Reframing what we see to expand what we create

Why deepening the impact of development calls for widening the lens through which we understand impact

Sophia Robele
19 min readJan 11, 2022
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

I have always been most drawn to work that attempts to get to the root causes of social problems. I have also been cognizant that most mainstream development spaces (i.e. my chosen spheres of work) rarely prioritize what I would consider to be a ‘root cause’. I’ve come to realize many of my career decisions have actually been driven by this disconnect : not necessarily by where I saw the greatest source of societal transformation, but where I saw immense power and seeds of possibility for what could be.

While I have had the privilege to support valuable humanitarian and development initiatives over the years, finding my place in this work has often entailed some degree of self-translation and negotiation. I’m sure this is true for many, as just a feature of navigating what it means to be both a multi-faceted human being and an employee, regardless of the context or profession. In my case, it has generally meant a persistent [subconscious as well as conscious] attempt to find small openings and connections to bridge my lived reality-based understanding of how change happens and the forms of impact I find most transformative, with the norms, formal priorities and incentive structures of most multilateral and governmental development spaces.

It has also often meant peeling back layers of meaning to find common ground even within work that has most closely resembled my interests on the surface: most notably, work that claims to be about ‘systems change.’ For me, systems change work is paradigm change work. This idea is of course nothing new or radical. In fact, at some level, it is a widely accepted view (e.g., the “mindset or paradigm” being the deepest leverage point/source of a system in Meadow’s framework). However, alongside this conceptual acknowledgment that we can’t transform systems unless we transform what lives in minds and hearts lives this unspoken, deeply ingrained consensus in many development spaces that while this might be where transformative change happens, it is not within our power (or responsibility) to intentionally influence. That it is more valuable and, importantly, a better use of funds, to spend our time on that which we can easily understand, measure, and touch.

For a long time I have navigated this in-between space — between what is necessary and what is deemed feasible, between what is acknowledged and what is perceived, between what is known at an embodied level and what forms of knowing are institutionalized into development processes — through this approach of bridge-building and translating. But I am increasingly confronting its limits. Creating space for different ways of thinking, working, and being that allow us to engage in deep systems transforming work — the kind that enables us to uncover root causes, to engage with the intangible, unpredictable, messy, relational underpinnings of complex socio-economic-ecological problems — can’t happen simply by stretching the logic of our predominant development paradigms or reducing alternative approaches to fit the language and premise of current frameworks. It requires seeing possibility and measuring progress through a completely different frame of reference.

But what does it take to loosen the hold of our current frames? What other ways of seeing are possible?

When evidence takes many shapes and forms

Maybe reframing begins in part with the kinds of conversations that force us to recognize that we are seeing through a subjective frame in the first place. That what we take to be givens aren’t necessarily universal truths: that there are many ways of seeing value and impact, many ways of drawing connections between thoughts, actions and outcomes, and there isn’t an objective hierarchy of rightness.

With a recent career move, I found myself in a position where, perhaps for the first time in my professional life, I didn’t feel the need to negotiate my understanding of change to fit the priorities of my work: where the work itself explicitly invited me to engage with the types of change processes I am most interested in, in the very spaces I long thought immune to (but desperately in need of) it. This time, instead of having to translate myself to fit my work, I found the bulk of the epistemological bridge-building I was now engaged in was finding ways to explain my work to others.

Particularly when the job description-version of what you do is mostly unintelligible jargon to anyone outside your professional niche, it is always fascinating to unpack the range of immediate interpretations people have according to their different frames of reference. I admittedly sometimes describe the work in its jargon-laden form out of curiosity to know what kind of reactions they’ll elicit, whether from another development practitioner or a friend in another field. From work to support “anticipatory governance” (“Isn’t that already the point of government?”) to efforts to build capabilities in “awareness-based systems transformation” (“So you’re trying to get development actors to meditate?”) the responses often come with some level of truth mixed with incompleteness, shaded by [understandable] skepticism.

Whenever I try to explain the value and intent of such work (namely, any work that is predominantly about process, relationships and capabilities, i.e., the how and why of development more than the what), I often find myself trying to piece together a theory of change of sorts: attempting to draw out the connecting points between large-scale social problems and systems, and the source dimensions that drive them — from the mindsets and assumptions that dictate decision-making, to the relationships and power structures that dictate how we create and validate certain knowledge and, in turn, the ways we resource certain goals. Then attempting [the more challenging task] to illustrate the connections between these complex, abstract sources of change, and the seemingly small, usually indirect actions and processes by which they might be altered. The result is usually messy at best, and only sometimes lands.

Nevertheless, each time, both the attempt and the reaction offer some new perspective into the constructed and subjective nature of ‘evidence.’ Each interaction a reminder that even this thing we equate with objectivity and rationality is deeply filtered through worldviews, as well as through the ways each person is holding what they hope for, what they believe, what they perceive to be reality, and what their institutions convey is reality in conversation at any given moment. It is always interesting to break down what we take to be concrete, objective truths when it comes to processes of social change: how often we equate concreteness with an ability to articulate something in language, to ground it in previous experience, to reflect its worth in quantitative measures. But if the lens through which we assess truth or value primarily comes from what already exists (or more accurately, what mental models hold the most authority in mainstream governance systems), how could we ever hope to create the space for something different? If evidence can only be validated by the extent to which it reaffirms our existing assumptions or logical frameworks, where does that leave us?

Is visibility an objective quality?

Intertwined with the question of what counts as evidence is what we perceive to be visible, and what shapes this perception. Regardless of whether an individual agrees that there is value in development efforts that target the interior and relational dimensions of change, there is still the need to demonstrate the value of such change within the institutional contexts that guide what gets funded and prioritized, at least at societal scales. When development actors try to create space for these kinds of change processes (usually through niche openings achieved under the label of ‘innovation’), the question eventually comes up: how do we make X form of change more visible? This usually translates to how do we codify it, measure it, fit it into the evaluation structures within which our institution understands impact, or by which our donors and their constituents will deem it worthy.

There is nothing wrong with this question, and it is necessary to some extent, but it can’t be where the inquiry ends. In my own attempts to verbalize and translate the essence of a process into these organizational ways of seeing, I find that while you can ascribe some value through qualitative indicators that speak to existing frameworks, there is only so much you can do to explain an alternative development paradigm or alternative form of value creation by attempting to render its impact visible against the frames of seeing advanced by systems whose existence depend on the invisibility of root causes. Just consider what it means to operate within systems of capitalism, systems originating from extraction, systems that rely on relationships as transactions, value as grounded in production capacity, power as an individual currency, individual well-being as the frame for development, and hierarchies (of humanness, of nature, of worth) as the soil that must be continually watered to sustain this.

The development industry is not separate from these systems. And as much as we work to fight the inequities they produce, we also help to reinforce them when we replicate their logics within our operating models. This includes logics that frame change as linear and ordered, human connection as inferior to material transfers, immediate outcomes and quantitative measurability as the most important indicators of success, partnerships as transactions, etc. At an even deeper level, it includes the capitalistic, White supremacist ways of seeing we perpetuate via many of our accountability frameworks, funding processes, operating procedures, and knowledge systems, which come to define the scope of what is necessary, relevant, possible, or evidence of progress.

Systems of oppression benefit from all the ways we discount the significance of process-based change work — the ways we fail to surface and engage with the underlying drivers of these systems, or worse, treat such forces as inevitable and beyond our capacity to see or shift. And perhaps, beyond the fact that it is challenging to measure and demonstrate the ‘visible’ impact of such work, we also devalue efforts that are about designing for the ways we think, work, collaborate, ask questions, etc. because on some level, it feels obvious and unnecessary. It feels like we are trying to engineer that which is meant to be instinctual and natural, or the domain of the personal: the ways we make decisions, the ways we relate to one another, the ways we derive insight, the ways we create knowledge, the ways we learn from actions, the ways we adapt to learning, etc. We would like to think that we do these things, as both individuals and as organizations, on the basis of logic, or institutional mandates, or individual values, or objective facts. Yet the reason we need to be so intentional and reflexive about these kinds of inner and relational processes is precisely because we have built social and institutional structures that compel us to work in ways that often go against logic, or against our innate human nature, or against justice and equity, against Reality.

