What is the primary way we human beings communicate our needs, experiences, preferences, hopes, fears, problems and solutions? It is through conversation — talking with each other. All of the modern technical marvels (email, tweets, blogs and all their kin) only facilitate that conversation. They do not replace it.
In this blog post I will relate my own experiences in using “the conversation” as a development tool in field projects in several countries. The importance of talking with the people we work with may seem obvious but I expect that we all have seen projects fail to achieve their objectives because a good conversation among all of the participants was not a key part of their planning and implementation.
Please read on and then join this particular conversation by adding a comment or relating something from your own experience in the box at the end. It is not a conversation if I am the only one speaking. Don’t forget to use one of the several ways provided to subscribe to future postings on this site. Your suggestion as to what might be included in those posting will always be welcome.
The Conversation is Key
Ed Bullard, the founder of Technoserve, Inc. was one of the most dedicated and innovative people I have ever known in the economic development world. He pretty much invented the field of enterprise development as a way of helping poor people in the early 1970s and believed deeply in the value of working with people on their own terms. The son of a prosperous old New England family, Ed’s “calling” to the development field was the result of a year spent managing a mission hospital in Ghana in the late 1960s. He saw for himself the way people lived, and died, in a small mission hospital on the banks of the Volta River and spent the rest of his life trying to make things better for those people and others like them around the world.
Ed used to explain to his colleagues and others his rule about the “farmer in the corner.” He had a vision of a poor African farmer sitting always in the corner of his office. If Ed felt that he could not explain what he was doing at any given moment to that farmer in a way that would make him understand how it was going to make life better for himself and his family, then he was doing the wrong thing. He wasn’t thinking in abstract terms. Ed was not an abstract man. He was very serious about that vision and lived with it throughout his professional life. He developed a very focused and effective small enterprise development NGO along the way with the same vision. I learned many lessons from Ed in the seven years I worked with Technoserve, Inc. in the 1970s but none has been more important to me in the tasks I have been involved with since then than his vision of the farmer in the corner of his office. That vision always reminds me of the wisdom of “keeping it simple” and the importance of maintaining a continuing two way conversation with the people I am working with wherever they are and whatever the state of their economic life.
This vision sounds like a very simplistic, if not maudlin, mechanism for rationalizing one’s actions. It is real, however, and applicable. If we, as the development cowboys and girls of the 21st Century, are designing tools that will help poor people to improve their own lives, then is it not obvious that they should understand those tools as well as their intellectual genesis? Our target is “poor people.” The fact of being poor doesn’t make one stupid or incapable of dealing with abstract thought based on one’s own experience. I, for one, have learned to greatly respect the hesitations of “target groups” when considering changes the wisdom of which may have been obvious to me.
This lesson was made very clear to me during my Peace Corps experience in Kenya. Six months into my work I was deeply discouraged about the lack of impact being generated by my advice to several farmers’ cooperatives on how to improve their milk marketing system. I was traveling from village to village like an old-time revivalist circuit rider, meeting with cooperative management committees and dispensing my marketing “wisdom”. These groups never failed to receive me warmly, listen politely, thank me graciously for my advice, bid me a fond farewell – – – and completely ignore whatever it was I had to say. That was fine with me because I had no illusions about the infallibility of my advice and would have greatly preferred a good discussion about what they were currently doing and why it made sense to them to keep doing things that way. Such discussions were not to be had, however, and I was fast approaching the point of giving up.
It was just then that one old man, a leader of the Uaso Nyiro Farmers’ Cooperative, saved the day by challenging me. I was wrapping up one of my presentations to his group when he spoke up saying, “I don’t think what you are recommending is quite right. When we tried something like that here before it didn’t work out like you said because . . .” And the details are lost in the mists of memory. The important thing was that he took what I said seriously and respected me enough to voice his doubts very politely but firmly. From that meeting the two of us went on to a “chai” bar for a cup of tea and an extended discussion of the question at hand and we were able to constructively merge my “book” knowledge with his real world experience to come up with some productive ways to go forward.
After that meeting it seemed that everybody was ready to argue with me in all eleven of the villages I was working in. There were times when that might have seemed like too much of a good thing but it did contribute hugely to increasing the value of my Peace Corps experience. And, ever since, I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to get people to talk with me about their situation and work with me on finding solutions.
