Reflections from Rwanda: Resetting approaches to social change

By George Nyairo Obanyi, Senior Technical Officer for Communications, FHI 360, Kenya

DPMI course participants, January 2018

For the past 15 years, I have worked in the context of international development. Beyond my specialization in development communication, I have participated in the design and implementation of development projects created to drive social change by addressing pressing global challenges such as rural poverty, access to health care and management of natural resources.

Like many development workers, I often feel more could be done. I, however, struggle with the how.

Most projects are well designed from the onset. Most, almost invariably, seem to follow the classic pattern of the project cycle – from problem diagnosis through a process of continuous learning cycle – with increasing emphasis on innovations, more strategic partnerships and greater beneficiary involvement.

To be fair, many large and small development agencies have progressed to cost-effectively implement projects that to deliver impressive results and impact in the long run. But this is often an at-scale perspective.

However, many projects do not afford the opportunity to adequately address local issues by systematically involving local partners and using local resources to co-create scalable solutions that are flexible enough to respond to local needs and to be replicated in different circumstances.

It is the search to understand new ways to address problems within larger projects that triggered my interest in the Design, Partnering, Management and Innovation (DPMI) certificate course offered by the Monterey Institute of International Studies in collaboration with Partners in Health, Rwanda.

I got more than I expected. The DPMI course is hands-on and client-focused learning that goes beyond the classroom to delve into the real world.

Over two weeks of intense learning, participants — a mix of graduate students and experienced development practitioners — explore new ways of deploying proven tools to collaboratively craft cost-effective solutions to development challenges that an actual organization faces in the field.

Through a mix of individual learning, practical group exercises and field work, participants get to understand and use proven tools for problem analysis, planning, collaboration and measurement (including the widely used problem tree and logframe) to create targeted solutions that are responsive to local needs for a real-life client.

I found the realistic approach to be an effective way to transfer usable knowledge and skills that one can apply post-training.

My biggest take-homes

The DMPI course is immensely useful to any development practitioner and there are many lessons I can share from my participation in the training.

One of my two substantial take-home “big ideas” from the course is how to integrate human-centered approaches in project design. The other key learning is on how to combine conventional project design approaches and social marketing to address common development challenges across sectors.

Human-centered design

I have often encountered the increasingly popular human-centered approach presented as an abstract concept. The DMPI course showed us how to practically apply human-centered design in projects.

Often development workers approach problems with solutions in mind. We end up prescribing what should happen from a basket of pre-existing solutions. In human-centered design, the solution is largely informed by perspective of the users or intended beneficiaries, considering the local context, including social norms, stakeholders and resources.

The DMPI course provided tools that I can use to meaningfully involve individuals and communities in the design, implementation and evaluation of projects at community level. By demonstrating new ways of applying tools such as focus group discussions and observation in formative research, the course reaffirmed that we do not always need expensive, time-demanding and resource-intensive research to inform project design and implementation.

Social marketing

Many of us associate social marketing with tangible products with social benefits. Through my practical project and those of other participants in the course, I realized the true potential of social marketing in community projects.

The DMPI course places key concepts and techniques of social marketing in the context of project design. For instance, the consumer orientation reinforces the emphasis on human-centered design. Through pre-readings and class discussions, we explored how social marketing can be used in projects.

In my group, one of five in the course, we designed a social marketing campaign to reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases, a strategic thrust of Partners in Health, our client. We applied basic tools to conduct formative research, developed a problem and solution tree, created a log frame and designed a realistic social marketing campaign.

My own experience and those of other groups-in applying the various project design tools to create social marketing campaigns for a real client was a major turning point for me. I realized that social marketing could be used to design projects that go beyond traditional education and behavior change interventions to address diverse problems in a cost-effective and scalable way.

New insights

The DMPI course opened to me a window of opportunity to how I can use proven easy-to-apply tools to co-create and craft with beneficiaries cost-effective solutions that can be replicated in multiple contexts. I would recommend the course because it enables new and experienced practitioners to use readily available tools in new ways to reset traditional approaches so that they respond more effectively to development problems.

Finally, I found the blended nature of the course useful. I gained new insights by interacting with graduate students and experienced development practitioners from diverse backgrounds and collaboratively working with them to address common challenges and provide realistic solutions for an actual client. Despite the limited time for the training, the realistic, practical approach makes it easier to apply learning in my work. If you would like to learn more about my experience with the course, please email me at @obanyi