Last week, I was invited to serve as a featured speaker and guest judge for the final round of the Poverty Hack sponsored by the Posner Center. The vision of the Posner Center is to “be the leader of collaborative international development.” This is one of the most radical vision statements I have read and I love it for that reason. How many organizations truly aim for “collaboration?” There are funding pressures that create organizational competition, pressures for “innovation” that suggest one organization needs to outshine the other, and pressures to attract top talent that encourage organizations to actually poach each other’s staff. Collaboration in all these instances is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
Yet without collaboration we can’t begin to address the myriad of complex and entrenched development challenges. No one organization can do it all, not even one that adopts multi-sectoral and multi-geographic focal points. Collaboration allows the best ideas to come together to tackle the problems we collectively face.
A few years ago I was working on an Access to Justice program in Sierra Leone. We were trying to support reforms that would allow Sierra Leoneans greater access to formal and informal justice institutions. Women who had been so horribly affected by the war were a primary focus for this project. We wanted to reach women in some of the most remote rural areas with messages about their rights and the ways they could claim them. Our team started looking at options and pretty quickly landed on radio as the medium to use to reach women. Most households had a radio, and recent additions of solar radios meant that even poorer families who couldn’t afford batteries could charge their radios. The poorest families who couldn’t afford radios could at least hear the messages broadcast from other households.
But before we got started, one of our brilliant colleagues said we needed to do a gender assessment to see if women would use the radios. I had lived and worked in Sierra Leone on and off since 1990 and was pretty sure women would use radios, but I said, ok, let’s do a gender assessment.
What we found was remarkable, both in its clarity and simplicity. In short, radios were not the best way to reach women for a number of reasons. First, men in the rural areas where we were working controlled the radios and determined which stations could be played. There was no guarantee that our messages would be broadcast if men heard them and didn’t like them. Second, men also controlled where in the house the radios were used. Most of the men listened to the radios on the front porch in the late afternoon and evening, at the time when the women were at the back of the house in the kitchen preparing meals. They would not hear the messages even if the men played the station. Finally, the men controlled the cash in the household so they would decide if and when they would buy batteries for the radios that weren’t solar – so therefore there was no guarantee that the women would have access to a working radio at the right time.
Instead the team figured out a creative low-tech solution to give the women plug-and-play options so they had access to a flash drive type of device loaded with messages about their rights that they could listen to privately or in a group as and when they were in a safe and supportive environment to do so. Through this mechanism we were able to disseminate messages about local courts, domestic violence, customary marriage, and more.
The point of this story is that the HOW matters. So often in development – especially with technology solutions – we think that WHAT we do matters most. It’s important but what makes or breaks a solution is how it gets done. Which brings me back to the Posner Center and the power of collaborative processes that are at the heart of the how. We need to break down silos and admit that no one person, no one donor, no one civil society organization or private sector player has all the insights and the answers. Collaboration is one of what I see as the “Five Cs” for tackling global poverty; the other four are:
Community: At Plan, every solution begins and ends with the community. This is as true whether we are engaging the UN on global advocacy or working for enhanced service delivery for children in villages.
Communication: Alternative voices are the key to successful communication. We need to ask who isn’t at the table and who should be there. Often the answer includes youth. Adolescent girls. People living with disabilities. Ethnic minorities. People who face discrimination because of gender identity or sexual preference. Just like in my Sierra Leone example, solutions look very different when diverse groups are brought to the table rather than the traditional power brokers.
Connection: With connection you create opportunity. Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not. The power of information and communications technology to connect people to opportunities and ideas that can create opportunities is transformational. The most important thing we can do is break the monopoly on opportunity through community-oriented, collaborative, and inclusive solutions.
Creativity: Every idea is crazy until it is not. Find the crazy and work with it until it is not. Breaking outside of established thought patterns opens new energies and avenues and allies for solutions.
While it’s true that solutions need to be localized and contextualized, strategies for tackling poverty should come from all corners just as they did at the Posner Poverty Hack. These are truly global challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) leveled the playing field for all countries so they can address their challenges. No country is developed. All have areas for improvement. This is perhaps the most powerful and profound change in international development and poverty reduction work, and it opens the door for us to source creative solutions from all corners.