Economic Resilience: Lessons from a workshop in Kenya

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Local market in Westlands, Nairobi

Every day, we each make decisions about money. Weighing up hundreds of transaction options in a single week, our choices are based on quality, value, needs and desires. To do this, we require information and knowledge, and ultimately we crave the security of knowing that we can afford to buy things.

Cryptic introductions aside, this post is inspired by an illuminating week overseas with new people, and offers up some jet-lagged musings about money and about equity.

Last week I was in Nairobi, with colleagues from Save the Children who’d gathered to share their experiences on the topic of “Economic Resilience”.

In a game of ‘Non-Governmental Organisation [NGO]’ Bingo, now would be the time to mark a cross in your first box: Economic Resilience, what a buzz-word (or “fuzz-word” as someone in Nairobi suggested) indeed.

There were 14 country teams in attendance last week, each armed with definitions, approaches, ideas and stories to tell about their respective efforts at delivering projects with local communities that increase people’s Economic Resilience.

Economic Resilience, for the sake of ease, can be described as the extent to which individuals and wider communities are prepared for the inevitable shocks and fluctuations that occur in every country’s markets.

Save’s intentions around this topic at the moment can be described simply enough, too: how might they best help people, earning the smallest of incomes, better access capital, information and knowledge, in such a way that ultimately contributes to the organisation’s mission of protecting and supporting children?

Do this type of work well, and men and women’s future decision making, and the choices they have about spending money, can be improved in a positive way. Do this really well, and the results also end up having a positive knock on effect on young people looking for ways to earn a dignified living, as well as on children under the age of 18 years old who are then more likely to attend school and live a healthy life.

Easy enough to explain on paper. However, in all things linked to society and the human condition, there are many, many barriers to succeeding in leveling this particular playing field, in terms of everyone having appropriate information, knowledge and means to earn and spend money.

Far from it, we are living in times where economic inequality is one of the single most damaging root causes of poverty and social injustice, affecting all ages and demographics.

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Nairobi’s skyline reflects its booming economic development – photo credit: Ade Kurniawan, Save the Children Indonesia

So, in the world’s vast ocean of global market systems, with their inevitable ‘shocks’ (economic upturns and downturns, political uncertainties, civil unrest, not forgetting the catastrophic environmental implications due to climate change) what and how does any entity – whose mission is to serve the poorest and most marginalised – set about addressing these tangled issues?

In the next few hundred words I hope to pinpoint one or two light-bulb moments from our attempts last week to take on this conundrum.

Nobody at our Nairobi meeting was claiming the rights on this as a new subject matter.

Indeed, the concept of Economic Resilience is decades and generations old in its societal lineage – with the acutely debilitating effect of not being economically resilient being felt most by those living on less than $2-3 dollars a day. All of which is well documented.

Indeed, organizing a cross-team two day event such as Save did, you could never manage to tease out every relevant angle and consideration. However, we did come up with some tangible recommendations to help ease the organisation forward a step. And to these I will refer shortly.

First, in an attempt to address this issue of ‘context’ it’s perhaps helpful to be explicit upfront – albeit briefly – so, here goes: there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to growing people’s Economic Resilience, because of the breadth and complexities of the different contexts in which people are living around the world.

That much, it seems to me, is concrete.

A subsistence farmer living outside of Nairobi, for example, needs to be prepared for the fluctuation of prices that the market might offer up when that farmer sells products. That farmer needs the information about possible flux in advance to know what sort of options they have – ie when, and to whom, to sell their products.

Whereas, in a context such as Gaza, whilst similar economic uncertainties exist, the unfolding of a political crisis could be more likely to have an overwhelming impact on a farmer’s livelihood.

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Economic Resilience is both an urban and a rural programming priority for agencies like Save the Children

I’ve written here before about my trip to Tigray in Ethiopia a few years ago, that unveiled these market systems influences.

At the time I was there, agencies were scrambling to support the oncoming El Nino drought, when a potentially more severe market crisis – the global oil price drop – was about to cause Saudi Arabian importers of Ethiopian livestock to drastically reduce the prices they were prepared to pay for the exported sheep.

Who is then hit the worst in this paradigm? The local livestock owner. The person least likely to have the information and the knowledge to best anticipate what was coming, and without the right means to make informed decisions about what to do.

Wrapped around these different economic and political shocks (in Kenya, in Palestine and indeed across every country) are dramatically changing weather patterns, which have a bearing everywhere. Even if these transpire as different impacts in different places, the implications of climate change are seismic – not just on agriculture and on fishing, but by association on services, manufacturing, retail, and beyond.

