on entrepreneurship and NGOs

The Niapele office in Liberia

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.

***

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.

***

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?

***

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.

It’s the little things

As Megan can attest to, working for Niapele in Liberia can sometimes feel daunting. So many fruitless meetings with large international NGOs or UN agencies, so many false starts. At the end of the day, writing my email updates to the rest of my Niapele ladies, I sometimes feel discouraged. However, it’s the little things that keep me going, inspire me and remind me – in a very powerful way – why we’re plugging away at this crazy mission.

The little thing today was to learn that Diamond, one of the young girls at HapFam, the center for children with disabilities, had made significant progress. Before she started coming to HapFam in September, she couldn’t brush her teeth by herself. Her family members would beat her with a switch to get her to comply, but to no avail. Now, she brushes her teeth on her own, without being asked. Moreover, she used to not be able to bathe on her own – with HapFam’s help, she now bathes herself every morning. Her aunt tells us that Diamond takes a bath in anticipation of coming to HapFam – for the first time in her life, going to school to learn.

Diamond

Andre, who has a rather severe case of cerebral palsy, is also making a lot of progress. His father, Del, who is also HapFam’s director, told me that Andre took it upon himself to clean the family’s basement, and that he apparently did a great job.

Andre

The Carolyn Miller School also had a parent-teacher meeting during the weekend, and I was told that a lot of the parents gave great feedback about the School Nutrition Initiative: how when the children come home instead of begging for food, they just go out and play, how they can see their children happy to go to school. For these parents, whose children attend tuition-free Carolyn Miller because they cannot otherwise afford to send their children to school, having their kids receive a daily meal alleviates some of their daily hardship.

These are the little things that keep me, that keep us going. I’m all smiles tonight.

Liberian meal for lunch at Carolyn Miller

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.”  🙂

Meandering again

It’s been a while…. Lots of things happening professionally, personally, all across the board, it’s been a rather eventful Spring. Except it’s not *really* Spring here in Vancouver – the weather gods have been particularly ungenerous, save for the few nice days that they kindly (and I’m pretty sure begrudgingly) bestowed upon us. 

In any case, my Google Reader is finally under control – reading (or skimming through…) the 1000+ articles that have been accumulating in there, in addition to catching up on all the reading and informing myself I have failed to do in recent times was a bit daunting, but here I am again, ready to contribute. 

Before diving back into my favorite topics, I think a Niapele update is in order. 

For the past 9 months or so – basically since the financial crisis and the resulting meltdown occured – we have seen a sharp drop in donations. Truth be told, this also coincided with Celina, my co-director, and myself getting full time jobs (girl’s gotta eat!), and we weren’t fully prepared to cope with dwindling spontaneous donations. In spite of our success as a small start-up organization (feeding 100s of kids for a school year… providing for 20+ abandoned children for nearly 2 years….. supporting a small organization for handicapped children…), we have been struggling to mobilize the funding that we would need to make all of the aforementioned projects true successes.

For instance, the School Nutrition Initiative which we ran during the 2007-2008 school year – we served daily meals to over 600 kids and 30 staff and teachers at the only tuition free school in the Buduburam refugee camp. [Note: After more than 2 years being involved in this project, I have yet to wrap my mind around the concept of private, costly education in a refugee camp as the “best” alternative for schooling for refugee children.] The program cost about $2,000 per month, including salaries of kitchen staff, and had start up costs of about the same amount (pots, utensils, stoves, renovations to the cafeteria space which we rented….). Over the course of the school year, we worked in close cooperation with the Carolyn A. Miller School, its donors and supporters, as well as with an incredible, dedicated Ghanaian nutritionist, Adam Sandow, to develop, implement and continually refine the School Nutrition Initiative. The program delivered positive results, which you can read about here.

Now, we are trying to recreate this same initiative in Liberia, where our partner, the Carolyn Miller School, is now operating out of. While a refugee camp setting was a challenging environment for us to succeed in, Liberia is a whole different story – essentially demolished by the war, Liberia is still reeling. And despite advances on many fronts, there are still some core challenges that need to be seriously taken on. Our very own – and very brave – Megan Sullivan just arrived in Monrovia to act as our Country Director, and assist our Program Manger, Henry Snyder. We are really hopeful that, with her presence, we’ll be making strides towards improving the sustainability of our partner organizations – as well as our own. 

