Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When was the last time you learned from a case study?

Knowledge sharing is critical – but how can we do it well for sustainable development?

A friend of mine who is working on enabling international businesses to become more sustainable was recently talking to a particularly successful business about the lessons that they had learned in the process of their work. They wanted to share those lessons with other businesses. Well, they said, we could write it up as a case study and distribute it in a newsletter or something to our partners. And my friend said, wait a second, when was the last time you learned and then implemented something that you learned from reading a case study? His colleague paused and thought about it. Never, he said.

Never! That’s a strong word. But I thought back to my own experience. When have I used the knowledge I’ve read in case studies from Africa to India that I have not been personally involved with or have not talked to/knew the people involved in them? Sometimes, I find inspiration from a good blog or a good article about a project, or I might remember an idea I’ve read while browsing through documents, but if I just read it and don’t fully engage with it, I don’t tend to learn much from it either. I can’t think of any either. Which suggests that case studies, in their traditional form, are often wasted attempts to share knowledge – and will lead to only more frustration of everyone wanting to present their case study but not learning from other people’s.

But we do learn from other people’s experiences. I am reminded of the work of the international development organization, The Hairou Commission. They work to organise and connect grassroots women’s organisations from around the world, focusing particularly on knowledge sharing in South-South partnerships. They have primary areas: health, agriculture, climate change, governance, etc. They bring women together to different conferences, colloquiums, and online forums, and other knowledge-sharing platforms to share each other’s stories. These are very powerful; women learn from one another and frequently count these experiences as some of the most important processes throughout their year. They are, in essence, sharing the ‘case studies’ of their lives.

So what’s the main difference? Besides gender, the main difference is person-to-person (even if it is online) listening and sharing versus reading someone else’s work - which rarely seems to readily apply to your reasonably different situation. Because that’s how learning happens: through listening, sharing, experiencing being heard, and really being in communication with another person. Which is why much of the ‘really good stuff’ at conferences happens in the hallways and over a glass of wine. It’s not just passing name cards around – it is the experience of being heard and listening. So go ahead and make your case study – but don’t assume that just propelling it into the universe will get you anywhere. Find the best times and places to bring it out and use it for real knowledge-creation for sustainable development – usually when people have the opportunity to really engage with it.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Celebrating Sustainable Development - Celebrating ourselves

I had the pleasure of attending the Awards Dinner for Corporate Register this past week. I listened to corporate responsibility report-writers talk about what they do, and, in the end, celebrate one another's accomplishments. It reminded me of how rarely we take time to celebrate ourselves and our accomplishments.

Even in my own life, how often do I stop at the end of a project or even just a week and think, wow, that was really well done? I've For one of the organisations I work for, they are growing like crazy, but the leaders rarely feel they can take even a weekend off. They are just too busy. Burn out is high. For another organisation I work for, if the stress level's aren't shooting through the roof, then people are just really worn out; the 'leader' occaisionally looks like he is about to fall over. These are highly capable, very self-confident men doing work they believe in. To be fair, I think they do take time to celebrate - but not very often, and in general, they are celebrating other people.

And then there was Earth Day, in which we are asked to celebrate the single most important enabler of our existance - the earth itself. For me, that is a time when we do not celebrate things well. Truly celebrating the earth - for one thing, that must be done on a daily basis - and for another, Earth Day always seems, well, cheesy. It does not feel like it is truly a time of honoring our home. 'Happy Earth Day' hardly has the same ring as, say, 'Happy Thanksgiving' or 'Happy Birthday'.

I think many of us engaged in sustainable development are better at saying what is going wrong than what is going right. For the few of us who have managed to focus on positive visions, they tend to be 'in the future' instead of right here right now. What can I think of to celebrate in sustainable development? Well, I think we really are beginning to get somewhere in this field - especially if we don't hold too much attachment to what it is called. I think more and more people are coming to recognise its importance, more companies are practicing embedding environmental and social concerns in what they are doing, and more governments are recognising the imperative of acting, not just talking, on climate change. There are some great adaptation programs around the world. The voices from East and South East Asia are getting stronger, challenging previously dominant voices. Sometimes, that means good things for sustainable development. The green economy is growing. And Africa is changing - the change is too diverse to try to label as 'good' or 'bad' (and I'm not that close to God to be able to really know which one is which), but I believe that there is still much hope for the continent. And every day, we get another chance to work and play with others who are learning to live our shared lives a little closer to our vision and a little further from what used to be considered 'normal' - and that is something worth celebrating.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Business and Overseas Development: Connecting for sustainability?

