Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fearless Hopelessness

Whenever there is a simple error that most laymen fall for, there is always a slightly more sophisticated version of the same problem that experts fall for”  Amos Nathan Tversky,

Many NGOs working in international development are finding that their revenues are falling, there is increased competition for funds and people who are poor are at risk like never before because of food and water shortages, climate change, natural disasters, rising energy and input costs, refugee influx, population growth or migration. This can lead to new organisational pushes that focus on making staff redundant, redoubling fundraising and marketing efforts and a new emphasis on risk management to protect the organisations Brand. As management and boards seek to try to have more control of their destinies , organisations that pride themselves in bottom up development and field effectiveness can themselves become increasingly hierarchal, struggle with issues of transparency and focus on growth and internal efficiencies with lessening apparent concern for the quality of outcomes for people who are poor.

International NGO’s generally have audacious visions such as “for every child, life in all its fullness”.......“A world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation”........”A just world without poverty, in which people can influence decisions which affect their lives, enjoy their rights, and assume their responsibilities as full citizens of a world in which all human beings are valued and treated equally”. Each vision statement has at its core, hope within the hopelessness of a vision that can never become true. Some management along with marketers and fundraisers may well try to hold a world view that all development problems are solvable and the right strategy, focus, steady growth and clever marketing the organisation will sustain itself indefinitely.

I want to raise questions about what International Development NGOs really trying to sustain and why the promotion of hope and vision among each organisations staff is the most logical, effective and necessary approach to achieving each organisations Mission and Vision and sustainable future. And how an undue focus on size, the generation of funds and management of risks is in fact less likely to sustain the organisation in the long term than having fewer funds, more flexibility and focusing on which activities approaches and resources are most likely to achieve unsurpassed development outcomes.

In the hybrid causal loop/perspectives map (Fig1), I have attempted to depict linkages for how more funds, an aversion to risk, staffing whose fit is more important than abilities and systems that place predictability over need, are likely to undermine everything that might sustain an NGO into the future. A reading of the diagram suggests that the key element to NGO organisational sustainability is going to depend on how effectively impact and aspirations are achieved in the field, as well as how this impact is communicated to donors.

Some of the key conclusions that can be drawn from this Causal Loop Diagram are:

• There is potentially a non-virtuous spiral that means more funds and more programming exposes the organisation to greater risk, posting threats to the Brand, causing more focus on risk minimisation actions, which leads to poorer development outcomes, which makes funds generation more diffulut, or at least risky, which leads in turn to more risk minimisation and a redoubling of efforts to raise more money.

• The impact of an organisation wide “taboo” on discussing the true quality of the development work relative to the aspirations of donors and developing communities.

• How organisational and staffing structures negatively impact on community development aspirations and how these lead to decreased development effectiveness and thus increased risk to the Brand of the NGO to its donor communities.

So what is it a typical International Relief and Development NGO trying to sustain?

A Vision Statement is a way of articulating the dreams and hopes for the people who comprise and support the organisation. The reason donors give their money to NGOs is in the hope that a difference will be made. Most donors will never meet the beneficiaries of their generosity but they give in the ‘hope’ that through their sacrifice, the lives of some people who are poor will be changed for the better, in sustainable ways, that their donation of itself, has made a real difference.

Aid agencies have consistently found that donors are more inclined to give money to support relief efforts to a few people who are impoverished rather than tens of thousands. Apparently the larger numbers are overwhelming and donors lose the hope that their contribution can actually make a difference. Thus the donor perspective is most likely to be one where they are supporting the NGO to provide a solution to a poverty situation.

From the perspective of an NGO, in this time of rising prices of food, fossil fuels and agricultural inputs, population pressures, environmental degradation, climate change, wars, famine, migrations, natural disasters and water issues, the larger perspective cannot be one of solutions but rather of a predicament or “wicked problem ”, where outcomes are better or worse rather than solved. In this context an NGO can logically only maintain hope and a vision for the future for some beneficiaries that is better rather than worse. In this context “a solution” is a hopeless aspiration.

