Intentional Slowness

We love quick results and a good story to go with them. 

It’s almost commonplace for a company to raise millions of dollars on Kickstarter in a matter of a few days. Exhibit A: The Exploding Kittens Card Game, which broke Kickstarter records by raising their $10,000 funding goal in only 20 minutes. With 19 days left to go in their campaign, backers have pledged $4,939,422. It’s a great story, and a runaway success. 

The moral of the story: The Internet loves cats. 

What’s amazing to me is that this “success story” doesn’t (yet) involve any concrete results. It’s a theoretical product that people supported, which now must actually be developed—in real life. 

When it comes to development work, people want quick results. We’ve trained ourselves to expect that a week’s worth of sweat and hard work on our service trip will pay off big dividends. In fact, we often love relief work more than long-term development because the need is (more) obvious, results are quicker, and the narrative resembles that success story we love.

The problem with this is that working with people toward long-term results is messy. People are messy, so of course long-lasting change will be messy. Add to that cultural and contextual factors—language, culture, race, economics, geography, natural resources—and you can understand why true development is such a slow, arduous process. 

In a long-form article last November (emphasis on long!), Michael Hobbes presents compelling evidence that the thirst for the next “big idea” is crippling international development. He says:

It’s not that development is broken, it’s that our expectations of it are.    

Why? If we actually find something that works, we expect that it should be all the more effective as we try to scale it up.

I can see why it’s appealing to think that, once you find a successful formula for development, you can just scale it up like a Model T. Host governments want programs that get more effective as they get bigger. Individual donors, you and me, we want to feel like we’re backing a plucky little start-up that is going to save the world. No international institution wants to say in their annual report: “There’s this great NGO that increased attendance in a Kenyan school district. We’re giving them a modest sum to do the same thing in one other district in one other country.”
The repeated “success, scale, fail” experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another. No one will ever be invited to explain that in a TED talk.

The Christian Urban Development Association is dedicated to slow development. Those of you who have been following CUDA’s story and supporting us for years know this better than anyone. We want to be so focused on human beings that we can’t tell the story of our programs and projects without telling the story of the people with whom we have built relationship. We’re committed to slow, measured growth because we believe that a cookie-cutter approach doesn’t solve the complex problems at the root of poverty.

In particular, we’ve seen success in equipping teachers, improving literacy and the culture of reading with the Living Libraries program. Which means that in 2015, we’re building out to two more schools. That’s two—not two-hundred. It’s something the whole city, region, and country needs. We established that when we met with the Head of Education for the region earlier this week. But the solution isn’t to get our program into every school in Arequipa as quick as we can. The solution is to keep working with people day after day, training and equipping on the basis of a relationship where both parties are willing to learn. Results are slower, but they’ll last longer. And we believe the stories are just as good.

Let’s not dream about changing the world. Let’s dream about making one person’s life just a little bit better. And then go do it.