Where does connection feature in our development plans?

Harnessing relationship as the root of all systems change (part 1)

Sophia Robele
8 min readApr 14, 2022
Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

We see the value of connection but don’t ask what or why we are connecting

‘Connection’ is a common thread in much of the rhetoric that surrounds global and national commitments to advance social and economic development in a way that “leaves no one behind.” Embedded in the notion of leaving no one behind is the idea that justice is grounded in the extent to which we have connected every person to the ‘progress’ generated at the macro scale. While multilateral institutions and governments place emphasis on connecting people to certain resources, public services or global public goods as a means of equalizing access to opportunity and well-being, the ubiquity and ready acceptance of the principle that no one should be “left behind” often results in a failure to first stop and ask: in what ways are we moving forward? And of the ways that we have moved forward, what aspects of this motion do we regard as a basic human right, or a basic building block for the construction of a more prosperous society? That is, what are the non-negotiables when it comes to the resources that we seek to generate and connect people to through our policies and interventions?

For example, in much of the development discourse on the perils and promise of the digital revolution, there is a consensus that connection to technology is one non-negotiable in the path towards justice. That a failure to connect every person to the benefits of technological innovation is not only an affront to equality, but risks widening existing inequalities within and between countries and constrains our capacity to fully harness the potential of this resource to positively transform societies. The reason we so easily grasp the injustice of being disconnected from digital technology is because of the breadth of value we trace to the resource itself. For instance, we see that depriving someone access to the Internet deprives them of the multi-faceted power that comes with connection to the world’s most expansive open repository of knowledge and to networks beyond one’s immediate sphere.

While many of the resources we prioritize serve as a proxy for other forms of connection (e.g. connection to internet being a source of connection to knowledge, to employment opportunities, to social capital, etc.), the places where we intervene and measure our progress often remain fixed on the distribution of the so-called ‘hard’ or tangible resources, be it a certain technology or a social protection package, with the hypothesis that these will ultimately shift the division of power and possibility in societies. The logic here is not wrong, but incomplete.

What would happen if we expanded our definition of a basic resource — of the societal benefits that are unacceptable for anyone to be excluded from — to encompass human connection itself? What if it were considered within the mandate of institutions obliged to leave no one behind to invest directly in (and really, to co-imagine and co-create) the infrastructures and systems that enable meaningful connections to develop between individuals and groups in a society? In other words, what if we treated human connection not as an assumed by-product, or secondary resource, of development efforts but as one of the most basic resources for eliminating inequality in all its forms, or reforming unjust social systems?

Locating capability in the connections rather than the products and services

The capabilities approach that now underpins our dominant human development paradigm offers an opening for greater attention on human connection in its emphasis on going beyond eliminating extreme deprivations, to expanding people’s “enhanced” capabilities (those associated with agency and empowerment). However, the focus of enhanced capabilities still often remains largely on access to the resources that an institution can give to an individual — e.g., quality health services across the lifecycle, tertiary education, access to the latest technologies — as opposed to the capabilities that reside in the nature of the connecting points between people.

In quantum physics, there is this phenomenon that all reality is interaction: that even the material substance of our existence — subatomic particles — are not in fact ‘things’ but interconnections between things. In a similar way, human capabilities are not things in themselves but emergent properties of networks of connections. But we tend to still treat the site of the capability as the fixed, tangible, quantitatively measurable ‘thing’ we have transferred to a person through a public service or a development intervention, rather than the social fields within which capacities become activated as capabilities for self- and collective-transformation.

This proposition to treat meaningful human connection as a fundamental capability, or activator of capability, for human development does not negate the urgency of redressing material inequalities. What it suggests is a reorientation to our currently dominant hypothesis that we must start from the material or transactional (e.g., a cash transfer, a training on climate-smart agriculture, a disease treatment programme) in order to achieve the spiritual and transformational (e.g., human dignity, empowerment, freedom, trust, collective well-being, harmony between people and planet) in pursuit of collective prosperity. It invites an approach that gives equal weight and import to interventions that start by considering and responding to the relational — the ways that the social fabric of societies, that being in relationship, that a focus on cultivating unity in diversity, alters consciousness — as the central foundation for reconstituting the local, national, and global systems that shape our material reality.