Raising funds for the School Nutrition Initiative in Monrovia is a priority for us at this point. We’ve carried out a needs assessment exercice at the school, and we drew up a budget with them – for $2500, we can restart the program. That’s probably something we can achieve in the next couple of months – however, what’s much, much more difficult is to secure the funding to actually run the program every day of every week…. We feel that starting up the program without the guarantee of funding to make it last would be suboptimal – that goes against our principle of sustainability, and would be devastating for the school, and its students. 

So Megan is initiating a series of meetings with donor organizations and agencies at the country level – hopefully, we will be able to secure the support of a reliable funding partner for our activities. The model is simple and replicable, and by cutting costs and having a lean operation, you can feed A LOT of children, all the while stimulating the local economy by purchasing from local food producers, by employing staff for to run the program. That’s really the beauty of working at the grassroots level, with community-based organizations – with relatively small amounts of money, you can have a significant impact. 

One of my favorite new blogs, Aid Watch, ran a piece (a post?) about aid effectiveness in Nepal – excerpt:


Doing an inventory of small NGOs working in the various districts, then giving out small amounts of funding ($10,000-$20,000 a year) probably gets the most done. Skip the audits and heavy-duty report writing and verify with a small team equipped with a camera. A picture is worth a thousand words (or reports) it’s there or it isn’t and the camera tells you. NGOs with barely enough budget to survive have little motivation and opportunity to corrupt the process. They are community members themselves and the community can police its own quite effectively. Nearly anyone living in a small community in Nepal can tell you in short order who is working for the good of the community and who is lining their own pockets. Snap photos, ask the locals and you’ll know for sure that your aid dollars did something.

I feel confident about Niapele’s ability to make a difference – with Megan in Liberia, I have a renewed sense of optimism. Celina and I are also going to continue finding new ways to raise funds, and, in an effort to be transparent, I’ll be posting updates about our progress. In fact, this is part of our broader attempt to revive our online presence as an organization – new Facebook public profile, new Twitter account, and a new resolve to make things happen.

 

For those who might have missed it, here is the video that Ayoka Productions made for us last year:

 

Warning: Shameless Plug

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It’s – contrarily to what you might imagine – actually easy as pie.

When you shop through we-care.com, one of the 700 merchants gives a percentage of the sale to The Niapele Project – and you pay exactly the same price you would otherwise, or even lower!

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It’s so simple – and it will really help support refugee kids in Liberia.


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How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.


Long Time No Read!

I admit, I have been majorly slacking on the blog front in recent weeks, but I have some excellent reasons (no, really, I do). Following a year long search for the perfect job, I was offered a position as Program Associate for the Vancouver-based Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative in early June. Since then, I have been multi tasking more than ever, trying to wrap things up in Paris before moving to Canada, and with World Refugee Day events and all the Niapele work that needed to get accomplished, it was a challenge!

I’ve been in transit since late June, seeing family and friends in various locations before settling in Vancouver – a city that I had never set foot in until this past Monday. Needless to say, since then, it’s been a mad race to find a place to live, figure out my way around, etc. As a result, I unfortunately had to put my blog and other personal endeavors on the back burner for a while. But I’m getting back on the proverbial horse, and will begin writing substantial posts again next week.

If any of you have any Vancouver recommendations for me, let me know! I don’t know anyone or anything here, and welcome any friendly advice.

Since I have been by myself for the better part of this week, I’ve been having meals alone – so as not to feel like a social outcast, I’ve been bringing a book to the various eateries I have graced with my presence. The book in question is entitled “The Wisdom of Whores” by Elizabeth Pisani, and in spite of its seemingly R rated title, it’s a fascinating read. Written by a journalist-cum-epidemiologist who has been involved in the fight against AIDS since the early 90s, it provides a really interesting perspective on HIV/AIDS, and the international response to it. I’m only half way through, and I prefer to have read the whole thing before giving a fuller account of it, but if you’re in need of a summer read that will surely attract raised eyebrows in public settings (trust me on this one), “The Wisdom of Whores” is for you.