Business has always been a key section of international development, though that has not always led to sustainable results. One might remember that international development's precursor was colonialism - which thrived in part because of the profit advantages to being able to obtain immensely valuable natural and human resources for almost nothing. Some of the larger 'development organisations' - not least the IMF and the World Bank - have been accused of opening the doors for Western businesses to enter into the developing world and continue that colonial trend - to the great social and environmental detriment of people and planet in the 'developing' world. Not too surprising that the business-development nexus is one fraught with tension - especially since many development actors (though usually not the larger ones) tend towards a certain skepticism of the benefits of 'private public partnerships' (PPP). Who is really profiting from those partnerships - the public-private elite, or the masses?

Yet in the past decade or so, international agencies from the US to the UK to Sweden have increasingly reached out to the private sector. It isn't just a variation of these aid agencies growing more neo-liberal; its also a recognition that a) business can add real value to development and b) that business is there - just as one can not ignore economics, nor can one ignore businesses (including multinational corporations). Working with governments isn't enough to reduce poverty. And as a report by the Business Civic Leadership Center pointed out, One of the signs of their presence - multinational corporations gave $3.5 billion to overseas development initiatives. If they were a country, they would be in the top 20 donors. It makes good sense for development to engage with these major actors - on multi-national, national and community levels, for both 'development' and 'business' reasons. Businesses affect pressing developmental issues, from worker safety and well being to environmental challenges to developing emerging markets in healthy directions, and include both global and national programmes. Development agencies act as strategic advisors and broker knowledge.

It's not an easy game to play for either side. Development agencies are numerous, fragmented and it is difficult for those in the field to know who is doing what, much less those coming in from outside. It is hard for businesses to know where responsibility and accountability lie. Many 'rules of the game' (especially around leveraging capital) are not developed - or contradictory. Most multi national companies don't work in one of the key priority areas - Africa. Despite these challenges, there are some success stories. USAID has leveraged over $9 bill with over 680 alliances to mobilize investments in sectors ranging from water to micro credit to agriculture. And of course, the micro-credit (and, growing very slowly, the micro-insurance) arenas are well known ways in which much has been done. There are international intentions (such as the UN Global Compact) which are providing a sandbox for figuring out what to do where. I'm not always sure how much is sustainable, and how much isn't. But I know that create sustainable development, both sides need to work together - and hopefully, to get a clearer sense of what is needed to both transform business and aid practices for sustainable development.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When one becomes dependent on fears of dependency

Social protection is, once again, becoming increasingly popular as a policy of sustainable international development. However, it still suffers from fears of dependency. Too often, policy makers are too dependent upon their fear of dependency.

Social protection is quickly becoming recognised as one of the most critical aspects of sustainable international development by those engaged in supporting poor countries and emerging markets to develop. Social protection - a dimension of the welfare state - gives support to people in need. Sounds broad? That's because it is. It can include everything from cash transfers to food support to waiving education fees. Even elements of corporate social responsibility could be seen as part of social protection (protecting society from abject poverty as can be brought on by the market forces and global changes) - though usually, social protection refers to government programmes. It generally includes social insurance, social assistance and labour market regulation. The basics of social protection form the basics of the UK's National Health System and the US's welfare-to-work programming.

Does social protection work? Sometimes. It needs to be well targeted, which requires a high level of knowledge of local contexts - something governments don't always have, much less donor agencies working in international development. During financial crises, those governments that have decent social protection programmes overall fare better, their people do not go into poverty as deeply or for so long, and the overall economy can improve faster. It also means that in times of crises, some structure already exists - the government does not have to start from scratch just as the world seems to be tumbling around it -it just strengthens and adds greater resources to what it already has.

