Monday, November 20, 2006

Arrived at Heathrow

I have arrived at Heathrow airport, having flown out of Nairobi late last night and arrived here at around 5:50am local time. This trip to Africa has ended. My journey has just begun. Here, in the most summarizing of summaries is what is in my head:

1) We must understand the difference between relief and development. Too often, otherwise intelligent people make the mistake of thinking that a donation to relief efforts is sufficient or for that matter in any way helpful to the long-term recovery and development of a community affected by war or other disaster.

2)Development-oriented "Moody's" assessments - a major need and opportunity: What we as donors interested in supporting projects in African countries need most is a set of trustworthy, credible and informed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the components that impact a community. Education; Economic indicators; Agricultural productivity; Food security; Women's security; Health infrastructure and major diseases; etc.

Borrowing from my days writing equity investment research, I see a similar model here: An analyst initiates coverage on a community with a detailed assessment and report on each of the aspects of that community. The analyst then publishes quarterly reports using the initial assessment as the indicator of progress and identifying failures and weakening areas.

Imagine the power this would give donors of all sizes and how helpful it would be in making truly informed decisions. This research has to be written independent from any NGO working on the ground but hopefully could eventually gain enough value to be relied upon by NGO's working in that community at least as a baseline.

Ultimately, such a "research firm" could tackle the most one of the most unmet needs in the donor community. A true measure on a NGO's program effectiveness. Imagine being able to read a report and know exactly what each NGO is doing in a specific community and what it's practices are.

What could be built on top of such an assessment and reporting facility could be revolutionary.

3) We must rid NGO's and donors of colonial attitudes: I have seen glaring examples in practice and in discussion with otherwise well-respected aid and development organizations that are guilty of the following:

a) buying equipment and materials from their home country as opposed to purchasing from local or regional suppliers.

Beyond the environmental issues of shipping containers half-way around the world when many of these resources could be purchased within the continent, the obvious economic loss is itself enough to be reason for changing the model.

b) bringing in high-priced "experts" and "consultants" to show communities "how it's done" as opposed to finding local experts and supplementing and supporting their skill enhancements through consultants acting in a resource role.

I am in no way diminishing the need for specialized knowledge and the obvious value that passionate, intelligent and entirely decent specialists can bring from outside the continent. I'm simply taking issue with the organizations that structure their local operations as being primarily lead by foreign experts who make insufficient effort to find similar knowledge workers within or near the communities they are serving.

c) Imposing conditions: This is where I have myself been most guilty. Thinking that I'm being a responsible donor by making it a requirement for the local government to co-invest in a project, or to generate user fees or other income generation to support the ongoing costs of a project is often doing more harm than good.

Looking at things in the most straight-forward and logical terms, these kinds of conditions appear entirely reasonable and responsible. But I'm increasingly of the mind that the most responsible thing for us to do is to simply find and fund the most responsible local community organization largely on their own terms. Some will think I've lost a bit of my intellectual edge saying this but in fact, I've only sharpened it. Who are we to say what the conditions should be? We should only ask for accountability, for measurement, and for results.

4) The key to making development "sexy" is to start "adopting" entire villages: The child sponsorship model has proven to be an incredibly successful fundraising tool. It has made organizations like World Vision, fundraising juggernauts because of the ability to make each individual feel as though they can make a contribution to the greater problem.
It's time to up the ante on the sponsorship model
. Jeff Sachs has been promoting the concept of what he calls Millennium Villages but has failed to communicate the power and attractiveness of this to the small donor. Ultimately, in order to succeed at acquiring and retaining sponsors for a village, something like my Moody's model needs to be in place so that a donor can receive a "report card" on the village's progress once a quarter.

The "adopt a village" program works because it overcomes the worst aspect of donor-driven philanthropy. When a donor can choose to fund the most attractive aspect of a community's needs (e.g. building a school), ignoring the less "sexy" but equally if not more important needs of that community, no one wins. Everything is connected in a community. Failing to recognize this has fatal, devastating, and totally wasteful consequences for the project-specific donor and the community being "supported."

