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No last mile: Changing the architecture of development

You may not think of architects as playing much of a role in global health, development or foreign aid. But design, in the broadest sense, matters in almost every endeavor.

Here’s an interesting article at Architecture for Development about remodeling the way we think, and talk, about foreign aid. It was recommended to me by a friend at Seattle-based PATH, where years ago I met two architects — James Cheyne and John Lloyd — who used their design skills to improve the vaccination cold chain. But that’s another story …

The gist of this article, by David Week, is that we tend to think and speak of development projects as a donor delivering a benefit to a recipient, or a product to a consumer. Says Week:

The problem with language (as feminists and racial minorities well know) is that it perpetuates a mindset. In development, the classical mindset is the “delivery” paradigm. Diagrammatically, it looks like this:

This has led, he writes, many of those working in development to speak of reaching the “last mile” as representing the ultimate goal of a project — of development as a process of delivery. The approach, he says, was adopted from the telecoms industry (though some also credit Coca-Cola).

This is a debilitating mindset, Week says, because it establishes a fundamentally passive and submissive role on the part of the beneficiary. A better mindset, which he says is taking hold in the development community, is what he calls the “development partnership” which looks like this:

Week says that the more successful development and foreign aid projects out there today are increasingly being described as partnerships, collaborations. He goes on to examine case studies in Laos, East Timor and Papua New Guinea. It’s a longish article but thought-provoking.

The take-away message is that we need to stop thinking in terms of the “last mile” and shift from a delivery mindset to one of partnership.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.