A wicked problem is like a tangled ball of yarn. Each piece of the yarn that you pull can have positive and/or negative effects on the rest of this tangled ball; while some implications are expected and accounted for, others are unexpected and sometimes even unknown until much too late. Thus, it is important to exercise immense amounts of caution when dealing with a tangled ball of yarn…or a wicked problem, if I might end my analogy here.
International development is one such wicked problem, and I would argue that it is likely one of the most significant. Between malnutrition and abject poverty, low literacy and inadequate access to basic healthcare, the challenges facing developing areas of the world (not excluding those in our own backyard) are vast, urgent, and complex. And with increasing globalization, the landscape of international development is shifting dramatically; public and private organizations as well as individual philanthropists are entering the field in droves to address these challenges. As such, the methods and strategies once used are becoming increasingly obsolete.
In an effort to address these challenges, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently launched the Global Development Lab with a role of discovering, testing, and scaling breakthrough development innovations to find solutions to some of the most critical global issues.
As a summer intern with the Lab, I work in the Center for Global Solutions to build platforms and tools around adoption at scale, focusing specifically on scaling adoption of drought-tolerant maize in sub-Saharan Africa. And if I could describe my experiences thus far, I could, at best, sum it up to be a whirlwind of intense challenge and thrilling opportunity.
During my past month here at USAID, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with various teams across the Lab to conduct value chain analyses and market studies, in order to under the industry as a whole. I have had the opportunity (and the challenge) to think widely, critically, and extensively, and I have been asked to consider the unconventional…then to take it a step further. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest minds in development, and the opportunity (along with the encouragement) to try, fail, and then try again.
My past month here at USAID has taught me much more than I could ever hope to learn in a classroom. It has reinforced the idea that development work is hard, that development work is complicated, frustrating, and messy. But if development work were not difficult, would it even exist? This work is complicated, frustrating, and messy, but it is also fascinating, enriching, and ever so important.
As old methods and strategies of development work become obsolete, the Lab seeks to find new ideas, new innovations, and new strategies. In essence, it’s trying to change the way we do development. And I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.