Two decades of international development: Where the industry has been and where it’s going 

By Ashley Williams

January 13, 2020

An expert look at the decade behind us, predictions for the one ahead and hopes from the next generation of development leaders

The 2010s are behind us and, as we look ahead to a fresh decade of development, we’re reflecting on how the industry has evolvedWhen Creative’s experts were asked to think about both the changes to the industry and provide their predictions for its future, common threads were found.  

Development veterans have seen the relationship between donor and host countries grow to better involve local entities, but they are calling to take that even farther. They have seen the industry become more complex and are predicting that youth, private partnerships and sustainability — both in terms of long-term impact and environmentalism — are a few key issues that will shape the space moving forward. 

And for a dose of what the next generation of leaders have up their sleeves, read to the end for what Creative’s more junior staff are hoping for the decade ahead. 

How international development has changed in the last 10 years

Host governments have a more substantial seat at the table 

International development has given more thought onto how to make its efforts sustainable. It has started encouraging host governments to demonstrate political commitment and be inclusive (inviting the participation of a variety of stakeholders) in pursuit of the noble developmental strategies they set out for themselves if they are at all to be taken seriously or benefit from international support. This includes enabling/empowering them to invest on efforts that can be executed and sustained within the confines of their strategic vision and financial confines/limits. 

Semere Solomon — Senior Director of Africa Strategy 

Dynamics have evolved 

International development is far more complex now. Access to information, changes to political dynamics in many countries and the rise of China in the investment arena has impacted how we work in countries. I also think the U.S. hegemony is shrinking, and that is a good thing. As development professionals, it will be incumbent on us to respect the values and expectations of the people in countries we work in and listen carefully as a way to determine starting points that reflect their experience and understanding of issues that require change.  

Debby Kimble — Director, Governance and Community Resilience Practice Area 

Projects are bigger, longer and expectations are higher 

There has been a very visible move away from short-term/small budget projects (two to three years, $10 to $20 million) to longer-term/bigger budget projects (five to seven years, $50 to $100 million). This scaling up of scope, time and cost — to meet the increased complexity of our tasks and delivery of bigger, more sustainable impact-level results — has raised the professional and experiential standards and expectations of the implementing firms. Donor expectations of clearly defined and anticipated Value for Money results, very clear reporting requirements and a strong emphasis on social and environmental impacts have actually made our jobs easier. We now work with more clarity and more certainty of our purpose. 

Michael Clements — Chief of Party, West Africa Trade and Investment Hub 

More work is being done in conflict-impacted areas, but timelines may not be long enough 

Over the past 10 years, international development initiatives have been conducted in increasingly hostile environments where conflict, violent extremism and terrorism are on the rise. The ability to operate in such environments require skills that are different than those required 10 years ago.  The time required to achieve results in such environments is longer than a decade ago, yet the programming cycles don’t seem to have been adjusted accordingly.   

Musu Clemens — Chief of Party, Mali Peacebuilding, Stabilization and Reconciliation Project 


Predictions for international development in the decade ahead 


Looking towards youth, locally grown projects and a new approach to western support 

The contexts we work in and the search for effective responses are growing more complex. Environmental concerns are on the rise and will surely exacerbate existing tensions and conflict. Yet, there is growing hope as younger generations of today connect globally to push new models, innovations, ideas and energy into the development space to tackle development needs and the underlying inequities. Development work and accompanying solutions in the years to come will increasingly be locally grown, integrated solutions will become prevalent, and the way the western agencies support development will shift. That shift will not come easy nor without discomfort. 

Eileen St. George — VP & Senior Director, Education for Development 

Private partnerships will be key 

The undeniable efficacy of partnering with private companies that already deliver the development outcomes sought by donors will become much more broadly visible and widely understood. Going forward, donors and their implementing partners will increasingly find ways to identify firms in countries that already deliver the desired outcomes sought by donors. Implementing partner organizations that become adept at structuring and managing these cost-effective, results-oriented partnerships will dominate the implementing partner landscape over the next ten years. 

Bill Baldridge — Director, Enterprise Development, Youth and Employment Practice Area 

Peace will open the door for investing in development 

Afghanistan’s desired evolution for the next decade seems to be heavily contingent upon number of expected developments with consequences of the peace talks on the top of the list. Successful peace agreement will pave the ground for development efforts with myriads of opportunities for investments in which private sector will play vital role. With ongoing reforms and national level priorities’ setting efforts, government and international partners will continue to manage international funding in more coordinated manner. 

Shafiulhaq Rahimi — Deputy Chief of Party, Afghan Children Read  

Problematic gender and social norms will be addressed 

The targets of development efforts have shifted with new emphasis on inclusive development and “balanced growth”. Women, youth and other marginalized groups have become relevant subjects of development efforts. Our task is to transform the underlying gender and social norms that marginalized them in the first place and enable a level playing field for these groups to meaningfully participate in, and benefit from, their nation’s social and economic growth to foster real development. 

Rebecca Sewall — Senior Advisor, Gender and Social Inclusion 

Hopes for the decade from the next generation of development leaders 

Elevating women of color, learning from local experts and prioritizing kindness 

My hope for international development in the next decade is that our headquarters workforces really reflect the countries where we work. I hope that we would have more women of color in leadership positions and that we would see field staff as experts and ourselves as learners. And I hope that we would hold ourselves to the same standards we place on a teacher in a rural school in Ethiopia (kindness, empathy, emotional regulation) in the way we treat our coworkers. 

Megan Schug — Project Manager, Education for Development 

Thinking big AND local 

My hope for international development in the next decade is that a continuing process of refocus on human-centered co-design in partnership with marginalized communities will ground development interventions in the incentives, opportunities, and constraints faced on the local level. This combined with intentional downward accountability to populations served will aim to affect change locally, rooted in the lived experience of these communities, while simultaneously striving to acknowledge and incorporate the larger institutional context. 

Ben Gauley — Program Associate, Education for Development 

Applying the data and treating stakeholders as partners 

In the next 10 years, I hope to see the gaps between rigorous evaluation and implementation to be lessened and for programming to more closely reflect what we are learning to be best practice for sustained results. I hope to see programs and policies that increasingly integrate the desires and needs of local people, organizations, and governments — and approaches these stakeholders as our partners rather than our beneficiaries. I hope to see more investment in leaders and decision-makers within implementing and donor organizations that are representative of the communities that are touched most by international development work. 

Alicia Helfrich — Senior Program Specialist, Workforce Development and Youth 

With reporting by Evelyn Rupert 


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