Closing the digital divide in Czechia

Plastenco, Czechia. Photo credit: CARE Czechia.

On 31 December 1992, Czechoslovakia was dissolved, with its constituent states becoming the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Thirty one years later, and the Czech Republic (known as Czechia) and Slovakia rest at #35 and #42, respectively, on today’s GDP list of ranked country’s (based on IMF’s gross domestic product scores).

It won’t surprise the loyal readers of this blog (all three of them) to hear that I’ve not become an overnight economic boffin. Instead, I wanted to share some thoughts about Czechia and, more specifically, STRIVE Czechia, an initiative I’m working on, which supports small businesses in a country that I knew very little about, until now.

Whilst GDP calculations are not typically an accurate picture of personal earnings, these rankings suggest that individual annual earnings in Czechia and Slovakia are in the ballpark of $31,000 and $23,000.

For comparison’s sake, the UK is ranked at #22 with $46,000, and Burundi is at #192 with $249 (which seems too low to be correct, but I’m not the IMF).

I’ve visited Czechia’s capital, Prague, a few times, first in the late 1990’s, and subsequently in the early 2000’s, and I remember it being a very easy city to get to grips with.

Literally being the part of the world from which the concept of “bohemian” originated, the blend of old and new, of traditional and modern, the city’s architecture, its stylish sweep of cafe-lined streets, cobblestone bridges, sculpted lampposts and spires, the wafts of wine-soaked stews coating the senses – all of these things and more (the beer, for starters!) left indelible watermarks on the memory of my formative years, stepping out and into new adventures.

The countryside, I recall, was like a framed antique painting: colourfully etched, and stuck somewhat in time. Long, empty lanes scoring through forests. Wide open blue skies.

After a dozen years living in Saigon, drinking in these memories is a mental tonic, to the daily cauldron of heat and vapors that epitomizes urban Asia.

Anyway, nostalgia relived. To business. Small business, to be more specific.  

STRIVE Czechia: Helping small entrepreneurs grow and succeed in the global digital economy

STRIVE Czechia is a three-year initiative, run by CARE Czechia, and supported by Mastercard, plus an array of partner entities.

And STRIVE is on a mission quite unlike a CARE International programme of old. Why? Because it is not the poorest, or most vulnerable population groups in the country that STRIVE is solely targeting (a criteria that CARE, for many decades, held up as key).

Rather, this work is about economic gains on a macro level, and it is about growing and advancing the country’s private sector.

As a CARE initiative, STRIVE is focused on MSEs (micro and small enterprises) run by women – it hopes to reach 100,000 women run MSEs, out of a total of 250,000 – but it also has ambitions to support at least 10,000 MSEs led, or owned, by displaced Ukrainian entrepreneurs.

STRIVE’s goals are to positively influence the development of the country’s MSEs because, collectively, they make up 99% of Czechia’s economy, and provide employment for 67% of the country’s population. It is MSEs on whom the Government is reliant, when it comes to inching Czechia higher up in next year’s IMF rankings.

Economic gains made by MSEs will support the wider communities and citizens of Czechia. Economic gains made by MSEs will open up opportunities for young people, as well as those more disadvantaged for various reasons.

A core part for the programme is helping MSEs access and benefit from digitalization, given the current situation in the country, whereby low numbers of MSEs are fully benefiting from digitalization, and where many also lack the necessary proficiencies to utilize digital tools and financial products.

Many also don’t have connectivity with peer networks and face the challenges (as most small businesses do) of juggling responsibilities of work and home life. A dynamic that is of particular resonance for women, given the social norms that place them, over men, in positions of responsibility in the household – the systemic “duty of care” that, the world over, prevents women from advancing at the same pace as men, in terms of earning income and having control over resources.

Whilst the modality of how STRIVE is seeking to intervene in Czechia might, on the surface, seem different to how “development” programmes have in the past been delivered (ie targeting the poorest communities) CARE is not new to engaging MSEs, nor to working in partnership with the private sector to do so.

CARE’s IGNITE programme, here in Vietnam: photo credit CARE International

I’ve written continuously about CARE’s collaborations with business for over ten years now, and the tie-up with Mastercard is fast becoming one of the confederation’s signature partnerships.

As part of CARE’s global commitment to support female entrepreneurs, they have already delivered some fantastic outcomes for entrepreneurs in Vietnam, Peru and Pakistan, as part of the IGNITE Programme – an initiative also supported by Mastercard and seeking to close the digital divide for female entrepreneurs.

CARE’s experience in “financial inclusion” (finding ways of reaching the many millions of people cut off from formal financial services) is deep-rooted and has evolved over the past thirty years.

Bringing some of the world’s largest financiers to the table as part of that, has been essential.

The “Banking on Change” partnership (circa. 2009) between CARE, Plan and Barclays was a watershed moment, both for operationally linking up local savings groups to formal structures, and then for how this partnership lobbied, at an institutional level, for a more unilateral banking “Charter” – supported by the World Economic Forum at the time and influencing multiple other business industries.

Not unsurprisingly, in 2014, Mastercard signed up to the Linking for Change Savings Charter (to give it its full title back then) and have continued to promote linkages, as well as the opportunities that digitalization can bring, in terms of confronting income and wealth inequalities.


Returning to STRIVE Czechia, I look forward to sharing more over the summer, as the second year of activities rolls out, including: the creation of a ‘One-Stop Shop’ facility for MSEs to leverage digital and financial resources; and launching further deep-dive research into the challenges and opportunities encountered by Czechian MSEs. All of which will serve to fine-tune how STRIVE best supports the country’s private sector in the future.

Many of the MSEs already engaged in STRIVE speak of the benefits they’ve accessed from the programme. Plastenco (featured in the youtube clip, below) is a sustainable design MSE, and one of the first wave businesses to collaborate with the STRIVE team – sharing their needs, and optimizing the space that STRIVE is holding for open dialogue between private, public, civil society and academia in Czechia (STRIVE is in discussions with the Academy of Sciences currently, to address some of the multi-dimensional issues about gender, mentioned above).