Recently, social protection has become concerned not only with providing a more or less stable safety net, but a safety net that bounces back - so that when you land on it, you can get thrown back up to the next income level (hopefully above the minimal poverty line). That means social protection is becoming increasingly linked to overall economic growth agendas, and not simply seen as a 'net' that catches the 'poor' and the 'fallen'. Some call this process of moving from dependence to independence 'graduation'. I think of it as one of the core aspects of sustainable development. It's also becoming increasingly important for adaption to climate change - though to distinguish it from 'normal' social protection, it is referred to as 'Adaptive social protection'. Is there much difference? For people on the ground, probably not. For donors concerned with proving the 'additionality' of climate change funding - indeed it does!

But there is a great fear that governments have - a fear of dependency. They fear that people will just live on the social protection and not work to improve their condition on their own. And while there are many stories of such people, and I'm sure it is an element of it, the evidence suggests that, overall, people do try make an effort to move from dependence to independence. But the fear is so strong that governments are reluctant to put in place long term social protection policies. Perhaps it is the lingerings of Thatcher and Reagan that withdrew long term state support. Whatever the reason, the fear of dependency seems to outweigh the fear of deep poverty.

Certainly, social protection does need to be long term. If social protection is going to be linked to poverty reduction - and not just keeping people away from absolute desolute conditions - it needs to be part of a longer-term development which, I would argue, needs to be focused on keeping people out of poverty (aka pro-poor growth) - that's the only way forward for long term sustainable development.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Complexity and Development

In case you haven't noticed, complexity and chaos science has been movin' and shakin' the natural-scientific world for several decades, leading to fabulous advances in everything from climate science to the human genome project to molecular physics. It's been breaking down disciplinary boundaries and leading to some life-affirming images that grip the popular imagination, from the notion of the earth being one system (Lovelock's beloved 'Gaia theory') to the notion that the flapping of a butterfly's wings can shape a tornado - even the smallest action, in the right circumstances, can make a profound difference. It's a science where the phrase 'we don't know' is common normal - a far cry from much of the rest of the world. But what does it mean for social sciences - and particularly, for practical action and sustainable development?

There's a dangerous breed of managerial consultant-type complexity-specialists (something of an oxymoron if you ask me) who take the language and then insert the latest management flashy answer underneath it. I'm not sure how much these guys really understand complexity and how much of it is window dressing. And there are those who doubt that the natural sciences can really help us understand the complexity of the social world. Oh, wait - that's the whole point. The social world - especially sustainable development - is super-complex. In fact, the problems that most of international sustainable development tries to deal with - poverty, disasters, conflict, international relationships, governance, empowerment, environmental-human systems - those are some of the most complex challenges we've got. So - yes, complexity has a lot to offer sustainable development. I'm not going to get into all of it here - though there's been some fascinating work done on it - but there's a few interesting illustrations I recently learned about that might help open the possibilities.

In many ways, complexity takes ideas that I, at least, thought were 'duh' and grounds them in the 'reality' of complexity science and mathematics. It's not just my common sense talking- the world really does respond better to some ways of thinking than to other ways. Let's take the problem of cause-effect (linear) kinds of thinking. Old pattern, based on Newton and the Cartesian world view: (A) leads to (B). Input leads to Output. Great for machines and much of the industrial revolution. And clocks. And all sorts of things - in a closed-system. Not so great when you start adding things like disgruntled workers into factories who want things like ownership. Or, in the case of sustainable development, when you think that natural disasters are unrelated to society - the notion that we can segregate the 'natural' from the 'social'. But if you take three factors (initial conditions, in complexity terminology) - say, a garbage dump, a poor slum city in south east asia on the edge of the ocean (near the new industrial harbour) and the regular tsunamis (or monsoon rains) that got a little bit worse from climate change, and you put them all together in such a way that the storm hits the garbage dump and the poor people who make their living picking through it, spreads it all over the places, kills people in the process and leads to weeks and months of disease and un-healthy conditions in an already impoverished context, and you've got a serious disaster. It's not just the disaster - its the way it interacts with the initial conditions and the social system. Trying to address just one of those issues isn't going to do much. You have to look at the system, and you have to reconise that those interactions are complex. Patterns can be distinguished, but not necessarily predicted. Which means you need to get out of the input-output mentality - or at least, recognise that while (A) might be necessary to create (B), in a complex situation, it is not enough. Sending aid is not enough. It has to be coupled with the reality on the ground; local ownership of the follow up projects, etc.

Sustainable Development is complex. It is well worth looking at how we can best use complexity theory to work in the field better - without pretending we know more than we do (which in my case, isn't much!)

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