In almost one week exactly I will be getting on a plane back the US. This time without a return ticket to Uganda. Last October I took a job with 31 Bits but will be stepping away from after Friday. Often in our careers we need to step away in order to keep moving forward and this has been central to my decision which has come as a result of many factors that I see all across work being done in Africa.
I still have a deep respect for 31 Bits and always will. While deficiencies in the organization exist it serves no purpose to call them out individually but to gather the lessons I have learned about multiple organizations that build up to the core reasons of my departure. In short it comes to these core things:
- Most development hasn’t worked but organizations ignore this
- Poor Management
- Lack of learning and initial knowledge
- The belief that the rags to (relative) riches story can be everyone’s story
- The belief that education and training alone can lead the poor to prosperity
- The belief that the West knows best
- Emotion, emotion, emotion
*Note that this does not apply to all organizations in development. USAID (United States Agency for International Development) for instance does some incredible work and while they still have issues, most don’t apply. But for anyone who donates money or purchases products from companies and organizations doing work in Africa, you unfortunately are putting money into these issues. Yet that isn’t your fault because what other option do you have?
As a good friend often says, LET ME EXPLAIN:
- $2 trillion dollars spent on Africa in the fast 4 or 5 decades hasn’t produced a whole lot. Africa is still the poorest continent and poverty has significantly gone up. Past solutions have not worked well and there are plenty of failures with only a few marginal successes. Yet innovation within organizations is incredibly lacking. It is the same failed ideas that are regurgitated in slightly new forms and packaged to appear different. Other than those that focus on microfinance, every social business is founded on a charity based model that still leaves the responsibility of income on the poor. Companies that focus on microfinance (Mission Belt) loan through third party organizations and make claims about microfinance that if you study the topic, know aren’t true. When I was in graduate school the biggest need I saw in all of development was innovation and new ideas. Not only are there not innovative ideas but it is really hard to change from within an organization because they don’t start with the understanding that most things haven’t worked.
- It is really hard to run a small organization on two continents. My three years consulting in corporate America showed me that there is always a disconnect when you don’t’ physically work with coworkers and clients. In development organizations this is incredibly amplified. This is to be somewhat expected but the real problem is that management often doesn’t understand this disconnect which makes work on the ground very difficult. Organizations are very dictatorial meaning very little information from the ground gets to the top to effect decision making. Often this is due to lack of managerial experience at the top but also because management often looks to put square pegs in round holes without realizing they are doing so.
- Each organization is convinced of their program. Therefore they learn lessons on their own that have been taught many times over. My first lesson in my first job was to not reinvent the wheel yet that is exactly what is done out here over and over. It has been frustrating that so many things that are being attempted I (and others) know are not going to work out like the decision maker thinks yet am unable to do anything about it. There are so many assumptions made by management that if they looked critically at what they are doing and researched, would know that these assumptions are wrong. So many organizations, Bits included, focus on empower the individual through investing in their small single-person business. This assumes that the poor want to be entrepreneurs. I assure you this is false.
- Stories of life transformation are incredibly powerful but it is because they are so rare that makes them so powerful. People who have been made to make dramatic changes in their lives are inspiring because they have been able to achieve what so few can. Such stories certainly exist but from the start why does it seem plausible that the rags to riches story can everyone’s story? Stories are very deceiving. Of course organizations will tell you stories of transformation but the assumption that one person’s story is everyone’s story doesn’t hold up. Being in Africa you soon realize that everyone has an incredible story because of the challenges of poverty but just like documentaries are out to prove a point, so do these stories. The stories also continue to be told even long after they no longer remain true. Organizations are eager to find short term success and continue to tell that story long after that short term success is evaporated and no real impact is left. Again if the stories were all true development would have large success that make a difference at the macro level but we have plenty of evidence that that isn’t happening. Most of us have stories from our parents, grandparents, great grandparents… where massive sacrifices and years of hard work were made for the sake of our family’s future. Most organizations portray an image that such hard work and sacrifice can be bypassed by some program.
- This is a hard one because education is always a good thing but it simply isn’t producing results. Educational attainment around the world has tripled. Universal primary education worldwide has almost been achieved yet poor countries like Uganda remain poor. The real issue isn’t really about formal education. We look at decisions the poor make and when we disagree with them the answer is always training and education rather than trying to understand why they make the decisions they do. The poor aren’t dumb. They make decisions that they see as best the same way anyone else does. The decisions of the poor may seem odd to us but rarely do people learn from them and always feel like the poor need to think like they do. We need to think more like the poor do to understand them. Trying to change behavior almost never works out here yet so much effort and money is spent towards doing just that.
- Doubling down always seems to be the response when organizations don’t see the impact they expected. Never is there any doubt about the model or program. The answer is that we need more model or more program (or more cowbell). So much time, effort, and money is wasted because organizations always think they know the answer and aren’t willing to entertain the thought that they might be wrong. Even though the same solutions have failed so many times over in other situations, there is always some reason why management thinks that they can get it right.
- If there is one thing that sums up everything I have written here and the simplest way to explain the problems in organizations I see out here it is emotion. We all know stories of organizations that start from a trip to some faraway place where an individual saw something they had to do something about. With no knowledge, no understanding, no critical thinking organizations are borne out of pure emotion. This is the biggest reason why I think that there is so little substance behind all the rosy pictures organizations present. Owners, management, employees, volunteers, and donors are so emotionally connected to the desperation of poverty and the hope the think they can bring to the poor. How can you possibly insight change in an organization where there is so much emotion behind every decision being made. Where owners are so protective of their organizations like newborns. How do you bring up that things could be done better or that the ideas they have in their heads don’t have much hard evidence behind them? I knew that was going to be my biggest challenge going in and in the end the primary reason I am leaving Uganda.
With that said, I have always firmly believed that if someone sees something that frustrates them, they have no right to voice that frustration unless they themselves are willing to do something about it. My time in Uganda has only encouraged me that something can in fact be done about the lack of results in Africa. But for that you have to wait for Part 2…