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What difference could a coaching mindset make to the impact and sustainability of development work?

Building coaching skills across the sector could fundamentally shift the power dynamics and create relationships based on equality between international and local team members. How can the sector embrace this approach?

We have spent the past two decades working in international development. An industry that pursues improvements in the social, economic, and political lives of people living in poverty or extreme distress around the world. It’s about creating a fairer world by addressing public policy challenges on a global scale. The issues are complex, and there is rarely a single right answer. We have been involved in numerous international projects, have engaged in many debates and watched, with anticipation, the evolution of global thinking on how to “do” international development differently.

The debate is moving in the right direction

The shift in language, from a focus on ‘international experts’ towards locally led solutions, is a step toward a more balanced understanding of the public policy and social challenges that must be confronted to enable development. The global debate on ‘why addressing poverty is so difficult’ has led to the development of models and methodologies, such as “problem-driven iterative adaptation”, “thinking and working politically”, and “test, learn, adapt”.

The day-to-day realities of many development programmes haven’t changed much

Decision-making remains largely in the hands of funders and western delivery partners. International contractors and non-government organisations (INGOs) are responsible for subcontracting and managing local organisations with the support of international experts and consultants. The expectation from the countries funding these programmes is that the lead contractor is responsible for achieving outcomes and impact. Payments are based on critical milestones being met. The incentive is to work (too) fast, to jump in and take over with ready-made solutions, and work ‘through’ rather than ‘with’ local partners to ensure timely payments.

We are not here to argue that the international aid system needs a rethink (see Jonathan Glennie’s work on the future of aid). We are confident that most practitioners would agree with us. There are no silver bullets, no single training course or accountability and reporting system that will magically solve the problem without creating or recreating old ones that have previously been confronted. Direct budget support, payment by results, grants, and conditional and unconditional cash transfers are all notable attempts to do just that.

We are advocates of a change in mindset

We believe that moving from an expert mindset to a coaching mindset, amongst those of us who are responsible for and involved in delivering the work, could make a big difference to the long-term sustainability of our efforts.

When we go in with an ‘expert’ mindset, we:

  • Place expectations on ourselves to have all the answers
  • Give others licence to place those same expectations on us
  • Make lots of (often unfounded or untrue) assumptions
  • Hold the power and responsibility
  • Disempower others

When we go in with a ‘coaching’ mindset, we:

  • Listen more
  • Understand better
  • Invest more in creating the space and conditions for everyone to be heard
  • Enhance local ownership
  • Boost intrinsic motivation

The main difference is our ‘intention’. With a coaching mindset, we intend to facilitate and enable others to do their best quality thinking and solve problems collaboratively. We intend to help individuals and groups to thrive.

Find a trusted supplier in the Bond Directory

Bond members often ask us to recommend suppliers and service delivery organisations.

In response, we created the Bond Directory – a dedicated online space for businesses, consultancies, higher education institutions and social enterprises working in the international development and humanitarian sectors to promote their services and solutions, and highlight their areas of expertise.

Find a supplier

Coaching as an approach is a process of facilitating reflection for individuals and groups to enable them to do their best quality thinking and come to the right solutions for them in their context. Coaching relies on the idea that the ‘client’, in this case, our local partners, government officials, and other stakeholders, can and will find the solutions to their problems. It’s about holding others in unconditional positive regard, creating space while they think, challenging our assumptions and judgements, and choosing to be curious instead. It’s about people sharing problems and co-creating solutions. It’s also about observing what we are witnessing and offering feedback with generosity and respect.

Coaching skills could fundamentally shift the power dynamics

In international development, we believe that this coaching mindset is more likely to lead to locally led, appropriate, contextualised, and realistic solutions. As a result, country governments and stakeholders own the solutions, and implementation is more likely to be impactful and sustainable.

We are asking national and international ‘experts’ to let go of the idea that they need to have all the answers. What’s important about this idea is how we ‘show up’. Are we showing up with solutions and fixed ideas, or are we showing up with curiosity and a willingness to learn?

We are asking organisations and donors to invest more in building skills of enquiry, curiosity, non-judgement and collaborative objectivity. Anecdotally, we know that this shift does not yield slower or less effective results, even though it may feel that way.

Some organisations and programmes are leading the way. Chemonics has focused on developing trust in a number of its programmes through coaching, with positive results. The MUVA programme has shown that enabling self-reflection and taking time to give feedback is an effective tool for success in poverty reduction.

If you are willing to take on the challenge of thinking differently, we would love to speak to you and help make that happen.


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