It would seem that while a donor may have some hope in specific solutions the collective hope needed by the NGO’s leadership would seem by necessity to be a different kind of hope, along the lines described by Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Vaclav Havel.

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Here Havel seems to be talking about how hope can still reside in hopelessness, as being something beyond the hope of results and instead the hope to do the right thing even if the challenge seems to be overwhelming.

Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic and writer also talks of hope, and the hope he seems to be referring to is not the hope from finding solutions rather than the hope that survives in doing what is right, regardless of the consequences.

"Do not depend on the hope of results. . . .you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself . . . gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people . . . .In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything

What both Merton and Havel seem to be pointing to is that strength, inspiration and action can all arise freely in spite of a seemingly hopeless situation and that as Merton says within the “truth of the work itself”.

The “opposite” of hope is therefore not hopelessness but fear, as it is fear; fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of utter powerless that leads to despair; it is fear that saps the strength from hopes wings.

Thus the question arises: What would it take for an organisation, as an entity, to hold a vision within hopelessness, to be working within an overwhelming predicament, free from fear and be supported by tens of thousands of donors most of whom believe the organisation is providing solutions?

It would seem logical that International Relief and Development NGOs will not be able to survive indefinitely if there is a disparity between their vision and what donors believe they are supporting. Could it be that fear arising from the size of the predicament also has a role in over energetic fundraising, growth for growths sake, bureaucracy and risk management as substitute actions for work arising from “the belief in the work itself” that Merton speaks of?

An organisation, of itself, cannot hold hope within hopelessness, organisations have systems, structures, policies, resources and so on. It is the people within the organisation who will or won’t carry the hope and vision of such an utterly outrageous proposition of “a just world without poverty” or “every child who is today in poverty will experience life in all its abundance”.

It is paradoxical that NGO’s may ask donors to believe in an audacious vision and ask people in communities to increase their lots though self determination and belief in their own power to make a difference, and yet in their actions as organisations appear to be driven by fear thus sacrificing their authenticity with donors and communities alike.

So to rephrase the sustainability question, what is it that the organisation needs to sustain in order to do its work and achieve the most it can with purpose, effectiveness and relevance into the future?

I believe there is a strong case to suggest what will sustain Relief and Development NGOs into the future is the vision and hope of the people who make up the organisation and that the expression of this hope will lead to actions that improve the lives of people who are poor and offer opportunities for impact that are greater than the other alternatives available to donors. My hypothesis is that the leadership of these NGOs will need to convey each organisations vision in such a way as to realign the staffs worldviews with Donors and Communities who have more hope for change than is generally true within the NGO and its partners.

To survive and maximise its potential for impacting on the lives of people who are poor, my belief is NGOs need to refocus their leadership towards seeking to sustain vision and hope in the midst of overwhelming challenges.

For Development NGOs to sustain vision and hope in the midst of overwhelming challenges there will need to be the emergence of new and innovative approaches and new ways of reframing the “solution” orientation to one of “predicament”.

The only Wicked Problem strategy intervention consistent with international (community) development theory is “Collaboration” (Roberts, 2000), to work with all stakeholders to find the best possible options for proceeding with development approaches that builds the hope and vision amongst donors, NGO staff and communities. And to be less engaged with providing solutions than we are with improving predicaments. With this orientation hope does exist that we can communicate in new ways with our donor community and that our authentic aspirations will drive change throughout the value chains that we are a part of, towards more meaningful engagement with our stakeholders and better quality outcomes that are based on comprehensive shared visions rather than parochial short term survival activities.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Postcard from Velingara

Meeting in the village of Foudou - The floor is earth and the sides are open, the essence of humility

