Can social labs save development?

Foreign aid in Malawi is as much as 50% of the national budget. This startling fact poses a paradox that haunts Malawi and all aid dependent countries. On the one hand, aid is desperately needed to finance essential services like health, education, and agriculture development. On the other hand, foreign aid has significant unintended negative consequences, not least on the ability of citizens to hold their governments to account.

For the past year, with support from a small skunkworks within USAID, we have listened to Malawians’ views of aid. They expressed gratitude for the help, of course, but they were also surprisingly vocal about shadow side of aid. They told us that aid feels like an external imposition. At its worst, it creates distrust, alienation, and feelings of inferiority between and among different local development actors, including citizens.

Rumphi is a rural district of northern Malawi famous for its citizen activism, so is a natural site for a new kind of exploration into the shadow side of development aid following the principles of an inclusive ‘Social Lab’. Branded as ‘an aid anti-project’, the Rumphi Social Lab is creating and holding open a space to generate, test and learn from “micro-actions” to fix the broken development system. The Rumphi Social Lab founders begin from the conviction that only Malawians can lead the change required, even as they recognize that there is a lot of work to do to create a vanguard and then build a movement.

“The idea of inclusive fora for discussion sits deep in our culture. The idea that we can harness this part of our culture to undertake actions to reform the aid system is new and exciting,” said one of the 67 self-described ‘changemakers’ at day one of the four day design workshop that is the starting point for the Rumphi Social Lab. “We have complained about the jet-set foreign aid experts. But it is on us to step up and become the experts of our own development. We are the experts in the Rumphi Social Lab.”

Day one at the design workshop was about describing aid system challenges, and getting granular about how relationships between aid system actors must be improved. The resulting discussion about relationships dynamics was lively and frank, with several revelations of parties seeing their relationship very differently. There was laughter, but also a sense that relationships could no longer be taken for granted.

Tomorrow, in day two, we move into an open space format to generate ideas for solutions. Based on what happened today, we are betting that participants will surface some powerful ideas for strengthening relationships in the local development ecosystem.

Watch this space for highlights from days two, three and four!

The Rumphi Social Lab is a collaboration of Youth And Society Malawi, Root Change, Keystone Accountability and USAID Local Works

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