Planning-in-Action: an innovative approach to human development

The Hunger Project, March 1991

In November and December of 1990, The Hunger Project was privileged to work in collaboration with the Planning Commission of India to pioneer an innovative approach to the process of planning. Specifically, this approach is designed to accelerate progress in the field of human development and bring about the end of chronic, persistent hunger.

Such an initiative is very timely, as it comes at a time when the global community is recommitting itself to meeting such human goals as poverty alleviation and the end of hunger. Recent international forums, including the World Summit for Children, the World Food Council Cyprus Initiative, the Bellagio Conference on Overcoming Hunger in the 1990s and the Arusha Conference on Participatory Development, as well as recent studies by the World Bank and the UN Development Programme all reflect this important trend.

The methodology described in this paper is in its very beginning stages and, by its very design, will continue to evolve. Nevertheless, we believe it is useful to present a comprehensive report at this time, given the promise and timeliness of the approach being pioneered in India.

Why a new approach?

In the developing world, an estimated 1 billion people continue to lack the wherewithal to secure their most basic needs. Each year, some 13 to 18 million people die as a result of hunger and hunger-related causes. This tragedy persists year after year, despite enormous efforts by both developing nations and international agencies.

In the past, declarations have been made to overcome hunger and poverty, and ambitious human development goals have been set. Yet there is an enormous gap between human development goals and humanity’s ability to decisively change the situation. The frequent lack of success has the debilitating effect of undermining humanity’s best efforts by generating resignation, lowered expectations and inaction.

In addition, the various sectors of society have not yet found a way of working together that maximizes the contribution each sector makes to the common effort. Central government programmes have tremendous strength and scope, but lack the entrepreneurial flexibility that can be contributed by grass-roots NGO programmes. The private sector has great reservoirs of technology and expertise, but these remain largely untapped for human development.

Several years ago, some observers, including The Hunger Project, believed that what was needed to overcome these obstacles was a global, comprehensive strategic plan. After further investigation, it became clear to The Hunger Project that providing such a plan would not be useful, and that conventional approaches to strategic planning were fundamentally insufficient to a challenge of this magnitude and complexity.

A departure from conventional planning

In theory, planning is carried out in the following mode:

  • A series of goals and a plan of action (or “blueprint”) are created by experts and officials;
  • People are expected to implement the plan; and
  • Outcomes are reviewed periodically, typically once a year, to ensure adherence to the plan.

In practice, this framework is adequate for situations that require incremental improvements, but it breaks down in the face of enormous “real-world” challenges. People become alienated because they feel that they have had no say in planning. Often they feel the plan is impractical because it does not take proper account of local or changing conditions. Monitoring is so long-term that it provides “too little too late” in terms of useful course correction.

Recently, experts have pointed out the inadequacy of conventional planning in a rapidly changing society and have recommended finding a new approach. For example, Francisco Sagasti, chief of strategic planning at the World Bank, wrote:

[The] emerging international context, which is likely to dominate the scene until the end of the century, requires innovative thinking and new approaches to development. It also imposes the need for a serious evaluation and reappraisal of development planning theory and practice. The conventional approach to planning, with its rigid time frames, its breakdown of planning tasks into sectors and regions, and its centralized and technocratic perspective on plan formulation and implementation, is most unlikely to be effective in an increasingly turbulent environment.

Nowhere is the need for a more effective approach to planning more urgent than in the work to overcome hunger and poverty. What is necessary is a new methodology — one that empowers people in the face of enormous obstacles and enables them to work together to achieve continuous progress towards the goal of ending hunger.

Consultations held with more than 100 planning experts and human development practitioners suggested that a new approach to planning, at a minimum, must meet the following conditions:

  • It must be carried out by the people who are going to take the action. The very existence of a plan that is “handed down” by experts is counter-productive to mobilizing effective leadership and management.
  • It must be dynamic — a conventional plan laid out in a step-by-step fashion cannot possibly allow for the flexibility required to overcome the complex challenges of human development.
  • It must involve a broad range of sectors of society and diverse fields of knowledge.
  • It must directly generate action that in turn provides timely feedback for future planning.

Pioneering a new methodology in India

An approach to planning and action guided by these observations was pioneered in India during 1990, thanks in large measure to the leadership of two members of The Hunger Project’s global board of directors, Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s green revolution, and Mr. Ramkrishna Bajaj, a leading industrialist and Gandhian social activist.

