Social and economic development is a complex undertaking. What may prove to be an effective aid initiative or pro-poor business development program in one community may not be effective in another. Why? Because the systems – political, social, economic, cultural, historical – at play in any given location interact with each other in ways that are unique and complex. Every project requires careful consideration of the “on-the-ground” realities in order to tailor development projects and interventions appropriately.
International development practitioners and their respective nonprofits, for-profits, hybrid organizations, and bi-/multi-lateral development institutions have increasingly come to accept that complexity and nuance must be analyzed and considered when working in developing countries, even if agreement about how to best adapt to complexity and nuance remains an ongoing challenge.
However, this awareness of complexity and nuance has not extended much beyond the international development community to the general public, even in countries where citizens, on the whole, tend to be civically-oriented, care about global poverty and related issues, and have seemingly endless options for obtaining news and information about international events and issues.
America serves as a case in point. We are a nation of “do-gooders”; we like to give back, help others, and generally feel that we are contributing to positive change in the world. This fact is clearly evidenced by the $217 billion that individual Americans gave in 2011 (73% of all charitable donations made in the US) for domestic and international projects. Yet, despite Americans’ collective generosity and eagerness to do good, we seem to have a limited appetite for understanding the on-the-ground interplay of political, social, economic, cultural, and historical factors that our dollars must navigate to create projects and, ultimately, solutions.
This point is succinctly communicated in a quote by Linda Raftree of the Wait … What? blog that appeared in Oscar Abello’s article Can The World Handle Complexity?: “People still want to see dual realities rather than complex ones…They want an us-them solution, a black-white solution, a donor-recipient solution that can be acted on and resolves quickly but this is not the reality of how social and political change work anywhere.”
While the general public’s satisfaction with these simple “cause and effect” explanations may slowly wane as other financial donor groups, such charitable foundations and impact investors, begin to demand more nuanced assessments of project impact, nonprofits nevertheless need to do more to change the way that their supporters understand the projects they undertake. The challenge remains, of course, to effectively communicate the nuance and complexity of international development in a form that is as engaging, approachable, and understandable as the current paired-down versions the general public gravitates towards and expects.