It is through the collaboration with the likes of Plastenco, as well as the combined time and effort of openly engaging other MSEs, that STRIVE can shine a light on just how critical MSEs are to the country’s future economic and social gains.

In closing, and returning to the intricate connection between Czechia and Slovakia, a recent report by the firm sapie, conducted in Slovakia, is worth highlighting, for comparison’s sake to the eco-system inside which STRIVE Czechia is navigating.

To summarize it, Slovak companies – both SMEs and micro-companies – have a “long way to go to close the gap with the digital frontrunners”. As STRIVE has also documented for Czechian MSEs, Slovak entrepreneurs realise the necessity to digitalize, but lack sufficient knowledge, experience and simple financial tools to be able to fully benefit from digitalization.

Raising awareness in Slovakia, the report concludes, about the benefits of harnessing digital tools and platforms, and demonstrating how such tools can help small businesses to “survive, save money, save time, at least retain their position on the market, as well as increase profitability and competitiveness” are perhaps the very cornerstones required in curating a more robust, and enabling, environment for small businesses and enterprises to function.

This needn’t be very different in Czechia, for MSEs. Each country shares similar economic characteristics and societal constructs.

And it is this, and these areas, around which STRIVE – in partnership with others – will concentrate all of its assets and resources going forward.

So, watch this space!

Czechia countryside. Photo credit:

Stuck in our ways

Gaza, 2017. Photo credit: Tim Bishop

I read two things last week, coincidentally connected.

The first was a report from CARE International, offering insights about the impact COVID-19 has had on the local community groups that CARE has been seeking to support for decades.

I commend this report to anyone with an interest in the topic of international development. The analysis is rigorous, yet the recommendations are simple. The tone is calm, but unsettling, given the evidence being shared, which points not to the successes of the international development community, but instead underscores its failures.

It cites how impactful the pandemic has been, in terms of increasing, rather than decreasing, gender inequalities.

It also proposes that far too much potential progress in development is “held back by the deeply colonial approaches” still adopted by global development organisations, including CARE themselves.

Sifting through social media feeds, I then stumbled upon this quote from the novelist and cultural critic, James Baldwin:

“The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic… And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.”

Drawing these two “things” together (CARE’s report and Baldwin’s musings) doesn’t take a considerable amount of effort: the traditions to which Baldwin refers, are part of the very reason that international development has failed. The traditions that dictate the colonial influences over how aid has been invested, coupled with the traditions which set the social and cultural constructs that exist on the side of the recipients of that aid, create a perfect storm of incompatibility.

For sure, there are examples of success, and I have spent time on these pages promoting them.

Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by examples of failure, and worse: examples of repeatedly making the same mistakes over and again.

Signing of The Marshall Plan: from

In 1948, the United States committed to the rehabilitation of Western Europe, kicking off the “Marshall Plan” as an investment to help countries after the War.

Many of the recipient countries of the Marshall Plan – Britain, France, Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany and Norway – had, themselves, previous experience of providing aid to countries years before.

Foreign assistance, as a concept, had been around since the 18th century. However, since that time, the majority of the assistance given was from countries such as Britain and France, and predominantly to their respective colonies.

To recap, hastily, on how development has evolved since 1948, organisations (such as CARE International) have invested significant time and energy trying to understand how to most appropriately and effectively assist those “living in poverty”.

Those last three words are in speech marks, because defining who beneficiaries actually are has, itself, been a 75-year exercise.

The World Bank annually grade country demographics and, historically, many aid organisations and government donors use this guidance to allocate funds. Which is why more recently South American countries and now South East Asian ones, are receiving less “aid” due to how they have slowly climbed the World Bank rankings, moving from “low income” to “medium income” economies.

Using economic indicators such as these, some development agencies have prioritised the “extreme poor” as a target group for receiving aid.

Whilst others have nuanced their criteria for “poverty” and zoomed in on defining groups of people based on how “vulnerable” or “marginalised” they might be, which then takes into account criteria beyond income.

Over time, and as the international development industry has expanded, more types of people in need are included, in some way, by some organisation, or movement.

In any case, whilst they have been undertaking their deep dive analyses, and designing their ever-complex programmes, these organisations have encountered a slew of cultural and social normative behaviours (again, Baldwin’s ‘traditions’ – to which each community they are assisting is bound and, from which each community is so heavily defined.

For CARE, the gendered aspects of such cultural traditions – whereby men typically dominate decision making and hold the majority of power over women (at home, in the workplace, and in public spaces) – has become the lynchpin around which all of CARE’s efforts have been inspired.

For others, UNICEF or Plan International, for example, their research and development has anchored itself to the challenges that children or young people, respectively, face in society.

As many commentators have cited, the evolution of “aid” over the last 200 years has charted a meandering course, undergoing regular modifications.

Take the topic of financing, for example.

Many nations, and large development organisations, have explored what might be the most efficient financial instruments they can deploy: Government-to-Government loans; microfinance programmes; economic stimulus packages; public-private funded initiatives, designed to strengthen economies and improve societal issues.

Each of these examples, come with their own success stories however, without exception, each encountered this same obstacle of tradition on both sides of the equation: the traditional norms set by those investing funds and resources into development, and the traditional norms played out by those receiving the financial “help”.

Given these constraints, it is simply not clear, even today, what types of interventions are best and how these should be delivered.

Is it more appropriate, for example, to stimulate economic growth for a country or, instead, better to understand upfront what is needed by those in that country who are struggling financially and who are excluded from formal systems (ie they lack access to bank accounts, internet, markets, education, etc) and to design an intervention that addresses that need?