Too dumb to keep but too hard to leave behind

It is March, I am in Dakar and have just been picked up from my hotel to go to the office. The Novotel is a better hotel than i am used to, modern French minimalist. I was upgraded to a room with a sea view but the room is dark, the sea view window is less than half a door in size, I suppose for some eco design reason, and at an angle so you can only see the sea if you stand right at it. I can make most things work and when I can’t it is apparently because i am not thinking enough like a Citroen mechanic. Some room features seem to work better when I try them backwards for example in the bathroom, up means on and down off and green means hot and blue means water flow and things of that nature. Some aspects remain a mystery, like the moulded plywood feature that covers the orange vinyl cushion on the stool under the desk. I arrived last night from Nairobi, the time is three hours behind, so bed was two a.m. and I am feeling it a bit this morning.

My drivers name is Aziz, his English is good and we make ‘morning in the traffic’ small talk.

“So how is the office?”

“The office is very fine”

“How is my friend Brett? “ Brett is originally from Canada and has been working in Senegal for a number of years.

“Brett is very fine.”

“Brett just got married?”

“Yes maybe one month ago and his wife is very beautiful”

“Have you met his wife? “

“Yes she is very tall, she is like the Cooka Cola”

“The Coca Cola?”

“Yeeees, she is tall and has good shape and is very brown.......... like the Cooka Cola.........and she has very good teeth. Aziz said this laughing so that the words and the laughing were all one.

We wind through backstreets of an old part of town, its all an old part, we pass the Hotel Croix du Sud a fine old art Deco style hotel built around 1950 that apparently used to be the best in town. It reminds me the Bakelite radio that my father gave me as a child to listen to the Argonauts on the ABC. We cross Boulevard du General de Galle, and go around Independence Square, which is the size of several soccer fields and in it are low concrete retaining wall instalments painted and sun bleached, un-kept paths and several dry fountains. It has a mad broken garden gnome feel about it. There have recently been some pre-election protest riots around here. We take a road the goes near the old market in an area that translates to something like “Walk of Barrels” and hit the coast.

Now we follow the road from the edge of the city centre along the coast towards the airport, we swerve only to avoid those things that might do us damage. Like donkey carts, or aging yellow Peugeot taxis. Pedestrians run between speeding cars like a dare. The street sign says Route de la Comiche Quest – ‘Road to the Comic Quest’, and I remember Don Quixote and wonder if we all need to be a bit mad to make sense of what is going on around us, not only here but anywhere.

Last time I was in Dakar, Brett took me to dinner along this same road, a clutter of buildings behind a taxi stand in front of little Luna Park that is all painted up like a harlequin hat. The Cafe Sportif is perched on a small cliff overlooking the beach. We arrived at dusk and watched the water turn from aqua to mercury to ink. And we talked about work and Africa and he talked of his upcoming marriage and me of lost loves.

When it came time to came to go, there was a scramble of taxi drivers around us and under coloured light bulbs draped in a tree and somehow we ended up in one of the old beaten up black and yellow Peugeots with a Rastafarian driver , he was high on something, maybe herbs or drink or just on life. A crafts hawker stops me closing my back door desperate to sell me three carved ebony monkeys each about the size of a Russian doll, hear no evil, speak no evil , see no evil. And I didn’t want them but I buy them anyway and pay a quarter the price he started at and still feel I pay too much. We lurch off up the road , the old 505’s diff is wining, the tappets sound like shaking rocks in a tin and the springs and shocks are gone and with every bump we bottom out with a jarring thud and each time I close my eyes, it has an end of the world feeling about it. The driver is shouting at us in French, we make the first corner and both his and my doors fly wide open like it was something they were supposed to do on cue. I nearly fall out but grab the door and slam it back in but the same thing happens at the next right hand corner and I move to the middle of the back seat, holding the back of Brett’s’ passenger seat with one hand and the opening back door with the other. And the driver is grinning and shouting and laughing and I can’t understand a thing he is saying but I am getting him anyway. And when I get back to the hotel room in the light, I see that two of the little monkeys are see no evil, accompanied by one hear no evil. They are too good to throw away, and too dumb to keep, but I pack them anyway. So many things in life seem like this and I am thinking of all the things I hold on to that are no good for me or for others.

