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Reporting from the Vulnerable Populations track – Part 3 – Questions for the future

by on Dec 2, 2011  |  posted in Vulnerable Populations  |  0 Comments
(This is the third part of a three-part blog on the Vulnerable Populations track. Read about the Bermuda Triangle of economic empowerment in the first part here and more about the workshops in the second part here.) The presentations in the workshop entitled “Integrating Microfinance and Livelihoods: Plus Models that Make Business Sense” and the questions they raised  made clear to me the divergent ways of navigating the Bermuda Triangle of economic empowerment. [caption id="attachment_734" align="alignright" width="144" caption="BRAC Village Organization member"][/caption] Here we had two organizations articulating what look like impressively effective models, but whose success depended a lot on sheer size. BASIX and BRAC are integrating activities all the way up the value chain, and all the way around the sustainable livelihoods framework, enabling their target groups wherever they need enabling. They are working on a large (if not very large) scale. And while they are not taking a facilitative approach, but rather delivering functions in the value chain themselves, the nature of the organizations makes it difficult to argue that they are not permanent market actors (as a market system facilitator might). In this sense, their models are fairly sustainable. But what can most of us learn from these “integrated” models? Most practitioners don’t have the capacity to build the diverse skill sets required to work effectively on so many levels. Most practitioners don’t have the capacity to drive impact at scale through sheer scale of programming. Most practitioners have to live with project cycles and grant funding, and the challenge of sustainability in this environment (not to mention the moral hazard of it all). So while one side of the fork in the road takes us into the territory of multi-faceted, integrated programming, the other side takes us into the territory of the smaller organizations and what they can learn to improve their poverty outreach, sustainability, and leverage for cost-effective scale. Down this road, we head into the territory of core competencies and complementary partnerships. I learned an enormous amount from my fellow panelist Janet Heisey’s case in the “A Rising Tide Won’t Lift All Boats: From Differential Needs of the Extreme Poor to Market Participation” workshop. This was helped along by the dialogue Jan facilitated between us ahead of the workshop itself. Bringing together such different projects (Trickle Up and Practical Action) challenged me to take a different lens to reflect on Practical Action’s project, be honest about its limitations, and therefore genuinely seek to learn from others. At the same time, it reinforced my convictions about the project’s strengths, hopefully helping me to articulate it better to others. The role of the coach in Trickle Up’s project and the facilitator in Practical Action’s project is critical. The skill sets of a good coach or facilitator, which contrast with each other on many levels, are united in their complexity. Good coaching, like a good facilitation, is not about following a foolproof recipe. Rather it requires probing at a situation, sensing how it reacts, and responding and amplifying based on that feedback. Furthermore, these skills must be embodied not just by the field staff, but by the program itself, and the managers responsible for creating the working environment that encourages this behavior. [caption id="attachment_737" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Dave Snowden introduces the Cynefin Framework."][/caption] Capacity building is one of the issues that goes deeper and beyond questions of “best practice.” These are the issues that put into question whether it even makes sense to look for “best” practice. Don’t get me wrong – we need to be practical. But that which has most practical value may not be a list of best practices. More valuable may be addressing what USAID’s Jason Wolfe – who moderated the “Strengthening the Bottom Billion” plenary – and Lauren Hendricks (executive director, CARE USA) referred to as a “culture clash,” where programs are not encouraged to take risks, be innovative, make the necessary mistakes, and learn from the them in the pursuit of greater effectiveness. What are rare examples of programs with the confidence to overcome the rut? How do they do it? What do they look like? More valuable may be to draw on the Cynefin Framework, presented by Coady Institute’s Anuj Jain at the “Economic Strengthening Approaches for the Bottom Billion” training. The Harvard Business Review-featured framework presents the distinction among simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic situations, and argues that appropriate decision making requires divergent approaches depending on what kind of situation we are dealing with. Underlying this entertaining video, Anuj was suggesting the same question as the Enterprise and Market Development Systems track workshop on complexity theory: Have we oversimplified development practice? Are we ignoring that most situations we face are complicated or complex, and need to be recognized as such if the appropriate decision-making modes are to be deployed? More valuable may be to think more carefully about how we build capacity of those who are supporting the process of change, such as market system facilitators and field coaches. It may be helpful to continue exploring what capacity it requires to implement integrated programs really effectively. How often are skill sets, methodologies, time-frames, and even basic values too diverse and even inconsistent for integrated programs to work well? If evidence suggests this is often the case, what can we learn about development’s successful partnerships, where the contrasting and complementary skills of a variety of partners come together to manage complexity and leverage sustainable impact on the very vulnerable on a large scale?

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