Both of these approaches have been tried and tested and, in some cases, combined. However, again, traditional norms create obstacles along the way.

For example, direct budgetary support (a financial transaction between Governments) was, for a while, a popular choice of many richer nations to financially support poorer ones. Yet, this type of support could be all too often undermined by recipient Governments not properly distributing the funds through public services. Instead, many would funnel disproportionate amounts into other areas, such as to the bank accounts of Government officials.

And, when it comes to implementing the second approach (ie answering the “needs” question) this, too, can be compromised by the nature of who makes decisions in society, writ large.

Not exclusively, but typically, all such development-based transactions, and development-based relationships in the past were led by men.

The result of which is that less consideration, over seven decades of international development, has categorically been attributed to those societal issues that would have been selected by women. Women simply haven’t had the opportunity to have an equal voice in conversations about international development in that time. Not in the initial orchestration of The Marshall Plan, nor in the decisions with, and within, communities in terms of where and how the resources should be utilised.

It was CARE who established the first ever Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) in Niger in 1991, a mechanism for women to save and loan money with one another.

This, in turn, inspired the scale up of VSLA platforms around the world, adopted by other organisations too, encouraging women to have a voice inside of communities, and ultimately enabling women to speak out and influence local structures and systems.

VSLAs are one example of how this acutely gendered dynamic and imbalance is shifting. Unfortunately, the pace of change is slow.

Take the issue of unpaid care. This remains a pertinent topic even in the most “progressive” of societies. In the world of business, equal pay and worker benefits are also not yet level for all employees. For many nations, their politicians and leaders have been, and in many cases remain to be, male dominated. As of 2021, only 1 in 5 ministerial positions globally were held by women and, even today, just 17 countries have a woman Head of State, and 19 countries have a woman Head of Government.

These stark ratios are reflected, too, at the local level of the majority of countries – in the political and public spaces of local authorities and community leaders, in small to medium enterprises and local businesses. The patterns are similar, the outcomes the same.

And, whilst today’s inter-connected world has increasingly called out these gender imbalances, in a way that simply wasn’t viable even 20 years ago, Baldwin’s intuition when he writes “They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity” rings true.

Just as traditional norms hold back gender equality, so too do they stifle advancements made around other forms of inequality.

More than ever, we have been made aware of the economic inequalities of the world – the “1%” phenomenon.

Every country maintains its own version of this and, globally, it would seem that the ratios of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ become ever more extreme with each annual set of data released.

According to last year’s World Inequality Report, “Global wealth inequalities are even more pronounced than income inequalities. The poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2% of the total. In contrast, the richest 10% of the global population own 76% of all wealth.”

Armed with such data, it is hard not to side with those campaigning for change. Be that from an accountability perspective, lobbying for more responsible policies and practices adopted by business and by government institutions. Or be it from a more ethical perspective, targeting individual behaviours.

Both make sense, yet both have their limitations when it comes to just how much ground individuals, corporations, or governments, are prepared to concede at their own expense.


With power comes responsibility, and all too often that responsibility lies in the shadow of a tradition that is extremely hard to change.

Whether you set your sights on tackling inequality, poverty, vulnerability, marginalisation, gender equity, disability, child rights, or other such societal issues, I would argue that Baldwin’s plea for a “higher level of consciousness” remains, simultaneously, a sobering as well as a viable salvation, when redressing some sort of balance in the world.

Although I was tempted to end this post conceding that Baldwin’s call to action might never be fulfilled, instead I would suggest that the subject of ‘consciousness’ gains more traction with each generation.

What if we kept a higher level of consciousness close to heart, and nurtured that sense of what it can mean each day? What if we tried to imbue Baldwin’s words and sentiment into as many interactions, thoughts, exchanges and relationships that we could accommodate?

Do this, and perhaps there may yet come a time where our connectivity with one another sets in train a new sense of what tradition is, what it stands for, and what new outcomes it might reveal.

Placing the future of ‘Partnerships’ in the best hands

A new dawn for partnerships – Bangkok, March 2023

Last week I co-facilitated a training course for UNESCAP (the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) at the UN headquarters in Bangkok.

This is noteworthy (and the cause of my first post here since May last year) largely because it represents only the second overseas trip I’ve made for work, since I high tailed it out of Laos in March 2020, with hours to spare, before the Vietnamese border police would have had me detained for a fortnight.

Whilst narrowly avoiding being barred for tampering with UN tech equipment in our set up last week (as well as encountering a curious number of delegates who tried to infiltrate our course) the days spent with the 20 participants enrolled on the training was a real privilege, and a further reason for sharing some reflections here.

The course itself – The Partnering Initiative (TPI) Partnership Accelerator – was a distilled version of a longer set of modules that I’d been conducting online, during the pandemic, as an associate of TPI. In engaging previous teams in the content, from international NGOs, through to large corporations, and UN agencies themselves, I’ve come to acknowledge that TPI’s curriculum offers up a comprehensive and water-tight set of insights and tools, to equip most would-be partnership experts out there looking to forge, manage and scale up multi-stakeholder initiatives and collaborations.

Built into our sessions in Bangkok was more than a smattering of theory and frameworks, about how to get the best out of your partnerships, alongside practical exercises and role plays, designed to allow teams to practice such things as negotiation skills, trust building, and experiencing alternative power dynamics.

Last week’s participants had gone through a lengthy application process in order to participate and then, in most cases, had also gone through lengthy journeys from various SIDS (Small Island Development States) in order to physically show up in Thailand.

Fiji, Mauritius, Seychelles, Palau, Kiribati, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste were all represented in some form, during our two days – a constellation of countries covering some of the planet’s most diverse and distributed societal eco-systems.

