Power, agency, inclusion: why we need to decommission the beneficiary lens in global development

by Benjamin Kumpf | UNDP
Tuesday, 24 July 2018 12:00 GMT

People attend a protest in front of Finance Ministry in Lisbon February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A key principle of innovation for development is to design with the user, including with and for people with disabilities

“In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.”

Albert Bandura coined the concept of self-efficacy: the belief in yourself to have an impact on your environment and circumstances.

Bringing in new voices of people with agency is one of the key messages of this week’s Global Disability Summit in London.

It also underlines the importance of mobilizing global and national commitments as holding duty bearers to account is a key component for inclusive societies. 

The key message of this summit reinforces the pivot from approaching people as beneficiaries to working with humans that have agency.

This is inherent to the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and in the international development innovation context, it is framed as approaching women and men as users. Users of services and actors in adaptive complex systems.

A key principle of innovation for development is to design with the user, including with and for people with disabilities.

In Argentina, UNDP, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, and civil society organizations collaborate to increase access to justice for deaf and hard of hearing survivors of gender-based violence.

Deaf women lead the design of new solutions and develop tools to help facilitate action across the deaf community.

In Bangladesh, UNDP, the access2information lab and the organization ‘Young Power in Social Action’ joined forces to design DAISY- accessible reading materials

These open source books are designed to make education accessible to students who are blind or partially sighted.

These open-source multimedia books were designed with the users of this technology at the helm. In Georgia, UNDP supported the Government to redesign the national emergency services to make them accessible for people with hearing and seeing disabilities.

Users with disabilities identified pain points in the service provision, created prototypes with service providers and the Government invested in field-testing one prototype. As a result, the emergency services are now inclusively accessible. 

These cases outline how user-centric approaches can help augment development work and complement efforts to improve legislation. While co-designing solutions with people with disabilities we continuously learn important lessons:

Be aware of power dynamics

Development actors, designers, activists – whoever engages with individuals and communities who face discrimination and exclusion introduces additional layers of complexity to existing power dynamics. It is our responsibility to do our best to understand them, navigate them and not pretend to have solved them. “Power relations are tricky, and we need to be aware of which kind of attitudes and behaviors we are reinforcing with our acts and presence,” argues Miriam Pastor.

Adapt approaches

We learned that some methods that worked very well with members of fishermen communities in Egypt are not suitable for people with disabilities in the same country. Yet, we learned that a process that led to rich insights in Georgia was equally applicable and effective in Bangladesh. There simply isn’t the user-centered approach.

Design for inclusion from the start

The vast majority of technologies, infrastructure and services, along with their user experiences, are usually designed with a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. The emergence of self-driving cars, for example, has significant potential to further increase inclusivity in our societies but the technologies and ecosystem components need to be inclusively designed from the start. Inclusivity and accessibility are too often ignored or taken as an after-thought, but “when we design for disability we all benefit,” as Elise Roy emphasizes. There is huge potential to improve all of our lives by embracing diversity and meaningful co-design.

Benjamin Kumpf works on social innovation for UNDP, exploring data for development, human-centred design, behavioural insights and other extraordinary topics to change business as usual. Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf