Archive for July, 2008

Small Inputs Can Lead to Large Outcomes

The other day I first came across the so-called Beatrice Theorem: Small Inputs Can Lead to Large Outcomes.

Nicholas Kristofs tale starts in Uganda, were Beatrice Biira grew up as the child of poor farmers unable to sent their education-hungry daughter to school. At the same time a church community in Connecticut decided to donate a few animals through Heifer International to poor African farmers.

One of the cows, which cost 120 US$ in the Heifer catalogue, was given to Beatrice parents. It soon had twins, thus supplying the family with nutritious milk. The milk was also sold and with soon the family had enough cash to sent their daughter to school. An American, visiting the school, recorded the story and published it in 2000 as „Beatrice Goat“, which became a best-selling children book. As an outstanding student Beatrice was not only awarded scholarships, she was also admitted to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Connecticut College. A group of 20 donors to Heifer financed the girls living expenses.

It was Jeffrey Sachs, who, when hearing of Beatrice story, called it jokingly the „Beatrice Theorem“: small inputs can lead to large outcomes.

Of course, a lot ould have gone wrong. As Nicholas Kristof quotes Beatrice herself:

‚Corruption is high in Uganda.’ A crooked local official might have distributed the goats by demanding that girls sleep with him in exchange. Or beatrice goat might have died or been stolen. Or unpasturized milk might have sickened or killed Beatrice.

Yes, many things could have gone wrong. But then there is a good model in place, they often go right. Beatrice for her part wants to get a Masters Degree at the Clinton School of Public Service and return to Africa to work for an aid agency.

As Kristof correctly puts it:

the challenges of global poverty are vast and complex, far beyond anyone’s power to resolve, and byung a farm animal for a poor family won’t solve them. But Beatrice’s giddy happiness is still a reminder that each of us does have the power to make a difference – to transform a girl’s life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat.

As our friend and betterplace fan Rischi, founder of Gorilla Bio Fast Foods likes to say:

Now that betterplace.org exists, people don’t really have any excuses left. I want to say to all these people, who fatalistically state: ‚There is nothing I can do about global poverty’: Now you can make a difference: concrete, direct and easy.

You can, for example, buy a fishing boat for women in Tanzania who want to be financially independent of their husbands or buy books for disadvantaged children in Thailand.

Volunteering – „Lifestyle NGO“

Large numbers of young Germans are embarking on a volunteering trip to a developing country – and the numbers are increasing ever since the German Ministry for Development created Weltwärts earlier this year. 70 Millionn Euro are availabe for this largest European volunteering organisation, enabling up tp 10.000 youth between 18-28 years to help out in Indian slums, protect giraffes in Niger or support ecological projects in Peru.

The programms are immensly popular: for 100 openings the American Field Service, a Weltwärts partner organisation, recieved 1400 applications. The German Development Service (ded) attracted 1300 applicants for ist 275 vacencies. No doubt: development work is fashionable.

How useful are unqualified volunteers?

But how useful are the services of young volunteers whose only qualification more often than not only consists of a high school diploma? Who is profiting? The local NGOs, the poor or the volunteers themselves, who are leaving their family homes to embark on an adventure?

The experts and NGOs Florian Töpfl interviewed for his article in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung Egotrip ins Elend are highy critical of the new volunteering craze. Claudia v. Braunmühl, professor of Political Science, is „appauled“ by Westwärts, deeming the whole initiative extremely populistic, as nobody seems to have asked: „What do people in developing countries really need?“. Defintely not unqualified helpers. In its current format the program is for her reminiscent of Reality TV Jungle Camp Shows.

Friends, a Cambodian NGO, whose 240 Cambodian employees run 10 workshops for disadvantaged children, is one of those organisations looked up by Western travellers, offering their services for free. But the organisation doesn’t accept an unqualified helpers. One of the reasons is that „they only distract our children from working“ and in the past there have been a number of problems with pedophiles.

In a similar vain, Chris Minko who created a national volleyball league for handicapped people, in order to re-integrate the victims of Polio and land mine attacks, rejects volunteers. As he sees it, „the problems in developing countries are so very complex – nobody can gain an understanding for them in 12 months“. Nor can culturally adequate behaviour be learned in such a short period: one of his former volunteers gave away her laptop to a local helper, thereby arousing the envy of all others and catapulting the organisation into turmoil. (As an anthropologist I am inclined to disagree with this latter view: most anthropolgists spent between 12-24 months in the social groups they are researching and most do gain an informed and thorough understanding of local life worlds. Could it be that Westerners who have decided to devote a large part of their lives to a foreign country sometimes tend to develop too strict measures regarding the competencies of their co-patriots, who are a bit less involved? And hasn’t cultural competence more to do with individual sensitivity to context, than with the amount of time spent in a foreign social scene?)

Foreigners add respectibility

One of the benefits of international volunteers to local NGOs is, that they can be used as prestigious fund raisers, targeting international donors. In many countries of the South non-governmental organisations are one of the few lucrative business options availabe – in Cambodia alone there are 300 international as well as 1000 domestic registered NGOs. Yet very often it is hard for outsiders to judge the quality of their work and to find out who they are benefitting: the poor people they are stating to serve or their own self-interests.

