Can cooperation exist without learning?

The International Development field is undergoing significant transformations. As we are faced with fast evolving global challenges, such as the climate crisis, we have to ask ourselves what the way forward is for international development. How can we adapt to effectively address the global, dynamic challenges we are facing? 

“[…]  getting faster data is not enough. We also need to find better ways to channel people’s insights, views and activation towards intractable development problems. We’ll also need to learn to model new forms of accountability that tap into shifting and varying realities.”[1]

A brief history of international development cooperation

We have to take a brief look back to move forward. Over the last decades, international development has evolved. It took shape after the second World War and started as official development assistance (ODA), clearly structured as a donor-recipient relationship with aid agencies implementing projects. It was a way for multilateral institutions and governments to provide aid to developing countries[2]. Often, ODA was considered as a foreign policy instrument. Hence, international development was defined by the relationship between “developed” and “developing countries”. However, the implicit power inequalities and the neglect of the “Southern” perspective and inclusion in the definition of contemporary international development, demanded a shift.

We now see movements across the world demanding an overhaul of our approach to international development, including movement such as Shift the Power. At the core of these movements is the premise that international development should not be guided by a one-sided, mostly Western-based, development agenda. In the Global North we’ve built up “developed” countries that are somehow hugely inhibiting a sustainable world through their industrial practices. So, who are Northern states to promote and guide sustainable development in other countries? Rather, the global crises require a global response. It is time to finally start thinking about development work as actual international development cooperation.

Learning at the basis of it all

But what does international development cooperation actually mean? At the core of the concept of cooperation is that we work together. As stated by Dr. Lata Narayanaswamy in GIZ’s series on Decolonisation and Development “[…] genuine cooperation is actually about knowledge. Whose knowledge counts? How do we reorient the way we think about where valuable knowledge comes from?”

Working together requires an equal playing field and a fair distribution of knowledge in which all voices are heard and count. In developed countries we claim to “know it all” but somehow our developed standards are at the core of contributing to the crises in this world. So, we cannot claim to be masters of sustainable development if none of our developed practices are sustainable in any way. For global issues, we have to tap into global knowledge. As pointed out by Cottica of the UNDP Accelerator Lab: “From our point of observation as the UNDP Accelerator Labs, we learn from communities in the Global South as they try to adapt to climate change through bottom-up action to achieve safety and resilience […]. It looks more like firefighting, or sailing through a storm, than like the rationally planned, harmonious effort advocated publicly by experts in the Global North […]. And yet, this bottom-up action displays signs of self-organization and makes use of local and indigenous knowledge not necessarily available to national-level policy makers.”[3]. For true cooperation to work, we have to consider all knowledge available to take decisions.

Movements, such as Shift the Power or South-South exchange are already working towards that. Yet, we cannot ignore that power discrepancies across the globe have a significant impact on the decisions in development and the agenda set. One example starkly highlighting these dynamics is the case study by Hulme about learning in rural project planning. In the case study, it is described how a project is implemented in separate phases over several years. The clear expectation is that lessons from the first phase are used in the second phase to be more effective. But lessons are not treated as neutral lessons. They hold political weight, and it depends on who holds power, which lessons “count” and are implemented. Power and politics determine which lessons from development programmes count and how they will be used, so that “actively ‘not learning from experience’ is as much a part of organizational processes as ‘learning from experience’”[4].

The future of Development

What is needed to tackle current and future global challenges is therefore to successfully achieve a shift in the approach to development from a delivery of aid to one of true cooperation. At the core of making cooperation possible is learning from one another while ensuring that all knowledge counts equally in that learning process. We need to be able to learn from one another in an equal playing field to actually cooperate for sustainable development.

We now have the digital tools and capabilities available to leverage the vast amounts of knowledge out there and collate local knowledge from communities across the globe. These tools can help us take away the barriers of powerful gate-keepers to circumvent established power imbalances.  Through tools that foster collective intelligence and allow us to process knowledge through AI, we can provide an equal playing field that gives equal weight to knowledge and allows us to tap into experiences on the ground and at the political, strategic level. Combining this knowledge in new ways will allow us to take effective, adaptive and accountable development decisions. As the UNDP Accelerator Lab puts it into action: “So, the UNDP Accelerator Labs are focusing on learning about bottom-up solutions to trigger climate action. What we are trying to learn about is collective intelligence, the phenomenon that happens when, working together, many individual people make up a collective that generates insights that none of the individuals can produce in isolation.”[5].

The Lab is working on garnering insights from collective knowledge about what works and what doesn’t to fight the climate crisis. I’ve taken the liberty to organise their publicly available learning questions for this journey in Propel (see image below. Let it be your practical inspiration to also start thinking about how you can cooperate to create collective knowledge for development.

Figure 1: The learning questions of the UNDP Accelerator Lab structured in Propel

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