Kevin Starr from the Mulago Foundation doesn’t find the average mission statement of development organizations very useful, as most of them look like this:

“… blah blah blah blah grassroots blah blah
blah empower blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah sustainable blah
blah capacity-building blah blah blah blah
blah blah innovative blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah strategies blah
blah participatory blah blah blah…”

Instead, he wants something in this format:

verb + target + outcome < 8 words

Starr gave a talk at PopTech where emphasized the need to distinguish between the organizations that say they’re doing a good job with those that are actually having an impact. A clear, concise and measurable mission statement helps. Watch the full video here:


“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

We’ve all heard this proverb before. It’s an approach that many development organizations have adopted – giving knowledge is more sustainable than giving things.

When I took D-Lab (an MIT class focusing on appropriate technology development) with Amy Smith, she questioned this proverb. What if there’s no river nearby? What if the fishing rod breaks? What if he doesn’t like fish? These are all considerations that are not addressed by the proverb, and are possible places where the model can fail. Thus we need a reformed approach to designing appropriate technologies, accounting for maintenance, resources, user wants, etc.

But I mentioned yesterday that I believe just reforming our current development practices (or components of these practices such as technological design) is not enough. We need a reformed approach to development as a whole. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I believe the answer lies in using business models and social entrepreneurship. Thus perhaps Ashoka founder Bill Drayton’s modified proverb is the most appropriate:

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

(Photo from Istanbul, Turkey, 2009)

This past Saturday, I went to the Cambridge International Development Course (CIDC) run by Cambridge’s Humanitarian Centre. Overall, it was a mixed bag. I went to one really inspirational talk by a man named David Barker (that article does not do his story justice), and one really painful talk full of statistics and not much substance.

But one thing that struck me about a couple of the main speakers was that they stood up at the conference and told everyone how much NGOs and aid are failing. Kristy Smith, Director of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund, gave an exhaustive list of all the challenges NGOs can’t handle and why their “project” model fails. Benny Dembitzer, Director of the Global Development Forum, gave this list of why aid is ineffective:

  • “Aid is dispensed as an extension of welfare, not a tool for development
  • Short term, not long term
  • Dictated by the donor, not the recipient
  • Contradictory and incoherent
  • Neglected local development of agriculture
  • Aimed at governments, not people
  • Poverty has become an intellectual challenge”

Yet at the bottom of this list Mr. Dembitzer included (in smaller font): “but is desperately needed.”

Both of these speakers ranted about the failures of aid and NGOs for over 30 minutes each, and then proceeded to tell us that we should keep using the same aid and NGO models. They just need to be “reformed.”

I was impressed with their honesty about the challenges (and failures) of NGOs and aid. I was unimpressed with their solutions. “Reform”? Seriously? After 40 years of trying the same things over and over again, “reforming” the process along the way, you’re telling me we should continue along the same path that you clearly think is failing? Major “reforms” haven’t worked in the past, why would they work now? This solution, to me, is like having a tennis instructor who simply tells you to “try harder” every time you miss the ball.

I think we need a different solution. Something far from the currently accepted practices so that we can’t slip into the same rut. For me, that solution lies in business models and social entrepreneurship.

A friend of mine asked me today if I know of any US projects/businesses that focus on food, nutrition, and/or education and work with Bottom of the Pyramid children/families. The key features here are 1) “US-based” or “domestic,” and 2) “businesses” – it can be non-profit but it needs to be running as a business.

I was stumped. I can think of many organizations that fit these criteria, but they’re all international. I apparently know more about development in the rest of the world than in my own country.

So I’m opening up this challenge to you all. Can you think of any US-based organizations that fit the above profile?

(Image from and modified to show how much I know about my own country.)

I used to want to work for non-profits and NGOs. But somewhere along the way, I made a switch. Now I support using a business model, 100%. Why? Because, in short, businesses have the impact that NGOs can only dream of in the developing world.

It seems, as Melinda Gates explains in the first 12 minutes of this TED talk, that NGOs have quite a lot to learn from the business world.

Has the NGO model for international aid and development failed?

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on failed development models in Africa, then you would know that my immediate and emphatic response to that question is: YES. (Note that there are definitely some exceptions depending on the exact nature of the NGO, but in general I have major issues with donor-funded and thus donor-driven projects and organizations.)

But recently, a friend of mine confronted me on this answer. He spent two years working with the Clinton Foundation in the Dominican Republic, and we share many opinions on aid and development work. Yet he asked me to take another look at that question, but from a different perspective.

My perspective is that the majority of NGOs in Africa are doing more harm than good by being donor-dependent and by giving things away for free. I could go on for quite a while on this issue, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is that there is another perspective. The NGOs’ perspective. I forgot about this.

What if the NGOs’ primary goal is to create jobs (mostly for ex-pats)? And to allow development workers to feel good about themselves by giving back to the global community? And to provide ex-pats with a comfortable lifestyle outside of their home countries? And to create a dependency on aid so that their organization’s necessity and sustainability is assured? Because in that case, the NGO model hasn’t failed at all. Rather it’s quite successful.

But I guess it all depends on whose perspective we take.

(Photo: one of my favorite works of art by my favorite artist, taken from here)

One of my favorite things about MIT’s IDEAS competition is that it encourages innovation and provides a forum for students to take their technological solutions to the next level.

A friend of mine is involved in a new project that does the same thing for water-related issues, but is open to everyone. It’s called Imagine H2O, and it offers a yearly prize for innovative business plans focused on solving water-related problems around the world. But mostly the goal is to inspire and empower people to think creatively about these issues.

And then we can focus on turning the ideas we’ve got into a reality.

(Photo: A small lake in Kenya, October, 2009)

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