We create artificial separations (between the self and systems). We create artificial certainty (policies premised on the idea that we can predict the future). We create artificial hierarchies (of humanness, of intelligence, of knowledge and experience). And we reify these artificial realities into our built realities (e.g. our policy mechanisms, our education systems, our economies) so that we start to forget that they have been designed in the first place. They become our ‘objective’ realities. And the only way to sustainably change their outcomes is to go to the source: to see the intangible processes that constitute the systems and consciously design and practice new ones into existence that more closely align with the realities we want to create.

To arrive here, we also have to overcome the dichotomies we erect between the visible and invisible, or the notion that working with intangible forces is antithetical to the structure, measurement, order, etc. that the development world and most governance systems rely on. In many ways, this is the ultimate creative task: how we marry structure and imagination, how we systematically create spaciousness within order, or deliberately craft conditions and processes not to control, but to allow us to better understand and intentionally work with forces that are emergent and unbounded (like human relationships) to give rise to new social conditions. This also means not simply trying to retroactively inject certain values and principles into institutions and processes that were founded with harmful intentions, but to actually start with the values and intangibles and build new architectures — both relational and institutional — from there. We see this, for instance, through abolitionist movements in the U.S., where people are rejecting the notion that policing, as a system initially designed to patrol slaves, is necessary at all, and instead imagining what alternative models of public safety might be possible when starting from a premise of care, healing, community, transformative justice, and people-centeredness.

Subsuming the new into the old

When we try to derive proofs for the value of a new development process, a new way of thinking and working, by appealing to the incentives of existing systems, we may generate some buy-in from powerholders and opportunities for experimentation. However, there is also a risk that in the ways we create these openings, we simply end up integrating alternative approaches into our current structures, rather than leverage them as the means by which we change the structures.

For instance, with strategic foresight-based approaches, the purpose is to move from models of policy planning and project design that try to predict and control the future, towards models of decision-making that acknowledge that while we can’t know the future, we can systematically gather information about many possible futures. We can use this information about what could happen, as well as what we collectively desire to happen, to navigate future risks and opportunities with more intentionality and long-term perspective, instead of perpetually responding to present crises while replicating solutions of the past.

However, when you try to fit strategic foresight into existing decision-making models instead of leverage it as a process to evolve the premise of decision-making and relationship to data (and ultimately, to the future), it could also be used to simply do more of what is already being done. That is, a stakeholder could generate knowledge about the future (i.e. knowledge that is valuable not because of its objectivity or certainty but because of the expanded forms of analysis it enables) and instead of using it to interrogate current planning assumptions and adapt the architectures that support them, treat the data as another form of prediction or projection, and simply feed it into a linear log frame or five year strategy as a static interpretation of what will happen, how to achieve change, and where to invest efforts.

As another example, more awareness-based, mindful approaches to collective action and systems transformation could on the one hand be harnessed to help systems better ‘see’ themselves and challenge problematic power structures, make space for more ways of knowing and being to be centered in development, and enable development practitioners to recognize their own place in larger interconnected systems and the role of introspection, relationships, and mindsets in shaping those systems. They could be used to help development institutions move from the kinds of individualistic, competition-based forms of leadership that dominate wider society towards embodiments of leadership, or capability, as something that derives from the power of the collective.

Or, we could simply fold awareness-based approaches into our development processes in ways that co-opt indigenous wisdom, various spiritual traditions, or systems change principles already applied by many marginalized communities, without actually using them to recognize and address the power structures that have kept such ways of knowing, being and doing from being legitimized and harnessed in mainstream development spaces until now. We could invite ‘spiritual’ approaches to change into multilateral or government contexts only when they are packaged into a relatable framework, or a lexicon that conforms to mainstream definitions of ‘rationality’ and logics of capitalism. We could apply these alternative ways of knowing and doing as simply means to make our existing systems more efficient, or reinforce the notion of leadership as a matter of individual action, with mindfulness practices serving to simply strengthen an individual’s personal and professional toolbox.

In short, new approaches, new tools, new experiments, are only as transformative as the extent to which we are willing to examine what it is we perceive and value, how we then proceed to challenge the ways our current systems misalign with what we learn to be true [including the limits of what we can definitively know to be true] through these iterative processes, and from there imagine and create alternatives.

What does it really mean to see impact?

