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The right approach to development

The right approach to development

There is no ‘right’ approach to development. In my work over the past year I have grappled with finding no clear black and white frame for decision-making, rather an unwavering grey area. I have learnt that the best thing to do is to challenge assumptions, embrace the uncertainty and be guided by the integrity of working in partnership, learning as I go. 

It used to be that development was viewed as a ladder. Countries would start at the bottom rung, climb a handful of common steps and finally reach the top rung, which would mean they had been successfully developed. In this perspective, poverty was seen as a result of countries not climbing quickly enough or not being able to climb at all. The solution therefore was to use the blueprint of countries who had reached the top rung and impose it on countries who hadn’t. This approach placed an emphasis on economic growth.

But in recent years, we’ve found that these strategies just weren’t having the desired effect. New approaches to development exploring the causes of poverty and ways to tackle it began to emerge. These highlighted increased inequality and the fact that issues like hunger and illiteracy weren’t being addressed. Since then we have seen a major focus on a human rights-based approach, framed by the Millennium Development Goals. These 8 goals have set a world standard for development, galvanised collective will and seen collaboration between diverse actors on the international level.

What we do know is that there is no one answer, no one infallible approach to understanding, addressing and evaluating development. It is a highly contested, complex and ever-evolving field.

I see so much value in this human-centered approach (such as the one Oaktree uses), as it recognises and respects the inherent dignity, potential and rights of each individual as the basis for inclusive development. In this sense, development success is view not as a series of numbers, checked boxes or built infrastructure, but rather looks more holistically at the quality of opportunities for young people to reach their potential.

Particularly, a story from our partnership in PNG comes to mind. Young men attend the City Mission New Life Skills Farm to transform their life through vocational training. But it is so much more than learning a trade. During a recent evaluation trip, Oaktree volunteers spent time talking with the young men who were just starting out in the first of four years. Later that day, a City Mission staff member told the volunteers that they had made the boys cry, simply because they had told them that they were proud of all that they had begun to achieve. This simple moment demonstrates to me the importance of all that is not captured in economic indicators: people’s lives, hopes and self-worth. They walk away from the program with a community, a renewed sense of identity and purpose, and a vision for the future that they can create.

Another example that jumps to mind is a young woman named Serena from PNG. Serena runs an incredible youth driven initiative called The Voice International (TVI). Through this program, young people are empowered to create positive social change in their communities, challenging the notion that development is done by foreigners. Instead, through training, mentoring and guidance, TVI creates avenues for young people to advocate on issues they care about and implement small projects. Through Oaktree’s peer partnership with TVI, we are learning about facilitation techniques and what it means to be an impact driven organisation in one of Australia’s closest neighbours.

Engaging with, and understanding the realities of development through regional partnerships allows us, as young people who care about ending extreme poverty, to build an informed movement and test the assumption of dominant approaches. An informed movement doesn’t just talk about poverty and development but acts in line with what we learn from people working in these contexts, day in and day out.

There is no right answer, there is no easy answer, but there exists in me the conviction to work towards improving our approach daily so that we can truly say we put the needs of those we partner with first and foremost in development. 

Nikki Bartlett is Deputy CEO and Head of International Engagement at Oaktree.