My task this trip is work with two new business councils in their rural villages. We have some new Business Facilitators and part of their job will be to form as many as twelve business councils and so I am here to do some training and mentoring while actually in the field working with community groups.

We are in the office I am sitting with my colleague Benedict who is originally from Mali. We are planning the logistics for the week ahead. When I have visited previously the projects are generally three or four hours from Dakar, so if we leave early we can schedule community work in the afternoon.

“So where are we going” I ask.


“Okay good, and how long will it take us to get there?”

“It is not so far” he says, but his eyes flicker

“Benedict” I say, “how far exactly is it?”

“It is a really beauuuutiful drive” Benedict says looking through me to the wall behind. “It is near the border with Ginea Bissau”

“Okay, how long will this beautiful drive take?” I ask

“Ten hours, but this is a very, very nice drive, a very beauuuutiful drive”

“Ten hours!”

“My broder “he says “everything is possible in Senegal”

And so now it is two days later and we are in a community meeting place in the middle of a small rural village about an hour out of Velingara. We are seated in a shelter that can hold about two hundred people, the roof is a thick grass thatch bound to rafters with rope like raffia held on tree trunks each with a natural fork at the top to hold the rafters. The floor is earth and the sides are open, the essence of humility. People filter in and several men whom I assume are village elders bring traditional chairs, that have the dimensions of a deck chair and made from two wide rough hewn planks that both have a notch taken out about one third of the way along, to half the width, and so fitted together they form an off centric cross with the short side forming the seat and the longer the longer the back rest.

After about half an hour we start the meeting and I gather that about ten years ago we bought a large plot of land along the bank of the passing river for some struggling farmers and helped them develop it into a communal banana plantation. We provided big diesel pumps to irrigate from the river, the banana plants, the fertiliser and training. And when fences were needed to keep livestock and wild donkeys out we provided the materials. And for a while apparently this was a model project. And then as one thing or another went wrong or broke we fixed it. Everyone’s intentions were good and the community became increasingly dependent on us and we on them for results that might justify our increasing investment. It was a pity that no one had sufficiently researched the demand for bananas and now the famers are struggling to find buyers willing to pay a fair price.

Looking out over the fields, women and boys are leading donkeys pulling hand ploughs worked by men in kaftans of sky blue, cloud white, and earth brown . And I am thinking this project is like an old Volvo station wagon I once had, first I needed to replace the gear box and I thought after this all would be well for the future but soon it was the electrics that blew, so I fixed them and was sure that the car would now be worry free. But then the dif went and I replaced that and so by the time the power steering stopped working, I was so committed I didn’t really make a decision and when the radiator blew beyond repair I had invested so much that I couldn’t walk away because I couldn’t even sell it for the price of the power steering repair. That question again, what do we hold dear and what do we leave behind?

So as usual, I have no idea what discussion is going to be helpful for us, for them for all of us. So I asked the gathered group what they wanted to achieve and they told me they wanted World Vision to give them more school classrooms and more teachers and to find a buyer who would pay more for their bananas.

