Posts Tagged ‘International development’

Published in The New York Times on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Read the full article here. An excerpt is pasted below.

To be successful in business today, a company must do more than just sell a good product.  According to a recent study (pdf), 80 percent of Americans are likely to switch brands, if comparable in price and quality, to one that supports a social cause.

In response, many businesses have changed their practices to be — or at least appear to be — more connected to social causes.  Some companies give a percent of their profits to charity. Others host lavish philanthropic galas.  More recently, some companies have begun adopting a charity model known as “buy one give one” (B1G1).

Toms is probably the largest and best known of the B1G1 companies.  For every pair of shoes someone buys, a second pair is donated to a child in need.  The eyewear company Warby Parker employs a similar model.  Every time it sells a pair of glasses, it sends money for another pair to a social enterprise that then sells them in poor countries. Established brands like Ikea have tested the model, as have nonprofits like One Laptop Per Child and a growing number of start-up companies — including ones that sell vitaminsblankets and children’s clothing.

The B1G1 model holds a lot of intuitive appeal, which has likely contributed to its proliferation. It allows people who may otherwise be disconnected from problems in the developing world to effortlessly engage with them by, say, purchasing a stylish pair of sunglasses.  It is also more tangible than most corporate philanthropy. “You actually feel that there’s someone out there who has a pair of shoes because of your transaction,” said Dean Karlan, a professor of economics at Yale University and a co-author of “More Than Good Intentions.”

B1G1 has the potential to raise funds perpetually, as it encourages philanthropy in everyday purchasing decisions. “To the extent [B1G1] unlocks money that would have otherwise not been available, that’s fantastic,” said Antony Bugg-Levine, chief executive of the Non-Profit Finance Fund.  If the goods are directed to effective organizations, B1G1 companies could give many social causes a boost.

The model could also fail.  Some companies may be interested in adopting B1G1 more to win customer loyalty than to support a social cause and may thus overstate the impact of their charitable activities. Some B1G1 companies may form a partnership with nongovernmental organizations with unreliable track records, impose ill-fitting donations on communities with no use for them or supplant local markets. “To the extent there are local shoemakers, they may not have much of a business if [a B1G1 company] comes and gives away shoes for free,” said Greg Dees, professor of social entrepreneurship at Duke University.

Dees and others also question whether B1G1 handouts can produce lasting change. “There is definitely a need for footwear in underserved markets,” said Valeria Budinich, vice president of Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs. “But those markets need new technology, production processes and distribution chains that [are specifically designed for] rural areas. Models like Toms have many great features but aren’t designed to come up with that level of transformation.”

In fact, most development experts refrain from painting B1G1 companies as social enterprises, as some outlets have, and instead consider them philanthropic ventures.  “To me, it’s only a social enterprise if the social impact comes from core operations,” Dees said.  “How you use the money afterward is your choice.”

No matter the obstacles, it should be recognized that the B1G1 model is attractive to consumers and consequently a potentially powerful method to bolster social change — and it’s worth examining whether it can be turned into a long-term solution for populations living without basics like shoes or prescription eyewear. How can products be distributed so they make a sustainable difference in the lives of those whom B1G1 companies are trying to help?


Read Full Post »

Published in the New York Times on Thursday, January 26, 2012. Read the original article here.

A woman edits the Guatemalan radio drama K'ulb alib' Tz' Ixamal (“Around the Fire”), which discusses food security and child malnutrition. Photo credit: James Rodríguez (mimundo.org)

Every Sunday evening, seven million Kenyans sit in front of their television sets to watch “Makutano Junction,” a soap opera set in a fictional village. In one episode, audiences watch as a woman, Mama Mboga, holds her crying infant. “I need some money to take Joni to hospital,” she tells her husband, Erasmus, after he wakes up and takes a swig from a bottle. “I think he has malaria.” Erasmus insists that his son is healthy, that she is overreacting and that he has no money to give her.

Erasmus eventually gives her some money, but only enough for chloroquine, which is not always effective in fighting malaria. When Joni gets sicker, Mama Mboga takes him to the emergency room, but he dies even before seeing the doctor. Her friends rush to console her as she begins crying, “My baby is dead!” in the waiting room.

