Introducing the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation

For many who work in the development cooperation field, there is a strong reason why they have chosen this field of work. There is something that motivates us and drives us to do it. Most commonly, it is the desire to change things in the world for the better. Whether it is improving education, reducing the risk of conflict, improving child healthcare, increasing democratic accountability, or something else, the underlying reason remains. Development cooperation is about making a positive impact on people and communities.

However, development cooperation is not easy. It is full of ups and downs, joys and frustrations, and of feeling that we could do more and better.

What if there were tools available to help us do things better? What can we alter in terms of how we work and understand our work to achieve greater impact? How do we create an environment where we think about impact and act on this with more focus? How do we reinvigorate this spirit of development?

Becoming an agile organization could be the way. This means challenging some well-established bottlenecks and reflecting on what is really important that both donors and beneficiaries [1] start addressing. Working agile is far more than a management method; it is a combination of mutually supporting values and frameworks.

What is it that we want to change?

Just like at the beginning of the millennium with the start of the agile movement, identifying points of orientation is one of the most important elements in a change process. The points of orientation help us identify common challenges and pain points, which conversely help us define commitments about how to do things differently. The ‘original’ Agile Manifesto did just that in software development. It laid out the commitments through which teams and entire organizations working in the field have a guiding light explaining what is it that they are working towards. For example, the Agile Manifesto notes that working software takes precedence over documentation. This means that the focus of the team is ensuring that working software is produced. Documentation is however not unimportant, rather immaculate documentation does not in itself deliver value. Therefore having complete documentation on software that does not work is pointless. To build on this example, value is in the software that works, and that has its users.

Inspired by the original Agile Manifesto, the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation is an attempt to focus on what is really important in development cooperation. In software development, the focus is on creating value. In development cooperation measuring financial benefit (or value) is often difficult, but also often not the direct aim of the discipline. Instead, the focus is on delivering development impact, which can lay the groundwork for sustainable economic growth. The value proposition behind the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation is, therefore, supporting organizations engaged at all levels of development cooperation in delivering impact for those groups and communities that are underrepresented, marginalized or discriminated in some way.

The four points that the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation puts forward are as follows:

  1. Flexible scope enabling responding to change over immaculately planned projects
  2. Forming cross-cutting alliances over remaining in ‘my field’
  3. Fostering learning organizations over reporting project outcomes
  4. Building relationships over following procedures

In short, the first point, flexible scope enabling responding to change over immaculately planned projects, puts focus on having the ability to adapt to the environment we are in. It is not arguing that projects should not be planned; they should. But planning them in detail will not necessarily make them more impactful. Indeed, they are more likely to run into trouble because a plan from six months ago may not match today’s reality.

The second point, forming cross-cutting alliances over remaining in ‘my field’, builds on the established idea of promoting integrated solutions in development cooperation. It also adds the idea that we can reach out to a broader audience with the work that we do. The point, however, is not to try becoming experts in everything.

The third point, fostering learning organizations over reporting project outcomes, argues that organizations, just like individuals, improve their skills by learning. Reporting remains a part of the development cooperation cycle, but the focus should not be on writing a report at the end of a project cycle. Rather it should be on iterative learning about the field we are working in as well as improving as an organization.

The fourth point of the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation is building relationships over following procedures. The focus here is on the challenges faced across the field that have a massive influence on the impact. For example, a challenge can sometimes be fulfilling huge administrative overheads to ensure donor compliance. This can make access to funds impossible for some organizations and initiatives, while not necessarily guaranteeing that funds will be spent as designated and real impact will be achieved. Instead, the focus should move away from developing and enforcing standardized procedures to building relationships, which will reduce administrative burden and also help in exchanging knowledge needed to ensure greater impact.

Is the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation worthwhile?

It’s worth asking whether the original Agile Manifesto made a difference. The short answer is yes. It has become a reference point for many organizations looking to understand how they can be more effective and focused in what they do. The ‘problem’ with the original Agile Manifesto is, however, that it only really makes sense in one particular field, which is software development, and that it is only a manifesto.

Development cooperation is an entirely different beast and consequently has very different pain points that being agile can address. This desire to provide a guiding light on how to create more impact in development cooperation has been an inspiration for developing the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation. But the manifesto still only remains a manifesto. This takes us back to the beginning of the blog, where mutually supporting values and frameworks are mentioned as a way of working and being agile. The manifesto in this sense presents a vision of where we want to be. Agile methods, like Scrum, on the other hand, provide the building materials for the road that can take you there.


[1] Donor and Beneficiary are terms used without prejudice to the geographical location of the legal subject. They are merely there to describe the flow of funds in development cooperation.

Written by

Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic Tihomir Vollmann-Popovic


One response to “Introducing the Agile Manifesto for Development Cooperation”

  1. Josef Petřík says:

    Very nice article. 🙂

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