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Why Proximate Leadership Matters to MIT Solve’s Community

The best individuals equipped to solve world challenges are those who experienced them first-hand. Dr. Angela Jackson, Chief Ecosystem and Investment Officer at Kapor Center, and a past Solve Custom Challenge client, wrote about these types of individuals who are better known as “proximate leaders”. Proximate leadership levels power imbalances and ushers equity into solution development for communities around the world. At Solve, we aim to empower proximate leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs—and yes, they can be all three at one time too— so they can help the communities that are nearest and most understood by them. 

We decided to ask the Solve community why they believe proximate leadership is critical to finding solutions to world problems and what issues can arise when solutions are developed without taking impacted individuals into account.

Here’s what they had to say:

Effective change requires lived experience to overcome challenges and find solutions to problems. When you live the culture, the context, and the problem, you understand what is needed to build capacity, allocate time and resources, and most importantly empower others. If you can see it, you can be it. When others see Indigenous women creating positive change, overcoming obstacles, and finding solutions to problems, they are empowered to do the same. Proximate leadership creates a ripple effect that impacts local communities, nations, and the world.


Good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. Without taking into account impacted communities and individuals we risk mistrust and dependency. We enable solutions that do not address community needs. We perpetuate cycles of poverty. To create sustainable, positive change we need to build local capacity and provide the knowledge, tools, and ownership to empower impacted communities and individuals to address local issues and develop local solutions.

Impactful work can only be done when a company understands the unique challenges that a community is facing. Understanding a community’s challenges involves listening, speaking with community members on the ground, and most importantly, partnering with the community to co-create initiatives, which is what we are doing at Truist Foundation. Residents and organizations within a community know the community best, which is why their partnership is invaluable.

Neglecting to consult communities and their leaders before, during and after a project can result in solutions that don’t actually address the needs of the community. Instead, you end up with a band-aid solution that fails to create meaningful, long-term change and taking away the voices of the communities you’re seeking to uplift.

I believe that the bedrock for creating change is PASSION! A leader is more passionate about a problem that they are solving if they have a strong connection to it and if they experienced that problem themselves.

Proximate leaders like myself deeply relate with the problems and the lives of the people we serve. We understand the urgency of the challenges, as well as the obstacles and motivations that need to be prioritized in order to create the best solutions.

Alienated solutions create a lack of ownership and accountability amongst targeted users. In Uganda, and in most African communities, there’s so much mistrust in foreign interventions to local problems. When an outsider brings a solution, people often become suspicious of ill-will or a sinister agenda (understandable given the historical abuse they have experienced). If local people don’t distance themselves from a foreign intervention, they may embrace it, but with a totally different intent to capitalize on it for whatever short-term benefitthey can extract for their own survival, but with no investment in the long term sustainability because it’s not expected to last anyway. This dependency syndrome causes local people to develop behaviors of learned helplessness through over-reliance on aid. It also makes it so very difficult to sow lasting change in communities.

A foreigner can never completely understand the cultural nuance and relationships in a community. Identifying a sustainable solution to any local problem requires the participation, wisdom, and ownership of the community.

Proximate leadership ingrains resilience which is an essential trait for leaders trying to solve complex problems. Proximate leaders are unlikely to abandon problems or pivot in the face of challenges because they are so closely linked to the problem and have ties to the community directly experiencing it. They deeply understand the problem and will stay with it.

Anytime our journey of trying to connect hospitals to medical supplies becomes challenging, I go back to that hospital bed where I experienced a difficult childbirth. The knowledge that there are thousands of women who will not have access to blood and other medical products unless we exist keeps me going.

Covid-19 showed us just how important proximate leadership is in the face of global panic and closed borders it was proximate leaders who stepped up to localize innovation in the fight against Covid-19. They drew from their expertise and experience to build solutions that mattered and were able to scale their impact.

Innovators or companies run the risk of building solutions that the impacted communities do not want or need. As a result, the impacted community or individual is worse off instead of being enabled or empowered.

Having leaders coming from communities is definitely an advantage. Philosophically this has been raised in conversation and it isn't always [a reality]. [As an extreme example], in medicine we don't ask neonates to advocate for other neonates. So I don't think it is critical, but having leaders that have lived the problem and developed solutions has real meaning and it is easier for others to follow in their footsteps. From my personal experience, although I came up with the solution, I needed people with other skills who believed in the cause to make the solution come to life. These have included software developers, accountants, business men and women.

There are many 'deaths by pilotitis' where people who didn't fully understand a problem launch solutions that fail, so having in depth knowledge and experience is key.

It allows for appropriate program planning that will be more suitable for each community. Proximate leaders also develop technology and solutions more tailored for the users themselves. More so, supporting proximate leadership often means that ownership of solutions will rest with the community it was developed for, and in the long-term, will continue to be scaled for other communities that face similar issues.

Failing to incorporate proximate leadership into the development of a solution may result in communities not wanting to embrace the change. There is a lot of expenditure that goes into developing technology and that might all go to waste if communities reject the innovation. Overall, solutions developed by proximate leaders likely have better results and more impact.

The world is not a one-faceted place where everyone is the same. Everyone is unique in their life and world outlook, and goes through unique life experiences. However, we have communities, who share backgrounds or certain problems together. These people know their communities the best. They know what the pain points are, and have given thought about what’s the root cause of these pain points. Although this doesn’t mean that a person outside the circle that is marginalized or that has an extensive problem would not be able to help - but a proximate leader would know more about the issue by being exposed to it, or knowing how to study the group or community they are in, considering their sensitivities and what they are really struggling with. They know how they can get input, grow with the feedback from the group they are trying to help, and have the necessary data. Being a proximate leader would give a person the unique advantage of having a more meaningful and high-level empathy as well as a unique perspective as to the solutions results and the upcoming improvements and improvement areas.

Developing solutions without proximate leaders would be somewhat equal to putting a bandaid on a cracked wall. Without taking into account the impacted communities and individuals, it would be difficult to go to the root cause of the problem. And not dealing with the root cause may inhibit leaders from eliminating the problem. We would only be able to deal with the symptoms. In order to improve, to better our world, we must accept that not all people go through the same walk of life. And solutions should be the same: we should first identify what is really going on, take into account the affected communities and individuals, and assess what is practical and what can work with what we have. If not, the solution would not be inclusive, or it may not give the results that we really want.

If you’re ready to meet some of the world’s most promising proximate leaders, join us at Solve Challenge Finals in New York City this September. Learn more about the event here. You might also consider supporting Solve by joining our Member community.

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