India is an appropriate choice for pioneering this methodology: the government has recently reaffirmed its commitment to human-centred development and poverty alleviation; it is endeavouring to decentralize its own planning process; and it has allocated an increased share of its resources to rural development.

These trends reflect the fact that there is a broad national consensus on the desired qualities of development. The Indian people are deeply committed to improving the well-being and releasing the creativity and productivity of the poorest members of society. They want development to be human-centred and focused on the aspects required for the development of the “whole human being.” They recognize that the resources and capabilities mobilized to date, while extensive and laudable, are insufficient to achieve what people need and deserve. They appreciate that there is a large and frustrating gap between their aspirations and the present rate of progress.

In formulating a new approach to human development in India, work was undertaken by some of India’s leading thinkers and policy makers from academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies and government ministries at the central and state level. These distinguished individuals took a number of actions in formulating a new approach to human development in India, including:

  • A National Strategy Meeting held in New Delhi on 9-10 November 1990, co-sponsored by the Planning Commission of India and The Hunger Project. The meeting was chaired by Mrs. Ela Bhatt, then a member of the Planning Commission and India’s representative at the World Summit for Children.
  • Creation of a paper by the distinguished nutritionist Dr. C. Gopalan, in response to a background document prepared by The Hunger Project for the meeting entitled “Towards a Common Agenda: Lowering India’s IMR to 50 by the Year 2000.” These two documents served as the substantive frame of reference for discussion.
  • State-wide design meetings, mandated by the National Strategy Meeting, and held in Madras on 19-20 November and in Bombay on 29-30 November.
  • Formation of state councils composed of a small group of knowledgeable, accomplished and highly respected individuals responsible for ensuring that the state accomplishes the goals of the strategy.
  • The design of initial projects to catalyse the strategy in each of the two states.

(Papers prepared for the above meetings and reports of their actions are available on request.)

The new approach — Strategic “Planning-in-Action”

The participants in India have pioneered a methodology of planning-in-action — a dynamic process that integrates continuous planning with continuous action on an urgent time-scale, and that inspires creativity, effectiveness and a new sense of ownership by all the participants. This process requires constant examination of new challenges and new opportunities that appear from work in progress.

A central recognition of this planning-in-action methodology is that plans do not make things happen, people make things happen. In the final analysis, the essence of achieving significant advances in the quality of life for human beings comes down to finding a practical methodology of empowering people to author their own destiny — to participate in decision-making and planning, and to work together effectively.

Seven essential components of the planning-in-action methodology have been identified. While none of the elements are entirely new, they have been combined in a systematic way that is already producing new possibilities for innovative and effective action.

In the course of implementing this methodology in India, we discovered that success depends on many factors, including the sequence of the elements and rigorous attention to the details of implementation. The following seven sections therefore describe these elements in considerable detail.

1. Reaching a common understanding

Planning-in-action begins by organizing a group of thinkers, leaders and activists from many sectors of society to come together and reach a common understanding of the prevailing conditions and the major elements that must be addressed in the strategy.

Before any meetings are held, the groundwork must be laid, for which the following steps have proved useful:

  • A background discussion paper is prepared, which provides a comprehensive overview of current conditions, trends, existing programmes and current recommendations for action. A key element of success in this endeavour is identifying a local scholar with access to the necessary breadth of information as well as a willingness to be inclusive and appreciative of divergent points of view in his or her presentation.
  • Preparatory discussions are held with experts and officials to reveal the consensus that is likely to emerge later in the process.
  • An “invitation list” is created to ensure that anyone who should be included in the design process is invited to participate at the very outset so as to maximize ownership.

Once this groundwork is laid, an initial design meeting is held. Such a meeting should meet the following criteria:

  • The group should be large enough to be representative of the needed spectrum of expertise, but small enough so that everyone can participate in the deliberations. In India, this varied between 25 and 40 participants.
  • All participants should have the opportunity to review the discussion paper well ahead of the meeting, so that the first part of the design meeting can be devoted to reaching a common understanding.
  • The meeting should be well-structured and facilitated, so that the results of the meeting, the elements of the common understanding, are immediately evident to all participants.

