Jon Thiele
International Development

Getting results

Gender and economic development

Enterprise development and agribusiness

Small holder farmers

In Ukraine

Islamic economics

Promoting cooperatives

Community-based development

Credit in economic development

Economic institutions






Acquiring skills is important, but no one believes that class-time is all it takes to escape poverty, start a business, or improve a child's nutrition and health.

Evidence from development activities in 18 countries shows that transformative learning is critical to achieving and sustaining a broad spectrum of development results.

There has been research to test and measure activities, outputs, outcomes, and results, and one thing we are sure of is this: we we can control the activities and outputs, we can influence the outcomes, but we can only appreciate results because the results depend on factors beyond our control. Results depend on the decision of our former participant to use what has been learned and, indeed, on the earlier decision to learn actively, the output we can influence only by doing the best training we can.

What can we do to support more positive decision-making?

In this piece I wrote for USAID, I assess evaluations and research from about 20 countries to learn how to equip a person to make the life choices that break generational poverty, solve daily problems in dysfunctional communities, and improve underdeveloped societies. It is not through training.

Think about it: when you went away to college, did you learn more from the classes or from being on your own? You learned how to cope on your own as your views of yourself and of your place in society changed. It took time, but you started to make your way in the world.

So it is with everyone.

In development work, recent research "has pointed to low self-esteem, low aspirations, and a fatalistic view among the poor as intrinsically linked with their inability to take action to improve their material well being."

For the poor, the world is a place with limited opportunity, a broken economy, conflict, and corruption, with hopelessness and few prospects for improvement.

They need to learn new habits as much as they need some business skills, and the "entrepreneur of necessity" does not naturally have the temperament that allows good risk assessment, trust in one's self to manage that risk, and the ability to be comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty to come.

Gaining this ability is not a skill to be taught but rather a temperament to be adopted. If our participant is able to move toward this way of thinking there is a better chance to succeed because he will be better able to overcome the problems every business faces. We cannot provide it all but we can try to equip our participants with the confidence to address these needs on their own.

Transformative learning can occur only over time. In development, this means a participant must have a sustained relationship with the project. Coaching is part of all training, and experiential learning is critical. Demo plots in agriculture, small scale market access activities, facilitated savings mechanisms, and more show how it works. People absorb it all over a few months.

A mix of interventions over an extended period of time show this new way as a sort of 'big push' at a local level in the hope of enabling the sustained actions that unlock the poverty trap with longer term development objectives integrated into your near term activities and objectives. A six country study which included randomized control trials found "the combination of (life skills, training, and asset building) activities is necessary and sufficient to obtain a persistent impact... (and) that this multifaceted approach to increasing income and well being for the ultra-poor is sustainable and cost-effective."

When delivered as an integrated whole, sustained interventions facilitate transformative learning. People then internalize new ways of looking at their life circumstances, options, and their ability to influence their futures. Their decision making takes on a longer term perspective, and results are more likely to continue after the project ends.


Photo from J.Ashe, 2009