As with traditional soap operas, the above story line is full of emotion, conflict and suspense. Scattered cliffhangers leave the audience wondering what will happen next. As I watched it, I found myself beginning to wonder, Will Joni survive? Will Erasmus stop drinking? Will Mama Mboga stand up to her deadbeat husband?

The difference with this narrative is that it deals with a crucial social issue. By placing characters in situations not uncommon to the audience, producers hope viewers will think twice before spending money on alcohol rather than on lifesaving medicine.

“Makutano Junction” is not unique. Around the world, from North India to South Africa, there are dozens of television and radio shows that tightly weave social themes into entertaining narratives, a technique often referred to as “entertainment-education.” Writers develop fictional characters that model positive or negative behaviors, and through their stories and struggles, audiences learn about issues ranging from domestic abuse to personal bankruptcy. Unlike American daytime soaps, these shows usually air during prime time to entire households.

Successful soaps tend to be smartly written, sexy and replete with plot twists and love triangles. In the best-case scenario, the show becomes popular, and viewers begin to incorporate some of the themes into their lives.

“We’ve used storytelling that combines engagement and learning for thousands of years,” said Arvind Singhal, professor of communications at the University of Texas, El Paso, and the author of several books on entertainment-education. Ancient myths, parables and Aesop’s fables are all examples of stories intended to teach valuable lessons or pass on cultural values between generations.

However, said Singhal, the intentional placement of educational messages in mass media is relatively recent. Within television, many experts pin the origin to a Peruvian telenovela called “Simplemente María” (“Simply Maria”), which aired in 1969. The show, which ran five nights a week for two years, followed the story of María, a humble farmer who migrated to the city and began working as a maid. Through hard work and determination, she learned how to read and sew, and eventually became a famous fashion designer. The show became so popular that when María married her literacy teacher Esteban on the show, 10,000 fans gathered outside the church where the wedding sequence was being shot, dressed in their Sunday best and ready with gifts for the “newlyweds.” Enrollment in literacy classes shot through the roof soon after the show aired, as did sales of Singer sewing machines.

“Simplemente María” inspired the Mexican television writer-producer-director Miguel Sabido to try to replicate its success. Sabido created several telenovelas in Mexico, including “Ven Conmigo,” which promoted adult literacy. Ratings for the show were higher than any of the network’s previous telenovelas and enrollment in literacy classes in Mexico City increased ninefold the year it aired.

Perhaps Sabido’s most lasting contribution to education-entertainment was his framework of character types. Sean Southey, executive director of PCI Media Impact, a nonprofit group that has been developing entertainment-education content for more than 25 years, said that Sabido-inspired soaps have three basic character types: positive, negative and “transitional” characters. The transitional character – the one with whom the audience is meant to identify – endures the most twists of fate and is most easily swayed by others. “When [the transitional character] hangs out with a good character, she gets rewarded, and when she hangs out with a bad character … she ends up with unprotected sex in the back of a car,” Southey said.

Versions of entertainment-educational television and radio shows have appeared around the world, many based on Sabido’s methodology. Some, though not all, have also been successful commercially and have resulted in documented changes in behavior. The long-running South African television series “Soul City” has 12 million viewers and is as familiar as Coca-Cola to black South Africans. Regular viewers are almost four times as likely to use condoms than others. In Saint Lucia, the radio drama “Apwé Plézi” (“After the Pleasure”) became so popular that producers had to set up a separate helpline for people requesting information on family planning. Brazilian women with exposure to soap operas, which usually portray small families, have been found to have significantly lower fertility than others.

In many ways, soap operas are the optimal vehicle to spread important social messages. Soaps have many characters and intersecting plotlines, making it possible to tackle multiple issues simultaneously. They can broach issues that would otherwise be taboo, as it is often more acceptable to discuss things like unwanted pregnancy through the guise of a fictional third party. Some producers have even started talk shows to gossip about a soap’s most recent episode and ask experts sensitive questions.