2. Creating a “strategic intent”

Once the participants have come to a common understanding, the next step in planning-in-action is to create a strategic intent — a powerful, unifying vision that guides the entire strategy.

The strategic intent created by the participants at the National Strategy Meeting in India was entitled “Achieving the Threshold: The Chance for All Our People to Lead Healthy and Productive Lives.”

This intent includes the commitment to achieve a “critical threshold” in human development by the year 2000. Inherent in this commitment is the assertion that progress in human development should not be perceived as a “grey” continuum an endless struggle with no decisive milestones and no sense that real progress is possible. Rather, it implies that there exists a measurable point at which the quality of human life becomes fundamentally improved for both individuals and society.

This threshold expresses the essence of the national vision of India — an India where all human beings live in dignity and enjoy the opportunity to meet their basic needs through their own constructive efforts. The achievement of this threshold would mean a profound release of human energy, creativity and productivity, and that the vast majority of people could turn their attention to something beyond mere survival.

3. Choosing social indicators

Once the strategic intent has been created, there must be clear, aligned-upon ways of measuring when it has been achieved. In addition, to effectively focus attention on achieving the strategic intent requires having measurable, timely indicators of meaningful progress.

In India, the participants in the National Strategy Meeting identified the goal of lowering the infant mortality rate (IMR) to 50 or below as a useful indicator for their strategic intent. In addition, they identified such indicators as measurements of height and weight (specifically height at age seven), nutrition assessments, literacy rates (particularly for females), marriage age, and the per cent of the population with access to family welfare services and clean drinking water.

4. Identifying strategic objectives

The next element of planning-in-action is the identification by the participants of strategic objectives that, when reached, will represent significant progress towards achieving the strategic intent.

Since the strategic intent, by the very nature of the challenge, cannot be achieved by following a predictable blueprint, these objectives must not be confused with milestones along a linear path to the goal. Rather, these are near-term objectives that not only represent progress, but also are chosen specifically to provide a new vantage point that reveals new pathways to the accomplishment.

In India, virtually all the activities required to provide people the opportunity for a healthy and productive life are responsibilities of the states. In the initial state meetings, participants identified strategic objectives critical to achieving the threshold. These were:

  • establishing universal access to primary health care, nutrition, clean water and sanitation;
  • developing innovative ways to expand sustainable livelihood opportunities;
  • increasing public awareness of existing human services;
  • changing public attitudes that inhibit human development, such as attitudes towards marriage age and education for girls;
  • empowering women; and
  • transforming existing delivery systems.

On this last point, existing delivery systems must be transformed so as to:

  • achieve convergence, and hence greater efficiency, among existing human service programmes;
  • expand the utilization of non-governmental organizations;
  • ensure that delivery systems not only deliver services, but also provide meaningful employment for the poor, especially for women;
  • increase community participation; and
  • take advantage of existing networks, such as those of doctors, teachers and media professionals, to undertake critically needed interventions that lie outside their normal activities.

5. Establishing and empowering the leadership to reach the strategic intent

Once strategic objectives are set, it is necessary to establish a capacity to reach those objectives, and to continue to set and achieve new objectives until the strategic intent is reached. There are two groups of people that constitute such a capacity: a body of leadership, and a group that provides background empowerment to that leadership.

While it is well-recognized that a body of committed leadership is crucial, it is almost entirely unacknowledged that an equally necessary component is a background of skilful empowerment for that leadership.

A body of committed leadership

There must be a body of leadership that is deeply committed to achieving the strategic intent and that must literally embody the planning-in-action process. For this particular methodology to succeed, these individuals must:

  • Possess the capability of providing leadership at all the levels of society where action is needed;
  • Be unyielding in their commitment to the end, while at the same time, extremely flexible and creative with respect to the means of achieving it;
  • Be willing to tolerate the uncertainty involved with an approach that is essentially an inquiry, an approach where one cannot know all the answers before taking action;
  • Be able to work in alignment with each other. They must have a deep respect for divergent viewpoints and for the contribution that can be made by colleagues with whom they strongly disagree.

In India, as noted above, the states have the responsibility for action in the relevant sectors; hence, state councils have been established. The members of these councils include a mix of distinguished individuals

  • of unassailable reputation, whose stature is a function of their outstanding record of accomplishment;
  • who are willing to stake their reputations on the outcome;
  • who hold posts at senior government levels in the ministries of health and social welfare, and similar government positions vital to fulfilling the objectives;
  • who are able to mobilize human and financial resources;
  • who have access to expertise in the various disciplines vital to the strategy; and
  • who are accessible to grass-roots people.

