Reimagining Development: An Imaginative Initiative at IDS

Posted on 31 May 2010

By Sherine Jayawickrama

All around us is evidence of how the world is changing and why development paradigms need to change as well. The multiple crises that came to the fore in 2009 – economic recession, climate change, poverty, chronic food insecurity and human rights crises, to name a few – underscored that global challenges and vulnerabilities are interconnected. 

We may think we are beyond the ”perfect storm” but the lesson that the challenges don’t exist in silos (and neither should the solutions) should be taken to heart.  We need much more effective ways of working to face the complexity of current and future challenges. Lawrence Haddad frames this really well in his blog post titled The 20th Century Has Left the Building: Time to Reimagine Global Development.

Yet, there does not seem to be a push to profoundly rethink development and approaches to development (in a really holistic way) among major development players – developing country governments, institutional donors, NGOs or academic institutions.  True, in the United States, there are really important attempts to reform U.S. foreign assistance, rebuild USAID and redefine US global development policy. But the recently leaked draft Presidential Study Directive does not indicate such a profound rethink. 

Against this backdrop, I find the Reimagining Development initiative launched by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) an important step toward such a rethink. The initiative takes the opportunity presented by the convergence of food, finance, fuel and climate crises to ask essential questions about how international development needs to change in the 21st century and what alternatives to the status quo might be. 

I like the approach that IDS takes to exploring these questions: the initiative brings together 34 research projects that explore the impacts of multiple crises in a diverse collection of places and spaces.  Not only do these 34 sites consider very different questions (from the impact of rapid environmental change in Kenya to whether faith-based organizations can succeed where others fail), they also tap a variety of perspectives (from social movements and institutional donors to development professionals and media houses).   Browsing through the list of research sites, it is clear that the real work of reimagining will be in the sense-making involved in synthesizing and drawing from the 34 research projects.

For NGOs and students interested in international development, the Reimagining Development initiative is definitely something to follow – and, better still, be engaged in. Despite the ambition of their visions, many international NGOs are still quite entrenched in the traditional model of project-based, aid-supported development efforts that are limited in the type of social transformation they can engender or support. 

I hope the Reimagining Development initiative – and others like it – can provoke INGOs and others into rethinking development and their role in it.

Sherine Jayawickrama manages the Humanitarian & Development NGOs domain of practice (and the Humanitarian & Development NGOs blog) at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University.

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