Successful socially conscious soaps have a few things in common. One is a good topic. “The big human issues resonate well,” said Garth Japhet, creator of “Soul City” and other entertainment-education content in South Africa. Anything related to sexuality, violence or substance abuse, he says, usually contain the needed conflict and emotion required for a good soap opera. By contrast, “trying to create drama out of a topic like nutrition is not easy.” Even unpromising topics, however, can sometimes work.

Singhal told me of a show in the Netherlands, “Sound,” that addressed hearing loss by developing a heart-wrenching story around a deaf composer.

It’s also important to make the educational content a seamless part of the story. “The drama will always relate around the relationships between characters, never about the issue itself,” said Lindsey Wahlstrom, PCI Media Impact’s communications manager. “You don’t think, This [soap opera] is about deforestation. You think, Will Felipe and Elena get together at the end of this?” A safe-sex message, for example, is more powerful if H.I.V. isn’t an abstract idea but something that happens to a beloved character.

Successful producers also emphasize the importance of working with local organizations to make sure that the audience can act on the soap’s message. Without a window into ground realities, soaps may inadvertently point people to services that do not exist. “How do you, for example, get persons to say they want to use condoms, but then there are no condoms available?” asked Alleyne Regis, the creator of “Apwé Plézi” and other Caribbean radio dramas. “How do you tell a woman who’s being abused to see a counselor, but there are no counselors available?”

Educational soaps can go beyond selling advertising to get financing. They may also get financing from governments or international donors like U.S.A.I.D. Each of those sources of financing, of course, can affect content. When the producers of “Makutano Junction” took American funds to produce a soap on H.I.V. and tuberculosis co-infection in 2007, they had to sign an agreement that they would not promote abortion in any way.

Commercial considerations also matter, though, so to get high ratings, soaps sometimes limit or avoid certain topics. The producers of “Makutano Junction” faced significant resistance when they tried to address homosexuality. “What we were ideally trying to do was to get a basic conversation going, that there are gay people and they have rights,” said David Campbell, the show’s producer. After filming an episode in which a young woman supports her best friend after he comes out of the closet, the head of the television station advised Campbell to drop it altogether. To avoid potentially losing a significant chunk of its audience, the team wrote and filmed a new episode to take its place.

It isn’t always easy to predict the audience response to certain characters or situations. For this reason, producers spend significant time and resources evaluating their soap’s impact. One thing they check for is the “Archie Bunker effect,” named after the infamously bigoted “All in the Family” character that audiences loved, despite producers intending otherwise. Producers of the Jamaican radio soap “Naseberry Street,” for instance, found through surveys that young males idolized Scattershot, an irresponsible philanderer intended to be negative. They quickly added new elements to his character, like him being bad to his mother. This, they hoped, would help engineer the audience response toward the desired social outcome.

There are many elements to creating a successful socially conscious soap opera. On-screen, a good soap requires relatable characters and believable story lines. At the back end, it needs dedicated writers, supportive producers and considerable financial resources. Most important, a show will not run without an audience willing and able to tune into the next episode.

These elements do not always come together, but when they do, they can help improve individuals’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. In doing so, Japhet said, “soaps can be a real catalyst for social change.”

Read Full Post »

Published in Forbes on September 22, 2011.  Read the post here or below.

Everyone reading this article has suffered from diarrhea at some point, but did you know that it kills nearly 4,000 children a day? The World Health Organization estimates that diarrhea – simple, annoying diarrhea – is the second leading cause of death in children under five, after pneumonia. It may even be responsible for taking more children’s lives than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Not surprisingly, nearly all diarrhea-related deaths occur in the developing world, and are especially prevalent in areas with endemic poverty and poor nutrition.

The perplexing thing about diarrheal disease is that unlike many other global health epidemics, cheap diarrhea treatments exist. Since the 1970s, the WHO has been recommending oral rehydration therapy (ORT) and continued feeding as the “gold standard” for treatment. It is very effective in helping children regain vital nutrients they lose during diarrhea, and crucially, it costs pennies. The medical journal The Lancet even once said ORT may “potentially [be] the most important medical advance of the twentieth century.” Other treatments for diarrhea, including zinc therapy and rotavirus vaccination, are also inexpensive and quite effective.

