Challenging the Way It Works

At the Hāmākua Institute, we know the way it works and are always willing to help others to learn the norms of sustainable rural development. Our goal, however, is to go beyond the norms and explore better ways of assisting rural communities and regions face change that threatens their livelihoods. We are capable of using a range of diverse and innovative approaches and are dedicated to exploring new ways of supporting rural development initiatives, technologies, and most importantly, the people who make them work.

I have observed international rural development become more of an industry unto itself rather than an effective problem solver. A growing number of development organizations offer solutions in search of problems – and the money to solve them. Models, processes and tools are carefully protected as the industry becomes increasingly competitive. In order to please donors or protect their interests, a development organization’s solutions for complex predicaments are often limited to their own range of tools and skills. Because all they have is a hammer, every challenge looks like a nail. 

I managed large development initiatives funded by a company that was figuring out how it wanted to support development in the rural regions surrounding its operations. Like my friends in the nonprofit development sector, I had to explain and justify why a social investment should be made. However, I received much more flexibility to adjust the project to deliver results because nobody was telling me it had to be accomplished in a particular way. A truly private sector approach focuses more on results than on process. My colleagues in the aid funded world rarely had the flexibility to make their project work. They faced a rigid set of processes and outcomes that often ignored the real solutions emerging from stakeholders.

So what does one do with flexibility when the opportunity arises? How do you ensure “different” is actually better? First you have to understand how and why things are currently done. Then you can question whether those original reasons still apply rather than remain trapped in a system that no longer seems to make sense. You can look for ways to rise above a broken system and change the existing paradigm.

My favorite new paradigms were those associated with connecting partners and mobilizing collective action to solve a community problem. The command and control approach used by many donors, and the opportunistic approach used by many non-profits, frequently blocked any hope of improvement. The norms for agreements and partnerships, the way resources were planned and committed, and even the means for measuring and monitoring progress limited results. I experimented with many different approaches to change things and received input and support along the way from consultants, trainers and researchers. I discovered the more you get used to finding ways to improve things, the more people start listening to you and opening the doors for you to create systemic change.

I have always liked to challenge processes that didn’t seem to make sense and where I could see a better way. From the start, I wanted to know what “rule” prevented innovation so I could dispute it. Most of the time I found there was no rule, just an assumption that “this is the way it works.” The Hāmākua Institute remains committed to understanding if a development strategy actually does work and why.  Where there is a better way to generate the sustainable development of rural regions, you will hear about it in this newsletter and on our website!

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