Earlier this week, Groupshot led its first seminar of the Development T4I Program at Tufts University. The Development T4I program is a new research and study group created in partnership with the Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership on Technology for Informality.
The Development T4I program has welcomed 22 Tufts students with a wide range of majors, backgrounds, and expertise. These students will be studying with the Groupshot team throughout this term and many will be travelling this summer to take part in Groupshot research and internship projects dealing with informal systems.
Our first seminar served as an opportunity for the students in the class to share their experiences dealing with development and social engagement. By starting with a traditional discussion on participatory development and the ways interventions can be introduced and shared with communities around the world, it was clear that the types of projects students are usually engaged with revolve around the ubiquitous community partnership model.
Community partnerships at the university level bring two very different stakeholders together on a range of projects. From open ended (participatory) projects which arrive in a developing community with no clear intention but to follow a community directed course of action, to the much more technical and structured engineering projects which set out to improve a piece of infrastructure in a community, all of these projects begin by forging a relationship between a group of students and some representatives of the community. This partnership model is a great model for students because it can build an international relationship and global understanding, and can leave a positive impact in a local community. On the other hand the partnership model does not lead to scalable models or scalable innovation, which is an avenue where students have a lot to contribute.
The partnership model is based on the ideals of participation, and even democracy, while also encompassing the sensitive and realistic need for local knowledge and capacity in a project. This local appreciation, integration, and understanding is an essential priority in a range of projects. Working closely with an existing geographic community and directly with the people that make up this community is a straightforward, though not foolproof, path to a relevant project.
The ideals of the local partnership are in the right place, but in practice they do not guarantee success or growth in a project. Many partnerships, for example, are not built on open trust. When a group with a particular expertise arrives in a community, it is more than coincidence that aligns the community’s needs with the development organization’s expertise. Even beyond this, the effort spent in forging a long term partnership and a sustainable project can be quite difficult with a frequent turnover of students and a stated objective of eventual entire local ownership.
At the same time, the benefits of a formal community partnership are quite evident. From the coveted local knowledge, buy-in and expertise, to the interpersonal connection, and the possibility of remote maintenance when students and organizers are back at home or school, there are a range of advantages from this more participatory approach. In reality though, these benefits are not unique to partnerships. Rather than have students discuss or design projects which are shaped by the whim of a complex or highly localized partnership, these motivated and engaged students can begin to view their relationships and knowledge of communities in a more scalable fashion. An approach which recognizes the scalable and transferable qualities in developing communities is an approach which recognizes exactly what is happening in the community already and organically (not just looking for local suggestions). This approach is thus based on the informal or emergent processes there, and then forges a partnership with these systems. By understanding and building on what exists, students, and development organizations in general, can create projects which have a higher degree or local relevance, scalability, and sustainability.
DevelopmentT4I, in its first class, has shown us the potential of our approach to influence and scale development. Rather than teach students the imprecise art of partnering with a geographic community, as so many projects are doing today, we can teach students to look for and forge partnerships with existing capacity and systems. By partnering with systems in communities around the world, for example understanding and working with existing social capital as a system, rather than trying to embed themselves within the local social system, students can begin to understand the challenges of development beyond just the single community they are working in. This approach not only scales the potential of development projects, but it also teaches the students a scalable strategy for development innovation.