Given this, we must ask ourselves: why are 1.3 million children still dying of diarrhea every year?

I believe there are two primary reasons. First, diarrhea treatments have yet to reach everyone who needs them. In the case of ORT, only 39 percent of children with diarrhea actually receive it. Between stock-out problems in shops that sell the mixture, confusion of how and when to make the solution, andhealth workers’ mixed levels of adherence to treatment guidelines, there are several formidable barriers in getting this WHO recommended treatment to sick children.

Second, universal access to diarrhea treatment does not guarantee an end to the epidemic. Improving ORT availability is not a silver bullet; rather, stopping diarrheal deaths requires an integrated approach that addresses both treatment and prevention of disease. In this case, we must prevent children from contracting diarrhea by improving drinking water quality, hygiene standards, and childhood nutrition levels. Realistically, the epidemic will persist until and unless these broader social ills are addressed.

This does not mean, however, that markets should wait for issues like malnutrition to be “solved” before helping make treatments more readily available. While improving access to treatment will not result in an ultimate end to diarrhea, it is a vital piece of the puzzle. It is also probably the most tangible way the private sector can get involved.

Within the private sector, logistics and consumer goods companies can probably make the biggest difference to the epidemic, by helping streamline distribution of treatments to communities that need it. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University found that in sub-Saharan Africa, out-of-stock rates for ORS were as high as 38 percent – in contrast to consumer goods like mobile phone cards, which boast out-of-stock rates of 6 percent in the same geographies. Consumer goods and logistics companies could significantly help ORS manufacturers with improving their datasets, sharing knowledge of best practices, and even potentially sharing distribution infrastructure. The Johns Hopkins team believes such partnerships could be constructed not as donations or CSR activities but in ways that would benefit both parties.

Improving distribution logistics may seem like an odd and un-sexy way to stop a global health epidemic. When faced with a disease as un-sexy as diarrhea, however, it may be just what the doctor ordered.

Read Full Post »

Published in The Guardian on July 11, 2011.

In 2003, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) awarded Nick Hughes of Vodafone nearly £1m to develop an innovative mobile banking solution for Kenya’s “unbanked” population. Within four years, Vodafone and Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile operator, jointly launched a programme called M-PESA. The concept was simple: instead of setting up bank accounts or traveling long distances to transfer money, M-PESA would allow users to do it using their mobile phones.

M-PESA’s take-up rate was unprecedented. Within two years, more than 20% of Kenya’s population was registered for the service, and the scheme accounted for nearly a third of Safaricom’s £150m profits. Today, DfID officials admit they “widely quote, perhaps even overquote” M-PESA as a shining example of how the private sector can make lasting change in international development.

In May this year, DfID decided to build on M-PESA’s success by formally announcing a new focus on the private sector. In a report, they wrote that they will be devoting significant resources to “stimulat[ing] private investment” and “transform[ing] the business environment” across the developing world, with the ultimate goal of reducing poverty. Specifically, DfID will support the private sector to provide financial services, schooling, sanitation and other basic services in the 27 developing countries in which it works.

“We start from a position that says business doing business is making a contribution to society,” Karen Johnson, private sector adviser at DfID, told me. She and the report’s authors believe the private sector can create new employment opportunities and develop necessary goods for poor people across the developing world. It can also innovate quickly and do things “more efficiently” than other sectors.

DfID’s optimism about the private sector seems absolute, almost unwavering. However, is it entirely warranted? Is the private sector really the most reliable player for supporting DfID’s development targets, perhaps more than government or non-governmental actors? Will investing in the private sector unambiguously help people in the developing world to see lasting reductions in poverty levels?

The report makes only a slight nod to the potential risks of working with the private sector. It acknowledges in theory that private companies can “behave badly” or even “ignore the marginalised” – but does not detail the ways in which this can potentially occur. DfID says almost nothing, for example, about how private companies can create inhumane working conditions, harm the environment, or price goods out of the reach of poor consumers.

