Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: A Human-Centred Approach

On September 25th, heads of 193 countries signed the declaration adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), later known as the Global Goals, to “end poverty, fight inequality and fix climate change”. (Global goals will be replacing the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] which is set to expire at the end of this year). A recent press release by the European Commission highlighted the efforts and the changes made to ensure that all goals are reached by the 2030 mandate. One seemingly innocuous but fundamentally important sentence reads: “As a universal agreement, the implementation of the new Agenda will require action by all countries. It will be underpinned by a Global Partnership mobilizing action by governments and stakeholders at all levels.” We have italicized and made bold the last two words for effect, as their inclusion is of vital importance, provided that the notion of “all levels” is just that.

Far too often in the “development” space, the end-user is not factored in on all phases of programs and projects. This omission shows not only a pervasive notion amongst practitioners that beneficiaries are viewed for what they lack and not what they can contribute, but also a dangerous disconnect between that which is provided and that which people want and is contextually relevant.

Sanitation has been one of the studio’s focus areas for the last several years and a closer look at the statistics illustrates this point quite well. Hitting the target of reducing by half the number of people lacking access to improved sanitation by 2015 was woefully off the mark under the MDG. Indeed, some 40% of the developing world classified as seriously off target and only 25% actually met the requirements. (Compare that to the water side of the same goal, and you’ll see that those figures are virtually reversed).

The failure in sanitation led many to highlight the need for choosing new indicators for success in the field. Chief amongst these critics was The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), who rightly pointed out that simply providing access to infrastructure was insufficient; people have to use facilities, and the waste contained therein needs to be treated before being released into the environment. The latter can be addressed through infrastructure, but the former requires engaging with the beneficiaries to both change perceptions and behavior around sanitation, and to ensure that the infrastructure provided is in line with what they want and value.

Quicksand engaged with BMGF in 2010 to develop, build and test new community sanitation facilities for India’s urban slums to try and accomplish just that. Dubbed Project Sammaan, the initiative was born from the success of our human-centered research study the Potty Project. Based on the insights and learnings from that study, we holistically reimagined the entire community sanitation ecosystem with an eye for user-adoption and long-term sustainability, while simultaneously seeking to reduce instances of open-defecation. Central to all project activities was end-user engagement: meeting with those that would benefit from, and be affected by, the facilities at each step of the design and implementation processes to ensure, if not validate, that what we were seeking to do resonated with them. This level of empathic engagement is a core component of design thinking and in our minds the missing link to mitigating the sanitation crisis in India and beyond.

Despite the innumerable challenges faced in implementing Sammaan — which is perhaps true of most large-scale programs that carry the mantle of reversing the status quo — the methodology and process in which the program and its facilities were developed remains a case-in-point example of how to engage with stakeholders at all levels to address a critical issue in an inclusive manner. Developing programs and projects with beneficiaries and not just for them will ensure that we have a better shot at achieving the sustainable development goals this time around.

Working Towards the SDG In Practice

At Quicksand, we have had the opportunity to apply the human-centred design (HCD) framework to several other domains that align closely with the development goals. By no means a magic bullet, we believe however that this methodology can bridge the ever-widening gap between policy and on-the-ground impact. For more examples of inclusively working towards the SDG from our practice, check out the links below*:


Originally published at quicksand.co.in on June 8, 2015.

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