Ivanka Puigdueta’s background lies with environmental sciences and issues surrounding climate change and pollution (Université de Rouen, 2007). After working as a lab-scientist for several years, she decided to mix her expertise with social and developmental issues, studying International Relations and African Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her focus has since been on development issues in sub-Saharan Africa, with research and consultancy in Guinea-Bissau.
Did your experience in Guinea-Bissau lead you to The Polis?
Yes, it very much influenced my thinking. In Guinea-Bissau I had the chance to discover all kinds of different projects financed and organised through international cooperation programs. Observe them was interesting, often encouraging, but also painful at times. A lot of effort goes into improving social and economic conditions in that country, with amazing professionals- both local and expatriates- working on important and difficult challenges. But unfortunately there were also a lot of things that went wrong, often caused by systemic failure. Like most people employed locally in the development sector, it made me feel a strong urge to find more effective ways to have an impact. It was obvious that work needed to be much more locally focused; that was one thing that was crystal clear.
So what do you like most about The Polis, when you look back at your personal experiences?
The Polis method answered my doubts (and ambition) about how to turn international cooperation into a local led path. That was the very first thing that attracted me about The Polis and the one that still amazes me. It uses a radically local led approach, and it ends the often well intended but ultimately mistaken interventionist impulses. It recognises the importance of local populations to choosing and designing the projects and their impact, and also the ways in which these projects will be done. External intervention only enters in the system when it is requested by local people and according to the basic terms they themselves set.
Could you please describe your role in The Polis? What do you do exactly?
As Head of Development my role is to design, improve and implement different aspects of the Polis model. Our model depends on various local and global actors, each with a specific role in the process of creating Local Led Connections. It is my role to develop each step in the process, starting at the local idea and finishing with a connection. I focus on understanding what makes local led processes successful and adapting this knowledge to different situations and realities.
And in doing so, which types of organisations inspire you?
There are many. For example, PUM’s expert services to local entrepreneurs, Peace Direct’s work with local peace building initiatives, or the BoP Innovation Center’s market inclusion methods. But it is not only from the development sector that The Polis takes its inspiration. The Polis is also inspired by many private sector initiatives and activities; we don’t just look at traditional development actors. To summarise in general terms: we take inspiration from what we observe works for people when it comes to connecting local to global and vice versa.
So how is The Polis different from these and other development projects?
We are not a development project. The Polis model simply connects local ideas to the resources they need. We don´t offer money and we don’t tell people what to do; there´s no developmental agenda. We just offer local ideas a platform so they can connect with organisations and expertise to bring their ideas to life.
Typical development projects work the other way around; external ideas are created before locals come into play. Even development projects that use local led strategies get the order wrong; they don’t impose ideas, but they do still approach carefully selected locals with a bag of money in their hand and.
Can you expand on that?
Typically, projects either try to “pick winners” or look to create change based on specific political or ideological values. Humans tend to have difficulties in controlling our impulse to guide others towards what we think is right. At The Polis we believe that this filtering is not compatible with what we understand by “local led”. It is not up to us to decide what a bad or a good idea is. Even those organisations that actually put locals behind the steering wheel fail to see this. Yes, they motivate local actors to identify their own problems and to find their own way, but they still put locals in charge of spending previously lined-up money.
And how does the Polis method deal with that problem?
We do two things: the first thing that The Polis does to turn the cycle around is that local initiatives come before any money or solutions come into play. The second one is that global actors don´t select local partners; local actors select the global partners they want to work with. This forces global actors to truly serve local agendas. After all, you can´t give initiative; it´s something people take. The only role of The Polis is to look for partners willing to support local initiatives. Global actors should see The Polis as a gateway to local opportunities, while for local actors The Polis is a bridge between their ambitions and the global tools they need.
What does that bridge look like on the ground? And how do people find it?
Through Local Connectors (LCs); LCs are trained local Polis representatives who listen to local initiatives and make them visible for the global community, something they typically lack. So LCs are in contact with local individuals and groups and gather their project ideas and requests, only making sure that proposals are legal and feasible; they do not impose or suggest ideas; they do not write proposals. They simply make sure that initiatives are sincere and complete before they are presented to potential partners, and then they introduce these initiatives into the Polis platform.
What will The Polis look like by late 2015?
At the end of 2015 I want to see Local Connectors becoming integrated in our human infrastructure, and actively working with Connected Local Communities (CLCs) to bring local project ideas to the Polis platform and the global community. I also expect the Polis team to acquire a better understanding of local-global dynamics through the interaction with local actors, global partners, and other local led initiatives in our network. In doing so, I am convinced The Polis can contribute to making local led development cooperation more successful and widespread.
Last question: what are your ambitions with respect to your own future? Do you plan to go back to Africa, to Guinea-Bissau for The Polis perhaps?
Going back to Guinea-Bissau is definitely on the cards, but it may have to be to simply visit. The Polis doesn’t let non-locals work locally like that; it’s not the way we do things. A pity.