on entrepreneurship and NGOs

This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.

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Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.

I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?

It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?

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There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

“INGOs may do many good things, but they are basically not structured to deliver effective aid to the poor. They are structured achieve and maintain their own existence. And while it is easy to want to point at the large household charities as examples, it is no less true of the smaller ones.”

“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”

Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:

  • A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
  • The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
  • People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
  • Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.

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I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.

Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.

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I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.

What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)

There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.

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But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:

  • Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
  • The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
  • Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

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This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)

In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.

The Niapele office in Liberia

I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.

Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.

[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]

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What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.

What’s the alternative?  Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?

Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.

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The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?

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I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.

Wonk love

‘Tis that time of the year again: long weekends and celebrations of national holidays, fireworks and hot-dogs. As I suspect many of you will be traveling this weekend (and throughout the summer), I thought I’d recommend one of my all time favorite podcasts: the Center for Global Development’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast. Usually hosted by Lawrence MacDonald, the podcasts usually last about 20 minutes and feature Center for Global Development (CGD) fellows, as well as other prominent guests. The themes discussed are always salient and topical, and the expertise is spot-on.

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Last week, the Wonkcast had an excellent episode on the Gulf of Mexico gusher and Africa’s oil boom (mostly about the latter topic, really), with Todd Moss and Vijaya Ramachandran. The New York Times reports that “as many as 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta over the last five decades, or nearly 11 million gallons a year.” Unlike the outrage sparked by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophy, the response to the relentless flow of oil into the Niger delta has generated little action. There are different factors affecting the situation: criminal activity by rebel groups, which illegally tap pipelines and fail to cap them, is one major issue. But one point which the experts in the Wonkcast insist on is the responsibility of corporations.

Nigeria has a weak regulatory environment, and many of the companies drilling for oil do so out of sight – literally. With offshore platforms left unmonitored by the government or other independent bodies, the safety and security precautions taken by companies are determined internally. This leads to several issues related to poor maintenance of facilities (corroding and unsecured pipelines), environmentally destructive practices (gas flares, which are the result of burning off natural gas recovered during the extraction of crude oil), and a general lack of accountability and responsibility for the social and environmental impact of natural resource extraction activities.

The Nigerian authorities – both federal and local – and natural resource companies share the responsibility for what is occurring in the Niger Delta. If they are not directly responsible, they are at the very least guilty of omission. Todd Moss speaks of the need to drastically improve the regulatory framework that governs natural resource extraction in Nigeria. I would add that companies also need to adopt much stricter standards, and embrace good corporate citizenship. As we are seeing with BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the practice of putting profits and the bottom line ahead of any other concerns has to change.

Efforts to promote the value of corporate social responsibility have been gaining in importance in recent years. The notion of “triple bottom line” (people/planet/profits), for instance, is becoming the dominant approach to full cost accounting, which takes into account the full economic, social and environmental cost of operating a business. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index “comprises the leading companies in terms of sustainability around the world. It captures the top 10% based on long-term economic, environmental and social criteria out of the biggest 2500 companies worldwide.” The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as well at the Global Reporting Initiative, are other examples of new accountability systems that are changing the way in which companies report on their activities. What ties all these initiatives together is the move towards taking into account all of the dimensions – economic, social, environmental – which a business necessarily impacts.

Another initiative, this time led by executives in the natural resource sector, is the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). The ICMM’s mission is to help its member companies make their social and environmental commitments in line with sustainable practices, and to increase the overall sustainability of their operations. Having worked with the ICMM in the past, I can attest to the quality of the organization’s work. As far as I know, there is no similar initiative for the oil and gas industry.

Because of the nature of the natural resource extraction business,  negative externalities caused by these activities are often not on people’s radars. It took a massive disaster in the Gulf of Mexico for the general public in the United States to question the practice of deep-water, offshore drilling. In our day to day lives, we are not exposed to the environmental and social consequences of natural resource extraction – out of sight, out of mind.

For the estimated 30 million people living in the Niger Delta, however, the effects of poorly regulated oil extraction have very tangible consequences: destroyed ecosystems, depletion of fish stocks and wildlife (impacting the livelihoods of local fishermen and farmers), hampered agricultural production, pollution (leading to many health issues), insecurity (due to the presence of armed criminal groups), etc. Amnesty International released a comprehensive report last year, where these issues are explored in depth.