There are 58 SIDS in total, and one of the resounding pieces of encouragement, that I took away from those engaged in last week’s training, was the appetite and energies they told us their country’s young people felt about the array of sustainability issues that the UN, and others, have carved out across the existing SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

I was struck not just by the talent and inputs and experiences shared in the room during our course, but by how motivated each participant was to take their knowledge and learning from the course back to their home countries and to disseminate this wider.

Young people, it was made clear, either still studying, or launching their careers in SIDS, hold the key, in so many ways, to unlocking and unleashing the real power that true partnership-working possesses, when it comes to addressing the world’s most pertinent of social and environmental crises.

All too often, cultural and historical norms predominantly practiced by older generations, hold back progress in society. Progress, for example, towards enabling more girls to have access to education. Progress towards offering more inclusive opportunities for local communities to benefit from national and international supply chains. Towards a future where land rights are equally distributed and acknowledged, where political spaces incorporate more voices from those all too often marginalised, where the resources and the influence of the private sector are leveraged in a more equitable way, namely one which benefits the world’s informal economies.

These outcomes, and many more, were the talk of our sessions in Bangkok, and these issues deserve more airtime beyond a brief training course.

From our participants last week we heard that these are issues which should be built more rigorously into school curricula. Their importance is such that we cannot rely on those in current positions of power, set as they often are in their own ways, and blinkered to emerging societal trends, to be the “changemakers” or the “catalysts of change” that they so often label themselves.

It is young people, either of school or university age, or of working age, with whom these issues most resonate.

Tomorrow’s leaders will carry the can for many of the mistakes made since the concept of “partnership” was broadly incorporated into development jargon. Some people in development circles will say partnerships have always been around, but it was, perhaps, only really at the UN’s 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development that the concept of multi-stakeholder partnerships was first coined in a serious way.

In the 30 years since, we’ve seen some admirable attempts to model partnership working. However, we’re just skimming the surface of what I believe can be achieved.

TPI have been hard at it, consulting, designing, sharing and teaching thousands of practitioners since they took on this gauntlet almost 20 years ago. I admire them for that, and for what they have carved out in this space. They are leading the charge.

It is, however, in the hands of the younger generation, in my opinion, where we should be increasingly targeting investments, resources and opportunities to build even wider and deeper the ‘know-how’ about what partnering can achieve, and how it can be done even better. And, on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

Precious moments

In a recent, albeit fruitless, effort to ween myself off social media, I was struck by a quote that runs along the lines of: “live a pleasant life, and support other people to find the same…if you don’t find a way of reducing the suffering of your surrounding, your suffering won’t stop.”

With a suitable background piano, and delivered by Shi Heng Li, no less ( the message smacks one “in the chops”, as we say back home.

It’s lingered over the weekend as a sentiment for me, like a welcome mental mist.

Out and about in the smog and hot fug of Saigon each day since, I’m running these words over and over, unsure what the necessary action is to satisfactorily fulfill Shi’s gentle command.

Every 50 metres you walk further away from my house, you will pass a dozen people selling small items, each day the same routine and outcomes, and yet I sense no suffering there.

Further afield, into Vietnam’s literal paddy-fields, and a similar story unfolds. Very small incremental gains for those living in the countryside. Some additional livestock purchased, perhaps, repairs to a roof, petrol for the scooter.

However, enter into these rural enclaves as I have done, and the warmth of welcome is deeper than the pockets of the most generous philanthropist.

The charm and wisdom of the millions of Vietnamese who have thrived, from one day to the next, away from the grey city skylines of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, all of their lives, cannot be matched by any city dweller, of any age.

What is the nature of the suffering out in these rice fields?

Were a local farmer to have access to Instagram, would we then learn more about his or her anxieties, through the medium of a ‘reel’ or a series of sarcastic snapshots? Would they be blogging in such existential ways?

I think not.

The curse of some of our modern day social norms, exacerbated by social media, is the value we place on our own brands as individuals, over and above the value which we place on lifting up others.

If many of us stopped spending time – as I am doing now? – talking about all the things we’re doing, and how we are feeling and, if we reduced the hours and hours of watching others doing the same, we’d have a whole lot of fresh time back, with which to tackle Shi’s conundrum.

So, for what it’s worth, I’ve settled on a humble solution for this, which takes a leaf out of many self-help books, no doubt.

You will see, as I reveal it, a corollary with such topics as diet, exercise, health, wellbeing, and so on. The solution? It needs, surely, to be the tried and tested “little and often” approach.

It being compassion, it being thoughtfulness, it being the act of lifting others up.

If we’re happy obsessing about walking 10,000 steps a day, or committing to eating less sugar with each meal, or more fibre and less meat, or more locally sourced products, or, if we’re looking at regular stretching, meditating, reading, or even regular time not on our phones (the list here is endless) then, let’s experiment with what it looks like, and feels like, to spend more time, little and often, showing up for each other.

I’m sure plenty of ground-breaking new science is released every week that I don’t know about. New poetry, fabulous prose, faultless new musical scores. Technology and innovation this century has already whooshed past me like a bullet train.

And yet, it’s a fairly humiliating prospect to contemplate the years and years of downloadable nonsense that we’ve collectively archived, since social media first graced our tablets and our smartphones.

What a seething canon of wasted oxygen and countless hours of millions of people’s lives, trawling the murky corners of someone else’s piece-to-camera, or trolling a perfect stranger’s statement about the ennui of their day job.

How many more cats slapping the household pet dog am I going to inflict on myself? How many more troll-able opportunities am I going to deliberate?

Elon may have slowed down his purchase of Twitter for now, but the bloated price-tag of the initial sale made me sick to the core – and guilty, too.

The 10 Shaolin virtues are a good start to some sort of social purging, no question. I’m not sure you could jump off from a more solid base.

Should it be, however, a little too much to digest and embody all ten in one go (I think each one probably requires about a year of practice first) then don’t feel too deflated.

Instead, simply practice the art of connecting with your loved ones, or with someone out there who you know would welcome the chance to feel your showing up them, for a few precious moments.

