Written by Sabrina Natasha Premji on January 23, 2012 |Social Earth
For the last 6 months, I have spent countless hours looking at social innovations in primary health care settings in Kenya. I have come across leading organizations harnessing the capabilities of entrepreneurs in rural communities. I have read case studies on the next ‘big thing’ in water purification, alternative energy and agriculture, and listened to hours’ worth of Tedtalks on the challenges faced by developing economies.
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It is abundantly clear that there is no shortage in this world of brilliant people with brilliant ideas. Innovation and out-of-the-box thinking are common-speak amongst today’s generation of go-getters. But what is equally clear is it’s not all about the idea. Sure, a fancy new gadget can attract donor funding. Sure, a malnourished child holding a tech-savvy tool makes for a compelling photo on an NGO’s promotional material. But the stuff that really matters – the stuff behind the idea – is what defines the success of a project. Most of development work is uncannily unsexy. But that’s where you get to roll up your sleeves, throw yourself into the nitty gritty and do some real thinking. And that’s where I think the fun really begins.
But for most, the fun begins much earlier, in a well-polished boardroom table with suited colleagues who develop a product based on superficial notions of what a rural community in East Africa needs. An eloquently prepared PowerPoint deck showcases expected yields on a quarterly basis for the next 3 years, and suits adjourn the meeting visualizing this as the turning point for the NGO suffering donor fatigue or as the gold-standard in corporate social responsibility.
But then the innovation enters its implementation phase and things don’t seem to operate according to the colourful line graphs developed in a city thousands of miles away. Supply chains are faulty because of lack of maintenance of the one ambulance operating in the village. Male-dominated households prevent the product from reaching its target of women and children. People place more value on their chickens than a flashy device that holds no promise of putting food on the table or paying for school fees. And that’s when you rely on the unsexy stuff. That’s when you admit to failure and spend a day in the field with a farmer understanding his major challenges. That’s when you shadow a nurse at a village dispensary to observe her overtaxed task-list and obstacles of providing good quality care. It’s not just about the idea. It’s about the ability to listen to what people really need and understand how that idea fits into their values, their cultures, their lives. It’s about having the tact to observe inefficiencies and suggest simple, practical, cost-effective solutions.
And once you begin to understand the gaps and potential, that’s when you engage with the government to brainstorm how that idea is aligned with their strategic plan to ultimately ensure community ownership and sustainability. All too often, we judge governments in developing countries as corrupt and revert to creating our own parallel structures. Granted, parallel health structures for example, are necessary to prove the efficacy of a new innovation, to take a risk in a generally risk-averse area. But they are only sustainable if at some defined point, they merge into the infrastructure that currently exists. The infrastructure that we as aid organizations should seek to improve, rather than developing new competing structures. And that requires talking. That requires listening. By observing, by conversing, we begin to shift the focus from a ‘donor agency-implementing agency’ feedback loop to an ‘implementing agency-community’-centred feedback loop. A structure that puts the beneficiaries back in the driving seat where they belong.
What I’ve learned is that even when you have the idea, the one that’s going to get you on the cover of Times magazine, the potential for change is limited unless you sit back, shut up and listen to what communities really need. Sustainable development requires engagement with communities beyond the surface-level, it requires the building of mutually-beneficial relationships and asking critical questions about the underlying system in place. Because at the end of the day, an innovation is just a nicely packaged idea, unless it goes beyond the glamorous surface of cover photos and success stories and tackles the messy, muddled matters at the core of the issue.
Sabrina Natasha Premji is the Project Manager of an Integrated Primary Health Care Start-Up Project with the Aga Khan University. She is currently living in Nairobi, Kenya.
This article originally appeared in the Social Earth