Is there a UNDP beyond logframes?

By Margunn Indreboe, Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP Botswana

Botswana is often portrayed as the land of dichotomies: An upper middle-income country with the 7th highest levels of inequality in the world, and 17% of the population living below the poverty line. A beacon of good governance, yet grey-listed by the EU in 2020. A stable, peaceful country boasting of immense natural resources and cultural diversity, yet domestic and gender-based violence is considered a national pandemic and the protection of human rights struggles to get on the national agenda. It is a country of great ambitions, solid policy frameworks and strategies, that sets out to compete on the world stage on issues of digital transformation, international trade, and tourism. Yet, its critical development challenges continue to hamper progress and UNDP is called on to offer solutions and respond to both unforeseen challenges and emerging priorities.

How do we set ourselves up to design and co-create solutions for problems in the future that we may not even know of today and respond to the complex, wicked issues that countries like Botswana are facing?

Our 5-year programming cycle and Country Programme Documents are core and trusted organizational tools with clear parameters and criteria. How can these be adapted and made more agile to allow UNDP to move ahead of the game, anticipate change and support our partners in building resilience and agency in the face of the changes and challenges within this increasingly interconnected, volatile and complex global system we live in?

When designing our new country programme for 2022 to 2026, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to shake things up and challenge ourselves to think differently about our intended impact, relevance and value-add as a key development partner in Botswana. We wanted this plan to not be a plan but a dynamic process of continued sensemaking and design of interventions that learn from each other and change with the pace of change outside UNDP.

In October 2020, we embarked on a journey of introspection, reflection and exploration in collaboration with our global Strategic Innovation Unit. We started with articulating a north star, a direction that we as an office wanted to pursue in supporting the Government achieve transformative change in relations to sustainable development. It was driven 2 key questions: What are the results we would like to see in Botswana, 5 years from now? What capabilities and resources do we as a CO bring to the table? At this point, many of our staff did not quite know where this was going or why we were doing this. Many sticky notes and iterative drawings later, we started seeing patterns emerge among what our staff sees as a direction of our work in Botswana that led to the statement and illustration which laid the foundation for our design path.

Using the statement of intent, we then worked on two parallel tracks. First, taking a deep dive into our current portfolio to understand the coherence between capabilities, resources, relationships that we already have and that statement of intent. Simultaneously, we wanted to understand the pace of change on the outside and its implications for our portfolio. The mix of internal & external sense making created the foundations for our work on developing the CPD that will provide the basis for dynamic design and management of a portfolio of policy options to support Botswana in its quest toward sustainable development. This blog post outlines the work on these two parallel tracks in some more details, noting insights and learning that emerged.

Due to remote and digital working arrangements, the sensemaking workshop (the first track) was designed fully as a virtual experience. This created an additional challenge for us not only introducing a very new methodology, sensemaking, but also a different way of carrying it out. The results were two fold — our team picked up new virtual collaboration capabilities by learning how to use Miro and we picked up a new method of ‘seeing’ our portfolio from the ‘balcony’ — not from siloed projects but through the lenses of systemic drivers, resources and capabilities that we bring (or lack) to the intent.

Across the portfolios we selected projects and interventions that would bring out the diversity of our offer and highlight different development challenges, approaches and capabilities. In the space of 5 mins, colleagues were asked to tell the group about the problems they are trying to solve, the solutions they are offering, the partnerships they have created and the outcomes they have seen and what they have learnt. Keeping the time short resulted in colleagues really honing in on the crucial details, and true to navigating uncertainty, distilling signal from noise- itself a critical capability for development work. Ranging from human rights and GBV responses, economic diversification strategies, SMEs and entrepreneurship support to climate financing, renewable energy and sustainable water management, the audience was to practice their curiosity, asking questions on what they had heard and not heard. Alongside the audience, five colleagues had been trained as window mappers to listen for trends across the presentations, drawing out insights on what needs are being addressed, emerging policy ambitions, what capacities and resources do we have, what partnerships are in place, and what role UNDP is trying to play.

