GVI Guest Blogger Gemma Burford: Will post-2015 development be truly holistic?

Gemma Burford is Research Fellow, Values and Sustainability Research Group, University of Brighton


Most contemporary development work focuses on what is visible from the outside (e.g. observable behaviour change, tangible outputs, or measurements of complex system dynamics).   An Integral Sustainable Design approach balances these exterior perspectives with discussion of interior dimensions – how people feel, what their subjective experiences are, and what’s valued within a particular organisation or community.  This is essential because human beings don’t usually analyse situations scientifically before taking action: many of our decisions are based on emotions and deeply held values.

An Integral approach is also distinctive in its recognition that different people are motivated by different things, and that we have to meet them where they are – not where we wish they were. If we don’t make space for subjective dimensions such as values, emotions and personal experience in the design of our projects, they may come back to haunt us later, like the thirteenth fairy in the story of Sleeping Beauty.  Social, environmental and economic projects are all equally susceptible to the consequences of neglecting subjective realities:

–          A new water pipe stands unused, because the women’s morning walk is the high point of their day – they value social bonding, and paying their respects to the spirit of the mountain spring, far more highly than `efficiency’ or `convenience’.

–          A microcredit initiative has disastrous consequences because the well-meaning founder is outnumbered by self-centred committee members, motivated by their desire for wealth and social status.

–          A coordinator is hired for a conservation program based on indigenous ecological knowledge, but constantly undermines it with her fundamentalist belief that there is only one ‘right way of knowing’. While Integral Sustainable Design is already becoming established in fields such as architecture, there is an urgent need to apply its insights to international development.

The emergent post-2015 process offers a unique opportunity to shape the global development agenda for the next 15-20 years, but most of the discourse is still centred on deciding whether goal A is more important than goal B: “Would you rather feed your children, educate them, cure them of malaria, protect them from rape, or mitigate climate change so they can survive to adulthood?”   Despite knowing in our hearts that these issues are all complex, messy and profoundly interconnected, we still persist in treating them as separate and attempting to rank them in order of priority.   An Integral Sustainable Design lens can help us to recognise the common roots of many global problems: outdated systems, egocentric values, feelings of apathy and despair, and destructive or unproductive human actions. With this in mind, the response looks very different.

We can stop designing projects to tackle one problem at a time, and focus on finding ways to foster individual and collective ‘mindshifts’ – from self-centred to planet-centred worldviews – to eliminate the root causes of multiple problems.  We can stop obsessing about what’s not working right now, and get on with empowering people whose vision is already planet-centred (and my guess is that there are plenty of those around…) to start co-designing and co-creating the futures that they actually want. There’s still time to campaign for a radical and genuinely holistic post-2015 agenda – but the windows of opportunity are rapidly closing.  To all Integral thinkers out there: this is our time to stand up and be counted.  Every minute that we don’t speak up brings us one minute closer to a global development agenda set out in the same old way, perpetuating the same old patterns.  Who can we talk to, who can we e-mail, what can we tweet, to infuse the post-2015 decision-making process with a new vision before it’s too late?



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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