When Solutions are not enough, shift the system

In June 2020, a Facebook group was created by young Tunisian development practitioners. The group served as an open space for those who mostly joined the development field after the Tunisian’s revolution in 2011; to make a sustainable change in their country. They joined forces to openly condemn practices that no longer serve the development cause and to suggest potential solutions.

It took only a few weeks for a thousand young people to join the group, with their voices bubbling on the page. Young men and women, and public figures were equal in sharing this experience. Opinion polls were open. Meetings were organized. People were passionately debating and hope for change was ignited.

Though this is a specific case, voices demanding changes are rising steadily locally and globally. Those demanding change have energy, they have good ideas, and they have the skills and will to implement. Yet, though we have seen this in Tunisia as in other parts of the world, it is not enough. The possibility of change demands a deep shift and a new way of working.

If we are to rise to the challenges we face today and to make improvements for generations to come, we must embrace our intellectual limitations and recognize the limits of what we can accomplish with single interventions. We must become comfortable with uncertainty and adventuring into new methodologies that enable us to see the complexity and operate at the systems level…with this, we acknowledge that the only way out is through.

The Deep Demo: The only way out is through

In April 2020, UNDP Tunisia joined a global pilot Deep Demonstrations (deep demo) working along eight other countries as UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Unit explores “system transformation approach,” away from single point solutions to embracing a portfolio logic to tackle complex systemic challenges.

One of the central objectives of the deep demo is to shift our goals away from simply finding solutions towards unveiling the gaps in what we do, to highlight the interactions between the elements and to generate insights we were unaware of.

Through the deep demo, we are faced with uncertainty: we see the finish line, but the path remains unpredictable. The aim is to leverage a mixture of innovative approaches to transform our core identities and our capabilities so that we can continuously adapt to novel challenges and strategic risks.

The elephant in the room: Trust
The world over, including in Tunisia, there is a long way for citizens to trust the public sector. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, businesses and NGOs are benefiting from higher levels of trust than public sector. The latter, on the other hand, is seen as unfair, corrupt, lacking honesty, competence and ethics.

The more and more we interacted with Tunisian citizens and Tunisian institutions; the more we saw trust as the elephant in the room that was sabotaging progress.

The work of development organizations on an institutional level, have not succeeded alone in supporting to build a better relationship between the citizens and the state. Public institutions remained perceived as passive, old-fashioned and corrupt especially by the youth, 70% of whom lacked trust in the establishment according to the national youth observatory. Trust must be earned, and the Government of Tunisia, despite efforts in reforms, had not successfully re-established a trust relationship with its citizens after the 2011 revolution.

Step one: Setting-up the intent

As we explored the lack of trust in public institutions, a participatory process helped us realize the depth and magnitude of layers we are dealing with. Our first set of exploration helped us understand that this is neither a top-down nor a button-up conversation but rather an entanglement of relationships and social ties. These insights emerged thanks to the diversity of the people whom we engaged in designing our intent. Colleagues with different expertise, partners, citizens. The quality of the insights made us realize that we can no longer afford to consider the participatory approach a luxury.

We wanted to go beyond perceptions to focus on meaningfully shifting the relationships between citizen and state particularly focusing on three main objectives: 1. Meaningful citizen participation 2. Trusted and trusting institutions and 3. Policymaking and delivery in the collective interest.

The below is a visualization of the intent statement:

<<Produced in Collaboration with Chora Foundation>>

Contributing to these objectives could only be done through designing a holistic portfolio of interventions with multiple entry points that explores and experiments with the dynamics of trust around public institutions, leveraging in the process the resources and capabilities of UNDP and its partners through a co-creation methodology.

Step two: Designing the problem space

In the complex landscape of trust dynamics, simplistic paradigms of change are futile. Our problem space, therefore, reflects this complexity.