More fundamentally, DfID fails to mention how the private sector is not accountable to the public in the way the public sector is (at least in countries with a democratically elected government). In the “shining city” of Gurgaon, India, for instance, where the public sector has given much of its authority to private developers, the poor have been largely underserved. Sanitation and water systems are often not available for poor citizens – and private developers cannot be held legally accountable for not offering them.

Gurgaon is an extreme example, but most businesses will at some point make decisions that do not entirely fit with DfID’s lofty international development goals. After all, private companies are answerable not to the general public but to their stakeholders. If, for instance, M-PESA decided to double its prices one day, the public would have little say in the decision – although they would be the ones most harmed by it.

Gavin McGillivray, head of DfID’s private sector department, disagrees that the private sector is uniquely unaccountable to the public. “Limited accountability is something we encounter constantly,” he told me. “NGOs aren’t accountable to taxpayers, and there are many countries where governments, even democratic ones, aren’t really accountable to the public.” Given this reality, he continued, DfID is just ensuring that its money is being used to deliver “real outcomes”.

Underpinning this attitude is a belief that governments have largely failed citizens in the developing world. “We have to realise that governments in most developing countries have done a miserable job in providing basic services for citizens,” McGillivray said. “We suspect that the development community as a whole hasn’t looked hard enough at non-state provision of services.”

McGillivray’s comments are quite bold given that developing countries were very much forced to look at “non-state provision of services” in the 1980s when the World Bank and the IMF introduced its structural adjustment programme, which actually reversed development progress in some countries.

An example of what DfID might invest in would be a private sector-led water project that provides safe water to ill-served communities. In the report, they give the example of Maji Ni Maisha, a community-based water finance scheme in Kenya. However, they do not mention how, if at all, DfID would ensure the poorest of the poor could afford this water, nor how they would ensure water is equitably distributed. An equivalent public option, while potentially imperfect in many ways, would be responsible for this much.

The private sector certainly has the potential to raise incomes and living standards of people across the developing world. But it also has the ability to exclude many from the benefits of economic growth. In this new approach, DfID must think critically about where the benefits of private sector involvement in international development might be outweighed by its costs.

Read Full Post »

Published in The Guardian on March 7, 2011.  Read the full article here or read below.

Until recently, microfinance has been the golden child of international development. Microfinance companies would lend small amounts of money to poor women who would, in the ideal scenario, use them to start small businesses. Their interest rates were typically lower than loan sharks’ but still high enough to make a profit. Around the world, development experts believed microfinance was an ideal way to alleviate poverty, a smart way to “do good” while also “doing well”.

How times have changed.

In the last few months, many people have become newly critical. In November, politicians in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh started making bold claims about how microfinance’s crushing interest rates and strongman tactics were, among other things, leading to suicide among over-indebted borrowers.

Some of the politicians’ statements were considered dubious to industry insiders – the Wall Street Journal, for instance, found suicide rates among microfinance borrowers to be five to 10 times lower than among the general Indian population – but they resonated with the public. State politicians ordered private microfinance institutions to stop lending money, and likewise told borrowers to stop repaying existing debt.

Within India, microfinance has historically had its strongest foothold inAndhra Pradesh. Private microfinance lenders had, in aggregate, disbursed more than 150bn rupees (£1.8bn) to more than six million customers. Around the world, experts looked to the state as the Indian business torchbearer.

Given this, Andhra Pradesh politicians likely knew that if they began openly worrying about multiple borrowing, coercive recovery tactics, and suicide related to private microfinance institutions, the rest of the country would carefully listen.

Following the politicians’ announcements, practitioners estimate that more than 80% of customers in Andhra Pradesh have stopped repaying their loans. MFIs have been bearing unprecedented losses, would-be customers have had fewer options for borrowing money, and international media outlets have been running apocalyptic headlines such as “India microcredit faces collapse from defaults”.

Microfinance lenders say the present limbo is not sustainable. They insist the situation must return to business as usual, or more realistically, that new rules – ones amenable to both politicians and practitioners – must be established. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been trying to do just this. They recently commissioned a high-powered group, the Malegam Committee, to study current problems in microfinance and create a new set of rules for the industry. This committee submitted an initial report on 19 January, and after rounds of discussion, the RBI will enforce the final recommendations later this year.

