Developments’ forgotten child – the Community Based Organization

If you ask for a list of organizations implementing development programs, effective or not at that, I suspect that you will get something like: INGO, native Civil Society Organization (CSO) in my context the East Africa Civil Society Organization (EACSO), consulting firms primarily American, Universities especially American & British, and the government. It is very likely that the Community Based Organization (CBO) will not make the list.

Photo: ronklabunde.com

Photo: ronklabunde.com

Most of the above-listed entities lack the mandate and connectedness to deliver authentic grassroots-driven development i.e. genuine participation and inclusion of the poor in poverty eradication discourse and delivery. I do not know what you think, but from where I stand, the post-2015 discourse has articulated well the post-2015 vision. However, that vision is from a Western capital/aid-architecture/contemporary-development-organization context, and not always the remote Southern one.

Let me explain why I take the above stance: I have lately come across a lot of good thinking on the future of development, some of it in all fairness, well rooted in the Southern context and its challenges. Yet at the same time, many development theorists and practitioners, continue to focus on, and at times mix the debate on the survival of the western aid-vehicle (the INGO) or International Civil Society Organization (ICSO) vs. the what but even more critical how of poverty eradication.

Of course, survival of any entity is at the forefront of strategy creation. However, in the case of the INGO/ICSO/Donor and its influence on poverty eradication, the strategy debate should delve a little more on the HOW. The WHAT in development is a constant and I think it is about time we looked a little more at HOW development business delivers value.

I worry that post-2015 dialogue risks too high a pitch, that it will miss the subtle but critical elements of its very purpose. Strategy theorists always caution against failing to differentiate strategic, tactical, and operational aspects of an organization. Yet, I still want to suggest that post-2015 dialogue should delve more into the subject of who (and not only what) delivers poverty-eradication models in East-Africa villages (+others in the South) and how effective they are at that.

There is an assumption in the monoculture of native civil society in East Africa, that if we engage the EACSO, we have directly engaged and reached the poor. There is an enormous difference and gap between a modern civil society organization like the EACSO and a Community Based Organization (CBO). I am amazed at how we make generalizations and completely miss the blind spot on this one – and perhaps we miss it because it is a blind spot!

The question we need to be asking is ‘how do we more directly get the poor, post-2015, to ‘define but even more vital, implement poverty solutions?’ Failing to answer this simple but powerful ask, will be considered amongst the many examples in development of ‘vision getting ahead of practical realities.’

The debate should go beyond current rhetoric of poverty eradication solutions being locally defined and driven, to asking more directly how the poor can directly get involved and the metrics to monitor progress.

A cue from the marketers:

In the private sector, effective product offers thrive on a number of well-known principles: defining and offering a firm value proposition; appropriately costing the value proposition; and positioning the value proposition in a market. Market positioning involves targeting segments of the market and determining how best to access particular segments.

The development industry finds itself in a situation where there is too much demand for poverty eradication services and products, yet fails to do effective product offers.

It looks like abundant demand by the ‘poor-people’ market, results in development practitioners offering a botched supply proposition. This supply proposition fails to both satisfy demand and meet product/service quality standards. In effect, the ‘poor-people’ market situation is such that the demand/supply equation is tilted significantly and in favor of the supply side.

Ever fascinated by what makes organizations/people effective or not, I want to propose in this blog that it is not too late to address the fact that development agencies do not and may continue not to, post-2015, effectively address the supply side in development. In order to address the dysfunction in this demand/supply dynamic, development practitioners should consider EFFECTIVELY using all the distribution channels available to them. This may bring rare access to authentic clients, the ‘poor-people’ market, and address its demand more effectively.

‘Poor-market’ distribution channels:

  • INGO
  • Consulting firms
  • Universities
  • Government
  • EACSO (different from a CBO)
  • CBO (different from the EACSO above)

As mentioned before, amongst the distribution channel list above, it is the CBO that is least used by contemporary development practitioners. Perhaps the latter is caused by the misnomer that CBO’s are the same as the EACSO.  To the contrary, the EACSO is a more cosmopolitan entity, increasingly stepping in the footsteps of its international peer the INGO.