So don't focus on building the school, focus on adopting the entire village. Using the distributed financing model of individual sponsorship, all of the needs of a village can be simultaneously met if only 1,000 people were to get together and contributed $65 a month! (about $2 a day). I intend to roll this model out at GiveMeaning in two phases starting early next year.

5) The need and opportunity for social enterprise investment is massive. Especially in Rwanda but true also of Burundi and Uganda are tremendous and compelling opportunities to invest in businesses that would stimulate economic productivity of rural communities.

I have already begun formulating an "ideal structure" for how these social enterprises should go about generating an income, whilst creating local jobs and on the job skills training, a "by the community for the community" respect, and proper incentive for attracting expansion capital and for using a portion of the profits to support both local development projects and to return capital to a "fund" that can then invest more start-up capital in new enterprises.

6) The need for the Canadian Government to actively promote a "gap year" that encourages young people to travel to a developing or under-developed country and work/volunteer abroad. To be clear, I am very much against the concept of "volunteer tourism" but see the impact that this trip has had on me, and in meeting other young people who are paying their own money to be working tirelessly day and night for organizations that they believe in and for communities that they have fallen in love with, the impact is nothing short of life-changing. Of course, at a Nationwide level, such a program has many logistical complications not the least of which is to make sure that such a program doesn't become a "developing world spring break."

Many details to be worked out, but all ideas that are not only worthy of pursuing, the potential impact if these ideas become reality is (without an ounce of ego intended), absolutely massive.

I invite open criticism, debate and question on all of the above. Ultimately, if you think I'm on the right track, or think any of these ideas is worthy of exploring, tell me so. Join me in seizing upon the massive opportunity for making lasting change in the richest, most inspiring continent in the world.

And now to my heart

Just writing "and now to my heart" makes me cry. I am filled with so many emotions, the majority of which are entirely euphoric. Ultimately, as much as I have tried to explain what I saw here and how it effected me, I can only show you my experiences. To all my friends and family, tell me when you want to come, and I'll go with you. This isn't a cop-out. I want to cut my heart out and show you what's inside it but no picture, no words, no conversation can do it justice. It would be a cop-out to show you a picture or write a blog and call it sufficient.

Here's what I can tell you though. I am entirely humbled. And this humility I speak of is not a shaming, negative sort of humbling but an awestruck, amazed and inspired form of humility. It makes me appreciative of what I have in a way that only inspires gratitude not guilt for the privileges and relative luxuries I enjoy.

There is another aspect to that humility which makes me realize my pettiness and my selfishness, especially as it relates to holding on to resentments. As I have previously written, that the people of Rwanda can even show the semblance of peace and reconciliation tells me that I have absolutely no right to hold on to any sense of being wronged, any sense of resentment I have.

The love, the togetherness, the hope, the faith of the people I have met and observed: It has grown my heart immeasurably.

The strength of the women: Makes me want to be a better man in all senses of that responsibility.

The consequences of inaction: In as much as I have witnessed these incredibly uplifting experiences, I have also seen first-hand the deaths, the destruction, the suffering, the injustice that inflicts unspeakable pain on hundreds of millions of people living throughout Africa.

If their pain, their suffering, their situation was unavoidable, unsolvable, it would be sufficient to simply feel for their suffering, to contribute a little bit of money here and there. But the point is that not only are the issues that conspire against the people here avoidable, they are entirely solvable. What better feeling than to be part of a solution that can bring real change to hundreds of millions of people?

Thank you to every single person I met in my travels, everyone who has been reading this blog, to each of the men I traveled with, to my colleagues and partners and supporters who understood how important this trip was for me to make and encouraged me to go despite the fact that this is the busiest time of year for us at GiveMeaning, thank you to my family and friends and friends of friends for wishing me well and keeping me in your prayers. I have carried your love here. Thank you to every living soul that is working tirelessly to build upon this amazing continent.

Thank you to the intellects, the poets, the journalists, the activists, the citizens who I have admired and looked-up to and have guided me here.

My final words: Please, come here. See what I've seen. Please, give money (not clothes or anything else) and give more than you can afford to. Join me in being part of the solution. Write me personally and make me an offer. Or write me and tell me what it will take for you to me to convince you.

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