Background empowerment

While it is the body of leadership that plays the visible role in driving forward the planning-in-action process, another group must play an invisible role, empowering the leadership body. Someone must organize the meetings; synthesize divergent opinions into consensus; prepare and distribute minutes; provide seed money for the operations of the leadership body; and generally maintain the momentum, coherence and workability of the entire process.

Just as there are critical qualities of leadership, there are critical qualities of empowerment. Whatever group is providing the empowerment must:

  • possess the necessary research and administrative capacity to facilitate the work;
  • be capable of and committed to facilitating the flow of communications;
  • be egoless — that is, facilitate the process without being identified with it in a way that precludes the “true owners” of the process from being accountable and receiving the full credit for the results.

Although The Hunger Project has been privileged to play this role in these first two states of India, it is clear that many other organizations — both indigenous and international — have long demonstrated this empowerment role. One notable example is the work of the Ford Foundation in bringing together the body of experts that led to the green revolution in India.

6. Identifying immediate action steps

The success of planning-in-action depends not on a detailed, long-term plan, but on correctly identifying initial action steps that will quickly produce feedback to the strategy.

This methodology is currently being practised in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, and initial action steps have been taken. The leadership bodies in both states have identified an analytic approach for selecting initial action steps, namely:

  • Choose actions that focus on filling gaps in existing services, so resources are not expended duplicating what’s already in place.
  • Give priority to finding ways of achieving convergence in existing programmes.
  • Identify opportunities for synergy — ways of bringing together mutually re-enforcing activities in a way that sparks further improvements.

In line with this approach, the two states in India have focused their initial efforts on launching catalytic projects. These projects are of two types:

  • ground-breaking projects that explore innovative ways of achieving the objectives, and
  • “proof-of-principle” projects that demonstrate, with sufficient authority, that successful innovations can be up-scaled and/or serve as the basis for decision-making in public programmes.

In Tamil Nadu, for example, the initial projects have focused on inventing and demonstrating new ways of meeting the objectives, such as innovative approaches to altering public attitudes (especially regarding the status of women), and to providing sustainable livelihood opportunities.

In Maharashtra, the initial projects focus on developing ways to decentralize the entire planning-in-action and human development process by pioneering holistic approaches — that is, approaches that integrate all strategic objectives — in each of the four regions of the state.

7. Sustaining the action

The methodology of planning-in-action is analogous to running a marathon as a series of sprints in unknown terrain, or climbing a mountain in the clouds. One can only plan the stretch that is immediately ahead. Once one reaches a certain plateau, one can look out from an entirely new vantage point and see new pathways to the next accomplishment.

As the strategic planning-in-action unfolds, several key components, inherent in this methodology, are required to ensure that action and progress are sustained. The five components identified to date are:

  1. The willingness to take risks and innovate in order to find new, more successful pathways.
  2. The ability to design actions so that they provide timely feedback. Even projects that will last several years should provide a flow of frequent insights to inform the continuous planning process.
  3. The ability to show people a new possibility for achievement. For example, in India, one of the most inspiring new possibilities is the opportunity to combine the strength of government with the innovation of small NGOs.
  4. The ability to generate a sense of urgency and momentum of accomplishment.
  5. Well-designed and frequent communications so that every action in the process is continuously infused with the strategic intent and with a sense of making progress towards it.

Conclusion and next steps

This new approach to human development is a marriage of several insights and recent trends. It capitalizes on the recent focus on human-centred development and on breakthroughs in the science of management. It combines the best aspects of the strength of government and the entrepreneurial creativity of NGOs. Most importantly, it has revealed a methodology of planning and action that has already proved replicable in two states of India, under the guidance of two very different styles of leadership.

In the coming months, The Hunger Project will continue its partnership with the first two state councils, which have been established in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It will also begin to work with groups to establish councils in a number of other Indian states. In addition, The Hunger Project will begin to work with the people of other countries, particularly in Africa, to implement the process there.

One thought on “Planning-in-Action: an innovative approach to human development

  1. Is it really 24 years ago that the SPIA approach was created!? Can´t believe it. It still sounds innovative…

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