Start Where You Are


We have all witnessed or been party to the failure of development projects to achieve their assigned objectives. In my experience this is often the result of projects being designed around the set of development “tools” the donor or implementer has available and some end state they deem desirable. Their calculation too frequently does not include an accurate understanding of the starting point — the current condition that the project is intending to change. In this post, I present one way of getting a clear understanding of the starting point, at least with respect to rural-based economic development projects through conversation with the people most involved. My approach does not deny the need for hard data and statistical analysis but it does usefully complement them. I hope you will read through these examples, consider them in the light  of your own work and add your own experience and ideas in the comments section at the end.

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Start Where You Are

Why do so many projects fail to deliver promised results? It is often due to the fact that expectations are based on the assumptions of the donors and their hired gun consultants rather than the experience of the people involved or the reality of the situation in the target area. I like to think that my forty several years of experience in many countries give me certain aspects of the economic development process. It does not, however, provide me with an innate understanding of the position in which people find themselves in different cultures and economic settings. To learn that, I must spend time with those people, learn at least some of what they know and try to understand the environment in which whatever sort of project we intend to put on the ground will be developed.

International “experts” are no more guilty of assuming that they know what is best for the “targeted beneficiaries” than local NGOs or (especially?) government officials who often arrogantly assert that they know best what is good for their people because, after all, “”It is our job to know these things.”  The likelihood of success for any project is greatly enhanced by a thorough understanding of the starting point. How, after all, can we expect to be successful in drawing a “map” directing anyone to a desired objective if we do not know the point from which he or she is starting?

When I originally drafted this section several years ago I had just concluded a series of five meetings with a vast horde (at least eight)  of World Bank experts, none of whom had any experience in the country as near as I could tell. They were charged with designing a new agriculture development project in Armenia.

The members of this team were all very smart, creative and determined to do the best possible job. Nevertheless, they spent the vast majority of their time in the capital meeting with me and my colleagues from various international and local agencies to learn the “facts on the ground”. What they ended up with was a filtered version of those facts — and the “guidance” of government officials many of whom had a vested interest in guiding the research towards certain outcomes. What they did not have was a thorough (or even rudimentary?) understanding of how the people who are intended to be the beneficiaries of their program will react to those proposals, what kind of experience they have had with such programs, and what they viewed as their critical needs and limitations. A great opportunity was being missed – and for no discernible reason other than the fact that we are all more comfortable dealing with our professional “peers” than with poor people who may not understand the importance of our work, and who do not possess citable hard data that we can include as footnotes in our final reports. Besides, it is cold and uncomfortable in the Armenian mountain villages in February.

Development literature and the procedures of most of the major international donors make a good bit of fuss about the need for baseline data and for the “benchmarking” of project expectations and outcomes. How can these exercises be meaningful though if they are based on data extracted from national statistics that are acknowledged, in very many cases, to be so flawed as to have doubtful utility, and interviews with a very limited set of mostly elite local people and international consultants who often have their own intellectual or programmatic axe to grind. An accurate assessment of the starting point for any project is crucial to the design of any project that is to have more than a modest chance of success. I, for one, am unable to make that assessment without a good bit of “face” time with the folks who will be most influential in determining the ultimate success of the project – and be most affected by it.

Among the most popular buzz words of the first several years of the 21st century in the field of economic development have been “cluster” and “competitiveness”. Cluster analysis and cluster development have suddenly become the answer to everyone’s enterprise development problem. Every USAID mission must now have a “competitiveness” project based on “cluster” development. Realities on the ground are unconsciously distorted to fit the competitiveness model which suggests that the key to everything is the development of industry associations and improving the policy and regulatory environment for SME development.

There is nothing wrong with these principles except that not all environments are ready for their application. In Armenia, for example, deep distrust among people in business and bad previous experience with collective action make people very reluctant to join and play an active part in industry associations. A top down approach to “encouraging” association formation with grants and technical assistance will lead certain of the local “donor dancers” to take the initiative to form such associations and appoint themselves as their leaders. Others may be persuaded to sign up as members of the association but they are unlikely to have much faith in its ability to make their lives better or to take an active part in its operations.