Accordingly the author reaches the conclusion that volunteering programmes serve first and foremost volunteers themselves. Not only do they receive a 10 day preparation seminar as well as a 2-weeks long intercultural workshop and are fully insured during their cost-free year abroad, they also aquire a valuable asset for their future careers. HR and recruitment officers judge the volunteering experience as a very positive one, as future job applicants gain rich personal experiences and (inter)cultural competence.

If this is so – if volunteering acts as extra polish on Western CVs – why do the millions spent on the Weltwärts program come from the German development budget and not from that of the Ministry of Education?

But than again, this is a question which can be asked with regards to very many development policies, who all too often mainly benefit one’s own citizens and corporations and not the needy populations the policies where meant to target.

Slightly more differentiation, please!

Overall, I think it is correct to say that many Western volunteers do approach social projects abroad in a fairly naive way and overestimate the impact they can have. Partly this is a reflection of the old Western superiority complex: we know what the rest of the world needs. We are the only ones who can help you.

This attitude ignores the fact, that many, if not most workable solutions for local problems will be developed by those people, who have the best knowledge of the situation on the ground and who have the most vested interests to solve them: the locals themselves. Yet this is not to say that there is no need for outside support. To the contrary, many local initiatives depend upon just such support, be it in the form of expertise, money of volunteer time. I am thinking for example of projects such as this, started by a local social entrepreneur and gaining momentum with the help of a German and an Australian volunteer.

Burma: The real disaster

It’s absurd: On the one hand, cyclone Nargis that devastated Burma served as destraction from the fact that the people of Burma have been suffering from oppression and hunger for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a grim reminder of how bad things really are in the country tyrannised by its military regime. London-based NGO The Burma Campaign UK works with that ambiguity. Watch this cool yet serious animated film that’s accompanying the campaign:

As cruel as nature has been to the Burmese people, what happened to them for decades under military rule is even worse. Villages destroyed, millions displaced, the poor starving. That was everyday life in Burma before the Cyclone. In a country where rape is used as a weapon of war, thousands are forced into slavery and dissent can mean death, its people cannot speak out. But you can.

The WTO Project powered by betterplace

Noa, Fionn and Holger in the Berlin WTO-project headquarters at UdK, Berlin

Just before I left for my summer vacation I met Noa and Fionn, the two design students of Axel Kufus, who are going to devote their final design thesis to our WTO sanitation project.

Also present were Prof. Axel Kufus, Christian Zöllner, his assistent, and Holger Schmitz, a branding and marketing expert turned betterplace volunteer, who is researching possible business models. Noa and Fionn presented the first draft of their concept, which revolves around the idea of a mobile toilet production unit, which travels from location to location, offering a modular kit of toilet designs, some of which are standardized, globally produced parts, while others are locally produced. The kit should be modular, i.e. starting with very basic parts and ending with very aspirational additions.

In mid July, just before the end of the summer term, the Berlin students are going to meet the Karlsruhe students to exchange ideas and concepts, as some have started to look more into technology, while others have focused on possible sales and distribution mechanisms etc.

The young designers are now in the process of connecting to a local “Southern” NGO/organisation to jointly develop ideas, enriching and localising their conceptual ideas. Thus we have been turning to Jack Sim for advice.

Later this summer the design group is going to connect with Sören Rüd (from the Gtz ecosan team) to discuss technological questions, majorly effecting the design process. Meanwhile Holger wants to get in touch with local santiation entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia to find out which approaches work and which don’t. 

I find it extremely stimulating to witness the project from the sideline, here and there adding my 2 cents worth of wisdom. The first results should be in by early autumn and I will keep you posted.

Sanitation is king

After having hosted workshops for the “real WTO”, the World Toilet Organization, this May, we at betterplace have become more sensitive to the global toilet and sanitation issue. Thus today, over lunch, new team member Jens Best (we’ll introduce him more thorougly next week), on the spur of the moment, came up with an intriguing scenario for a promotion video for the WTO (you might here more about it in a few weeks time).

Then, this evening, I came across an article in the New York Times, combining my passion for anthropology, my newly found interest in sanitation and a meeting I had this week with Andreas Scholz-Fleischmann, member of the managing board of BSR, the local Berlin city department of sanitation.

The NYT-featured anthropologist Robin Nagle, who teaches at New York University has been studying trash collectors for years. To her, city employees who sweep your streets and collect your garbage are “folk sociologists.”

They can give you a demographic and sort of a sociological and anthropological interpretation of a given block or a given section of the city that’s remarkably detailed

Nagle writes about the image problem NY sanitation workers have. To counteract the stigma, she and some colleagues at NYU want to create a garbage museum.

We have museums dedicated to the police, to firefighters, to mass transit, to various ethnicities, to skyscrapers, even to sex. But oddly, there is nothing devoted to sanitation, though we cannot live without it. It’s plainly more important than sex.

(No way, you say? Then try this simple test. Can you get through the day without having sex? O.K., now ask yourself if you can get through the day without having to toss something into the garbage. We rest our case.)

Reading this, I was struck by the power of clever advertising. Because over the past couple of years, BSR, the Berlin sanitation company, has managed to turn its reputation around. With the help of creatively worded campaigns, the image of the men in the orange overalls has shifted dramatically, loosing much, if not all of its stigma.  

The same shift in public opinion is possible, if companies take CSR seriously and communicate it successfully to their stakeholders.