After a series of interviews with Tunisian citizens from all walks of life, the international community and government representatives followed by sensemaking sessions, the deep demo team agreed on three main constitutive elements: Civic voice, policies and social ties. These elements are the pillars of our problem space.

This was also an opportunity to work in a diverse team and across different levels of seniority, backgrounds, expertise internally and externally which has led to thought-provoking conversations and what we hope to be fruitful results. The interviewees ranged from ultras youth (sports’ fans), museum curators, immigrants from sub-saharan Africa, former public servants, young innovators, taxi drivers and more. When it comes to trust, everyone has a say, and a valid one. Everyone is an expert, in their own way, and can offer valuable insights.

At UNDP, we are aiming to embrace complexities which means constantly equipping ourselves with new ways to observe and understand systems, making sense of rapidly changing realities and challenging silos. Solutions come from better understanding the underlying issues and system dynamics.

We have also identified elements of influence that play a huge role in the dynamics of the lack of trust in public institutions such as corruption, inequalities, labour union dynamics, post-pandemic effects, education or post-revolutionary effects.

<<Produced in Collaboration with Chora Foundation>>

This journey has been an eye-opening opportunity for all those involved. When we placed the most relevant UNDP’s projects within the problem space, we quickly realized the shortages and gaps in our interventions. It became clear to us that our portfolios were concentrated on the lower third of the problem space and the need to proactively involve our stakeholders, partners and their networks in the design and evaluation processes crystalized before our eyes.

Switching the lens to understand our problem has opened new opportunities of engagement. The graph below represents the team’s definition of trust with the variables that affect the discussion around it.

<<Produced in Collaboration with Chora Foundation>>

Early reflections: What we learnt

Trust is a two-way street:
As put by many of our interviewees, you cannot expect the citizen to trust the state, if the latter doesn’t trust its citizens. Interactions between the state and its citizens through the medium of public institutions and servants are often described as infantilizing. This hinders the process of creating healthy bonds. What we found fascinating in our interviews is that the trust dynamics that apply on the micro- level (citizens) are valid on the macro-level (state).

Trust can be established and maintained:
Trust is built from small acts and interactions to deeper and broader commitments. Investing in trust should be considered as a central approach to restoring economic prosperity and reinforcing social cohesion. The effort invested in building a trusting bond throughout generations, can be easily lost if not properly nourished.

Trust can only be established around a common vision:
Trust is a natural outcome of having a common vision and common narratives. For citizens to trust public institutions, they need to unite around visible and well-communicated goals and values. There is a high correlation between the lack of clarity and effective communication with the lack of trust.

Development coming to age

The deep demo showed us that we have a natural tendency to adopt pre-identified solutions, however, this process forced us to explore from a new perspective and experience the quality of learning that comes from observing the system through different lenses.

While we can’t promise that the deep demo will achieve its end-goal of systems transformations yet, it has succeeded in bringing together a diversity of profiles from within and outside the organization to reflect on a new chapter in the development work. One that is desperately needed. One that flows in all directions, that surfs on different patterns and that connects the dots. A chapter of empathy, foresight and deeper understanding of human nature.

The focus in the next phase will be exploring the dynamics of trust around specific areas of interest such as but not limited to:

● The digital space
●The common narratives
● The common spaces
● Municipalities and local governance

This would allow us to better-identify and understand our potential areas of intervention.

This shift of paradigms reflected in the deep demonstrations, is being incorporated today in a variety of UNDP’s initiatives across teams, regions and strategic conversations. In the hope of shifting the system to rise to the challenges we face today and to make substantial improvements for generations to come.




‏‏شعوب متمكنة، أمم صامدة -الحساب الرسمي لبرنامج الأمم المتحدة الإنمائي في المنطقة العربية. UNDP official account in the Arab States

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‏‏شعوب متمكنة، أمم صامدة -الحساب الرسمي لبرنامج الأمم المتحدة الإنمائي في المنطقة العربية. UNDP official account in the Arab States

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