This pattern has occurred in enough countries by now for generalization to be justifiable. The project I most recently worked on was also engaged in association development, and we had some success in it. That success, however, was not the result of imposing (however gently) some foreign model of people in exchange for grants and goodies. We rather worked hard to bring people in a given industry together to talk about their common problems and to encourage conversation, and eventually joint action, among them. This led to increasing the levels mutual understanding and trust among the participants and given us the opportunity to explain just how an association might serve their individual interests without threatening their independence.

The following examples from Ghana will hopefully further illustrate the importance of knowing the starting point of an effort before launching it and some simple techniques for learning what needs to be known.

Ghana: Learning About Shea Butter and Groundnuts

At one point in 2001, while working on a USAID project, my colleagues and I became interested in the shea butter market. Shea butter is extracted from the kernel of the shea nut, which is widely distributed on shea trees throughout the region. The butter, actually an edible vegetable oil, is the most commonly used cooking oil in the region and is also useful in the preparation of cosmetic (skin cream) products and, increasingly as a substitute for cocoa butter in some food products.

In order to understand the business better from the ground up, I traveled to Northern Ghana with one of my Ghanaian colleagues. We went in search of a village he had visited on an earlier expedition but, after considerable bouncing down dusty roads on a hot and dry afternoon we were unsuccessful in locating it. Then, applying vast amounts of the vaunted donor wisdom, we deduced that the abundance of shea trees dotting the landscape might be a pretty good indicator of the existence of more than one village shea butter processing group in the area. Spotting a teenage boy on his way home from school (again, our highly developed donor insight made the most of meager evidence – the school uniform and book bag among the most telling) we asked him (in English – my colleague, though Ghanaian, being as much a stranger in that region as I) if anyone produced shea butter in his village. “Oh, yes, sir. All of my mothers produce it.”  Did he think they would be willing to talk with us about it. “Oh, yes, sir. They would, but first you must have the permission of the chief.”

We agreed that this was reasonable and within minutes we were seated on a narrow bench in the chief’s meeting hut at the entry to his multi-hutted compound, surrounded by village people all telling us at once about the fine points of shea butter manufacture. Our teen-aged benefactor was left peeking shyly in at the door, not daring to approach his elders without invitation. Translation was being handled by the village’s self-appointed English speaker whose skills were not quite up to the task. The actual conversation was actually requiring a double translation:  first, from the local language into Akan, which is the most commonly spoken language in the country, and then for my own benefit (as the most “educated” person in the room, and the only one with no relevant language in my repertoire) into English. This was an awkward arrangement to say the least. We suggested that things would go much smoother if the our young friend would be kind enough to serve as our translator. He was then formally invited to join us, an obvious growth hormone injection for his local stature, and the conversation proceeded for a good hour of great fun. The men sat around us on other benches or the floor answering all of our questions. The women stood behind the men, laughing at their foolishness and providing the necessary corrections to the men’s erroneous tales. Not only did we all enjoy our afternoon immensely but we also learned a whole lot about the shea butter business as practiced in Northern Ghana. No research papers were published, or written, no conferences were held and no teams of international experts, other than our esteemed selves, flew thousands of miles to study the subject. .

 We talked about the best times (times of the year and of the day) to gather the shea nuts, the other activities they might be doing at the time to generate income for their families. They told us about the difficulties and dangers of the harvest process (most notably heat, long distances to walk and carry the harvest and snakes, the last of which was enough to convince me that the ladies should receive danger pay for this work). They described the traditional method for processing the nuts into shea butter, for storing it, transporting it and how they used it at home. They even shared with us the costs they incurred in doing the business as well as their methods for marketing whatever surplus they had beyond their home requirements and how, and to whom, they sold those surpluses and the income they expected to derive from their efforts.

We asked if they had had any experience working with the new “improved” technology that one of the international NGOs was making available to producer groups in the region. They did know of that technology and were not at all enthusiastic about it because the product was, in their view, not suitable for home consumption. The new technology did not include cooking, and it changed the cultural practice of women working together in small groups to produce what they needed for themselves.

This informal, and impromptu, discussion provided us with a sound basis for investigating various means of increasing the returns to women who were active in the shea butter business by improving the purity of the product being processed in the traditional way and linking them more efficiently to buyers with the capacity to refine the butter using modern technology and link with foreign buyers who had use for it.