One of the solutions discussed by Todd Moss to decrease poverty in the Niger Delta is the institution of direct cash transfers to the local population. Under this scheme, the Nigerian government would redistribute 10% of its annual dividends directly to individuals in the region. By by-passing state coffers, and thus the possibility of funds being misappropriate or mismanaged, direct cash transfers are seen as a way to beat the “oil curse”, which has plagued natural resource rich countries with poor governance. This method of redistributing revenue is being used in Alaska since 1982, and Moss has been advocating for this approach to be adopted by West African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria.

In the podcast, Moss notes that this direct cash transfer proposal is creating strange bedfellows: on the one hand, progressive liberals believe that this allows citizens to have a stake in the wealth of their country, and, on the other hand, libertarians love the idea of cutting out the government middle man. Moss points out that the dividends paid to citizens should still be taxed by the government, in an effort to keep accountability loops. Nevertheless, I wonder about the indirect effects of such a system.

For example, under this system, the incentives for government accountability in terms of natural resource wealth management are reduced. In other developing nations, the approach has been to strengthen both the regulatory framework and redistribution channels, and to build the capacity of government agencies to manage natural resource wealth. While direct cash transfers may be a good short term solution, in the long term, it does not help resolve the overarching challenge of poor governance.

In my mind, building the institutional capacity of resource-rich countries is the most critical element of turning the “resource curse” into a blessing. Chile and Peru are examples of countries that, not very long ago, were struggling with poverty. Both of these nations have instituted reforms and focused on attracting and managing foreign investors and natural resource companies. The government of Peru has a complex taxation and redistribution system in place, which seeks to ensure that the wealth generated by mining is shared based on principles of equality.

A study by the Fraser Institute supports this view (emphasis mine):

“The authors of the report, after considering new and existing data, come to the conclusion that whether a country benefits from natural resources depends largely on the integrity of its institutions and economic freedom — government bureaucracy, legal structure, property rights, monetary policies and international trade. Simply put, the higher the level of economic freedom a country enjoys, the greater the benefit from resources.”

For Nigeria, direct cash transfers can probably help alleviate poverty to some degree. Nevertheless, I don’t think the egregious violations of human rights, the environmental destruction and insecurity will subside unless: 1. the government of Nigeria improves governance and regulation, and 2. natural resource companies self-impose stricter standards for safety, security and work much harder on mitigating the negative social and environmental impact of their activities.

These aren’t short term projects, but they should accompany any initiative that seeks to diminish the negative impact of natural resource extraction in the region.

On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

Social Entrepreneurship in Peru

My friend, managing director of I-Dev International, forwarded me the details regarding a winter break 10 day immersion program for students and young professionals interested in social entrepreneurship, microfinance and corporate social responsibility. Some details are below, but you can read all about the opportunity here.

I’m familiar with their work in Cajamarca, and they’re a great, young and dynamic organization with an awesome team.  I really encourage you to check them out.

I-DEV International’s Doing Development In… (DDI) program was created to give young professionals & students from top graduate programs a realistic, first hand view of how grassroots development, microfinance, corporate social responsibility and social venture capital programs are making a difference on the ground, in communities at the base of the pyramid.

This 10 day immersion program, offered in 2 sessions over the winter holidays, provides participants with a unique opportunity to:

  • Meet & Engage with senior management at top international development organizations
  • Learn the on-the-ground challenges of managing corporate social responsibility programs in developing countries
  • Gain an authentic, first hand view into the daily lives and challenges faced by communities at the base of the pyramid
  • Have a truly unforgettable vacation
  • Also, Cajamarca is not a half-bad place to spend some time over winter break:

    Donor fatigue for soap making

    The Niapele Project‘s country director in Liberia, Megan Sullivan, often sends hilarious  email updates about her adventures navigating the intricacies of Liberian bureaucracy. With her permission, I’m posting the email she sent today about a meeting at the Ministry of Gender and Development (slightly edited, for privacy and clarity).

