact, as Ika and Damian (2014) point out, “The poor results of projects from the 1950s through the 1980s have led to disillusionment with the traditional approach and widespread calls to change or even reject outright the traditional [project management] approach in [international development] and adopt instead what have been described as ‘process’ projects.” The champions of process projects, most notably David Korten (1980), describe them as long-term projects that become more impactful over time through a process of trial and error (Korten, 1980).

According to Korten “the learning process approach calls for organizations that have little in common with the implementing organization geared to reliable adherence to detailed plans and conditions presented favored in the blueprint approach. Its requirement is for organizations with a well developed capacity for responsive and anticipatory adaptation – organizations that: (a) embrace error; (b) plan with the people; and (c) link knowledge building with action.”

Now, Korten was writing about this in the 1980s so surely NGO’s and other actors in community development have adopted these practices? Sadly, INGDOs are still largely failing to address the wicked problems of community development. There is a longstanding and growing argument that INGDOs are not doing enough to address the world’s social and ecological problems and remain too close to donors and governments to fully utilize their competitive advantage of being neither governments nor private sectors (Banks, Nicola, David, & Michael, 2015).

What is really needed is for INGDOs to engage with communities for the long-term and work as partners to help tease apart and address the complex relationships of power, policies and perceptions in an adaptive, participatory, and transdisciplinary (APT) way. However, despite widespread agreement on the importance of this this kind of partnership, very few INGDOs actually do it because of their failure to take a critical stance on issues of power (Ika and Hodgson, 2014), bias towards a single sector (Romeo, 2003), a particular technological solution (Samper & Jimena, 2012), faddism (Mansuri & Rao, 2004), failure to spend adequate time and resources needed to mobilize and engage the community and focus on implementing the priorities of funders vs. that of communities (Power, Grant, Matthew, & Susan, 2003).

 

Recommendations for INGDOs

  • Being able to implement an APT approach requires high-levels of programmatic freedom which is often compromised by our relationships, in particular funding sources but also political relationships. If we want to truly address wicked problems we need to develop funding and partnership models that allow for the kind of freedom independence they require
  • The traditional “project” or “contract” approach, focused on addressing just one or two sectors for a 3-5 years is too narrowly focused and short-term to address wicked problems. An APT approach requires that INGDOs become skilled in facilitating broad-based participatory planning that engages stakeholders in not only identifying and prioritizing project but more importantly, engaging stakeholders in a thorough analysis of issues in a holistic, transdisciplinary manner. 
  • The role of participatory monitoring and evaluation must be elevated beyond just being accountable to donors to an active process of clarifying and redefining people’s understanding of the issues and behaviors bound-up in wicked problems. In essence, monitoring and evaluation should be viewed as a tool for the social construction of reality. 
  • NGDOs and community workers must promote a culture of self-critical awareness which promotes bottom-up learning among individuals and within institutions.

For more about this topic, read the related blog post: Breaking-out of the Piecemeal Project Approach: The Importance of Holistic Community Planning

If you are interested in the ideas and concepts discussed in this post, you’ll enjoy the following courses in our online certificate program at Colorado State University. Development and the Politics of Empowerment, Approaches to Community Development, Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, Community Mobilization, Community-Based Organizing,

References Cited:

Banks, N., Nicola, B., David, H., & Michael, E. (2015). NGOs, States, and Donors Revisited: Still Too Close for Comfort? World Development, 66, 707–718.

Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2013). Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management. Administration & Society, 47(6), 711–739.

Head, B. W., & Wei-Ning, X. (2016). Why is an APT approach to wicked problems important? Landscape and Urban Planning, 154, 4–7.

Ika, L. A., & Damian, H. (2014). Learning from international development projects: Blending Critical Project Studies and Critical Development Studies. International Journal of Project Management, 32(7), 1182–1196.

Korten, D. C. (1980). Community Organization and Rural Development: A Learning Process Approach. Public Administration Review, 40(5), 480.

Mansuri, G., & Rao, V. (2004). Community-based (and Driven) Development: A Critical Review.

Power, G., Grant, P., Matthew, M., & Susan, M. (2003). 7. Operationalising bottom–up learning in international NGOs: barriers and alternatives. In Critical Reflections (pp. 86–103).

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.

Romeo, L. G. (2003). The role of external assistance in supporting decentralisation reform. Public Administration and Development: A Journal of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, 23(1), 89–96.