As a final feature to all of this, the concept of preparing for, or responding to, crisis doesn’t, in reality, just happen because of one-off events or discreet changes in a market. These economic, political and environmental trends will never dissipate, however for people earning very little, their daily experiences and responses to all things are made within a constant environment of crisis – one that is pervasive and attached to every facet of that person’s day-to-day living.

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So where to start when it comes to reaching people living in poverty or in extreme poverty?

Many International NGOs [INGOs] implement what are known as “graduation” programmes that seek to lift the poorest up, one rung of the economic ladder at a time, by using different types of interventions: from village savings groups and cash distribution, to vocational training, to tackling the patriarchal norms that hold women and girls back from school and in the workplace.

These programmes have proved to work quite well. And yet, without stable and enabling infrastructures and regulations (good schools and medical facilities, for example, or equal opportunities for girls and boys to attend school, and go on to receive equal opportunities in the workplace) without these, and without appropriate knowledge about how to invest and save the money you make, all too easily people fall back into debt.

So. Without an off-the-shelf magic solution to the variety of crises out there, last week we discussed graduation programming and a slew of other models and tried and tested programming. From this we drew up a more practical list of what Save should be focusing on and how Save should be working on this topic – and this list, understandably, needed to be appropriate across many contexts and situations.

Unsurprisingly, as Save colleagues learnt from one another, we opened up a Pandora’s box of issues and underlying reasons why so many millions of people remain in poverty, and remain ill-prepared to financially cope, not just with day-to-day survival, but with the many hazards which lie waiting around the corner.

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Sharing out experiences from programming in Malawi.

By the end of Friday, our deep diving and prioritising of the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ surfaced the makings of a set of robust ideas and thoughts on a formula that Save can adopt more broadly across its multi-country programmes, and its many thousands of staff.

This will, of course, take time to operationalise and, like other INGOs who work in this space, part of the success going forward will be for Save not to attempt to work everywhere, and on all things.

Instead, pinning its commitment to a combination of specific contexts, the organization will then need to stick to a system of how to do this, and design from here an overall approach.

Sounds simple. However, for every NGO invested in Economic Resilience programmes, there will always be “foundational” elements to consider, as part of the design and implementation, and which simply cannot be de-prioritised.

Elements, in Save’s case, that focus on such things as child protection, and which address other underlying causes of child poverty directly.

This means that any formula must incorporate components that improve gender equality, and which include and engage adolescents, people with disabilities, and address the social and cultural norms that contextually affect all of these elements.

Connected to this, the core policy and programme work necessary to enhance “social protection” – a subject which deals with improving the conditions within labour markets and reducing people’s social risks (eg because of such things as unemployment, sickness, disability, or old age) – is paramount.

And so our list builds, and the resulting robustness of any operational ‘formula’ is tested to the max.

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Given the complexity of these elements, and the varying operating contexts, for me a first “light-bulb” from the week then was about simplification.

Breaking complexity down into bite-sized pieces, examining these, before putting these pieces back together in a form that keeps things as practical as possible.

In this, we also concluded that collaboration and partnerships were crucial.

Many coalitions of NGOs, and cross-sector platforms, are already established, in response to the reality that organisations must combine forces to tackle issues of this magnitude.

The Sustainable Development Goals up until 2030 are, as you would expect, arranged in a way that helpfully maps out these same elements and issues, and calls for a collaborative approach in finding solutions that will sustain.

Economic Resilience is well in this mix right now. Whether due to it being current sector ‘parlance’, or because it has genuinely helped NGOs deliver results and innovate – an example here being some organisations introducing ways to adapt project work during implementation, all because of the increasingly predictable changes in the market systems and the effects they have on project outcomes.

Another innovative technique used by organisations has been to integrate their programme themes more purposefully. Combining nutrition projects with education ones, for example – a simple enough idea, but powerful in terms of actually fusing different thematic areas of expertise together, across the design, management and measurement of the work.

Some sector-wide innovations have evolved also, such as the concept of programming in the Nexus – the realm where humanitarian relief and longer term development projects overlap.

Overall, recognising the existence of these many enabling features  – collaboration, partnerships, integrated and adaptive programming – within our group last week (whether they be actual light-bulb moments, or reinforcements of things we’ve known about for a while) was a great start…

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“100% of me is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team.” Inspiring words from Eluid Kipchoge and an inspiring Save team! Photo credit: Ade Kurniawan

The discussions were then further enriched by the contributions from an external panel, at which representatives from Wasafiri Consulting and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] joined Save’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, and gave their perspectives on the topic.