When we don’t interrogate the systems within which our ways of seeing are shaped (that what we see is not neutral), there can also be a danger to the well-intentioned sentiment that many development actors express of being motivated by “seeing the impact” of their work. I sometimes hear this, for instance, when people who have moved to more strategy- learning- or partnership-oriented roles desire to return to more direct implementation roles. While there is nothing wrong with having this preference, it sometimes comes with the implication that the farther you are from work that is ‘visible’ (e.g. being able to see what has been delivered under a programme/how it has affected a person’s life), the farther you are from what is impactful. That being in a room, for instance, where you talk about theory or get ‘caught up in process’ or devote time to reflection, learning, and strategy is counterproductive to being results-driven or a step away from the ‘real’ work of creating change.

Don’t get me wrong. There is validity in these sentiments. They often come as a reaction to frustrations borne out of what it means to function in bureaucracies and manage the inherent politics that are present in any collective change effort, but most pronounced in the places where meaning-making and relational work is centered. The presence of these forces and barriers to [what traditionally feels like] progress and efficiency, however, does not negate the potential for impact. Most notably, when it comes to the realities we are helping to create ‘in the field’ — the forms of change we tend to find most validating — it serves to also consider the spaces that form the basis for these interventions in the first place.

Reality is what we perceive. It is a landscape of many layers and depths, of which we are only ever paying attention to certain versions or fragments. It is the stories we tell ourselves and each other. The stories we choose to enact. In the case of our development efforts, it is what we create and enforce in the places where we talk about theory, where we engage in process, where we co-create knowledge, where we shape relationships and our understanding of relationship as a vehicle for change. We often passively buy into a pre-formed narrative of reality and unwittingly help to make it real when we don’t consider such spaces, or the processes themselves, as a place of action. When we don’t recognize that development impact is something to be found not only in the outcomes of our programmes, but equally in the ways we choose to engage with all the spaces and processes where mental models and priorities are shaped: the sources of our actions.

It is also important to think about the framing of development we push forward when we treat impact as located only or primarily in ‘the field,’ at least in how we commonly define it (without even getting into the issue of the term itself). In many ways, it is a framing that treats development as a thing to be received by certain groups of people, rather than something that we are all collectively a part of. Although there is greater recognition of the problematic nature of the term ‘beneficiary’ these days and less use of it in many development spaces, we still tend to operate according to a giver-receiver mentality. To some extent, the 2030 Agenda might be seen as a framework meant to advance an understanding of development as the work of all countries and societies, primarily implicating Global North countries as included in the ‘underdeveloped’ category when seen through the lens of climate impact, or inequities amidst national-level wealth. However, if we truly believed development and the consequences of its absence existed as a global phenomenon, then we would think about the work of expanding or shifting mindsets and interrogating relationships in a room full of high-level government actors, a room full of donors from the Global North, or our own internal planning and learning (and un-learning) exercises as the development work too. We would recognize that there are forms of deprivation that are also within our mandate to address in those rooms (e.g., spiritual impoverishment, social impoverishment) that are directly connected to the material poverty we are working to eradicate. We would see abundant opportunity here — within all the intangible dynamics of these spaces — to create and measure ‘impact’, as much as wherever we consider to be the field.

Another element worth examining in the well-meaning desire to see impact is what it means when we particularly want to know precisely how our own actions have impact. While the base impetus behind this is generally connected to a desire to be effective sources of change in the world, it can also sometimes become a limiting frame in itself. By placing emphasis on our capacities and influence as individuals, this motivation can reinforce the kinds of logics that prevent us from transcending incremental, short-term forms of change. Instead of looking for where our own actions generate impact, why not equally find power and possibility in the limits of our influence (or the aspects of it we can easily witness): where our own limitations intersect with someone else’s capacity or potential ? Why not perceive impact as the extent to which we have built connections at this frontier; where we have managed to blur the lines, in fact, between what is of us and what is of our teams, our organizations, and eventually far beyond that — to reach a point where the impact we are measuring is impossible to decisively track back to our individual organization’s actions because we have managed to intertwine our capacities, actions, and learning processes so thoroughly with that of other insitutitons, communities, and movements. Where we have managed to function in this way because we trust that in the strength of our relationships and the cohesiveness and reciprocity of our minds and capabilities, impact necessarily emerges. And, more important than the time-bound, measurable impact we might capture at any given moment, we have established the relational architecture and trust that is the fuel and vehicle for ever-advancing layers of transformation: for collective, context-responsive and vision-guided adaptive cycles of action, reflection, and learning.

