Center for American Progress

The Importance of a Human-Centered Approach in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

The Importance of a Human-Centered Approach in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

With the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meetings, it is crucial to focus on human-centered approaches to sustainable development.

A community health worker visits with a family on July 21, 2014, in Mbale, Uganda. (Getty/Jonathan Torgovnik)
A community health worker visits with a family on July 21, 2014, in Mbale, Uganda. (Getty/Jonathan Torgovnik)

As the international community prepares for the U.N. General Assembly, or UNGA, meetings this week, it is important to reflect back to just a year ago at the same sessions when U.N. member states unanimously adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, aimed at ending extreme poverty within 15 years.

Built on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, the SDGs seek to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.” Unlike their MDG predecessors, however, the SDGs apply universally to all countries, are much broader in scope, and perhaps most importantly, were created through an inclusive, bottom-up process that incorporated feedback from people around the world. As such, the SDGs are primed for a much more human-centered approach to development, which is essential if the goals are to be universally achieved by 2030.

Human-centered problem-solving that address the actual needs of communities may seem intuitive, but they are often not included in international development efforts. Across the developing world, beneficiaries are often the last people to be consulted about efforts that are meant to affect their lives. As nations work to eliminate extreme poverty and increase prosperity, they should rely on human-centered projects as the key to achieving the SDGs.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking, or human-centered design, leads with empathy and designs with the community. Most importantly, it considers human factors—taking into account human needs, capacity, perception, and culture to design solutions in partnership with the communities that designers serve. This approach does not focus solely on one big idea, and it does not make assumptions about the needs and capacities of developing communities. The steps of the design-thinking process are to empathize and listen, understand experiences through research, observe people and their behavior, ask communities and people the right questions, ideate on how to effectively consider these human factors when designing a solution, prototype proposed solutions, repeatedly test the effectiveness, and finally implement the solution.

However, human-centered design does come with certain downfalls. The time and resources put into the empathizing, ideating, and iteration phases make the design process slower. Design thinking has also failed to be the dominant method for development programs due to the bottom-up and user-driven approach that—by nature—makes solutions much harder to scale.

Despite its higher short-term costs, design thinking offers enormous payoff in the long term and avoids the pitfalls that have caused too many well-intentioned development projects to fail. Development to date has too often overemphasized top-down approaches that ignore local conditions and lead to an abundance of misplaced projects. As a result, abandoned schools, half-built wells, and empty health clinics are scattered across the developing world.

Development cannot be achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach

The failure of the water project PlayPump offers one of the clearest examples of the shortcomings of the dominant design strategy for development projects. Piloted in South Africa, PlayPump produced wells that were designed as merry-go-rounds. When children spun them, the wells filled tanks throughout the community with clean water. This simple, whimsical idea garnered widespread recognition and considerable funding. However, about a year into PlayPump’s implementation across southern Africa, UNICEF found that the majority of the merry-go-rounds were abandoned, community members had to pay people to spin them, and water crises in several countries were not being solved. What could have been an innovative solution to a pressing problem failed because much more time and energy was put into sales pitches to Western donors than toward researching whether the idea would work on the ground in real-life conditions.

The good news is that innovators within the development design community have learned from these mistakes. Social entrepreneurs such as Sustainable Health Enterprises, or SHE, have demonstrated how design thinking can create effective, human-centric development projects. SHE founders travelled to Rwanda and realized that women’s menstruation cycles caused them to miss 18 percent of the school year and led to a potential annual gross domestic product, or GDP, loss of $215 per woman. As a result of women’s lost work, Rwanda’s GDP suffered a $115 million annual total loss. Sanitary pads are expensive, and it was considered culturally inappropriate for Rwandan women to be outside their homes while on their periods.

To address this issue, SHE helped women jump-start social businesses that manufactured affordable sanitary pads made from banana trunk fiber that was previously thrown away. This approach addressed a serious social issue while helping launch a sustainable business that local women could independently run and benefit from. Moreover, as SHE’s effort was led by women, local women were more inclined to buy into it. SHE’s human-centered approach developed a product that was incredibly successful in Rwanda, but the enterprise realized that the same human-centered design process was necessary in every local context before they could branch out globally—something that PlayPump failed to understand. The product worked in Rwanda because of cultural norms and the abundance of banana trunk fibers. This same product would fail in the neighboring country of Tanzania, where banana trees are less common.

Organizations such as UNESCO and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, have also pushed for human-centric approaches to development. For instance, UNESCO called for a focus on culture while developing the SDGs and proposed incorporating culture into the conception of sustainable development projects. Likewise, USAID has recognized the importance of human-centered design thinking in their approach to sustainable development, and as a result, created a Global Development Lab in 2014 headed by a former Google engineer and U.S. State Department adviser.

However, as these agencies operate in such bureaucratic environments, they have struggled to consistently and sustainably implement human-centered approaches. One way of overcoming this challenge is to form stronger partnerships with outside organizations, such as social innovation companies. Such partnerships would allow for better collaboration of on-the-ground resources, funding, and innovative design processes. USAID has already piloted this type of partnership by working with OpenIDEO, a platform for the global community to contribute ideas and design solutions to challenges around the globe. USAID and OpenIDEO launched a public challenge to innovatively combat health threats such as Zika, SARS, Ebola, and malaria, which resulted in the launch of six final projects to address the causes, treatment, public involvement, and prevention for global outbreaks and epidemics.


Development agencies’ recent shifts toward human-centered project design represent a significant step forward, but it is imperative that these approaches be applied more frequently and universally as the global community works to implement the Sustainable Development Goals over the next 15 years. These design-thinking approaches enable agencies to address complex human problems and visualize solutions in a way that most effectively addresses human needs. They also help agencies become more accountable and credible to the communities they serve by incorporating a participatory, bottom-up process. Furthermore, these approaches prioritize individuals and communities by giving them a central voice and role in how they achieve their own growth, which is the basis for successful and sustainable development. Without such approaches, the world may never achieve the SDGs, let alone partial progress within the next 15 years.

Nitika Johri is a former intern with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Nitika Johri