Over the course of the workshop, clear areas of overlap, common interests and critical development challenges emerged around youth, economic diversification, and a rethinking social contract. Although we may have individually reflected on these prior to the sensemaking, the process allowed us to pull these out and see where we can create more coherence across the programme and identify new opportunities, approaches and solutions to common problems.

But perhaps what was most interesting of all, was what we were not hearing and the stories that we were not telling, but could or even should be telling. From the exercise it became clear that we wanted to broaden our partnerships, move beyond government and closer to the people, we wanted to build agency and choice, encouraging youth and women, civil society and the private sector to sit in the driving seat of their own futures. We wanted to become data-driven digital natives, searching for new solutions.

What better way to broaden our horizons, tap into the collective insights of the people around us than embarking on a strategic foresight journey- our second, simultaneous track?

We had now learnt the art of standing on the balcony, identifying trends, connections, and new opportunities from our sensemaking process. We knew where we stood with our current programme vis-à-vis our statement of intent. We had some ideas of what was missing and where we needed to go, but wanted to explore these further through strategic foresight exercises with the broader community.

And what a journey it has been.

By now staff were confident in taking leaps of faith into new tools and methodologies, trusting that online engagement can be equally engaging and collaborative as if we were in the same room chatting over coffee breaks and building connections.

We set out 4 sessions, each based on a distinct methodology, with the same ultimate aim: identifying preferred futures, major challenges and risks and the potential levers for change that could ultimately provide direction for our CPD design and theory of change.

Our first session gathered some 20 individuals with whom UNDP had no prior engagement with, ranging from medical doctors to architects, farmers to activists, each and every one bringing unique perspectives and opinions about the future of Botswana. Based on the 7 Shell questions and with frequent use of Mentimeter, we generated lively and hard-hitting conversations teasing out the big problems, risks, and opportunities that UNDP should consider in our design.

We then embarked on 3 consecutive workshops with our regular stakeholders from government, private sector, and civil society. Our first sessions used the 2x2 uncertainty matrix scenario exploring alternative futures for Botswana based on inputs from the sensemaking, and remarkable persons dialogue. The second session used future wheels to explore ‘what-ifs’ related to potential impact of certain changes, shocks or crises such as corruption spinning out of control or a massive oil spill destroying the Okavango river basin — this allowed to build shared mental models on how to navigate unprecedented policy issues. The third and final session used the 3 horizons framework using images of preferred futures to explore systemic change and the interventions required to shift systems. Identifying ‘seeds of change’ examples allowed us to explore indications of possible solutions, approaches or actors that may not typically have been on our radar. Identifying them, connecting them, and/or scaling them could offer new and innovative ways of working in light of the preferred future that had been identified.

The process left us on a high and wanting more. Partners reached out wishing to replicate the methodologies within their own institutions and wondering why we hadn’t done this before.

And then what?

How do you capture the richness of the discussions, the breadth of the insights and the boldness in our thinking within the 6000-word limit of our very structured and linear Country Programme Document?

Through countless hours of reflection and consolidation, problem tree analysis and drawing causal loops, programme colleagues were able to extract succinct output statements and narrowly defined indicators that could be forced into the results framework required. Whilst remaining confident in our causal loops and having identified the domains and drivers of change, some of the richness, agility and excitement was lost. We were left with a stripped-down version of the process, unable to truly express what we felt were bold and quite momentous shifts in our thinking. We were back in the box, back in the logframe. But not for long. The box is neither solid, nor sealed. We have planted the seeds of change in our logframes and risk analysis. We will have a country programme that builds agency and choice, that invites partners in, that strengthens our ability to anticipate, to be agile and co-create solutions to the changes and challenges that come with living in an increasingly unpredictable and interconnected system.

We are pioneering new ways of doing development that build countries’ capacity to deliver change at scale.

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