Empowering Local Communities to Lead Development through Human-Centered Design

Four women stand and talk near a table filled with baked goodsPhoto credit: Aga Khan Foundation

The challenges facing the most marginalized communities across the globe have only increased in complexity in recent years. With advances in information technology, the widening of economic inequalities and the acceleration of the climate crisis, problems like environmental degradation, geopolitical conflict, and global pandemics are becoming more difficult to address with traditional approaches to humanitarian aid and international development. Furthermore, one common critique of international development work is that it has the potential to replicate neocolonialist power structures by using outsider-driven, top-down decision-making.


In 2019, under USAID’s New Partnerships Initiative, the Agency worked with the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) to launch Local Impact, a multi-year, multi-sector, and multi-country global partnership that uses a human-centered design (HCD) based approach to facilitate locally led development.


Through Local Impact, our staff are collaborating to elevate the voices of those closest to challenges facing communities in an effort to move toward a more participatory approach to international development work. We believe that this approach is not only more ethical and more just but also more effective at addressing complex problems through locally owned, innovative solutions that will have lasting impact.


As we continue on this journey of strengthening the partnership between USAID and AKF and developing capacity in our teams and communities, we want to share initial reflections to encourage and support other organizations in doing this work.


What Is Human-Centered Design?

The HCD approach places community needs and lived experiences at the center of the problem-solving process. The HCD process involves extensive field work and engagement with local community members. Sometimes these constituents offer qualitative data and feedback. Even better, sometimes community members join the design team and share decision-making power with the development practitioners who are facilitating the process.


Strengthening Capacity with HCD

While inclusivity and co-creation have always been central tenets of AKF’s approach to development, HCD offers new tools and techniques that can help development practitioners dig deeper into challenges, elevate the voices of those with lived experience, and rapidly iterate to get feedback before implementing a solution at scale. The Local Impact team has honed these skills over time.


The HCD approach has changed the perspectives of AKF team members, giving them powerful insights into the needs and challenges of the communities. Sedbegim Mirzosaidova, who participated as a member of an HCD team for a Local Impact project focused on supporting women entrepreneurs reflected: “During our work, we have learned directly from the people we are designing for and immersed ourselves in their lives in order to come to a deep understanding of their needs.” 


Najimiya Abdurahmonova, another HCD team member, elaborated: “When we were in the field, the female entrepreneurs opened up about their daily challenges that they are facing in their businesses and personal lives. Being able to build trust with the female entrepreneurs sometimes felt emotional and close.  [...] As a consultant, one can’t implement his/her ideas because at the end of the day the project is all about these female entrepreneurs, and they are the ones who should propose the solutions.” 


The participants also noticed the positive dynamic that was created through the HCD sessions. One of the participants, Nilufar Hukumatshoeva, noted, “I liked the reflection meetings where we came together and shared our insights with Sedbegim and Najmiya. It was very helpful for us to feel included and to have influence over the process.”


Like many activities, HCD went virtual in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, HCD training was able to be expanded to more than 300 AKF staff and stakeholders (including almost all Local Impact staff). In partnership with Accelerate Impact, a global initiative of AKF, teams have received in-depth HCD training along with project-based experience, to reinforce “an HCD mindset” and practice applying tools to adopt this inclusive approach. We believe that this new awareness of the HCD approach will benefit our colleagues far and wide.


Benefits of Incorporating HCD Approaches

To date, Local Impact has tackled eight design challenges – collaborative design sprints focused on a specific problem in a specific community – across rural Tajikistan, including in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) and Khatlon regions as well as the Rasht Valley. These eight challenges were identified collaboratively with communities, local stakeholders, USAID, and AKF staff who also nominate specific members to work on these challenges. These members then form a design team and participate in HCD training to acquire the mindsets and tools. Design teams are coached by an expert design practitioner who provides guidance through the different stages of the solution development process.


Examples of the design challenges included:

  1. How might we provide rural smallholder farmers, especially women and youth, with an increased access to finance?

  2. How might we improve the transition from childhood through adolescence to adulthood for girls and boys between 10 and 15 years of age?

  3. How might we support growth-oriented women micro-entrepreneurs to formalize and sustainably expand their business?

Of the eight design challenges, six are being piloted now, and two are being scaled. While it may be too soon to comment on the long-term impact on the communities we serve, we have seen some promising immediate outcomes.