Respectfully human

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

(John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States)

Whilst many conflicts rage on around the world, the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia has repercussions on a seismic scale. The ominous sequencing and nature of what we’ve been watching unfold is steeped in derangement, and pulls on our every fear about the dark capabilities of man.

Separated by distance and our screens, we can only wonder at what impacts are being hoist on innocent lives, on both sides – the collective unpacking of what it all means seeping into everyone’s daily discussions.

At a business networking event yesterday, it was in reference to this war, with its nuclear connotations, that crystalised a debate we’d been having about corporate responsibilities, and about the world’s sustainability agenda.

Like the ultimate trump card, all possible solutions and interventions to patch up society’s failings and our handling of climate controls, can be swiftly rendered obsolete at the mention of events currently unfolding across Europe.

And still, a bright and intuitive lesson was shared, as our forum closed out, by one of the panelists, an erudite businessman who spoke from the heart about the issue of ‘fatigue’.

On the surface, for someone who has money in the bank and a comfy bed to sleep on, one solution to fatigue, for him and for others alike, is in plain sight. Many millions of people can only fantasize about having access to such “luxury”.

A deeper point he drove home, however, was less about physical exhaustion. It was, instead, more pertinent to a fatigue of the soul.

The disruption caused by the pandemic over the past two years has had far-reaching implications on just about everyone. As each day paints for us another bleak picture of just how much Covid-19 has come to redefine and reframe reality, we are internalising new sets of questions about almost everything.

Impossible, though it may be in practice, I think there are unifying aspects to this from which, perhaps, we can draw.

As this same panelist spoke about his own coming out, as a gay man in the 1980’s, the challenges of which were ever present both in and out of the workplace, he offered the audience an insight into some of the things that had shaped him as a leader.

“Once I was able to feel accepted as who I was, particularly by my peers at work, I was able to give 100% of myself to the job in hand – before that, this was impossible.”

Therein lies a truth that all of us, but especially those of us who are managing others, must never underestimate.

Whilst many employers have policies and practices in place, which might support workers’ rights and protect their safety, how often and how easy it can be to miss the finer details. The tone of an email, the implications of a decision made, perhaps. Or the inequalities that some organisations perpetuate every minute of the day through thoughtlessness and unconscious power plays.

Each example of which can chip away at the spirit and the productivities of those employees who will, always, hold the key to that same organisation’s only truly viable and long term success.

If we are to stand up to those who misuse their power, on any level and in any scenario, then we must show up, consistently, with a different set of tools and approaches.

Diversity and inclusion (favoured parlance of our current times) do not simply manifest because a policy is drawn up. They happen when we break down the essence of what they embody – the ability to empathise, to listen, and to allow others around us to give their 100%.

None of which advice needs to be couched in terms of democracy vs autocracy, nor should these attributes be waved off because of “cultural differences” or “behavioural norms.”

They transcend beyond the connotations of leadership, even, because they are intrinsically bound by one thing only, and one thing only – a respect for being human.

Water Tiger time

I’ll push off at dawn tomorrow on my bike, and carve down towards the coast. A new route, snaking through swampland and through rivulet shards, broken off from the Mekong River.

Countdown to midnight on December 31st is well underway over here. Stranded in Vietnam for another Christmas, another long drawn out year of waiting.

With each gear shift and wheel cycle, splattering droplets of mud off the road’s hard shoulder, I’ll be seeing off 2021, with its pain-staking lockdowns and startling monthly ennui, as the world kept seeking out answers from pasty, fat-faced figures of authority.

Turning each corner as I sail off, briefly, on another routine voyage of escape, gripping the handlebars of my bike tightly, hoping for some normality in this coming year.

Hoping for travel outside of Vietnam, hoping to see our family. Hoping Flo and Martha’s school re-opens after another protracted seven months of online tuition.

I’ve not been short of work this year, nor different types of focus, but the familiarity and comfort of forward planning has again been cut off at the legs.

As I reach my 11th Tet in this country, all the many daily wonders on offer here remain: hot, black drip coffee supped at a local cafe, street vendors nearby, all smiles as their livelihoods come out of a four month hibernation. “3 jabs” points the pho seller to me, proudly pointing to the top of his arm.

With each rise and fall of tropical sun here, I count the smiles received from locals as sacred moments. And there are many smiles. So many locals here are fully focused at any one time, focused at hustling, surviving, making it all work. Accepting full-heartedly that things “are what they are.”

Me, I’m still learning how.

In the meantime, as I walk by my house, the smell of fried pork sizzles with the roasting of garlic, and coffee bean steam rises up from the local factory. Conical hats bob up and down my street, one on a bicycle peddling re-cycled boxes, one carrying a wooden yoke of coconuts.

The Year of the Water Tiger – a year of stability and self-esteem – is coming.

Identifying for Good

Over the last twenty years I’ve had no reason to doubt my career choices. It felt very comfortable, reassuring and affirming to decide to work in the non-profit sector in 2000, having come out of brief dalliances in both the public and private spheres, and that hasn’t changed since.

For each new organisation with whom I committed my time, the binding employment contract I accepted came second (in my subconscious, perhaps, at the time) to the far more important criteria of attaching my own modus operandi to each new organisational mission that hired me.

I moved first through the genres of disability and cancer, before being lured into to what has ostensibly become my main discipline, namely the role that the private sector plays in social development.

It was then inside the world of international development, from 2006 to 2019, whilst working for CARE, that I probably become the most entrenched. If adopting today’s parlance, I would go further and say that it is with this “group” of people (ie working in similar roles inside of global NGOs) that I identify with being closest.

It feels like the older we get, the more potential there is for us as individuals to incorporate areas of knowledge from our professions, alongside some of the other identifiers available to us, such as gender, geography, religion, politics, race, age, and on and on.

