Integrated development is again gaining traction in international development as a process for making lasting change happen. At a panel hosted by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 2016 entitled Facing Complex Challenges: Innovating Through Integrated Development, experts who have worked in integrated development since the last time it was popular examined what has changed in thinking and working for a more holistic view of development.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has a long history of integrated development in Asia and Africa, where its investments across multiple sectors simultaneously – from increasing household financial security, to raising literacy rates, to the creation or restoration of beautiful public spaces – have made an indelible mark on the quality of life of entire communities. A prime example of the Network’s integrated effort is the Multi-Input Area Development Global Development Alliance (MIAD GDA) in Badakhshan, Afghanistan, a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). Going into its third year, the MIAD GDA has already blended health, education and livelihood activities in a variety of ways. (Read more about the MIAD GDA program in Afghanistan and a recent story from that experience.)

The CSIS event launched a new paper by panel moderator Daniel Runde, titled Integrated Development: Strategic Harmonization of Foreign Assistance. Other panel members included Patrick Fine, CEO of FHI360; Diana Ohlbaum, Senior Associate with CSIS; Carla Koppell, Vice President of Applied Conflict Transformation at the U.S. Institute for Peace; Donald Steinberg, CEO of World Learning; and Susan Reichle, Counselor to USAID. The frank discussion with this experienced group addressed head-on some of the challenges faced by a big-picture approach to development programs and funding.

One large hurdle the group discussed is the difficulty in measuring progress on the complex phenomenon of integrated development. Patrick Fine of FHI360 pointed out that some of the most successful development initiatives of the past 50 years have been single-sector initiatives, in contrast with the integrated approach. They include the Green Revolution for improving food production, and PEPFAR for addressing HIV AIDS. (See this earlier post on efforts to gather evidence-based lessons about integrated development, including the Locus network.)

“If single-sector efforts show results, why are we talking about integrated development?” Fine asked. The consensus response was that today change is faster than ever, and that technologies and social change are more connected than ever. Still, we do not have tools or really the mindset to accomplish the ambitious goal.

An added element, noted by Carla Koppell of the U.S. Institute of Peace, is that conflicts around the world have increased in number, and conflict has changed what foreign-aid-assisted countries look like. Fragile environments have consequences for how development efforts are staffed and resourced.

Many participants nodded at the observation that communities see development in integrated ways and don’t live their lives in sectoral siloes. But Diana Ohlbaum of CSIS brought a dose of reality to the discussion with a simple acknowledgement: “Foreign aid is not popular.” There’s no natural constituency within the United States; the real constituency is in communities where development programs occur. Integrated development is even harder for the American public and Congress to understand. “If you pitch it in terms people like, you build support for the whole program,” Ohlbaum said. Hence the many important categories of favorite flavors in the Congressional budget allocation for development.

This is a second major hurdle to integrated development: donors’ funding processes. Specifically, the process of earmarking, which breaks down categories of programs for funding in order to make them palatable to legislators and the public. Earmarking also addresses the lack of trust between branches of government: by having objectives carved out very explicitly, executive and legislative officials can track programs with an eye for their priorities. Donald Steinberg of World Vision noted, “Earmarking is a cost of building the constituency for aid.” Yet earmarking can hamstring the process of measuring development in more holistic ways.

Steinberg added that through dialogue between NGOs and Congress, and between the executive and legislative branches, managers can use earmarks to coax funding for a larger, more integrated effort. It requires partnerships and dialogue. To some extent this has occurred in the way the NGO community has become more unified in its conversations through InterAction, for example.

Ohlbaum acknowledged that progress while citing another challenge: “the fundamental conflict between country ownership and earmarks” by donors.

Susan Reichle, the Counselor to USAID, noted that accomplishing a shift to integrated development will require training for all foreign service and program officers, and integration with local governance. “At the local level, we’ve really seen integrated development move the needle,” for example in Colombia. There and elsewhere, a new constituency for the approach has emerged: national governments that have budgets to support holistic programs.

Finally, a significant piece of the larger context is that official foreign aid is a much smaller part of the development picture than 30 or 40 years ago. Government aid is now dwarfed by private-sector development and remittances, which amount to around $300 billion. As Runde observed, development is no longer “the biggest wallet in the room; it has to aim to be the most catalytic wallet in the room.”

By spotlighting examples where combining energies and expertise has worked, development programs can lead to creative ways that help communities accomplish their goals for a better life. Another event on how U.S. and international organizations use integrated approaches will be hosted by FHI 360 in Washington, DC on April 14; click here for details.

You can watch a video of the discussion at CSIS here.