Unfortunately, most industry insiders have been disappointed with the report’s draft. Of particular concern are the new recommended caps on interest rates. Malegam recommends large microfinance companies to have lending margins (that is, the difference between the borrowing and lending rate) of no more than 10%. Operating costs for many companies, particularly those that serve remote populations, are often at least this much. Profitability becomes nearly impossible. According to one industry source, the “interest rates were never really an issue in India in the past. What this cap will do is make it more difficult to expand into underserved areas or reach the poorest customers. Reaching these regions and customers is more expensive, and rigid margin caps take away a lender’s flexibility to price for these higher costs. Companies will instead focus on areas where customers are easy to reach, which runs counter to the government’s stated financial inclusion goals.”

The Malegam report also places a low ceiling – 50,000 rupees – on borrowers’ annual household income. The rationale is that microfinance was originally created to serve the poorest of the poor, and that ceilings will ensure they stick to that mission. Unfortunately, this recommendation runs counter to many academic findings. Microfinance has been shown, in several instances, to work best for people who are poor, but not entirely downtrodden. These customers, according to MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, are more likely to use funds profitably and to repay debt. Brahmanand Hegde, founder and CEO of Vistaar Livelihood Finance, said that “the report is a huge disappointment to us. It is forcing the industry to accept conditions that run against any business sense.”

There have been isolated instances of customer protest. In Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, customers staged a sit-in outside a public bank, demanding more government-sponsored loans. Without private microfinance companies, they are finding it difficult to lead the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed.

Nobody today can predict the future of the sector. If Malegam’s current recommendations are enforced, however, we may see some private microfinance institutions being forced to shut down. The international development community’s golden child may sadly suffer a premature death.

Sarika Bansal

Read Full Post »

Published in The Guardian on May 19, 2010.  Click here or read below:

There are many ways to define poverty, but we shouldn’t allow the debate to distract us from helping the poor

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a construction worker named Lakshmi while taking a walk in Mumbai. She was on a much-needed break, and I was feeling chattier than usual. Lakshmi told me that she moved to Mumbai 10 years ago with her husband, and that they gave birth to two lovely children before he died last year. When he died, she could no longer afford rent for their single-room flat, and was soon after evicted. Today, she and her children live under a blue tarp tent with patchy electricity, no running water and few physical assets to their name. She earns Rs 120 (£1.80) every day she works at the construction site. Most of her wages are used to purchase groceries, with which she usually cooks thin rotis and watery lentils.

Is Lakshmi’s family poor?

According to the government of India, she is not. Since her income is technically sufficient to provide her family three meals a day, her household is above the nationally defined poverty line.

To Lakshmi, this means a lot.

Below poverty line households are issued distinctive cards with which they can acquire heavily subsidised rice, wheat, sugar and paraffin. Her family is instead classified as “above poverty line”, which allows them fewer subsidies. Needless to say, additional handouts would help Lakshmi tremendously.

Lakshmi’s plight speaks to a larger issue, one that has plagued policymakers for years. How should a country define a reasonable poverty line? How should it decide who is truly downtrodden and hence deserving of government handouts? (more…)

Read Full Post »

A shoe cobbler I met in Udaipuria

In Udaipuria, a village in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, sits a shoe cobbler.   His hands, much like his products, are brown and leathery.  He has been making shoes—in his case, ethnic mojaris—for almost 50 years.  Over this time, he has sculpted innumerable shoes, taught innumerable apprentices, and observed innumerable changes in the business.

“When I began making shoes, they were all for kissans, for farmers,” he says, not missing a beat from hammering a new shoe to life.  “That is not what happens anymore.  A few of us still make shoes for farmers, but most work goes to big cities.”

Such has been the case since 1997, when the UNDP (UN Development Program) and RUDA (Rural Non-Farm Development Agency) launched “Operation Mojari.”  Recognizing the potential urban market for Rajasthani shoes, this program was designed to help artisans to thrive well beyond their home villages.  As a result, Rajasthani shoemakers began to see markets and money they never before imagined—that is, until the intervention ended and market forces resumed. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »