Can a famous Chef from a Basque restaurant work with a Thai Mayor and the UNDP to sustain peace in Thailand southern municipalities?

By Patrick Duong, UNDP Regional Advisor in Asia and the Pacific. @PatrickDuong

As strange as it can be, we asked this question at a ‘social innovation platform’ for peacebuilding and socio-economic transformations in six southern municipalities of Thailand[1].

Learning from the Basque experience (one that linked peacebuilding with socio-economic transformations. See box below), and with the help of Gorka Espiau[2], a Senior Fellow at the Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC), UNDP supported the creation of a social innovation platform for a wide range of local public and private actors to listen to each other, codesign portfolio of projects and adopt a narrative that no longer focuses on conflict, but on a shared vision of peace and local economic development.

One could argue there’s nothing new (or as a popular Thai quote: ‘Same-same but different’), but for UNDP this means that we no longer think -and act- as if peace and development happens in sequence, or in a linear process through a series of disconnected projects. On the contrary, the Basque experience invites us to recognize the complexity and interconnectivity of local development challenges. And equally important that we accept the likelihood that UNDP can no longer develop solutions alone.

Here are three personal views-

If we no longer have the answers, or the ‘know-how’, because we operate in a VUCA environment (volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous) then approaches such as the ALC ‘social innovation platforms’ can help us better understand our ecosystems, connect competencies and leverage resources.

This then becomes the departing point from where UNDP transitions from implementing vertical projects (for which many of us were trained) towards becoming an organization that has the capability and ‘intelligence’, as in military or business terms, to ‘read and navigate’ through the complex development landscapes; and use local leverage points to accelerate development.

UNDP needs to be recognized for convening new collaboration opportunities, or platforms, for public and private actors to combine methodologies and multiple actions with the ambition of achieving the sustainable development goals (i.e.: our ‘integrator’ role).

Two: Engage with the wider ecosystem and consider a ‘territorial approach’

Here, I wish to flag the notion of a ‘territorial approach’ versus a ‘thematic approach’ as UNDP might prefer to engage geographically rather than thematically (i.e.: reduce socio-economic inequalities between regions of a same country). This echoes Gorka Espiau’s observation that local societies and economies transform easier, or faster, when they face a ‘survival’ context.

Beyond a new way of designing UNDP’s next generation of projects, the organization need to mobilize resources differently. Thus, move away from ‘funding projects’ towards developing a portfolio of interconnected interventions at various levels[3] that can attract private investments, crowd and blended funds and help territories develop in a sustainable and equitable manner. In other words, ‘Localize the SDGs’.

Three: #NextGenUNDP: Listen, manage risks and do things differently

Time is critical: ‘Social innovation platforms’ such as those built on the Basque approach (Colombia, Perú, India and Mozambique) entails that we take the time for ‘deep listening’, including what Espiau refers as ‘better understanding to what people don’t say’. This way of working also demands a collective interpretation of the information (sense making) that will lead into co-creation and rapid prototyping of interconnected human rights and socio-economic initiatives (a portfolio approach). Here, let’s acknowledge UNDP Thailand as a living lab for learning how to implement social innovation platforms to inform its next 5-year country programme.

For governments, investors (our future donors?) and development partners, this ultimately implies to accept that development begins by deeply understanding the needs and aspirations of communities and local governments and not necessarily by initiating a linear project.

Giulio Quaggiotto[4] recently wrote ‘There is no silver bullet. To develop new competencies and bring transformational capabilities to government and communities will be a long journey’. I believe this also applies to UNDP as we need a paradigm shift to change the way ‘we’ (development people) consider our jobs… Are we ready to work with a restaurant Chef on a peace building project? If the answer is yes, then we’re maybe on a right trajectory… though it won’t be linear!

Let us know if you wish to follow our work in Thailand or if the approach is relevant in your context. We need to ‘work out loud’ and connect our experiments! Check out more on a recent and related blog here.

Lessons learned from the Basque experience[5]:

Systemic change only comes about when the entire community feels empowered to act in a different manner

Violence constantly narrows our capacity to imagine a better future (it is a well-documented defensive mechanism against constant frustration), convincing local communities that change is not possible. On the contrary, the Basque experience shows that instead of looking for rare ‘talent’ in exceptional individuals, the most advanced forms of peace and socio-economic transformations at the sub-national level set out to empower an entire community so that everyone can act in an innovative way. Therefore, generating transformational narratives should be a basic element of any peace-building and conflict transformation strategy.

[1] : UNDP Thailand with the BRH local governance and innovation colleagues, organized a workshop on “Social Innovation platforms for Sustainable Human Development in Southern Thailand”, 7th-19th September. The workshop brought together prominent local authorities, startups and CSO to co-create the opportunity for change. The event was facilitated by Gorka Espiau, Senior Fellow at the Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC).

[2] : Gorka Espiau Idoiaga is Professor of Practice CRIEM/CIRM at McGill University in Montreal and a Senior Fellow at the “Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies”.

[3] : The ALC approach suggests 5 level of interventions (community, micro enterprises, public-private partnerships, public service redesign and new regulations)

[4] : Head of Regional Innovation Center, UNDP Regional Hub for Asia and the Pacific

[5] : Gorka Espiau Idoiaga

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Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.