Drawing from these served to energise our thinking. In particular, Fiona Napier from Wasafiri spoke to us about the decision she feels INGOs need to make about focusing not just on the individuals we are seeking to help, but on the wider institutional Systems – engaging with governments and the private sector on trade and policy positions, for example.

Furthermore, the panel challenged us on the need for NGOs to more deliberately step into the fray with the Large Corporations. From International Labour Organisation [ILO] standards on gender based violence in the workplace, through to climate smart agriculture regulations, there are a myriad of roles and responsibilities over which large companies have a significant bearing. And all impact on this debate.

It’s more apparent, than ever before, that INGOs must seek to influence in these spaces.

This then produces challenging dilemmas for social development organisations: to what extent do you invest, for example, in reaching and helping more individuals directly, rather than placing resources into advocacy and campaigning initiatives?

Can and should Save and their peers do both of these things? Or, at the very least get better at collaborating and sharing out the roles and responsibilities amongst one another?

For me, it’s the latter tactic that would be best to pursue.

Save shouldn’t drop its direct programming work, nor should it reduce its advocacy efforts. As Cyril Ferrand from the FAO explained, what a UN agency such as his is looking for in the future, are partner organisations who are willing to step up and unite behind common policy causes, and who can be trusted to sometimes take risks when it comes to collaborating on issues of such magnitude.

Courageous decision making, breaking out of departmental and programming silos, and partnering with the private sector: each of these things have to be taken on more directly and more seriously by all INGOs, that much is crystal clear.

And, were that state of affairs to transpire, then the reality is that many INGOs and organisations working on this topic do already have the tools and resources to design and implement Economic Resilience projects.

The granular details of what and how they deliver on this are almost irrelevant because there are, it is abundantly clear, billions of people whose needs and wants are not being satisfied.

In order to be economically resilient, everyone needs access to the right information, knowledge and capital, combined with the necessary skills and capacities to make choices and decisions about their money. Wherever you live and whatever you do.

From Kenya’s pastureland, to its burgeoning urban centres, the picture is remarkably the same. Just as it is all over the globe.

There is no monopoly that any one agency can possibly have here.

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Sundowners time. Westlands, Nairobi.

 

 

Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?

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Gaza, May 2017 – https://definitelymaybe.me/2018/05/11/money-is-power/

It was during a Business in the Community event in the summer of 2006 that I first met Carol Monoyios, CARE UK’s Marketing Director, and responsible (in part, at least) for the fact that I spent the next 13 years working for CARE International.

Carol and the organization’s then Programme Director, Raja Jarrah, had hatched a plan and it was to be my fate, attending that July event, to end up playing the role of their main protagonist.

Their plan was, and remains, a simple one: create a multi-functional team inside of CARE to work with businesses and markets in a new and more impactful way.

What various colleagues across CARE’s system had determined, the year before at a conference in Nairobi, was that there were many ways to work with business and markets, with the purpose of supporting CARE’s mission of empowering women and girls, but these were not being centrally coordinated very well.

Inside of the NGO sector at that time, most agencies who took money from business were using this largely as a means to fund projects. A separate department would then typically manage the organisation’s “market development” programmes – the result being that these two functions were not collaborating.      Continue reading “Can we really take big business seriously when it comes to the SDGs?”

Designing For Good

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Dawn at the top of one of Bujumbara’s stunning hilltops.

At 8am the CARE Burundi team meet on the lawn outside their office and stand in a circle for Monday’s daily briefing. Updates are shared, stories told, priorities for the day ahead clarified.

The team’s Country Director, Juvenal Afurika, closes out the meeting and comes over to my colleague, Dane, and me, “welcome to Bujumbara,” he smiles, “how are things going so far?”

‘Things’ were going well.

We’d landed into the country’s capital early Sunday, Dane from San Francisco via Europe, and me from Saigon, via the Middle East. Several months of preparatory team calls and re-worked excel sheets, carving out the various components to this assignment, were now gratifyingly behind us, and we were finally on African soil.

A few months prior to this visit we’d had to postpone coming over at the end of 2018, as CARE and the International Non Governmental Organisation (INGO) community went through a re-registration exercise with the Burundi Government.

This time, all was going smoothly as Dane and I sought out an inaugural meal by a lake, which we took cautiously, dining just a few metres away from a sunbathing hippopotamus.

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Sunday lunch with a visiting sun seeker. Lake Tanganyika, Jan 2019.

