Friday, December 5, 2008

What is she doing??

The short answer.

At the beginning of October, I started my second placement with Engineers Without Borders. This time around, I’m partnered with International Development Enterprises (IDE). Their mission: To increase the income of small holder farmers through the production and sale of high value crops, namely vegetables. How do they do it? The gist is this:

+ Training (in vegetable growing)
+ Access (to micro-credit, inputs, and irrigation)
+ Opportunities (to sell their vegetables at a fair price)

= Rural Household with $

This is an easy thing to write in a proposal (1+1=2, right?), but it is actually an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. It involves taking an approach that is radically different from those taken in typical agricultural projects.

This is all about business. Nothing is given away for free. Everything is accessed for full price through the private sector. Easy peasy? Not quite. The agricultural sector in Zambia is very under-developed and poorly functioning. It tends to exploit or completely exclude small holder farmers. Small holders can’t make money from farming, and if they do, not fairly.

There is a lack of confidence in the system. But because of this, there exists an opportunity for NGOs, like IDE, to act as honest brokers to help create a functional market in which small holders can fairly participate.

What am I doing? My mandate is to build the capacity of IDE’s field staff to better facilitate market linkages. Disregard the jargon and read on.

The long answer.

My work with IDE has me abuzz with new thoughts on development and (gasp!) even some hope. Yay! Gone are the days of thinly veiled cynical melancholy. I’m excited all over again! This time, though, I’m a bit hardened, a bit more realistic, and perhaps even a little contentious. Watch out!

What am I so excited about? Simply put, it’s about the people.

“Well, Thulasy, if it wasn’t always about the people, what was it about??” Good question.

I spent my first 14 months overseas trying to define this problem of poverty for myself and coming up with some reasonable solutions to it. It was about ideas and how those ideas relate to people, mostly village farmers. What did I learn?

I learned that there are a lot of smart people out there coming up with some pretty ingenious solutions to the ginormous, multi-dimensional, infinitely complex problem that is poverty.

The main challenge, however, is not really in finding the perfect solution, per se, but in actually applying a good-enough solution to the real world. In development-speak, we call this “implementation”.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just givin’r and gettin’r done.

When it all,
all falls down.
I’m tellin’ you all,
it all falls down.

– Lauryn Hill, The Mystery of Iniquity

Markets and trust.

Local field workers are at the front lines of development projects. They are the ones who are ultimately responsible for translating those great ideas - seeming panaceas for poverty - into meaningful impact.

Problem is, big time donors, who are wildly excited about the great-idea-of-the-moment, expect big time results from these field workers, not just by now, but by yesterday.

Expectations like that cannot be met in the blink of an eye. This project may be about getting more money down to farmers, but it takes a lot of time and concerted effort to get money to flow in a system that is completely devoid of any semblance of trust.

Functional markets are built on trust. Think about it: You implicitly trust that you’ll get the perfect non-fat, extra-hot, half-sweet venti chai latte from the stranger behind the counter mere seconds after you order it (at least I do). The barista, in turn, trusts that you will front the cash before you indulge in your afternoon pick-me-up.

Small holder farmers, however, have never been able to trust seed suppliers to offer reliable products and services, and vegetable buyers have never been able to trust small holders to supply a reasonable quantity and quality of produce. There is zero institutional trust.

[L]ow income societies have less trust than rich societies….What is important is the radius of trust. Do you trust only the members of your immediate family? Or does the circle widen to include your extended family, or your clan, or your village, or your ethnic group, or all the way to strangers? In a low-trust society, you trust your friends and family, but nobody else.

– William Easterly, White Man’s Burden

“And you’re excited about…?”

Luckily, field staff are excellent trust builders, particularly with farmers. But the role of field staff is changing. They’re responsible for more than just the farmers. They’re responsible for transforming the tenuous (or oft-times non-existent) relationships between farmers and private sector actors (like seed suppliers and vegetable buyers) into healthy, mutually beneficial ones.

I’m here to help the field staff take on this new mandate. I’m responsible for designing and rolling out a tailored, long-term training program for field staff to improve their ability to build these relationships. This is exciting for two reasons:

1) I have a growing hypothesis that investing in good people will improve the implementation process (and, by extension, the impact-generating process) far more than simply pumping more great ideas or money into the system. This will be a great chance to test this hypothesis and hopefully demonstrate success.

2) I am particularly psyched to be working with the up and coming generation of development workers, young Zambian folks like myself, who are unsatisfied with current approaches and are willing to try new things. Many of them are incredibly intelligent and capable but they just need a bit of a boost (training and practice in the short term, coaching over the long term) to take it to the next level.

I’ve spent the past few weeks visiting all of IDE’s 6 field offices, getting to know the field staff, their work, and their challenges. I spent my first placement in Zambia trying to understand and empathize with small holder farmers, and now, I find myself doing the same with field staff.

It’s important for me to consider them as whole human beings - just like myself, just like anyone in Canada - to understand their aspirations, their limitations, and how we can work together to achieve the goals of the project.

It’s always been about people.

This time, the people are just different.

T :)


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