Inclusive Development - What’s Next?

Ryan Ubuntu Olson

The field of development continuously evolves and necessitates a re-imagining that takes into consideration a nuanced appreciation for the moment that is now. The next 10-20 years represent an exciting time full of many challenges as well as many opportunities for inclusive development.

Whether as a result of the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic and climate change, calls for racial and ethnic equity within the aid sector, backsliding of democratic norms and principles, or the importance of localization—inclusive development approaches are needed now, more than ever.

At SID-US’s Inclusive Development Workgroup event last year, titled Next Gen Inclusive Development Professional we explored these emerging themes and the needed skill sets and paradigms the next generation of inclusive development practitioners must have in order to be effective and meet the moment.

As a part of that discussion, we surveyed leading experts, with decades of experience between them, in the areas of inclusive development; gender equality and social inclusion; and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, about what practitioners themselves must do to embed inclusive development approaches across everything the sector does. 

Overall, our experts concluded that inclusive development approaches are essential to addressing the root causes that the development sector attempts to tackle through its work. These approaches identify inherent biases that fuel inequities and help to shift power dynamics in our work towards localization, including the empowerment of diverse sets of marginalized communities by giving them more control over decision-making, program design, and implementation in areas that directly impact their lives.

There is a recognition that this cannot be achieved overnight. It is a long-term, cross generational effort. After all, it was only in 1995 that the Fourth World Conference on Women endorsed gender mainstreaming as a mainstay of development, and yet we still have so much further to go.

Existing barriers to inclusive development

It continues to be challenging to get development partners to fully engage underrepresented communities in a meaningful and intentional way as a core aspect of development, but it is demonstratively the most important way forward to achieving stated objectives like the Sustainable Development Goals or other peace concords.

Experts agreed that biases can be present when donors, governments and implementing partners prioritize political or personal goals over equity goals to reach all people everywhere, in all their diversity.

Helpful innovations around development and technology without inclusive practices produce data gaps, data security issues, and even introduce bias within systems causing disproportionate harm to marginalized communities.

There remains a lack of attention to root causes of social problems. We design for solutions without the proper engagement of local actors or holistic assessment of the environments in which we work. Current regulatory and legal frameworks can serve as barriers to inclusive development where some groups face repressive laws, even criminalization.

According to our experts, development practitioners need to decenter themselves as sole proprietors of information or expertise. There remains a lack of humility in engaging with other cultures and contexts through our work.

The lack of global diversity within the sector misses a key opportunity to truly leverage the breadth of knowledge and experience necessary to fully identify adequate solutions to local, regional, and global challenges.

What is required of the next generation inclusive development professional?

Overall, who suggests and advances these actions and solutions should be driven by new actors, not solely the usual donors or implementers. To do this, inclusive development practitioners are necessary to build bridges and cultivate a deepened, more nuanced appreciation for the work we do. According to our experts, the next generation of inclusive development leaders should consider the following:

Value the diverse, complex and intersectional nature of the environments in which we operate: It’s essential to understand the complex environments, cultures, and peoples in each context that exists, including their intersectionalities and interactions with development programming. This includes ensuring we are culturally competent as we engage others around the world in our approaches.

Overcome Othering: As organizations focus more on diversity, equity and inclusion, challenging our own perceptions and biases, along with recognizing our own positionality within the power structures we operate, are key to enhancing how we serve communities around the world. This includes even the influence such biases might have on the proposed “solutions” we might identify and go on to fund.


"We must challenge the values that sustain oppressive systems that permit and sustain such marginalization." -anonymous respondent-


Shift mindsets and behaviors: How we work is as important as what the work we implement is. How we treat one another, and more importantly, how we treat those our work serves, goes a long way into the success of any development program. Local actors should walk away from our programs feeling seen, heard and valued, in addition to feeling empowered and enabled to lead their own efforts.


"Until there are mindset shifts, the skills won’t really matter." - anonymous respondent-


Build empathic leadership skills: Building skills for empathic and inclusive leadership is a must. Inclusive development practitioners who hold a cultural competency, humility, empathy and compassion for the work of development will ultimately be the ones to be successful. By approaching development work with self-awareness, we offer a greater opportunity to hear the ideas of those who might shape solutions within their own local communities. 

Focus on root causes rather than solely social inclusion:  The focus of inclusive development should address the root causes of oppression. Using an applied ethics framework, valuing positive deviance approaches or leveraging tools like the Transforming Agency, Access and Poor tool can go a long way.

Shift power: It’s important to address the power imbalances across the array of work we do, especially those that intersect with systems of oppression. This means involving not only local communities in decision-making processes, but specifically ensuring those most marginalized are also at the table.

Face democratic backsliding & gender-restrictive movements head-on: The more we stay silent in the face of extreme forms of oppression, the more permissive we are to future atrocities. To shore up the very investments we have made, we must face such forces head on and support local efforts to ensure fundamental human rights and human dignity remain protected.

Develop better ways to directly engage local orgs: Communities should be driving program focus and how programs are evaluated. We should shift from being seen by local actors as demonstrating “we know best” to “we listen most”. Let local communities decide what success looks like and how it should be measured.

"Every society needs an organic, diverse and thriving civil society, along with a strong private sector and a good quality government.”- anonymous respondent-

Challenge the notion of “building capacity:  Instead of “building capacity,” we need to adapt the way we measure and work with local communities to design impactful projects.  Reframe conversations away from binary, top-down societal constructions and geographical divisions. These are complex problems that necessitate pluralistic approaches towards a shared aim. We should all be on the same team working towards a shared goal bringing our unique strengths.

Be agile: There is a need for more agile and community-led solutions. There is a hope that in the future, development programs will be led by people from impacted communities and that inclusive development practitioners will be highly sought after for their abilities to transcend silos and agility in how they navigate their work.


What must development organizations do to ensure inclusive development approaches are prioritized?

Inclusive development is not something for only one person to do within an organization, though having experts amongst your ranks helps. It’s the responsibility of all development practitioners and is an area we must all continue to refine.

Inclusive development efforts must be adequately resourced and integrated across all development programs as a bedrock and foundation of our ongoing and evolving work. This should include honest analysis and accountability for where we have missed the mark when it comes to including local actors, and opportunities for where we might do better.

We must also leverage the diverse capabilities of staff, partners and community actors dispersed throughout the world. Decentralized networked institutions and a strong civil society that utilize multifaceted approaches to inclusive development, including cross-sectoral collaboration and coordination between donors and implementers, are essential. All of which must be most transparent and accountable to the local communities where development takes place.

We all play a vital role in achieving inclusive development.

The next generation inclusive development practitioner must recognize the moment that is now, face common structural barriers head on, and work to overcome biases and center the human experience of those our work should ultimately impact.

The future of development necessitates bold action including evidenced based approaches and demonstrated capabilities around inclusion. If we are going to change the world, why not do it with the full breadth and depth we are capable of offering?


About the Author

Ryan Ubuntu Olson is a Co-Chair for SID-US's Inclusive Development Workgroup. He is an inclusive development and DEIA practitioner, recognized globally for his gender and human rights work.