I have found that following my instincts is generally better than ignoring them and also that stories are often a first step to something else. So the best thing I could think to do was to tell a story about the opportunities. I said that it sounded to me that they were like some farmers caught in a flood who had climbed onto their thatched roof even as the water was lapping at the edges of the grass thatch. And there was a murmur and several people looked anxiously at the thatch overhead. And I said that the farmers were good Muslims and they prayed to God to save them and they waited in hope. Then after some time some fishermen came by in a canoe and offered to take them to higher ground but it looked risky and they said no, they were waiting for God to save them. A little while later a large tree that had been dislodged from the bank , brushed by the roof and as the waters were rising the famers thought of clinging to the tree and it taking them to safety, but they remembered that they had faith in God and after all, wasn’t it Gods job to save them? Before long the flood swept the roof off the house and it sank and the farmers drowned. There was murmuring in the group and I could sense at this point they could all see themselves swept away in the a swirling muddy river. And I said, the farmers went to heaven and there was Allah, and they said “Blessed Allah, why did you not save us?” And Allah said to the farmers, “Sons and daughters, what do you mean? First I sent you some fishermen in a boat and then I sent you are huge tree to carry you to safety”. And one of the village elders stood up and through translation said that he understood the message and that he saw they needed to use what they had been given and to take some risks to save themselves. So I asked him to chat with the gathered group. I know from experience that nothing is easy, that words are just words particularly from visitor and also that worlds can have power. I have learned that I generally can’t tell the difference. That all of us there that day hold a part of the truth and that all I could do was to try to contribute something that in some way may be helpful.

We are so often afraid to lose what we have even when logically there is a real prospect of gaining something of much greater benefit. Believe it or not academics have spent lifetimes researching risk aversion and decision making theory. Loss aversion refers to people's strong preference to avoiding losses over acquiring potential gains. Some studies suggest that fear of losses is twice as powerful, psychologically, as the potential for gains.

I have noticed this when impoverished farmers have a strong reluctance to try new methods or even in some cases work together in new ways. They may recognize the theoretical logic of making a change but they are worried that deviating from their traditions poses a risk of losing the little they have. I have talked with farmers who would rather endure three or four hungry months than risk letting go of tradition trying something new that is likely to mean they will be better off. And it is not hard to see how in an evolutionary way this can make sense, at least they know with the old ways they will survive just like their parents and their parents before them. But there are always exceptions and risk aversion is not true apparently for gold rushes or martyrs.

It is not hard to see how the banana farmers quickly became dependent on World Vision and that when a problem arose they turned to us to fix them. A downward spiral where the more we invested the more we had to lose, the greater the community’s dependence, the less the project was successful the more we invested. And the question arises, “who is trying to sustain what for whom?” We believe in assisting communities increase their social capital and determine their own future and yet our fear of loss and failure can bind us into a spiral in which sustainable development is unlikely. And here that we repeated it for so long must have meant that we weren’t prepared to risk losing the little we had for in the hope that the community would and could find ways to do things themselves. And if we are not prepared to risk loss how can we expect the communities we work with to do the same? It is so seldom about the money and so often about our skills and abilities to take risks with others. And who is it that benefits from taking these stories back to our experts and our supporters.

I like the following quote from the late Amos Nathan Tversky who was one of the pioneers of decision making theory, he said:

“Whenever there is a simple error that most laymen fall for, there is always a slightly more sophisticated version of the same problem that experts fall for ”

Post Script

This was around a year ago and last month I saw part of a report and in it the following excerpt of a speech by one of the Elders from that village near Velingara:

“The village of Foudou exists by the will of World Vision; this is why we must not disappoint. World Vision has set up a banana with a major investment to develop the area economically. Therefore, I would like to return abroad about "Noble Jock" who came when starting the project with BDS Cisse (a new Business Advisor). If I remember correctly, he made us understand that we first had to rely on ourselves before seeking support from others. To return to the signing of this Memorandum of Understanding today between the partner and we Abdou Faye banana producers, I would simply say that we have an incredible opportunity to have World Vision as a "big ship" and Abdou Faye partner as "small ship" and if we are not careful we may lose these two ships if we do not redouble their efforts to succeed. If we fail, we are alone in the ocean and we risk drowning. Through these examples, I was merely a repeat explanations from abroad from World Vision Australia, to say we believe in and enjoy the opportunity we have today to move forward. "

I am not really sure what it means, but I hope it means something true, and if that is the case then that will be a mystery to marvel at and if I am there next year and I have twenty hours to drive to and from Velingara I may just try to find out how things are going.