First, the Local Impact HCD process not only makes community members feel included, but it also builds confidence for those who participate. A bakery owner, Soro Aliyorova, expressed how, “I felt that I matter as a woman, and as a woman entrepreneur, and that my opinion matters too.” The HCD process increased community engagement and representation through this culture of inclusion. In reflecting on her experience, Lali Mamadsultanova, a hotel owner from GBAO who participated in one of the design challenges, shared that, “our involvement has led to [the] creation of women-led business collectives that will empower women to learn together and support each other in building and scaling our business ideas.”


Second, even beyond the individual impacts, the HCD process instilled confidence in the project’s outcomes and sustainability. Mamadsultanova noted, “The idea of the HCD approach is different from the way we are used to working with projects. Because most of the time, there is a designed project to be implemented…which might not consider the context at a specific moment. Because of that, those kinds of projects are not typically sustainable.” She added, “I have a big hope that this project with its new approach will benefit our community, not only for a short period of time, but for a longer one. Being engaged in this project from the very beginning will provide a sense of ownership and this is where we will all feel responsible for effective and sustainable implementation.”


Finally, local leaders of the Local Impact HCD trainings also noted a new awareness of their own community’s interests and needs. Nilufar Qambarova, a participant in an early HCD training who went on to lead other HCD trainings, shared, “we closely engage[d] communities in project-specific districts through participatory research tools to identify their needs, aspirations, and challenges. Despite having grown up in the same context, I am surprised by some of the nuanced findings that we learn from these HCD tools. These findings help us analyze the underlying socio-behavioral insights that are critical to designing a solution that will be adopted by the communities.”


Tips for Integrating HCD into Development Projects

When integrating HCD processes into our organization, several challenges arose. We would like to share five lessons that we learned while overcoming these challenges that may help other organizations working to integrate HCD into their practice.

  • Provide professional development experiences that encourage practitioners to adopt design mindsets and to use HCD methodologies effectively. These capabilities will include: (1) deep listening and empathy to understand the needs of communities in complex and fragile settings while being aware of one’s own biases and presumptions; (2) synthesis and sensemaking to enable participating teams to analyze and consolidate varied pieces of information to formulate actionable insights for solution development; and (3) prototype and test to manifest ideas tangibly and early to fail fast and learn from mistakes before we invest money to scale.

  • Allocate sufficient time and resources to HCD process. Implementing HCD processes requires time, resources, and dedicated efforts to engage effectively. Organizations may face challenges in allocating sufficient resources, especially in fast-paced environments focused on immediate results. Adequate planning, resource allocation, leadership support, and adaptation are crucial to overcome this challenge.

  • Work with the leadership team to create a collaborative organizational cultureTraditional organizational structures often have functional silos, with separate departments or teams working in isolation. Integrating HCD requires cross-functional collaboration and breaking down these silos. Overcoming this challenge involves fostering a culture of collaboration, establishing multidisciplinary teams, and promoting knowledge sharing and communication across departments. 

  • Build partnership frameworks for new forms of collaboration. It is crucial to foster effective engagement with government offices, private stakeholders, and civil society organizations in problem-solving processes. By involving these stakeholders as co-creators and owners of solutions, rather than just implementation partners, organizations can tap into their expertise, leverage diverse perspectives, and enhance the likelihood of successful outcomes.

  • Work with monitoring, evaluation, and learning teams to measure the impact of HCD initiativesIt is essential to develop frameworks that can effectively evaluate the impact of the process and the solutions implemented. Define indicators for both the process (e.g., stakeholder satisfaction, knowledge transfer, or collaboration effectiveness) and the solution (e.g., user adoption rates, efficiency gains, or customer feedback ratings). By establishing correlations between the two, organizations can gain insights into the effectiveness and success of their problem-solving initiatives. This can be done by examining how changes in the process have influenced the impact of the solution.

AKF and its local community members have experienced firsthand the power of leveraging HCD approaches to solving complex problems. We are confident that as we continue to learn and grow, our ability to engage the community in a co-design process will only improve and our level of trust and further integration into the community will only deepen. We are excited to see how this new approach to international development will further promote inclusivity in development work and democratize innovation by empowering community members as equal partners in the design and decision-making process.


Interested in leveraging human-centered design to tackle challenges in regions where you live or work? AKF and USAID will be releasing a comprehensive set of guides to support teams in doing this kind of work in the next few months. Click here to sign up to receive the resources when they are released.

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