Envisioning a “New Normal”: Systems-Based Approaches for Achieving the Next Generation of Development Goals


International development is in the midst of a sea change, broadening from a general focus on project-based outcomes to production of sustainable, embedded change. Worldwide, leaders at all levels are calling for development outcomes that go beyond “short-term technical assistance” and direct service provision, and looking to integrated approaches that foster self reliance and resilience.

In every country, professionals who remember the “community development” movement of the seventies are excited to hear what some describe as a call for “community development 2.0.” (And we worry that development writ large won’t boldly capitalize on this opportunity, this reopened door.) We see new openness to arguments that integrated, locally-led change can foster self-reliance, deliver development results efficiently, promote peace and stability, and help turn the tide on increasing inequity. Substantial momentum is being generated by:

  • The Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s multifaceted, interconnected vision for ending extreme poverty by 2030.
  • USAID’s Journey to Self Reliance, which envisions progress that is made by supporting partner capacity and commitment.
  • The emergence of practical and powerful systems-based, complexity-aware approaches to producing social change, like Collective Impact, The Water of Systems Change, and Asset-based Community Development.

Considering the status quo. Imagine leaving behind silo-ed, problem-based approaches which critics charge with producing diminishing returns, unsustainable results, and even causing harm by highlighting deficiencies and undermining agency.

We’re heard the repeated narrative: an international development project ends and…the pump breaks, or the teacher stops showing up, the clinic shelves empty, the power goes out, the drought results in hunger, women and other marginalized people are ignored, children fail to thrive. Local government doesn’t seem to be able to help. The local human capacity, in its many and powerful forms, and other local assets, are unable to realize their full potential. The lack of community mobilization systems, experiences and know-how keep people from effectively harnessing their many resources to achieve a new level of common good. Instead, resignation prevails.

This is not to say that sector-specific development efforts are not important: all people and communities benefit from strong economies, good nutrition, clean water and sanitation, quality health services, electricity, productive agriculture, proper education, and so forth. Huge progress has been made in all of these areas, to the credit of so many inspirational people and institutions around the world. Now we need to ensure that those on the painful end of increasing inequity get the access to dignity and justice that is their right.

What’s missing?To sustainably enable access to these basic rights, new (well, old) mechanisms are called for: those that foster individual and community voice and agency, inclusive leadership, and productive relationships with functional governments who provide good services, all within an enabling environment.

At the Movement for Community-led Development, our 57 member organizations and partner communities share wisdom borne of successfully doing “community development 2.0” for decades. Some countries have even scaled community-led development (CLD) nationally. But elsewhere, including across Africa, we see how CLD has been underutilized. Perhaps because, as noted in The Water of Systems Change, “Real and equitable progress requires exceptional attention to the detailed and often mundane work of noticing what is invisible to many.” *

At the Movement, our members seek to shine a light on CLD. We are synthesizing a substantial body of knowledge on CLD: we’ve gathered 350+ evaluations from our members for a meta-synthesis, our first step in establishing a solid and evolving CLD evidence-base. The findings–as well as the methodological innovations we are creating to produce them–will produce guidance on how to do more and better community-led, integrated development, at scale (and offer new tools to continue to monitor, evaluate and learn about it.)

Unpacking Community-Led Development. Our initial review of the state of CLD surfaced six aspects critical to understanding CLD. While these may seem patently obvious to wise and successful communities and social changemakers around the world, they haven’t yet been systematically delineated within international development. At the Movement we see the need to do this because “we treasure what we measure.” These and many aspects of systems- and community-based development are hard to measure or evaluate (especially via methodologies originally designed to test clinical, linear, or short-term technical interventions.)

As our meta-synthesis progresses, so too will the nuance and depth of CLD evaluation efforts. In the meantime, these six aspects are jump-starting the discussion.