The pure CBO, different from the EACSO, is yet to take its seat on the poverty eradication table. There are many reasons for the latter situation: the CBO is not Western in dress, it is remote + thinks local as opposed to the increasingly global and cosmopolitan outfit the EACSO, the CBO does not meet FORMAL requirements (bank account, corporate registrations, etc) needed to implement contemporary development programs, and most of all, it doesn’t have a good command of the ‘development-club’ dynamics.

A market as complex as ’poor-people’, needs multiple distribution channels in order to be effectively serviced. Development practitioners should ensure they deploy the most effective channels for distributing poverty eradication products/services. In order to go beyond rhetoric, post-2015 dialogue should push for the definition of metrics to measure:

  • ‘effective access/reach of the authentic ‘poor-people’ market clients
  • ‘effective participation/inclusion of the ‘poor-people’ market clients

For the above to happen, development has to change the way it organizes access to its market. There is need to think of market access in a more structured sense and not as a one size fits all. Like in business, some of the channels I have outlined above can manifest at various stages of the value chain: i.e. factories manufacturing solutions to poverty, logistics companies distributing products/services to the wholesaler, big-shop retailers in modern urban centers, and small-shop retailers in the more remote areas that directly serve the needs of the remote client.

The case for the Community Based Organization:

To put it bluntly, how can a village-burial-group, a CBO in every sense, be looked at as part of the solution to defining and implementing poverty eradication solutions and not part of the problem and burden? Let us explore next, what the CBO brings to the poverty eradication table:

  • Direct reach to the very poor and not trading center based ‘poor’ that live on more than $1.25 a day
  • Elimination of administrative layers and overhead (i.e. from donor to: INGO, EACSO, CBO (if remembered), and finally to the poor)
  • Relevant and practical solutions/delivery to poverty eradication
  • 24/7 learning from any failure and success
  • Walk the talk and put the poor directly in charge of their destiny

However, I also know that for the CBO to take its seat on the poverty eradication table, me and you will have to undo contemporary development thinking. The burial group may not have a bank account or other corporate credentials, but is a much more robust ‘market- access’ channel and ‘poverty-solution’ delivery vehicle. Let me give a real life example: for social protection programs, you will find that a village based CBO is better placed to know who is poor and of real need, than the urban-based EACSO. If you implement a Gender Based Violence (GBV) program, which involves mindset change, you may be more effective if you train CBO leaders as change agents as opposed to a fresh graduate employed by the EACSO, that will have an eye on more lucrative prospects and may not live in East-African villages.

I know that there are reasons not engage the CBO, many genuine. However, what if we explored a little more, enablers that can help solve some of the obstacles to accessing and working with CBO’s:

  • Use technology to address barriers that have prevented willing actors from using CBO’s like a channel i.e. funds provided to the CBO, drip-drop, via mobile money banking
  • Project content can be provided using text-based technology – let us tap the potential of mobile telephony and get around some of the obstacles
  • Change the way we THINK and do business in development; shift resources towards the most effective entities and not best ‘dressed’ entities. A change in mindset will be critical
  • Change development configuration from entities that deliver through people structures and physical offices, to entities that deliver through process and technology

Going back to the marketers’ analogy, the CBO is the small village shop that brings services every day, to this authentic ‘poor-people’ market. It is the latter market that will guarantee the future of development entities and practitioners. The biggest win in my view, from using the CBO more, is not only the widening of poverty-eradication distribution channels, but the sustainability it brings. The latter is especially timely, as the world is discussing SUSTAINABLE as opposed to MILLENNIUM development goals.

Where & How, do we get this market-oriented thinking, to the post-2015 debate?



Categories: Strategy

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