Friday, 29 October 2010

The Hunger Project – A True Global Team

The past five days we were in New York. Hmm. Never been there, so lots of prejudices, I guess. The Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, centre of the world, or the universe? Well, it turned out to be a great place. Not so much because of the city, but because of the people. And not so much because of the New Yorkers, but because of the people I met of The Hunger Project from all around the world.

The Dutch 'delegation' to this year's 'Fall Event' and global THP staff meetings went to New York with mixed feelings. Our team is new to THP. Evelijne, our director, started the end of last year and Carolien, our corporate fundraiser, began just a month ago, right after me. We only knew the global team of THP through stories. Mixed stories. About how long it takes to get the right programme information from say Malawi to The Netherlands. About the different cultures and fundraising strategies in Europe and the US. About 'old school' and 'new school'. I think it is fair to say we went to New York with lots of prejudices. And we were wrong.

We went to New York to attend the 'Fall Event' of THP. It is the single most important fundraising event of THP in the United States. The event gathers the prime investors, mainly from the US, in a fancy place with fancy food, fancy dresses, and fancy entertainment. It isn't much like 'me'. It feel a bit 'out of place' in these events, probably because I was raised in a 'down-to-earth' and Calvinistic place. However, the event was really great, with inspiring people from all over the world. There accounts of the work of THP in India and Bangladesh. Moving stories about how once neglected women, now take fully charge of the development of their community. And the day was rather successful: it raised well-over 1,000,000 USD!

After the ‘Fall Event’ we attended board and staff meetings with colleagues from some 20 countries. It was even more inspiring to be together with people who all work tirelessly towards the same cause. The staff meeting opened with an introduction by the new THP Global CEO/President, Mary Ellen McNish. She has been in office for only some few weeks, but put herself to task immediately, has spoken to many staff and has travelled to our programmes in Asia. Mary Ellen was both very open and bold about her findings so far. She loves THP: the approach, the people, the investors, the communities we work with. But she also saw some of the weaknesses that need to be addressed and some of the divisions that had emerged over the past years. However, by putting all of it at the table, expressing visionary leadership and commitment to make things work, Mary Ellen immediately won all of our hearts and managed to have all staff rally behind her. In the following days we moved as a truly global team to develop a new monitoring and evaluation system, we extensively discussed fundraising strategies and we exchanged ideas about our programmes.

Our team returned from New York energized. We now feel part of the global THP family and are committed to make the global organization work for all of us and for the people we all care about: the 925 million people with chronic hunger in the world.

What development policy can learn from evolution

Owen Barder wrote an excellent blog (with a great presentation) on what development policy can learn from evolution.

Owen argues that development problems are wicked problems. The complex systems with complex solutions are created through evolutionary principles. Crucial to this is the use of feedback loops that tell us if a solution works or not, so we can change it. The main conclusion is that as would-be change-makers, we should not try to design a better world: we should concentrate on building better feedback loops.

I would like to link it to the existing concepts on Complexity by Dave Snowden (see Not all development problems are ‘wicked’ problems (or Complex problems in Snowden’s Cynefin Mode), some are simple (with tested solutions) or complicated (with solutions that ‘only’ require smart planning or design). For complex problems linear planning indeed does not work, and an evolutionary, incremental, experimental approach can apply. But let’s not fool ourselves. Development is not a business of developing a new nozzle, in which circumstances are hardly changing, with short feedback loops. I agree a lot on getting the feedback loops better – social accountability is crucial in better development designs. However, it is not only the feedback loops that may be blocking. Development deals with sticky institutions, the ‘rules of the game’. More and informative feedback loops can help to bring out the obstructive institutions, but will not be the only thing needed.

Often wicked problems need multi-stakeholder, multi-level, multi-scale approaches in which social learning between people and organisations involved need to collaborate. Issues such as power also come into play.

It would be interesting to see how we can use the ideas from Owen in our work at THP: creating better feedback loops about our work, and helping communities to give more feedback to government about the services they need or use.