25 July 2017

2017 Brumley Undergraduate Scholar Elizabeth Teare is working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania this summer at Ubongo, a nonprofit that creates entertaining educational content for children in East Africa. She explains here the mission of Ubongo and what the international development community can learn from them:

Despite the flow of development aid into Africa, projects fail, poverty persists, and millions of children are left uneducated.

In 2016 alone, over 24 billion USD of official development assistance and bilateral aid went to sub-Saharan Africa. Though Tanzania received 2.5 billion USD in development assistance in 2015, rural poverty is overwhelming and over 36 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line. Poverty, in turn, affects the ability for children to receive a quality education, continuing the brutal cycle of illiteracy, dearth of opportunities and unrelenting poverty.

As we know, the problems that development projects try to ameliorate are immense, systemic and complex. So why are the solutions consistently simple, short-sighted and removed from the beneficiary's own needs and opinions?

There are numerous reasons why development projects fail, including ineffective planning and management. And more often than not, human consideration is weak during all stages of planning and implementation efforts, while the distance between management and local communities leads to misunderstandings and miscommunications that negatively affect the impact of development projects, especially if local cultures and sensitivities are ignored.

In 2016, official development assistance to Africa fell 0.5 percent from 2015. And, US domestic policies regarding development aid are rapidly changing away from funding development projects, despite the relationship between development and security. As aid budgets decrease, projects need to be more efficient and effective in order to continue tackling some of the world’s persistent development challenges.

Something needs to change. We desperately need holistic, human-focused solutions.

Just over three years ago, Ubongo was established in response to the education gap in Tanzania, and more broadly, in East Africa. Since its establishment, Ubongo has rapidly grown, meeting the African need for accessible, effective and localized education content using existing technologies. Now with two television shows, radio programs, ebooks and educational apps, Ubongo reaches over 5.1 million families.

Ubongo’s educational content is produced following a human-centered design model, enabling them to better understand their wide, multi-faceted audience and to implement innovative solutions addressing the complex problems that affect kids in East Africa.

So what can international development learn from a non-profit that creates cartoons?

Human-centered design

Human-centered design develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem solving process, thus creating solutions based in the intersection of practicality, creativity and empathy. At Ubongo, this manifests as a multi-stage production process where kids are considered and involved in each stage. Ubongo tests their content to ensure that kids are engaged in the episodes and that the educational aspect is truly effective.

For Ubongoers, it is crucial that their content is relevant to their viewers. The kids who watch Ubongo Kids or Akili and Me must relate to the characters, whether it is the way they look, the way they talk, or the problems Ubongo characters must overcome.

Ubongo tries to see the world through an African child’s eyes.

With a wide reaching platform to children and caregivers in East Africa, Ubongo continues to use their human-centered design model to tackle some of the larger problems affecting children here in East Africa. As they create content, again they think back to the kids. What skills can we teach that will be most useful to them in their lives? And with this mindset, Ubongo has created episodes educating kids on malaria prevention practices, and is currently creating episodes focused on socio-emotional development, helping kids who face difficult situations to better cope and remain resilient.

Using a human-centered design process, Ubongo effectively tackles relevant education and development problems in East Africa. So, how can we apply this process to development and create human-centered development projects?

Human-centered development

Development communities like OpenIDEO champion the idea of using human-centered design to create solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. This manifests itself as development projects that start and end with the beneficiary, in other words, there is a bottom-up approach in designing and implementing the projects.

Human-centered development is, naturally, human centered. This means that the people who are affected by the projects are consulted and involved, in every step. Their culture, community needs, and opinions are valued and considered.

Development needs to be empathetic, seeing the world through the beneficiary's eyes.