We are currently working together with an NGO called the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development in the Andean mountains of Peru. After joining the organization on their fieldtrips these last 2 weeks, we can definitely conclude that this is a Human Centered Organization, which strives to improve the livelihood of remote Andean communities through Human Centered Design. They initiate real grassroots projects while living amongst the communities, but at the same time using a project approach that minimizes invading the communities and focuses on a long lasting and sustainable impact. They make sure that the projects continue even without constant interference from the organization, or in the long run, might function without help of the AASD.
Within the projects, the AASD provides their knowledge on development strategies, project management and organic agriculture. They facilitate the start of the project and they provide access to western resources these communities otherwise never would have, like funding or a high-end market. The community members themselves provide their knowledge on sustainable living, time and materials, making it a real equal collaboration and knowledge exchange.
Over the years many small, but sustainable projects have been realized through this collaboration, creating a big impact for the communities for minimal costs. One of these projects is the greenhouse project at the school of Choquecancha where 3 greenhouses were realized making it possible for the school staff and the schoolchildren to provide vegetables for school lunches while providing the schoolchildren with new education opportunities and fighting malnutrition, which is very common in these remote, very high communities, where there is normally no food diversity.
We were able to join the AASD on their visit to Choquecancha on March 19th when they visited the greenhouses at the school to see how the greenhouse withstood the summer holidays (when there weren’t any children around to take care of the crops). They also talked to the women in the community about the option of them starting a new enterprise with money they saved because with help of the AASD they can now sell their weavings in the United States. We made the following movie about our day with the AASD:
How does this collaboration between the AASD and the communities work in practice? And how does it differ from the project approach of a ‘normal’ NGO? We asked the AASD if they could help us gain more insights in their project approach and that of a normal NGO by brainstorming about the different steps they and a normal NGO undertake when initiating a project.
So how does a HCD project start? In the case of the AASD it is either the AASD or one of the community members that comes up with an idea on which problem they should address in a new project. For example, after community members of a specific high-altitude community saw how well the greenhouses at the schools of Choquecancha were performing, they approached the AASD with the question whether it would be possible for the really remote and high up houses to get their own greenhouses. Together they started to think about different ways about how to take on this project (ideate solutions), which provided the AASD with sufficient information to design a project plan, which formed the basis of the implementation of the project. The project was then implemented over 1 year time, family by family. The families that wanted a greenhouse had to provide their own materials and building time to build the walls of the greenhouses. Collaborating with local government made sure every finished greenhouse was provided with a plastic roof, paid for by the local government. The AASD helped with the design of the greenhouse, coordinated everything and provided every new greenhouse owner with workshops at the AASD demonstration farm in Calca on how to grow organic vegetables in a greenhouse. Within these workshops, the AASD not only shares their experiences with the new greenhouse farmers, but also makes sure the farmers get to share their experiences as well (preserving local knowledge on organic farming) and makes an effort to facilitate new relationships for knowledge exchange in between the families that now have a greenhouse. Together they evaluated the project and made some improvements, so in case another community contacts the AASD with a similar problem, the project could be rolled out again, but adapted to that community and with the improvements provided by the previous projects.
These analyses resulted in a visualization comparing the HCD approach the AASD uses next to a normal NGO approach:
So why aren’t all NGOs using a Human Centered Approach to their projects if it could generate them big, long-lasting impact for a minimum of the expenses they now have? We (Amiadesigner and the AASD) came up with 3, possibly 4 answers to this question.
The first one (and probably also the most dominant one) being funding: the AASD is currently struggling a lot to get funding for their projects. As you can see within the normal NGO project approach, the moment and way you get funding is very clear. Within the HCD approach, when and how to get funding isn’t really determined clearly yet. The AASD is trying to find funding for activities like coordination, data collection and workshop facilitation. All of these activities are very difficult to get funding for from the most common fund providers. In the specific example of the AASD greenhouses, the AASD was approached by an organization, which wanted to fund the building costs of the greenhouses. They had some request, though: there had to be a minimum of 100 greenhouses built within half a year across 15 communities, and the AASD would receive the funding for the building materials, the building hours and a percentage of that could be project management costs. When the AASD replied by asking for only the project management costs, because all the other costs were already taken care of within their specific approach and a little bit more time to reach out to this many communities, the organization replied that that wouldn’t be possible, because that simply wouldn’t fit the requirements. The AASD ended up refusing the funding for the greenhouse project from this specific organization, but decided to go forward with building 30 greenhouses in a community they already have a relationship with simply because there is a real need within the community. They hope to get funding later on their own terms.
Which brings us to the second reason why few NGOs use a real HCD approach. If you really want to collaborate with local communities, this also means doing things on their terms, within their culture and their time management. Which means practically that the AASD doesn’t want to use western project management approaches like deadlines. The families that really want a greenhouse can build it themselves, whenever they have time and within their own terms.
The third reason might be a very simple one: a lot of organizations don’t use the Human Centered Approach simply because they are not aware of the benefits and the specifics or find it to difficult. Or they might not even be aware of its existence. It might also be an approach that requires a little bit more thinking then simply giving away crutches you collected in the USA to handicapped people in a Kenyan village. So for some organizations it might also just be too difficult to adapt a Human Centered Approach.
The fourth reason is a very subjective one, but might play a bigger role in why NGOs don’t use the HCD approach as much as we think: real Human Centered Design can be a lot less fun for the involved NGO employees! It means leaving a lot of the fun jobs for your target group and intervening as less as possible. We meet a lot of NGO employees that like the work they do because they get to come up with cool solutions, implement them in adventurous circumstances within these really inspiring communities. For them adapting a Human Centered Approach would mean not only changing the nature of their projects but also the nature of their own jobs, which some NGO employees might not be willing to do.
What do you think: how can we increase the amount of organizations using a Human Centered Approach? Is adapting our current funding schemes for these projects the key? It is definitely what the AASD could use the most right now, so if you have any tips for them on how to stay true to their approach but also generate more funding to keep on pioneering within this field, please contact them via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Authors: Boukje & Jeroen