For the best part of 11 years now living in Saigon, I’d be adding “ex-pat” to the list of characteristics that define aspects of who I am and how I come to process truth, make decisions, and show up in the world.

This, in addition to: originally being from the UK (from the “South-East” of the country and also for a long time as a “Londoner”); to being a father; to feeling more artistically oriented; to requiring more collaboration and contact in my everyday; to being Caucasian; or, even, through to being a committed dawn runner, and perhaps various other things in between.

What I’ve enjoyed from working in the development sector has been the connections with so many different people along the way, the collective interest in bringing about change for others, and finding solutions in different contexts.

I don’t see that altering now, either. As a freelance consultant, my radar is set to a similar setting, the rewards from which, for me, feel the same as before. Success through connection and through the working out of problems together.

One difference I’d like to posit, today, is to pose a question about the under-pinning of how organisations working in social development (and I’m particularly thinking about the likes of CARE) might benefit from a radical reframing of their mission statements.

By which I am specifically asking: does an organisation categorising groups of people around the world as “most vulnerable” or “marginalised” or “poor” in fact compromise their own efforts in fulfilling their mission to bring about “change” or “positive impact” to these groups by using categorisation in the first place?

One academic exercise I won’t carry out at this point (as I’d like to try and entertain the idea that a few people reading this might persevere and make it to the end of the blog) is to ask what we mean by each of these words in quotation marks above? Answering that question is important but not for right now.

Instead, I’d like to suggest that, in arranging society into these categories, and then by claiming that the logical change you want to bring about would be to stop a “poor” person being poor, could be a highly flawed claim to be making.

Testing one’s central hypothesis for such things is key, and many development entities would tell you that their approach to change is rooted in “localised” ideas and solutions to local issues. Or, that they fully consult with the groups they are seeking to help.

As a process for validating an assumption about what might work, this type of inclusive approach is fine. I wouldn’t also suggest, too, that the aid industry hasn’t in fact moved away from its foundational principles of why it was ever necessary to give aid to others, back in the mid-forties when the Marshall Plan was established. Much has changed since then, in terms of how to achieve impact. Technology, innovation, learning lessons, sharing models – such things are helping streamline operations and interventions.

However, does it still make sense to orient an end state for all, that seeks out equity, balanced prosperity, equal rights and opportunities for all, that aims to harmonise and align societal norms and behaviours so that all voices are heard and all valued?

I don’t think it does anymore. And this is the first time I’ve really challenged the assumption.

I’ve been finding social media can perpetuate aspects of what I’m describing here, and maybe that has been the trigger for this post.

Internet platform such as Facebook or Twitter, offering everyone the space and the audience to share truth-seeking philosophies is, in my opinion, creating an out of control paradigm, where identifiers are more important than facts, and have more online utility than scientific data. As well as predominantly being platforms through which young people curate the content and the processes for public discourse, the result of which is seeing substantive numbers of moralising arguments, solely based on identifiers, rather than based on knowledge.

I don’t see this new reality changing much in the near term, either.

What I would advocate for would be longer form discussions, debates and shared learning about solutions to what, of course, remains a long shopping list of social and environmental inadequacies, inequities and injustices. We should always want, and need, to find ways to discuss these topics, however, is social media the right vehicle for doing so?

It seems to me that, whilst the world has advanced and evolved, and can lay claim to some significant achievements over the past 75 years, many individuals are not currently living the lives they want to live. Many people, similarly, can’t fully follow the dreams they have. Or, are unable to access services and products they need. And this is happening across many countries, of differing dynamics and historical contexts.

A commitment to changing this, would be a good commitment to have. But not at the expense of dehumanizing people through categorization, and in such an assumptive and alienating way.

In some religious dogmas, the after-life is represented as a utopia. For non-religious organisations such as CARE, this utopia is typically summarised in a vision for a world “with no poverty”, or such like.

I would argue against visioning or believing in any form of utopia. Which is not to say one shouldn’t work hard in life to be supportive and compassionate, and to display qualities of grace and forgiveness, and ultimately to want to make improvements for oneself and for others.

What I think is missing, in these grandiose organisational mission and vision statements – the language and sentiment of which is used to professionally baptise employees from Day 1 – is a more fundamental enquiry and validation of whether these outcomes are the rights ones to be targeting?

Otherwise they simply become meaningless sound-bites, and monikers (onto which one can spend disproportionate amounts of time pinning aspects of one’s own identity) and which can then pull people away from the actual task in hand of addressing critical societal questions.

In my work going forward, I will continue to delve into these elements of enquiry. Across the diversity of organisations and individuals with whom I engage, I think, in many ways, this might be the most important pursuit to try and honour.

The answers might not always come back as we should be investing in “organisational development” or in “brokering multi-sector partnerships and collaborations” (all popular rubric from the past 15 years) the answers could instead be to leverage social media in new ways, or to catalyse a new way of learning about what change means and how to make it happen.

The answers could be all or none of these things.

What matters, perhaps, is that, on this particularly journey of learning, we are each “empowered” to ask and answer these questions along the way.

Where praise is due

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The crowds always warm to the underdog, it seems.

Novak Djokovic, losing the US Open final on Sunday, has won over many of those who’ve mocked his countless victories. At least that’s what Jonathan Liew from The Guardian believes.

I’m not sure it matters if Jonathan Liew is right or wrong (these days, truth is a thankless commodity to peddle, in any case) but it’s easy to lean into Liew’s sense of how this epiphany moment for Djokovic is worth highlighting.

One game away from a heavy defeat and then, and only then maybe, did the throng of spectators whoop with gusto at the prospect of a Novak Djokovic fight-back. In the presence of this wave of emotional support, Djokovic broke down in tears. His defeat a matter of points away, he found himself emotionally unraveled.