We used a very similar method for gaining a quick understanding of the ground nut (peanuts to the American reader) industry in the same region. We held impromptu meetings with farmers, usually gathered under a mango tree in the middle of the village seated on a carpet of peanut shells, the product of long evenings of conversation and manual ground nut shelling by the whole community. We also visited the local technical institute charged with developing new groundnut varieties and production practices appropriate to the region and took part in another fascinating, and fun, meeting with ground nut traders in the main market in the provincial capital of Tamale.

We had been warned that the groundnut traders in this market were notoriously secretive about their business. Secretiveness is a trait common to commodity traders around the world due to the highly competitive nature of their business and the small margins involved. We had approached one of the traders, a woman, through an intermediary. We asked for an appointment to discuss her business with the solemn oath that whatever she told us would be held in strictest confidence. We arrived at the heart of the steamy market at the appointed time and were ushered into her warehouse:  a room of perhaps four meters by six with one door and no windows, and invited to sit on a narrow bench amidst the stacks of bagged groundnuts awaiting sale or shipment. After the usual formalities were dealt with and we had explained our mission, I began asking questions about the groundnut trade. As our discussion progressed, other people began to appear. Within thirty minutes there were some 40 people either in the room with us or peering in at the door, many of them taking an active part in the conversation, adding bits of information and taking issue with the contributions of others. Many side discussions developed as various issues were resolved to the point that they were appropriate for sharing with the foreigners.

Little creative genius is required to imagine how hot and stuffy it quickly became in that airless environment at the peak of the dry season, but the information flew thick and fast. It was all I could do just to keep up and try to steer the conversation towards the subjects in which we had the most interest. Fortunately one of my colleagues was an excellent scribe and managed to record most of what we heard. We hardly noticed the sweat dripping off our noses, blurring his notes.

The result of this exercise was that we learned a great deal about the groundnut trade in a single afternoon and, due to the way the conversation progressed, had a high degree of confidence in our findings though we could not footnote our findings with a lot of reliable hard statistical data. Sometimes truth is more important (and reliable) than data. What did we do to get these “secretive” people to tell us the details (and I mean profit margins and buyers’ names) of their business?  We approached them openly, asked direct questions, listened to their responses with interest and respect, and genuinely enjoyed what we were doing.

The reader may deduce from these notes that I place a great deal of importance on what I call the “conversation”, the ongoing dialog that I believe is critical to being in touch with the people our work is supposed to benefit.[1]  The “conversation” is by definition, and must be, a two way street. Not only are we asking questions and listening carefully to the responses but we are also continually providing new information and responding to questions and suggestions for the people with whom we are working.

The conversation also is essential in the development of effective strategic plans based on a correct identification of the starting point for an enterprise. If one does not know with some certainty the starting point for a particular journey it is not possible to plan the proper course to arrive at the desired destination. The old saying that, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” is true. It is equally true that if you don’t know where you are starting from, you cannot know which road will get you to where you want to be. Many development projects I have seen have, in fact, started from the wrong point based on the assumptions of the designers or promoters rather than any sort of rigorous analysis.

Poland:  State Farm Privatization

In the mid-1990s I was asked to consult on the privatization of a large state farm in Poland. In fact, the privatization of the farm had already been done by transferring ownership to a new company the shares of which were held by the former workers on the farm. The new company left the management structure in place and the new owners took over a valuable piece of land along with outdated (and mostly out of service) agriculture equipment and a large debt that had been accumulated by the state farm before its collapse. After initial discussions with several of the workers and managers of the newly privatized farm, it became clear to me that, not only did the new worker/owners not feel particularly empowered by their new status, but they felt themselves even more at risk than before for their salaries because they were no longer being guaranteed by the government.

Their view was that nothing had really changed except that their personal exposure to the risks of agriculture had increased. They were going to work in the same place, doing the same things, and reporting to the same bosses – in whom they had little confidence. The workers not only did not understand their new role as owners but they voiced no particular desire to play that role. What they wanted was a good job.

The managers were neither technically sound nor prepared for managing a large commercial enterprise. They had little knowledge of commercial markets and no access to the working capital that would be required to put the farm on a sound commercial footing. It was clear to me that tinkering with this model was not going to be successful. It needed a serious overhaul. It needed old debts (debts to the state, by the way) to be written off and it needed a new owner with the appropriate technical expertise and capital package to take it over and put the rich soils to good and profitable use.