Samper, J., & Jimena, S. (2012). Cross Sector Partnerships for Development in Colombia. The Annual Review of Social Partnerships, 2012(7), 10–10.

Skaburskis, A., & Andrejs, S. (2008). The Origin of “Wicked Problems.” Planning Theory & Practice, 9(2), 277–280.

Xiang, W.-N., & Wei-Ning, X. (2013). Working with wicked problems in socio-ecological systems: Awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. Landscape and Urban Planning, 110, 1–4.

Breaking-out of the Piecemeal Project Approach: The Importance of Holistic Community Planning

Community Development Training

In a recent blog post I argued that if international community development is a “wicked problem” than we should follow the advice of Head and Wei-Ning (2016) and stop “cherry picking” problems and instead adopt an APT (Adaptive, Participatory, and Transdisciplinary) approach. However, the authors give very little insight into what this might actually look like or how it might be applied to a particular disciplinary context like that shared by International Development NGDOs, which has integrated a surprisingly standardized toolbox of procedural norms.

In particular, while NGOs have developed countless tools for collecting information from communities on a wide range of topics such as infrastructure, social networks, gender roles, health, education, natural resources, etc., there is often little rationale for the use of one particular tool over another and the information it’s collecting, aside from generating a pool of information from which ideas for project emerge. As the training manual for one large INGDO states, “assessments, mapping, community profiles, and similar participatory processes can generate a large pool of issues that the community would like to address through projects.” From this pool, stakeholders are generally asked to prioritize or rank issues and identify projects that can be worked-on with support from the NGDO. Single-sector NGDOs will often narrow this participation even further by agreeing to support only those projects within its specialization.

What I find most problematic is that while there is often a strong emphasis among NGDOs on stakeholder participation in providing information and ranking, there is very little emphasis on engaging communities in bigger-picture analysis of the issues – especially at a macro-political level. Why is this a problem? To begin, past experience have likely taught them that NGDOs have a bias for defined technical projects which automatically narrows people’s thinking to “things” like a new well, health clinic, or latrines vs. the often more important but less tangible outcomes like enhanced collaboration with neighboring communities, educating farmers about local land-tenure laws and how they might be impacted by proposed international trade agreements, or addressing the complex gender-based status issues associated with outmigration of young men, as just a few examples.

The second issue with this piecemeal, problem-based planning approach is that there is literally no end to problems. We can always identify, prioritize and create projects to address problems but is doing so moving the community qualitatively towards a better situation? Or, by focusing on “problems’ are we just “putting-out fires” where as soon as one goes out another appears? Furthermore, ranking exercises just tell us how troublesome or annoying a problem is and not necessarily its contribution or role in the larger wicked problem. The same critique could be made about asset-based approaches. Just because something “works” doesn’t mean its amplification, replication, or adaptation is moving the community towards a better, more just situation.

Lastly, the traditional process of planning is overly focused on outcomes and doesn’t emphasize enough the importance of the process itself. Part of the defining characteristic of wicked problems is the role that varying perceptions of that problem have on its potential resolution. Take for example climate change – clearly a wicked problem, and in the United States we have a large population of people who, for various reasons and motivations, do not believe it’s caused by human activity. We also have varying levels of understanding on its severity. Based on the science one would think climate change would be the number one geopolitical priority, that we would be mobilizing like we did to get a man on the moon in the 1960s. One could argue that there needs to be much deeper dialogue taking-place to more closely align our perceptions and behaviors with the science. Community planning is the perfect opportunity to begin this dialogue. It’s an opportunity for people to deeply analyze the issues and facts together and create a shared understanding of the issues and how they can be resolved.

 

How can we apply APT principles to community development planning?

The first step is to not make the mistake of underestimating the complexity of local issues. A good rule of thumb is that they are likely as complex, if not more complex, than the issues in your own home community. Accept that because of cultural, language and privilege you will likely never fully grasp their complexity. It’s important to also recognize that, despite your limitations, you can play a valuable role as a facilitator. First, your ignorance gives you license to ask dumb questions giving you the ability to constantly be learning. Second, the fact that you are not embedded in local social networks gives you the unique perspective to “see the forest for the trees” and understand the range of ways people are thinking about an issue. Not being embedded in social networks can also mean you can more easily navigate them, serving as a broker to help connect individuals and groups that might not do it on their own.

