24 July 2007

Systems or grassroots - which one are you?

5 years ago, I spent the summer in Tanzania working in a children’s home. I played with the kids, taught some basic English and tried to help the founder with her finances and medium-term strategy. The beneficiaries were the 15 children living in the home. We volunteers provided labour, but above all money so that LOHADA (http://www.lohada.org/) was able to move to a bigger home in 2004 and last year opened a primary school for 60 children. Walking to work every day, I breathed the fresh air of the African highlands and admired the sugarcone summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

This summer, I am in an air conditioned office in Monrovia. I travel to the Ministry of Agriculture every day in the family van. The workers on the picture are the closest I have got to Liberian farmers. The direct beneficiaries of my work are bureaucrats, civil servants, members of the tiny Liberian middle class. So far, so unsatisfying.

I have had ample time this summer to read reports from friends ‘in the field’ – from Colombia to India – and I envy their ability to see the impact of what they do every day. Their stories bring back my Tanzanian experience: the fun, but also the frustration I felt at only being able to help 15 children. Without any relevant education or experience, I felt like a complete amateur, powerless and confused. So one evening I typed “Master’s Degree International Development” into Yahoo (we didn’t use Google back then). The first link took me to the Kennedy School website and the MPAID program. 3 weeks later, back in Europe, I applied. It took a few years to raise the money, but they let me in eventually and I am now half way to becoming a technocrat.

I don’t mean to suggest that working at a systems level and at the grassroots are mutually exclusive: but there seems to be a difference in ethos and lifestyle. In Tanzania, I remember waving at UN officials in white LandCruisers, with 2 little kids on each arm. Now I hurry past the kids, wearing a suit, clutching a PowerPoint deck on “Risk management”. If my project goes well, the Ministry will qualify for more donor funding and spend it wisely. Liberian farmers will be more productive and citydwellers will eat better. It’s just hard to see the connection sometimes.

Maybe I should buy a farm, so I could try out high-yielding cassava varieties and swampland irrigation for myself. Otherwise, I am looking for people and organizations who manage to ‘bridge the gap’: people who start small and go huge, people who change the system so that others can change their lives. Please give me some ideas. Are you bridging the gap?


Drew said...

Rupert, of all the career options available to you in life, attempting to grow cassavas on reclaimed swampland in Liberia should not top the list.
Stick to what you do best; analyzing systems, identifying critical bottle necks, and enabling participants to make the system work.
The farmers I know are an amazing bunch. If the weather is even close to favorable, they will find a way to overcome all obstacles to plant and harvest a crop. They are also very adept at making rational decisions without being told what to do.
My humble advice, unencumbered by any local knowledge, would be to encourage your Liberian counterparts to focus on critical factors off the farm that hinder the effectiveness of Liberian farmers. Then turn the invisible hand of competition loose. Farmers will generally make optimum decisions if left to their own devices.
Above all else, never give up. Agriculture is way too important to the future of Liberia and all of Africa.
Keep up the good work!
Drew Kinder

Organized Nomad said...


Like you said in your email, it's a false dichotomy. Having seen the work of hundreds of social entrepreneurs as well as reflecting on how many of my friends sit with this question, I think it finally comes down to personality. Some people are grassroots people (few of them are at KSG, which is not surprising, I suppose) and get totally frustrated/impatient/unconvinced by systems work. Likewise, other people are more comfortable at the systems level and can make many valid critiques about grassroots work. The point is not which is more rewarding but which is more rewarding for you.

The key for all of us is to make sure we have experience at both levels. I think its impossible to be effective at the systems level if you have no experience with how things work in the field, and vice versa. Just as its increasingly important for people to be able to move horizontally between sectors (private, public, nonprofit), it's critical to be able to move vertically from the macro to the micro.

Both grassroots and systems work are equally important and neither can do without the other. The only question is where do each of us fit best, and how well do we understand how the other level works. And now I shall get off my soapbox. Hope Liberia is treating you royally. See you in a few weeks!