I am afraid this need I feel for a continuing conversation is not universally appreciated. My local colleagues, in whatever country, often tend to feel that they already know whatever needs to be known. Many of my more academically oriented international colleagues roll their eyes at the suggestion, either taking it for granted in some partial, if not condescending, way or dismissing it as being unscientific in that hard data is not gathered and the latest intellectual fad may not fit the result. Nevertheless, I press on and may even have convinced a few of my co-workers that the conversation tool actually works and does, in fact, help us to be more effective.

If I have managed to either pique your interest or provoke your ire in this post, please go to the comments box that appears after the footnotes below to share you thinking. I would really like to share the experience the rest of you have had with respect to this important question. And don’t forget to scroll back to the top and sign up to receive future posts in your email box automatically. I promise there won’t be too many and I will try to make them both pertinent and interesting.


[1] An earlier post on this blog was dedicated to discussing the importance of the “Conversation” as an economic development tool.

7 thoughts on “Start Where You Are

  1. I agree that grassroots and bottom up development projects are better for helping specific communities and that development needs to be more culturally relative. Where do you work? Just because im confused about development based careers

    • Hi Emily. Thanks for your note. I am mostly retired now but still doing the occasional short term contract and working on my blog. I have spent most of my career with two organizations, Technoserve (a small-business development NGO) and DAI (a consulting firm) but have also done quite a few other things. My full CV is available on the blog site. Just what is the source of your confusion? I would be happy to correspond about this if I might be useful to you.

      All the best.

      Gary Kilmer
      Economic Development as if People Mattered.

  2. Pingback: Start Where You Are | GEOagriCULTURE

  3. I could not agree more with what you say, from my own experience in the Caucasus and other places.

    I do wish, though, that there was a more concerted effort to invest into local data collection, since hard data can precisely complement the type of understanding that you describe. (I made that point in some detail here:

    I bring an additional perspective, of having started an agricultural enterprise in the Caucasus four years ago, with local colleagues. We believe that we do have real promise in creating employment (and have already created quite a few jobs). I can say that in the last four years not a single person came out to have the type of conversation that you describe, in spite of many donors emphasizing how they want to prioritize agriculture, and investing lots of money in it. So we had to battle every single obstacle on our own, and that is fine too, we are not asking for handouts. But we are employing fewer people, and bringing less money into the country, and paying less taxes, because we have to do everything alone, in the absence of someone reaching out and talking to us.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Hans. It is unfortunate that most donors are inclined to look past good initiatives that are already underway but might be enhanced by a bit of support, or even inclusion. They seem to miss the point that the most jobs are likely to be created by those who have already proven that they know how to do it. My advice to entrepreneurs is always not count on the government or donors for meaningful support. If it comes, then by all means take advantage of what you can. But if such support is necessary for the success of your activity then it is probably not a viable idea, at least in that environment. Congratulations on your good effort — and don’t give up.

  4. Hi, Gary. Very nice post. Start where you are…… and make sure that where you are is out of the office! I know that I probably have it wrong in the ag and ag marketing field unless I spend about a third of my time talking, walking, digging, poking into fields, markets, and shops, lifting sacks, eating, and joking with the “target beneficiaries” and my national colleagues. Its the best way to find those pesky growth clusters and the people who make them work.

  5. Gary, I agree with you that “the Conversation” can be the best way to get a handle on a local development situation. While it would be nice to have all this information quantified, in many cases getting a quality understanding of circumstances can put you in a good position to understand how you might support growth.
    The availability of valid data is an interesting thing – I was recently involved with promoting use of some comprehensive survey results re access to financial services for commercial and near-commercial producers in Tanzania, and spent a lot of time talking to financial institutions about the availability of the data, how it might be used, etc. The foreign-owned institutions were all over it, how could data be accessed, etc., whereas the local institutions reacted more “that’s nice”, and I realized that this was the first time that some quality data was available to them, and they did not know how to use it. Similarly, loan analysis has typically been driven by analysis of financial statements, so banks require them, and calculate ratios, etc. – but if the statements are poor quality, the ratios aren’t any better. Fortunately the tide on that is turning – banks are realizing that small businesses do not have good financial statements and are not going to get them, so a loan decision is better based on other factors.

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