 

The Importance of Holistic Participatory Planning

The planning process I’ve gained the most appreciation for and will be referencing here was developed by the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA) and is called the “Technology of Participation.” ICA developed this planning process with the social construction of reality in-mind.  The process, allows for wide-scale participation and follows four stages – visioning, contradictions, strategic directions, and action planning.

 

Community Visioning

How do we overcome the piecemeal, problem-based approach to community planning? A community vision is a shared understanding of the kind of world we want for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and beyond. It should reflect our highest shared values (equity, respect, community, culture, etc) vs. the selfish interest of individuals. In planning circles, a vision is typically 5-20 years in the future but I’ve heard of visions being as far into the future as 100 years. The purpose of a vision is not to serve as a benchmark to assess our progress against. Rather, a vision is something that is always out in the future, just beyond our reach and constantly evolving.

Ideally, a vision should be holistic and encompass any areas the community feels are important. For example, infrastructure, access to land and resources, housing but also less tangible things like the way people treat one another, their status relative to other ethnic groups, cultural revitalization, and language.

A vision overcomes the piecemeal approach by setting a standard by which contradictions, strategies, and actions are measured against, focusing your energy on the things that will help move your community towards its vision.

 

Contradictions

If we all agree that we want to live in a world like the one described by our vision than why aren’t we already there? This is how I understand and describe the contradictions phase of the planning process. This is often where the deepest-level analysis takes place because the participants are asked to view the vision holistically and they are asked to look at the contradictions holistically. This is where you start to get very nuanced discussions about, for example, how the out-migration of young men is causing a whole host of social problem, shifting of gender roles, and health issues and how it is not just about earning more money but how it’s also bound-up in what they’ve learned it means to be a “man”. Such nuanced discussions build awareness and consensus about the issues so by the time you get to the next stage, strategic directions, people are more likely to come to consensus. The goal of this phase is to help clarify and build consensus on the contradictions.

 

Strategic Directions

For the strategic directions phase we ask the participants “What can we do in the next year to begin to overcome the contradictions and move towards our vision. Because they/we now have developed a shared understanding and language to talk about the issues/contradictions, they/we can also develop more nuanced, transdisciplinary strategies to begin to overcome them. But it’s important to remind participants that this is a two-part question – coming up with actions that overcome the contradictions BUT ALSO move us towards our vision. This is where our higher-level values come into play. If we identify preserving our language or forest is a priority than we’re going to rule-out out actions that might endanger our language or forest.

 

Action Planning

The goal of this phase is similar to traditional NGDO action planning models, namely to agree upon who is responsible for what, develop implementation timelines, identify available and needed resources, etc. The difference however, is that people will be much more motivated to follow-through with implementation because they have a deep and nuanced understanding for why they’re doing it and what they hope to achieve.

 

Monitoring and Evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation plays a critical role in APT strategies for its contribution to the creation of social reality – namely by helping to answer questions and test assumptions raised during planning and implementation. For example, it was the participants assumption that they could transform young men’s perceptions of what it means to be a man through a series of community plays. To test this they developed a pre and post play questionnaire to assess members of the audience’s perceptions on manhood and whether it was impacted by the play.

 

Conclusion

By transitioning from a piecemeal to a more holistic APT approach to community planning, I argue that NGDOs can play a more impactful role in tackling the wicked problems we face as a global community. Planning approaches like the ICA’s Technology of Participation is one tool to assist this transition. Regardless of the tools we use, as a community, we need move beyond participation as just another donor requirement and instead see it and utilize it as a powerful tool for analysis and transformation.
Topics discussed in this post are also discussed in the following courses in Village Earth/Colorado State University’s online certificate program in sustainable community development: Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, Community Mobilization, Development and the Politics of Empowerment, Community Participation and Dispute Resolution

Upcoming Courses in the Online Certificate Program in Sustainable Community Development

There’s one session left in 2016 for the Village Earth/Colorado State University online certificate program in Sustainable Community Development. Three courses are available (below) and will take place online November 4th – December 9th, 2016. The deadline to register is November 1st, 2016. 

Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation

Next OfferedDeadline to RegisterRegistration StatusOffered By 
January 12 - February 16, 2018January 12, 2018Open
April 20th - May 5, 2018April 2, 2018Open

Course Description

Discover participatory methods in monitoring and evaluation for community development, where multiple stakeholders are involved in the process of planning, collecting, interpreting, communicating, and using information. Gain skills in using regular monitoring and evaluation processes, which will lead to continuous improvements.

Upon completion of this course participants will be able to:

  • Plan a monitoring and evaluation project
  • Develop evaluation questions that address stakeholders needs
  • Select the most appropriate data collection method for a given situation
  • Effectively communicate monitoring and evaluation data
  • Use the monitoring information for effective feedback and improvement

This course counts towards the following specialized tracks: Natural Resources Management, Economic Development, Political Empowerment, Food Security, and Participatory Facilitation, Community Planning and Development.

Instructor: Pilar Robledo

Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation

Pilar is currently Director of Programming and Training for US Peace Corps in Kiev, Ukraine. She’s also serves as Education Cluster Co-lead at UNICEF Pakistan. Previously she’s worked for UNHCR, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, and IREX. She holds an MPA in Public Administration from University of Colorado, Denver and a BA in Anthropology and Latin American Studies from CU Boulder.

 

 


Community-Based Organizing

Next OfferedDeadline to RegisterRegistration StatusOffered By 
July 28 - September 1, 2017July 24, 2017Open

Course Description
The importance of an approach to community-development that increases the rights of poor and marginalized people within governing structures has never been more apparent. Situations of severe oppression and marginalization demand organizing-techniques that go beyond a traditional “hand-out” style approach to development. Taking a practical hands-on perspective, this course will explore the theories, tools, styles and challenges of community-based organizing. It will discuss practical strategies for developing community leadership and working with marginalized communities. Together, we will discover the impact that ordinary individuals can have on the world.

Upon completion of this course participants will be able to:

  • Apply basic organizing techniques, such as popular education and direct action
  • Understand the role of privilege, race, gender and class in struggles for change
  • Understand the history and basic principles of community organizing
  • Design methods to help support and organize the community in which they are working

This course counts towards the following specialized tracks: Political Empowerment and Community Planning and Development

Instructor: Raul Paz Pastrana

Raul has been an organizer for over eight years and has given many workshops around the country and Latin America. These workshops have focused on diverse topics such as theater of the oppressed, popular education, participatory filmmaking, strategic organizing and base building.

He has worked as the Organizing Director for Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores, a non-profit that works to empower immigrant workers in the Denver, Colorado area.  He currently works as a Director/Producer and Cinematographer at Andar Films in New York, NY.


Tourism and Development

Next OfferedDeadline to RegisterRegistration StatusOffered By 
July 28 - September 1, 2017July 24, 2017Open

Globally, tourism initiatives receive considerable public funding and private investment as a means of economically developing low-income communities. NGOs are taking on a growing role in local tourism initiatives, as well as voluntourism, in hopes of injecting capital into the communities where they work. Amongst proponents, tourism is seen as a mechanism for local communities to capitalize on assets such as the natural environment and cultural heritage. Yet critiques often note that tourism can be destructive, elite and at times oppressive. In light of this critical lens, we will explore both successful and problematic tourism initiatives. We will critically examine the nature of tourism, its impacts on communities and considerations that must be taken into account in order for a tourism project to have the desired impact of development without destroying.

Upon completion of this course participants will be able to:

  • Identify best practices for successful tourism initiatives
  • Work with a community to evaluate how tourism may impact their lives
  • Network with private, public and non-profit institutions in the field of tourism and development
  • Understand common challenges and issues with eco-tourism and voluntourism

Counts Towards the Following Specialized Tracks:  Economic Development and Community Planning and Development

Instructor: Cynthia Ord, M.S.

Cynthia Ord holds a Masters of Tourism and Environmental Economics degree from the University of the Balearic Islands in Palma de Mallorca, Spain and a B.A. in Spanish and Philosophy from Colorado State University. Her M.S. program focused on the socio-cultural, environmental and economic impacts of global tourism. Ord’s research focused on non-commercial volunteer tourism networks. She currently lives in Addis Ababa and works in tech solutions for tour operators in Ethiopia. In the past, she’s worked on e-market access and business development for small and medium sized tourism enterprises in the Global South, with a specialty in Latin America. In her spare time, she is a travel blogger.