Seeing threads of possibility into being

I recognize that the idea of placing our trust in the process and relationships more than the traceable material impact of a development programme is a radical proposition when viewed through the lens of current political economies and the hierarchical control logics of many governance systems. Insofar as development organizations are accountable to these governance systems, ours are processes premised on similar norms and notions of human behavior: processes in which you can’t simply carry out an action and decide where to allocate resources without being able to prove its value to the source of the funding. Systems where trust between partners — whether a government and a development institution, a multilateral organization and civil society organization, or a formal institution and a community — is managed in the form of metrics and project documents, and built on the robustness of transactions and paper trails rather than the robustness of relationships and mutual respect and understanding.

And maybe, within this context, it is impossible to imagine a situation where the reasons we measure, and the rationale by which we prioritize resources, is to maximize collective learning, rather than prove value and efficiency to an external player: a situation where competition over funding and siloed efforts becomes irrelevant, and ‘local’ communities have as much authority to manage public goods as governments and development institutions. But maybe the possibility comes from our capacity to imagine. Maybe practicing this radical form of trust I’m describing (from trust between development partners, to trust in the broader capacity of all human beings to forge community and co-create their own development pathways), even while we work within systems premised on distrust and designed to mitigate the consequences of our lower natures rather than appeal to the potential of our higher natures, is what will gradually create the conditions for us to see the alternatives.

What I am ultimately getting at is that we need to strengthen, as adrienne maree brown puts it, “the muscle of looking forward together.” This includes collectively learning what it means to see possibility within the small, intangible, experimental and seemingly insignificant parts of our work. Maybe this entails paying attention, for instance, to the kinds of questions being asked in a meeting, the kinds of interactions unfolding in a workshop, the way a senior leader attempts to incorporate more relationship-building into a planning process, the way a small opening to test a new process can branch off into other openings — the things that could mean nothing when considered as isolated incidents, but take on new forms when viewed through a lens of connectivity (e.g. connection to other small moments of possibility, to effects on mindsets or trust, to past legacies, to possible future threads of impact). Maybe it means designing measurement frameworks that valorize the connections and intangible effects borne out of an action as much as ‘tangible’ outcomes — to create accountability structures that frame all contributing factors to future possibility as significant (which encompasses factors like failure, or new doubts and questions, and all the ways these influence cognition) as much as hard, static, quantitative metrics.

Beyond expanding the purview of what we see by looking across time (i.e., assessing the meaning of an outcome through its relationship to the future and/or past), seeing impact is also about expanding the places we look for it in the present. Particularly when we ask ourselves questions like, “Is there actually momentum on [X complex issue]?” we often ask it for a specific issue area as though it exists in isolation from others. For instance, when I hear this question in reference to decoloniality efforts in development, my mind goes to examples of explicit discourse and action emerging on the topic, yes, but it also goes to all the places where both programmatically and in our corridors, people are asking more questions about why we work the way we do, where there is growing interest in humanizing our processes, where we are testing new forms of understanding systems and power, etc. When we see possibility holistically, we see that people might be pulled by different angles (e.g. maybe for some, the focus is climate change, while for others it is racism) yet they are actually converging around a common underlying problem. And the closer these communities come to interrogate underlying drivers, the more space they make for deep reflection, the more this convergence happens. In this, we might consider, how can we not just identify ways to join forces across interconnected issue areas, but realize that if we are truly looking, truly trying to see the system in its entirety, then we are already on a common venture, and learn to more intentionally marry and amplify our narratives and energies to reflect that.

I am not saying that we should exaggerate the impact or level of engagement happening on an issue simply by changing the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but that there is legitimate power that comes from more expansive seeing. We need to operate with ways of seeing that are not just about what is visible in the here and now, or what can be touched, but actually make new futures possible. We need to learn how to see many threads of possibility into being: to recognize that the purpose of seeing impact is not simply to affirm what has passed or what we have achieved or what we are accountable for, but that how and what we see is literally what creates the pathways for change. It is what builds different realities.