Doing Development Differently in the Global South: ways forward in localising the approach

by 09th Jan 2019
 Women 'lead farmers', Dowa, Malawi Women 'lead farmers', Dowa, Malawi

On 4 December 2018 CARE International and British Council convened a workshop in Nairobi with the title “Doing Development Differently in the Global South” to consider how the Doing Development Differently (DDD) global community can better incorporate Southern voices, and how the principles of DDD – its approach to development practice and its aspiration to deliver better results – can be best actioned in the South. The workshop built upon several ongoing discussions across INGOs and the broader development community: primarily, what it would take to realise DDD when working with civil society; additionally, whether DDD and related agendas like Thinking and Working Politically have sufficiently incorporated Southern voices and may even need to be decolonised.

Does DDD have a Northern bias?

The DDD Manifesto was never intended to be a Northern agenda – attention to and respect for local context and experiences were an explicit component of DDD.

However, many of the intellectual proponents of DDD and related agendas were based in Northern institutions like Harvard and ODI, and their principles were first disseminated to donor agencies like DFID and USAID, and through them to INGOs and implementers. Is this yet another Western agenda that donors were bringing to “poor Africa”?

A key question invoked by Southern participants at the workshop resulted from DDD’s emphasis on solving problems: whose problems are tackled? 

The trend of calling for greater local ownership has never fully explained what to do in contexts where ownership is contested. Working with the grain involves a broad spectrum ranging from use of country systems to revolutionary advocacy, but in its explicit rejection of "good governance” DDD runs the risk of focusing exclusively on what’s doable, to the detriment of what’s morally desirable.

Like other development agendas, DDD runs the risk of contributing to the perpetuation of dominant politics, either by romanticising local leadership or by improving the effectiveness of systems and processes that serve elite priorities.

Some participants worried that DDD would privilege development results over values and virtues, focusing on small bets to the detriment of transformational goals. Others wondered what the space was for more forceful critiques of the agenda, for instance through a feminist lens. To some Southern observers, DDD does not appear as such a radical departure from developmentalism, which lessens its potential appeal.

Empowering Southern voices

The challenges of nuanced local agency and ownership could be pre-empted somewhat through the inclusion of more Southern voices in the conversation. Unfortunately, the global DDD community– by accident, affinity or availability – is overwhelmingly donor-centric and Anglophone. 

There are relatively few DDD champions who are African, Asian, Latin American, or even from continental Europe. This raises the issue of localisation of DDD, and what it means in practice. Whilst the framing of the workshop was explicit in the invocation of the Global South, participants discussed whether the Southern epithet risks becoming yet another empty category. Would it make more sense to speak of an “African DDD”, or even a “Kenyan DDD”?

Workshop participants brought up a number of DDD parallels from Kenyan activists and local development champions who have never received donor funding nor been aware of these global debates. It behoves DDD practitioners and champions to invite these outsiders to the table, not to teach them about adaptive development, but to learn from their own idiosyncratic approaches to problem solving.

One of the lessons that was taken from the practical sessions of the workshop is that DDD is most powerful when diverse voices – especially those directly affected by a problem – sit at the table. It is the triangulation between unique outlooks and experiences that makes unlocking problems not only possible, but indeed more productive than conventional programming approaches.

In the four years since the DDD Manifesto was drafted, adaptive approaches to development appear to have become the new norm. However, appearances can be deceiving: the agenda has very vocal proponents in a few key donor agencies, and is shaping expectation through a new wave of programme design, but by and large this remains a mostly aspirational, mostly Northern exercise.

Beyond the boundaries of the global DDD community (like the Google Group #adaptdev) lie myriad Southern organisations and practitioners that are not plugged into global debates, despite the clear parallels between their own problem solving and the principles of DDD, and despite what they could offer DDD in terms of values, lessons or local coalitions.

What’s next for DDD in the South?

The way forward in localising DDD has yet to be charted, but there are some immediate actions that INGOs and other intermediaries can take to foster the approach in Southern contexts:

  • Localising political analysis, which involves capacity-building, knowledge exchanges, and greater collaboration with local academics and community leaders.
  • Adapting tools to local needs, which requires advocating for funding modalities that create a clear incentive for using such tools.
  • Building Southern communities of practice, which will enable local champions to come together for mutual support and shared learning.

At the end of the day, it cannot be assumed that Southern practitioners will eventually find and join groups like #adaptdev, as if by some sort of irresistible gravitational pull. Southern DDD will have to be championed, elaborated, and nurtured, just like the original wave of DDD was.

This blog was co-authored by Gilbert Muyumbu, Senior Governance and Accountability Advisor for Africa at CARE International, and Jake Allen, Head of Governance and Civil Society for Sub-Saharan Africa at the British Council.

If you would like further information regarding the workshop please contact event co-hosts This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Further actions are planned with other stakeholders to advance the DDD agenda. Watch this space for future updates.

Pablo Yanguas

Pablo Yanguas is an independent consultant specialising in politically-smart aid and adaptive development. 

He is the author of Why We Lie About Aid: Development and the Messy Politics of Change (Zed Books, 2018). 

Pablo has a PhD in political science from Cornell University and has published research on political-economy analysis, donor coordination, the ethics of foreign aid, and the politics of public sector reform in Africa. 


Twitter: @PabloYanguas