Retelling the Story of Development

Early 2013, fresh after high school I was hit by the ugly and gruesome reality of what absence of choice and opportunity looked like. Let me back track, after the assassination of my father in 1997 I was raised in a quaint and secluded village in Sri Lanka by the name of Deraniyagala. I grew up during a time when the nearby corner shop was the fastest mode of information, where a critically ill patient would rarely make it to the hospital alive and where it was an anomaly for a young girl to finish high school. When the time came for me to attend school, my mother plucked up all the courage she had and whisked me off to the city in the hope of a better education. We shifted across 15 houses, made magic out of leftovers, battled with overdue school fees but ultimately braved the unimaginable. Coming back home to Deraniyagala after 10 years I would slowly learn that my struggle was nothing but a gifted privilege. I reconnected with my childhood best friend who was one of the most hardworking, resourceful and creative girls I had ever met, and I was shaken as she told me that she had already dropped out of school, was married and working at a garment factory at below the minimum wage. It was that day I realized something was terribly wrong, and it had to be fixed and if not me then who?

College was too expensive, so I ended up taking two gap years during which I had two life altering learning experiences. The first was in 2014; under the direction of the United Nations Special Envoy on Youth, the UN country office in Sri Lanka (UNCT) set up their inaugural United Nations Youth Advisory Panel to engage young people as active participants at a policy level. I served as their adviser on youth and gender bringing in my experience having worked on advocacy and training in girls’ rights and sex education. While the intentions were noble, and the model was innovative I realized that we had failed to truly dissect and understand the problems we were attempting to solve and had often made the true experts; the beneficiaries become passive objects of development.

I wondered what it would look like to have beneficiaries at the decision-making table, to replace tokenistic consultation with meaningful participatory approaches and how development interventions could be designed by the very communities they seek to ‘help’. I was a very naïve and idealistic teenager back then unable to properly articulate my frustrations, concerns and ideas but I passionately believed in the importance of a meaningful merger between top down and bottom up approaches as what I had seen was more of the former.

While working for the UNCT I continued talking with driven community leaders and young people from my village to understand how best I could serve back using the experience I had received and the networks I had built. Education was always the answer. I realized soon enough that traditional education no longer guaranteed an exit from the cycle of poverty. What we were looking at was something different; a model that was relevant, innovative and community led. An initiative that would allow young people and adults to articulate their own notions of success and to give them a skill set that could be applied across industries and within various spheres and stages of life. Hence Without Borders was born in 2014, with a simple of vision of leveraging innovative education and training models to empower communities to become nothing but their best selves. The resilient communities we worked with helped me make sense of my concerns and ideas while working at the UN. Among many others I learnt two crucial lessons. First was that the best solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems come from the very communities that battle with these issues with every passing day. Second, that if participatory development and an effective bottom up approach is to be implemented, the communities we aim to serve should have an equal seat at the table and be involved across all stages of the project from research to ideation through implementation to assessment. Without Borders gave my team and I the opportunity to test out different approaches to ensuring meaningful community participation at a micro level. Out of the dozens of approaches we tried and tested, three different strategies stood out:

a. We converted Without Borders to a social enterprise model. Even though many of the education and training services we offered were mostly free or subsidized our beneficiaries were now repositioned as customers. They filled out customer satisfaction surveys, assessed the effectiveness of the projects and had equal decision making powers.

b. In 2015 we launched an intensive yearlong leadership accelerator for 40 selected young women from at-risk backgrounds to train them in leadership, community organizing and design thinking. We wanted to ensure that from day 1 all 40 participants became co-creators of the program along with our team. They selected facilitators, mapped the overall vision and strategy and outlined the different topics and skills they wanted to learn and thereby the workshop schedules. What we saw was an immense sense of ownership among the participants over the project and a strong boost in confidence among the girls in been able to make decisions and suggestions that altered the direction of the program.

C. We did extensive research and testing on applying design thinking principles at every stage of our programs through research, ideation, implementation and assessment to ensure that we meaningfully engage our target audience and deeply understand their stories, value systems, concerns, dreams and aspirations.

Today Without Borders is in it’s 4th year of operation and over the past 3 years we’ve setup 4 Idea Labs that have trained over 1600 graduates (using our five-staged curriculum focused on creative and critical thinking, leading change and communication skills), trained 80+ community teachers and completed over 140 classroom sessions in helping local schools and teachers implement novel teaching methodologies within traditional classroom settings.

Few years back I was finally able to attend college through the help of a brilliant mentor and a full scholarship. At Wellesley, I stumbled upon Anthropology quite by chance and gradually connected the dots. I realized that there was immense literature written on the very topics that I was grabbling with and that Anthropology might have some of the answers. My current research focus is on how concepts such as design thinking and visual ethnography (visual storytelling, documentary and photography) could be used to rethink traditional research approaches within the development world in allowing our beneficiaries to co-create research projects by giving them the tools and training to tell their own stories, to articulate the problems they face and possible solutions. Participatory development is complicated, time consuming and tedious yet it is high time that the tables are reversed. Tough problems require tough questions to be asked and disruptive solutions to be thought of and I know one thing for sure; that it is never an impossibility.