Art by Sophia Robele

The systemic challenge that lies beneath all other systemic challenges

What is perhaps most interesting in our underestimation of the power of connection in the way we design our development programmes and processes is that, to some degree, we already recognize its power. More than that, our own analyses and evidence continue to point us towards it. Often, when we actually apply systems thinking as a lens to identify leverage points for testing solutions to a country’s development challenges, or rendering a multilateral institution’s support more impactful, the ‘evidence’ points towards human relationships as the site where change must originate, regardless of the issue.

For instance, through its implementation of “deep demonstration” projects to test long-term logics of development and use of portfolio approaches, UNDP has been exploring ways to better ‘see’ and ‘sense’ solutions to systemic challenges. This led to the recognition in Tunisia that trust-building, among citizens and between citizens and institutions, must be the central approach to strengthening governance and economic prosperity, and in North Macedonia that the capacity to address challenges in cities requires greater investment in ‘deep listening’ to surface unheard voices. At another level, reflection on the organizational capacities required to support governments and other partners to drive systems transformation often point to the need for more spaces internally to enable generative listening, cultivate vibrant interpersonal relationships across teams and disciplines, and unpack the meaning of radical collaboration.

As our systemic analyses of socio-economic and ecological challenges often bring to the surface, the quality of connections between people (which encompasses the connections between people and institutions, since institutions are made up of people) is not something we can afford to compartmentalize out of our public life and the work of development organizations by treating the personal as somehow detached from the systemic. Nor can we bring the subject of isolation, weak social ties, or social division into the conversation only when considering the problem space, or targeting the determinants of single issue areas (e.g., mental health, violent extremism). Insofar as the possibility for change in any area of human development relies on the ability of communities, of institutions, of governments, of citizens, of businesses, of anybody who is on this planet to ‘co-create’ solutions, and insofar as any meaningful implementation of the 2030 Agenda calls for a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, the strength of our connections remains the ultimate determinant of our capacity to imagine and realize structural change founded on equity.

True co-creation — that is, co-creation that doesn’t simply piece together a series of disparate ideas from the loudest voices but actually surfaces the full wealth of wisdom latent in each person, valorizes all worldviews, and allows truly diverse perspectives to be in conversation with, rather than stacked next to, one another — depends on relationship.

The ideas that surface in a space of co-creation are not mere reflections of what each person thinks and feels is most important, but a reflection of the way that the space has enabled them to see their ideas as relevant to the challenge at hand, or to identify the worth of their lived experience, or to feel the safety required for vulnerability and a willingness to be surprised, or to sense belonging in a space such that they are empowered to contribute simultaneously from the place of their individuality and their awareness of interconnectedness with a whole. Likewise, how we listen — how we meet the wisdom of another, and the extent to which we allow our own perceptions to be altered and expanded at that meeting place — depends in large part on our perceived and actual relationship to the other person or group at large, as well as to the Space within which our interactions unfold.

How we connect with one another within a space of co-creation, how we see each other, is not tangential to the process: it is the heartbeat of transformation. It is the only means of operating from a place of real ‘collective intelligence’ and tapping into shared power for making ideas reality in the world.

Our prioritization of crises that take physical, visible forms — whether in the destruction of the planet or the destruction of human bodies — often mask the crises that fuel and sustain these, including that of an “imaginary crisis”: a growing deficit of shared social imagination. Immense potential lies in the creation of, as Geoff Mulgan writes, “real-time functioning shared intelligence, with observation, creativity and learning all interlinked.” To imagine and work towards new collective futures that don’t merely replicate existing power imbalances, however, requires the existence of and connections between real community (in neighbourhoods, in workplaces, in virtual spaces, etc.). Without the relational infrastructure in place to enable the generation of pluralistic futures, and most critically, for sustained, living networks of diverse people to continuously imagine, test, and learn from actions to contribute to shared desired futures, what we call ‘participatory’ or ‘collective’ is often just pooled pieces of information from fragmented parts of a society used as inputs into a static artefact or linearly-conceived project of a development institution.

We sense that it matters, but what can we do about it?

So what does it look like in practice to treat human connection as a ‘hard’ input of human development? What is the role of a government or a development organization in proactively shaping a dimension of human life that is unarguably and necessarily personal and individual, yet simultaneously collective and systemic? Where do we even have the right to intervene?

The answers to these questions can only actually emerge through the process of seriously asking, centering and learning our way into them, with all the messiness and uncertainty that brings. But a good place to start is by reorienting our attention to what might already be right in front of us. In the second part of this post, I’ll offer some entry points and considerations for this reorientation, particularly for multilateral institutions. Stay tuned!