We had flown all these miles for the opportunity to engage face-to-face with our colleagues in Bujumbara. The aim was to share our ideas about programme design, and learn valuable insights from their team about the challenges they faced designing social programmes.

Inevitably, as I’ve seen in other contexts, teams who deliver social programmes in local communities are juggling a number of priorities. In addition to which they are tasked with creating an appropriate set of activities and engagements that will actually be of use to local beneficiaries in the long run.

As I am sure happens at other INGOs, once a funding contract has been won, the clock instantly starts its countdown to that work being completed and reported back on. Increasingly, and perfectly justifiably, donors and the wider world of thoughtful commentators, want to see tangible evidence of change being made on the ground.

So, with the days and weeks ticking by, local partners initially get signed up to deliver different pieces of the work, whilst community meetings are staged with beneficiary groups.

However, even in these early phases, there are many things that can get delayed and compromise an initiative. Obtaining local government licenses to operate, for example, upskilling partner NGOs, or facilitating successful dialogue with those communities who will ultimately stand to benefit from the programme – these are just some of the things that pose risks to the success of the intervention if they are not carried out in a timely way.

Midway through a programme all too often local CARE teams, like our colleagues in Bujumbara, find their diaries crammed full: donor meetings; project visits; liaising with the different internal CARE stakeholders; compiling progress reports; ensuring compliance and accounting for funds spent; and then the inevitable requirement of drafting up new proposals for the next round of funding.

During this conveyor-belt of tasks there is seldom time for project teams to conduct detailed research, nor to properly test out new ideas for future programmes, let alone then validate the different assumptions linked to these new ideas having an impact.

And so, it was in this realm of testing and validation that Dane and I were focused for the five days we spent with our colleagues.

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Dane sharing out ideas on design thinking. Bujumbara, Jan 2019.

Ostensibly, whilst seeking a world in which poverty and social injustice are overcome, CARE is also striving to render its services, at some point in the future, obsolete. Working itself out of being required by others, as opposed to the mandate of, say, a company which would be more akin to the opposite future state.

However, as a company would place emphasis and resources on conducting market research and product testing, so too must the likes of CARE follow suit, if we are to fulfil our ultimate mission anytime soon.

This was the message we were in town to share and to embed.

Afurika himself was sold on this approach. He and his leadership team had taken stock of CARE Burundi’s future portfolio and programme credentials, and decided on a “full makeover”. Their goal being to set the stage in Bujumbara for a new way of operating – one where design principles were going to sit higher up the list of priorities.

To help catalyse this shift, the team rented a building next to their office, and established it as an Innovation Hub – Hub Nawe Nuze. This was to be a new space to bring people together, to engage external stakeholders in, and to broadcast clearly the intentions of this team – Hub Nawe Nuze was to provide the impetus as well as the visual, practical structure in which CARE Burundi could begin its change process.

Yet, even with the excitement of launching the Hub, to actually evolve and to change a team’s approach is another matter. For CARE Burundi to discover, ideate, validate and then operationalise and scale new programme ideas in a way they’d not tried before was going to require new systems and processes, new roles and responsibilities for team members, and a new culture and mindset to absorb and adapt to all of this.

What transpired in our sessions during that week was one step in a longer exercise of accompaniment and learning to which both our teams had made commitments. Without these commitments, championed at the highest levels of the organisations, we’d simply not get off the starting blocks.

Design thinking comes in many descriptions and several INGOs are experimenting with it. At the core of a lot of what I have been exposed to, that has struck a chord for programme teams, is a commitment to organization and to rigour. Some of our colleagues in Bujumbara seemed to agree with this, too (click below to watch some sound-bites from our discussions with them…)

In practicing with our colleagues the craft of “validating a new idea” (which includes largely spending time consulting others and “sense checking” assumptions behind that idea, prior to spending decent money on rolling that idea out) we were merely facilitating the team’s own perspectives and sense of what may or may not work in their context.

In then following up our time in-country with regular team-to-team calls, and subsequently conducting a second in-person session at Hub Nawe Nuze in April, we were able to take our engagement on further.

Throughout these subsequent phases, the CARE Burundi team focused more on securing time and resources for their team to go on to share their new approach and processes with others (CARE and beyond) working in the Great Lakes region.

Not by a long shot does this ripple effect, in sharing out learning and experiences with others, stand out as new and innovative on its own. Nor should it represent the end of a blog post.

The implications of what CARE Burundi have begun to change in their organization will only take hold in the years to come, not the months and weeks between the next Hub event, or the next internal design team meeting.