If Liew’s hunch is correct, then this could have been the most glorious of defeats, outshining past triumphs, insomuch as it allowed the Serbian protagonist to connect with his audience in a way that had been out of this reach up until then, for the 17+ years he’d played professional tennis.

Whilst there have obviously been a cadre of die-hard fans, following Djokovic’s every perfectly weighted backhand, their collective heart skipping a beat with each t-shirt ripping tournament climax, it would seem (from a brief survey) that an uncomfortable majority of us have felt quite the opposite about his sheer awesome ability.

Rather than challenge the datasets here, I’d wager it might be possible to broadly agree that it can go against our better judgement to consistently praise the same person. Particularly when that person sits up high, undefeated, resplendent in their continued pursuit of winning.

After several years of such carrying on, watching Djokovic, I think it was just instinctive for me to want him to lose.

This isn’t typically the same with team sports. Or during times when we dedicate, say, a fortnight of our life to proudly cheer on anything vaguely “national” – from Eurovision to the Olympics, we don’t pay too much attention to egos, instead we keep churning out only positive sentiments, for our respective flag-bearers and brave gladiators.

With teams, I think even the less hardened patriots are also more forgiving in defeat. If Brazil wins the World Cup – again – whilst there’ll always be supporters of both sides, I feel we’d generally harp on less about them being so infuriatingly unbeatable than many of us have done over the years about Djokovic.

With Djokovic, there seems to have been something else at play all along, when it came to truly appreciating his talent for the game.

I think, sadly, I bought into the idea that he was this smug, robotic, charmless man. Knowing, all along, that this was most likely entirely bullshit.

I’m drawn to plenty of other people, held up in the celebrity spotlight, who ooze passion and determination about their chosen profession or past-time. Without ever questioning why. And, I’ve no doubt, many of them likely possess unappetizing traits, and sizeable egos.

Djokovic maintained identical characteristics to these same people, and yet I never threw down my support for him.

Why, I wonder? An inert desire to see someone, who thinks he’s unbeatable, get beaten? Was I suckered into the media propaganda, carping on about his posturing and his arrogance?

I don’t suppose it matters what has gone in the past. One can’t ‘un-feel’ an emotion, or take back a sentiment that might have been ill-advisedly shared.

Djokovic’s end of game breakdown on Sunday, followed soon after by his admission of being the “happiest man alive” – basking not in another victory, but in the face of this new, unbridled public warmth – is a marvel to watch, and from which to learn.

What shapes our attitudes and perspectives of others is a fundamental, if not the most fundamental, piece of emotional hardware that we have both the luxury and the curse of owning. We’ll never always get it right, that’s for sure. But we should be aiming to condition ourselves towards constant improvements.

Bestowing upon others the praise they deserve, is a reasonable starting point.

Giving them that, however gritted the teeth are through which you do so, would be a welcome change from a status quo where pulling people down seems all too often to be the main show in town.

Human System Failure

“It could be that there is something incompatible between us and our needs and our desires and our nature, and the idea of a human system that can guarantee everything, that can control everything, that can know everything, and that can control and know and run everybody.”

Christopher Hitchens, (Commonwealth Club of California lecture, 2014.)

Down a Hitchens’ rabbit-hole this morning I was, as ever, inspired by his take on a range of topics, and wondering what his column would be saying today about the recent events in Afghanistan, were he to still be alive.

A firm supporter of the decision to invade Iraq, Hitchens’ erudite perspectives over the last decade would have likely propped up a good deal of my knowledge about the world’s various armed conflicts, and the decisions taken by the US and the UK, and others, pertaining to involvement in them.

Covid-19, and its effect on the types of “human systems” to which Hitchens’ analysis alludes, will certainly stand, for a while yet, as a topic for political studies.

One of my friends recently described the last 18 months as an “enormous global bed wetting exercise” which, choice of metaphors aside, can easily be backed up, in terms of the clear evidence we have of the economic and social downturns being experienced, in particular due to lockdowns and the restrictions imposed on society by the world’s governments.

Whilst proven to be deadly, and growing deadlier through its variants, we’ve also growing proof that this virus is manageable. That vaccines are effective. But then, again – and critically for so many millions of people – that knowledge has come at the considerable loss of all the conditions necessary for economic development.

Which is fine if you have savings in the bank and access to the internet, however if you possess neither of these, and happen to also be living in a country experiencing humanitarian crisis, all you can possibly hope to do each day is earn some money.

From a very basic survey of the differences between countries, it’s become clear to me that locking down lower middle income categorised countries, such as Tanzania, Vietnam and Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka is borderline “upper middle” in fact) is an enterprise fraught with issues.

It is possible to lower transmission rates through lockdown but, in a lower-middle income country, it is simply untenable to enforce this for too long.

Talking to friends in Colombo and Dar-es-Salaam just this week, it’s also quite clear that the lower the income classification, the more unrealistic it can be to expect lockdown to be effective at all. In Dar, by all accounts, lockdown hasn’t been a tactic, given the expected disruption, and reaction, it would receive. Sri Lanka’s current lockdown is quite stringent, however many are choosing to bend the rules.

Here in Saigon, we’ve been fully housebound for the past 11 days, and there are plenty of signs that this a.) has not reduced the # of daily cases and b.) is being increasingly questioned by residents, whose businesses have suffered directly, not just recently, but over the last 8 weeks, during which lockdown rules have gradually tightened.

All of which, I think, provides a fresh set of data and assumptions to tackle the question of what type of governance structures, and what over-arching principles of governing, are actually fit for purpose? And, furthermore, which of these, ultimately, will provide optimal future gains for countries, both economically and socially?

Huge question, and no doubt my inability to answer it is what has left me glued to Christopher Hitchens’ monologues, and now penning this blog.

