I’m starting this post with a long quote from Michael Hobbes in New Republic. His essay is a must read for anyone interested in International Development (including international social enterprise development). This quote, for me, is about the problems with quick fix, do unto others, scalable solutions to poverty:
It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.
PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.
The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.
By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”
In 2010, “Frontline” returned to the schools where they had filmed children laughing on the merry-go-rounds, splashing each other with water. They discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump.
Let’s not pretend to be surprised by any of this. The PlayPump story is a sort of Mad Libs version of a narrative we’re all familiar with by now: Exciting new development idea, huge impact in one location, influx of donor dollars, quick expansion, failure.
So, the problems are, as I mentioned in the opening sentences, ‘scale-mentality’ which comes from the corporate world, and from large NGO’s, Governments, and Development Organisations who’s leadership often comes from the same corporate life; and the ‘doing to’ mentality, rather than learning from and ‘doing with’ local people, who nearly always own the solutions to their problems.
I see this often in social enterprise, where we are implored to find scalable solutions. Where to be investable as a social enterprise, is often code word for scalable. This is a cookie cutter, franchise model of doing social enterprise, where replicability is required. But, we know that organisations (and enterprises) trying to address complex problems with enterprising means are often working at ground level with communities, understanding their micro-climates, and individual needs.
When ‘solutions’ are fostered onto communites, i.e through international development aid programs or social enterprise models that may have worked someplace else we see unintended consequences arise:
The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.
According to Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, international development is just such an invasive species.
Why am I writing about this phenomenon and linking it to our Social Enterprise India trip? It’s because I believe we take a different approach. We honour the culture, traditions, and expertise of each enterprise we will visit; the unique set of circumstances that have led it to successfully create social impact in its own right. We approach the visits of these enterprises with respect and with a view to learning from the founders, workers, and beneficiaries; and then, to linking our learnings to the problems we are trying to solve at home.
So, I’m immensely looking forward to our trip, and to learning lots about social enterprise and entrepreneurship in India. If you’d like to learn from the do-ers, people on the ground, then you should come too, and share the journey with other people passionate about social enterprise; on your return to your home country armed with an action plan, I hope you can affect great change too. Apply here