    “So, yesterday afternoon was my second try at carrying [NDLR: carrying = Liberian way of saying “bringing someone”] Finda to the monthly women’s empowerment meeting at the Gender Ministry.  If you recall, we went last Wednesday of last month but it had secretly been converted to a memorial service for a deceased Min employee.

    So it’s not setup at all like a dialogue of women NGO leaders as I had been explicitly told.  Instead, it was like a lecture where about 50 women gather to voice concerns and then receive a lecture on a topic of interest.

    When the minutes from the late June meeting were passed around the tone of every meeting immediately became clear.

    For example, under AOB [Any Other Business]:

    • Korpu from War Widows with One Leg Vocational School stated that the Ministry of Gender should empower the women of Liberia by giving them support.  But the GoL [Government of Liberia] is not supporting (ie funding) the women’s groups like they promised.
    • Annie from Good Lord Jesus Praise His Name Help Us and Save Us Tie and Dye expressed concern that the GoL is not supporting and empowering the women of Liberia and her organization needs supplies and the staff has not been paid.
    • Hawa from Bless Jesus who Died for Our Sins Hair Plaiting Academy mentioned – as she has mentioned at every monthly meeting since 2006 –  that she would like for the Ministry of Gender to please give her funding.
    • The women present decided to form their own committee to investigate how exactly they can better convey to the Ministry that they need some support.  Findings will be reported at the next meeting.

    Ok, so I was a little loose in my interpretations but that’s TOTALLY the gist.  This next one, my fave, is a verbatim quote though:

    “Rita Harper of the Women’s Empowerment for the Upliftment of Females in Liberia through Microloan said that she was promised rain boots by the Her Honorable Minister at this meeting and where are they?”
    🙂

    Approx 3:15 of the 1:00 (scheduled to begin) meeting we move past the prayer, greeting and reading of minutes and the surprisingly contentious voting on the acceptance of said minutes, and onto the main presentation of this month’s meeting.

    Reproductive Rights.

    Which is good and relevant but it doesn’t really help these women improve their businesses and you will see why the info was not incredibly helpful.

    The guest speaker seemed like a bright, friendly successful Liberian woman in her late 50s (I would guess?) She has been at the Ministry of Health in the Division of Family Health for 30 years and recently became a consultant (or something) with the UNFPA for women’s health in Liberia.

    Seems great to promote the importance of family planning within this demographic.  She starts off with some stats (no visible notes with her)

    • 983 Liberian women die during childbirth every SECOND (the crowd gasps)
    • 983 Liberian women out of every 1,312 die during child birth
    • you need to switch the type of birth control you use every 2 years or it will make you sterile
    • a woman loses half of all her ovaries by the time she is 18, so she should finish school right away so that she can start having babies by 19
    • The egg waits in the fallopian tube for the sperm to come and fertilize it (maybe thats correct, but it didnt sound it).

    The women had a MILLION questions that were the equivalent of 7th grade sex ed in the US – which I guess is not totally shocking, but wow.  One man there said that he had done his own research at a hospital in Lofa County and 70% of the children in the hospital had HIV.  So he had the idea of asking the 70 % if they had been circumcised in the bush and then if they had used a clean blade.  Which led to huge discussion on FGM etc.

    And back to birth control — is it true that if you have sex standing up you can’t get pregnant?  etc etc. One woman asked if there were different sizes of condoms, the guest expert said no, only one size.  The questioner said “but my friend has a man that it can’t fit”  Expert “he’s not trying hard enough.”

    (I took detailed notes cause it was pretty amusing).

    At the end Finda was like “So when do I talk about the work that Malaya does?” [NDLR: Malaya is the agricultural co-op The Niapele Project is sourcing food supplies from for our school nutrition program]

    The words “business strategy” “planning” and others like that were never mentioned.

    In other non useless details — the Director of Women’s Empowerment mentioned that women’s empowerment programs that make soap and tie dye need to move in a different direction so that women can build real skills.  (The Nike/Clinton Foundation has multimillion dollar project on vocational training like mechanics and engineering and nursing and stuff for women in LIB).  She said “there are no more grants for tie and dye.  The international community has donor fatigue for soap making.”  🙂