To borrow Hitchens’ line, there may well never be a perfect human system. Instinctively, I’d wager we’ve more examples from the last 100 years of how not to govern, rather than the other way around. Although I led with the mention of Afghanistan, it will surely take another twenty years to understand the full implications of the governance changes undertaken there, since the turn of this century. Not least, the changes of the past fortnight.

Purely from listening to the experiences of others, living in different countries, it’s a somewhat limiting exercise to list out examples of countries in which citizens are currently satisfied with the political status quo. In some cases, people’s whole lives appear to have been dedicated to illustrating the grievances to which they’ve been subjected, due to incompetent and unrepresentative politicians.

Sure, a modicum of vocal support for one’s country is easy enough to come by from these same people. I’m guilty as charged when I think of the unfounded fixation experienced during the recent Olympics, cheering on teenager skateboarders and pensioned show-jumpers. In every sense, since the pandemic took hold, any momentary and welcome distraction, sporting or otherwise, away from the topic of Covid itself, should have been embraced, like a long lost family member.

However, when people are drawn on the subject of welfare systems, of racial equality, government accountability, capitalism, communism – all the way through to exchanging stories of lockdown measures, contact tracing, vaccination brands, and everything in-between – it’s safe to say we’re very quick to get ourselves hot under the collective collar.

Will we undertake the type of “reset” that some are hopeful will, like a silver lining, provide a positive seam of learning to take away from this pandemic?

I was skeptical, earlier in the week, about this, within the context of organisations embracing the concept of collaborating with one another, sharing resources and objectives in the face of difficult social and economic conditions.

However, as individuals, with the respective desires, needs and nature, to which Hitchens references, can we actually reset ourselves? What does this look like even? Donating more time to good causes, loving thy neighbour, learning new skills, teaching old ones?

Once more, I can only conclude that, to do any of that – viscerally, actually – remains the privilege of the few, rather than of the many.

To even contemplate how “resetting” what we want, and how we go about getting it, for far too many people (from Kabul to Ho Chi Minh City, from London to Leeds) is at best an impossible proposition.

Quality over quantity: taking a new approach to partnering

The adage about “quality over quantity” is, perhaps, a useful moniker to attach to the behaviour of much of what has defined the last 30 years of Western society. If only more people invested less on satisfying their own need to consume and amass money.

I remember Oxfam’s hard hitting inequality campaign about the 85 people on the bus earning more than half the world’s wealth. Suitably appalled at the notion, I carried on with my life. The Panama Papers brought out a similar reaction, and I maybe spent as much as 15 minutes spluttering into my morning coffee about that one, before moving onto the next item.

Is it possible we are becoming immune to these well articulated and researched realities, when they’re plastered over a Guardian front page, because these issues are too enormous for us to do anything useful about? In which case, have the last 18 months helped curate reasonable conditions for the world to begin what many have called a “re-set” – when it comes to consumer greed and wealth – or does lockdown, instead, simply reinforce individual survival instincts?

I see zero changes in the status quo – the richest in the world continue to set the conditions for life as we know it, the dividends of which are only enjoyed by the people on the bus.

I also see no chance of this status quo changing in the next ten years. The role of China in that time will surely be one of the decade’s defining legacies however, in the meantime, whilst as individuals we can make daily choices about how we conduct ourselves, who we support, and how we “show up” in the world, this post focuses on the coalescing of organisations and institutions.


Partnerships. Collaborations. Multi-sector platforms. Shared value.

These are all buzzwords. In particular, but not exclusively, they’re used across the international development industry, bandied from website to website, embedded in keynote speeches from Washington DC to Ho Chi Minh City.

In the non-profit world I’ve inhabited, for nearly two decades now, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve spoken about each of these these words and phrases (or been lectured to about them) I, too, would have been tweeting moronic selfies from space by now.

In spite of what feels like a decent collective effort, by many in the public, private and non-profit sectors, I simply don’t buy it that the majority of those organisations, pontificating and evangelising about their partnerships, are actually properly invested in them, and committed to partnering, operationally, in the ways that they say they are.

Given the UN helpfully convened and framed a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world, six years ago, a good starting place to find evidence of how organisations have been partnering with each other, to support the SDGs, can be found via or directly through their app. There are some great insights here, and it’s a good way to start to familiarise yourself with each of the Goals, and behind which specific organisations are rallying.

My daughters learnt about the SDGs at primary school. A positive marker of progress, in my opinion, in terms of how the issues of poverty and social and environmental injustice have become mainstreamed through education, and through easier access to information.

Still, I’m skeptical that organisations are only just touching the edges of potential, when it comes to truly partnering with one another.

Having worked with UN agencies, with large International NGOs, smaller non-profits, and with a range of corporations, in different regions of the world, I see the attention to detail lacking. The processes and systems for partnering are not in place. The commitment to rigour – in brokering partnerships, in their execution and in their assessment – are all below par.

Why is that?

1. Many organisations bolt-on these partnering skills to the responsibilities of already “very busy” people;

2. Others don’t secure the buy-in from important decision-makers, which usually results in under-performing partnerships;

3. And, categorically, too many organisations are prone to talking a good game in public about their reasons for partnering, but then oversee (or are forced to oversee) a compromised reality, when it comes to what their organisation is able or willing to invest in that partnership.

Like other things in life, practice makes perfect.

Organisations might do better securing all the resources, time and energy that they do have, into a smaller number of partnerships. Even starting with one. Managing just one partnership really well could have far-reaching and longer lasting results, than managing five mediocre ones.

The Partnering Initiative is a great outfit for those organisations looking to upskill in this area. They offer tools and policy guidance for setting up partnerships, as well as examples on good and bad practice.

There are other good resources out there, too, for those organisations ready to reframe and reinvent how they conduct their partnerships, and especially for those whose objectives are not exclusively designed for the 85 on the bus.

My tip, is to shoot for quality over quantity: make one partnership truly count for something, and this will pay valued dividends in the future, to those who deserve it more.