  1. The context of CLD is unique, every time. What works in one place may or not work in another–or even in the same place during a different time. We can still take what we’ve seen work and try it elsewhere–but promising practices will need to be locally vetted, tailored, adapted, and even discarded if necessary. (See points 4 & 5)
  2. CLD is driven by intangibles. Depending on the program, these may include: mindsets, aspirations, social capital, social cohesion, gender norms, marginalization of certain groups, political economies, adaptive capacities, voice, agency, and dignity. From an M&E point of view, the first temptation is to translate these into numbers and scales, but the fact is there will always be complex and nuanced aspects of CLD that need to understood and tracked qualitatively.
  3. Accountability should be to communities, not funders. Logically and too often, implementers are ultimately accountable to funders, not in-country partners. Communities should be holding implementers and funders accountable as part of agency and self reliance. M&E (as well as funding structures and processes) need to support this shift
  4. CLD is built on complexity. Systems-based approaches are built on the reality that social change is dynamic and unpredictable, and that many actors will are needed to make it happen, over many years. Workplans, strategies, and theories of change will need to evolve. Substantive outcomes will not be attributable to any one actor, but contributions to that outcome may be. Evaluations should employ complexity-aware framing and tools, like Outcome Harvesting.
  5. With complexity comes adaptation. Multifaceted capacities to adapt–of communities, of governments, of donors–are critical for self-reliance and resilience. For example, a community may have an agreement with their local government regarding provision of services or women’s political representation, but what happens later, when the laws or resource flows change? An adaptive community should have a way to know about the changes, processes to inclusively craft a response, skills to effectively re-negotiate, and a system to monitor changes.
  6. Sustainability of gains, self-reliance, and resilience are interwoven and distinct, both means and ends. Improvements need to be maintained, within a changing environment, and possibly shocks. Shocks come in many forms, with implications for broad-based preparation and response. Community capacities needed for all this are overlapping, but not fully. Illuminating the dynamic interplay between the three can help support progress toward each one.

Complementary, systems-based approaches: connecting the dots to magnify impact. Community-led development offers integrated, values-based, human-centered framing, and comes with many practical tools, e.g. for addressing mindsets. The Water of Systems Change is an example of an elegant tool and set of ideas to enable actors to come together to collectively describe a complex system, at any level, and decide what needs to change. Collective Impact then offers a guide for how to collaborate to make the changes happen, probably over the course of many years.

As tested systems-based approaches come to the fore and we learn how to fit them together, organically and responsively within each setting, new ways to foster sustainable change emerge. Each tailored response is sophisticated, accessible, and responsive to each unique context, primarily crafted and wholly owned by the people at the center of it.

Bright spots. Just because it’s locally driven, CLD doesn’t have to roll out one community at a time–and support for CLD comes in many forms.

  • Governments represent CLD’s greatest potential for impact. The most dramatic example comes from Indonesia: the fourth most populous country in the world has grown what started as a successful World Bank project into a national program, complete with presidential endorsement, guiding policies and laws, a government-funded US $7 billion annual budget, and reach to 73,000 villages. Indonesia’s CLD evolved along with Indonesia itself.  Once plagued by violence, widespread poverty, and political turmoil, Indonesia has transformed into a peaceful, democratic, economically thriving country and a world leader in CLD. CLD has also been rolled out nationally or at large scale in many other places, including Afghanistan, the Philippines, Peru, Sierra Leone, and dating back to 1960, South Korea.

Donors and others are offering influence, resources, and global technical support. 

  • DFID increasingly builds an “inception period” in projects, during which the international implementer has time to partner locally to co-create a shared vision and workplan.
  • USAID’s internal transformation, and self-reliance policy framework and learning agenda offer technical, operational, and moral support. USAID asks us all to “engage with local and other relevant systems” and elicit their “voices, priorities, and contributions” as indispensable to the ultimate goal of international development: self-reliance.
  • USAID has also launched innovative guidance via systems-based approaches including The Local Systems Framework and Capacity 2.0.
  • FSG and others keep the Collective Impact and other flames burning, fostering dialogue and nuance around the “how” of effective design and implementation systems-based approaches to change, and by supporting a meaningful evidence base, including this recent multi-site study on the effectiveness of Collective Impact.

Implementers are coming together to share knowledge and support effective CLD. with a unified voice. All 57 members of the Movement support and/or implement community-led development, including large scale community partnerships that last for as many years are needed, often around eight. A sampling:

Amplifying local voices is possible, even at the global level.

  • Global Giving’s global platform enables local civil society organizations around the world to tell their stories and access funding, tools, connections, and capacity development.
  • United Cities and Local Governments speaks on behalf of communities, including successfully helping to advocate for Sustainable Development Goal #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Across the board, let’s continue to come together to make the most of this opportune moment–let’s align behind integrated, human-centered development, including community-led development.


1- Wong, Susan and Scott Guggenheim. Community-Driven Development: Myths and Realities. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 8435. May, 2018. 36 Pages Posted: 10 May 2018

2- Levy, Brian, Working with the Grain. Oxford University Press, 2015.


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