Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What is Development to me?

"You have a great placement"

This is what my friend Hans told me after spending a couple of days at my place since he was temporarily homeless in Lusaka because the house he was living in was sold and his landlord inconveniently forgot to inform him.

The word placement shocked me. I really don't think of it as a 'placement', to me its become my life, and I have to agree, I have a great life.

Why am I here?

I'm here because I care and I feel I have something to contribute to development. (and the thought of returning to Canada to engage in a job that doesn't directly contribute... sorta frightens me)

What is development to me?

Not exactly sure, but if I start with the basics - I feel that everyone wants friends, health, knowledge and a decent income. (friends are plentiful, so I figure its about having a job, healthcare & education) Problem is that not everyone has access to these, nor do they have the power to gain access.

So this results in two fundamental things. 1 - power, 2 - ability to get power. Since you can get number 1 if you have number 2, then I guess even more fundamentally, development is allowing people the ability to get power.

What gives you power? Of course this depends on the situation. It could be your wealth, or it could be your age, gender, education, language, good looks (or other characteristics like strength, athleticism, musical talent, etc), your nationality, race, religion, location, caste or even your friends. In Canada the amount by which any of these can empower a person is different than it is in Zambia. Race, religion and age in Canada mean relatively little compared to what they mean in Zambia. Many of these are things you are born with, others you can obtain, but to obtain them you often need to have access to health care, education or a good job. Back to square one.

Wealth is the usually the easiest to translate into power regardless of the situation.

(As an aside - I feel healthcare and education are critical to a good life and the basic levels are very much the role of government. But if your government isn’t capable of providing this, then development projects should fill this gap.)

A solution that actually works?

There are a few organizations here that are funded by Canadians/westerners and are hoping to address the issue of income generation. The magical formula which has worked in the past, goes something like this. Paul and his wife Samantha are farmers that live in a village, they have 2 hectares of land to grow corn, peanuts and vegetables along with a few chickens and cows. They don't have access to health care or good education for their kids, plus they have no savings. But, life is actually pretty good right now, there is food, shelter and you can hear laughter coming from the kids playing outside. This is the case until someone gets sick or there is a drought or a flood. They have very little capital to deal with problems.

Now for the magical part: all you have to do is introduce them to someone who wants to buy something they are producing, this will allow them to save some money (aka. connect them to a market). Or introduce them to someone selling seeds or fertilizer or vet services so they can produce more to save some money (aka. access to better inputs). Or even better, have Paul and Samantha create a cooperative with all their neighbours so they can save money by bulking their inputs or crops to save on transportation costs.

My impression is that there are hundreds of organizations across Africa trying to do one of or all of these things.

It is a bit like a dating service, the organization searches for sellers and looks for buyers and then introduces the two. Of course its not so simple, they also have to facilitate the process and remove some of the risk that exists on both sides so that in the event that it doesn't work out, they haven't actually made things worse. And to make it even more difficult, the organization is on a contract with a donor who has given just enough money to get it right in 2 or 3 seasons.

A common problem is that the organization ends up not only facilitating these relationships, they actually become an integral part of the the role of the telephone, without them, the buyer and seller don't communicate and so after 3 years with some successes, the donor feels good and the org. is happy but if you check in a year or two later you find that the relationships fell apart and it was all for not. Another common problem is the org. becomes the transportation from the field to town, which again is a critical function. Either way, there is pressure from the donor for results, and there is pressure to 'buy-down' the risks to the farmers, so the org. ends up stepping in and becoming part of the relationship and the whole thing becomes unsustainable.

1 year after the project ends, Samantha and Paul are no better off and the org. is out looking for more funding to start another project. Oh ya, and the donor feels good because they were told that the results were good.

Donor => pretty happy (seems to be good results, don't need to give any more money)
Org. => sorta happy (they had good paying jobs for 3 years)
Farmers => hardly happy (lot of effort into changing lives, few benefits seen)

Is there a way all three stakeholders can be really happy?


What can be sustainable?

It's only a theory, but I think more organizations should just accept that they will become part of the relationship and they should try to make money doing it. If they aren't able to make money at it, then how do they expect a business to make money at it? Whether its transportation, personal contacts, food processing, access to inputs...whatever it is, an organization that employs educated people and is able to invest some money in the activity, is much better suited to turn a profit than a business that is already strapped for time, labour and investment capital. If the organization is successful, they can use the profits for funding a new project or they can streamline the operation and put it up for sale, and maybe even one of the employees will see that they can make a living from it?

If a profit can be made, then everyone is really happy.


If not, then something different should be done, but at least there are no false impressions about sustainability.

The current system is blind, no one knows how to measure success accurately and therefore it makes learning very difficult.

Where I fit

My partner organization is called Forest Fruits. It is a private enterprise which provides training, inputs, transportation, communication, processing, exporting and soon bottling. As a whole, it is profitable and therefore sustainable. It is buying from 6000 farmers who earn about $1 a day and just maybe the extra income allows them to save up a little for their future.

In essence, the 6000 farmers use to have no choice in where to sell there goods. Now, every year, Forest Fruits shows up and offers to buy their products. ie. A business now wants what they have, and to me, this is empowerment.


Digivu in South Africa said...

Hi Mark

My name is Dave Harcourt, I'm a Chemical Engineer by training but have been involved in Food Processing for Development over the almost 20 years since South Africa started changing to a Democracy.

I'm at the other end of my career and have just stopped full time work with the CSIR, a R&D organisation. I am just ending 3 months in Europe and plan to start to push to find and make some kind of contribution to the well being of the poor.

I have hundreds of thoughts and many concerns, but maybe if we start talking, possibly with others in similar situations as well, we can make some progress.

The main issue is South Africa is that even with a Development focused government and much funding we have made no real progress in eliminating poverty. Not suprising since as you point out very few really have even given the enormous inputs made.

I have scanned your blog, maybe my first impressions are wrong, but I seem to see some kind of business approach as being what you are suggesting, with Forest Fruits as a possible example.

After all I've done and seen I see REAL BUSINESS as the only way to create real development through income creation. In this respect I have close links with a commercial Food Processing Journal ( in SA who wants to publicise business opportunities mainly food processing linked. This means free stories and publicity for companies offering opportunities. The disappointing thing for him as a journalist and myself through my previous work's non governmentals is that we can't find sufficient real opportunities.

The first question that came to my mind is whether Forest Fruits is a real sustainable business (can the current manager be replaced and the operation continue? is the benefit they provide enough to maintain all members? is the $/day good enough? do they not get any donor funding? what would make a step change to their business etc etc) these are all things I and others often justify by saying its a development project - but I have come to the stage where I see real businesses as being necessary. Could give you lots on information of marula collection in SA and the difference between many "projects/enterprises" and Distell's Amarula Cream. Maybe if they are strong enough they can look at franchising others in Africa or outgrowing.

Or is this all just too optimistic and should we be focussing on sun drying of all foods and especially wastes as a way to save on food expenditure and reduce dependence of increasingly expensive energy? Not to mention other solar energy and biogas which are simple to implement at household level.

Sorry this is too incoherent - I would really like to exchange emails ( with you to exchange thoughts and make contacts into the Zambian system.

arachesostufo said...

fantastic and incredible cuontry Zambia.

freedom and peace