What has been validated up until this point, however, are a number of previously rhetorical assumptions about organizational change. That change can be good, and that, indeed, you cannot address old problems without bringing in new solutions.

Still, how often do these beliefs and assumptions lie dormant and untested? How often, when it comes to working practices, can we truly say we’ve tried, tested, failed, iterated and tried again?

“Rendering CARE obsolete” will only be realized once we embrace, as CARE Burundi have begun to do, the inter-connected aspects of what that really looks like (new systems, processes, roles, responsibilities, culture, mindset, leadership and so on).

In this way, design thinking must remain a critical catalyst for CARE as we, along with our peers, accelerate towards making good on our ultimate goal.

Friday missive from Colombo

I have been in Colombo this week, my last visit here in February coinciding with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations.

As I gear up for returning back to Saigon tonight, I’ve been combing through this morning’s report out from Donald Trump’s July 4th speech about America’s independence, alongside a rash of social media streaming Anne Widdecombe’s inauguration (which, let’s just say “touches” on the topic of independence) as a Member of the European Parliament.

Widdecombe, in case you didn’t seen her performance, compares those duty bearers inside the European Parliament to “feudal barons”, and the United Kingdom to the “peasantry” – a “colony” seeking to escape from the oppressive regime of an “empire”.

Trump, to paraphrase his day in the office, made a speech with lots of “uncharacteristic” words in it (such as “we are one people chasing one dream”) and then stood back as his country’s military arsenal flew overhead.     Continue reading “Friday missive from Colombo”

Just Keep Going

 

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Last sunrise of 2018 in Saigon, complete with my favourite ferry crossing.

Happy New Year from Saigon!

There’s nothing like the arrival of January to spark action. Resolutions, I’ve had a few. The most plausible so far being a commitment to eat and drink more slowly, rather than inhaling meals and bottles of wine as if food rationing and prohibition laws were about to be imposed.

Less plausible resolutions include: writing more; drinking less; reading more; and looking at my phone less.

I say ‘less plausible’ in that I’m fairly confident of being able to strike a balance with objectives like these – it’s just a fear of setting myself up to fail by insisting on rigid, self-imposed restrictions. Moderation, it’s often touted, is key, but then so, too, is our ability to feel in control of what we are doing.

More’s the pity that, in many ways, I simply enjoy so many of these pursuits (including my job, and the ebb and flow of travel and time it requires) that I feel more practice is still required to find a useful daily cadence to accommodate all the ‘things’.     Continue reading “Just Keep Going”

Innovations in Resilience

 

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Monday commuters at the end of our street this morning. Photo credit: Stephanie Le @saigonsteph

Over the last 24 hours Saigon has been submerged by Typhoon Usagi – officially the “longest and heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Saigon history”. Earlier last night, me and the girls schlepped home from a friend’s house, up to our knees in water and, overnight, our downstairs bathroom and kitchen were mildly flooded.

Thousands of other city residents here were less fortunate – one man was killed by a falling tree not far from where we live, and stories were shared overnight of people abandoning their homes and finding refuge elsewhere.

I’ve written before about storms in Saigon, and the natural occurring disasters in South East Asia more generally, but this current season has been busier than normal.

Vietnam often escapes heavy storms, thanks to the Philippines, a country well versed in combating typhoons, hurricanes and tropical storms. I’ve visited the country twice this year, working with CARE team in Manila who manage the TUKLAS Innovation Labs – a initiative supported by UK Aid and The Start Network that seeks out new ideas and solutions from local communities, to help them better prepare for the typhoons and storms which routinely batter the country’s shores.     Continue reading “Innovations in Resilience”

A short story of self

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Uganda.

I remember the moment I started really thinking about inequality. I was 22 years old and part way through a year of teaching in Uganda. As cliched as that year has the potential to be (for the privileged expat that I am) and as eye-glazingly pathetic as this anecdote might come across, I’ve thought it through a fair few times over the two decades since, and it was out there, halfway down the main orange dustbowl of a road outside of the room I rented behind a local bar, that things changed for me.

It took only one minute – and it will forever raise the hairs on my arms.

It was Sunday, and I was walking into the local town – Kiboga – with Julius, the headmaster of one of the schools at which I was employed as an English (and football!) teacher.

As was customary, a walk into Kiboga, on any given day, would involve multiple greeting stops, and smiles and gestures to my neighbours. Students on bicycles might swing past me shouting “yes, Master!” or a group of half dressed toddlers would canter several metres towards me from out of their houses yelling “Mazungu! Mazungu! how are you Mazungu?”     Continue reading “A short story of self”