We must always understand that, as outside advisers, our knowledge of the local situation and experience is partial at best, and the recommendations we make do not put us at anywhere near the level of risk to our personal security and well-being as they often do to the people we are suggesting make the indicated changes. Risk is a very serious business for small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs. Lacking the social and economic safety nets most of the development set is used to, they know that they literally cannot afford to fail. A bad business decision or a failed crop can, and often does, mean no money for school fees, health care, clothing, or even food for their families.
We used to hear and talk a lot, often in patronizing tones, about the “risk averse” character of the people we are trying to help and how it is preventing them from accepting changes we see as clearly beneficial for them – if they would only take the chance. If the likelihood of doubling the value of a Kenyan farmer’s maize crop is accompanied by a significant risk of crop failure, both possibilities must be carefully considered. A corn farmer in Iowa may consider one really good crop every three years will be valuable enough to offset the possibility that another of those years might be a total failure and the third only so-so. The Kenyan, without his crop insurance, price supports, mutual funds and collateral may well decide that knowing he is going to get some fairly predictable crop each year, even if it is far short of what modern technology could theoretically produce, is more important because the cost of failure is too high. Both farmers will make the same assessment of their risk and potential returns but they will come up with different answers due to their different situations.
I have seen many occasions when farmers or small business people I was working with were slow to adopt changes in the way they managed their business or produced, packaged and marketed their products. In their view, based on their personal experience, the increased potential profit was out-weighed by the increased potential for loss. Furthermore, there have been enough of those cases where their perception of the risk turned out to be correct to make me pretty reluctant to push too hard for “solutions” I am sure would be helpful to them. People listen and, in time, they are inclined to try to new things. But first they want to be confident that the trial is not going to leave them in a worse position than the one they are trying to escape, or at least that they are not putting more at risk than they can afford to lose. An open and on-going conversation with those farmers about risks and opportunities, international best practices and local realities can inform and accelerate this change process and reduce the overall risk.
In 1978 I took part in an international conference on “appropriate technology.” E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, the development manifesto of the day, was the featured guest of this workshop. Remember, these were the 1970s when helping the “Poorest of the Poor” was the mantra and business tools were widely regarded as unhelpful to the cause – if not downright sinister. The conference was attended by 100 or so professionals (read “true believers”) in the field of small-scale/ intermediate/simple/appropriate technologies. Pedal-powered water pumps, more efficient (Lorena) clay cooking stoves, alternative building materials, etc. were the order of the day for this group and the rarified conference atmosphere was charged with excitement as these “solutions” for world poverty were presented and expounded upon with certainty that each was “the solution” to this or that important problem being experienced by our “target population.” Dr. Schumacher sat quietly in the back of the room for three days taking virtually no part in the proceedings. Finally, he took the floor, somewhat reluctantly it appeared, and expressed his great dis-satisfaction with what he was hearing. “Our task,” he said, “is not to make decisions about what people “need” or what they should “do”. Our job is to make alternatives available to people so that they can make their own decisions.”
In the end, people will make their own decisions anyway, based on their own experience, knowledge, cultural preferences and risk tolerance. Most of the “solutions” presented at that conference in 1978 have passed into the archives of the “Development Museum of Can’t Miss Solutions”. People did decide for themselves and, for one reason or another, decided that, for the most part, those “solutions” were not for them.
Did the fact that these tools were not adopted reflect some technical flaw in their design? Probably not. In most cases, I would argue, it reflects that those tools did not respond to a “need” that people felt was important enough to take the trouble or risk required to adopt them or that they didn’t believe they would work. In many cases I believe the people who were expected to make the changes were not even consulted in a meaningful way.
When people are consulted and “solutions” are designed with those people involved, not just “in mind” on the basis of those consultations, change can take place. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, for example, was an idea whose time (in 1983) had come. It was a simple idea that responded directly to needs expressed by the people, mostly very poor rural women, who would benefit from its operation. It was such a success that the international development set immediately seized upon its operational concepts as the latest “can’t miss” solution – and the field of micro-finance was born – often trying to fit the square pegs of the Grameen Bank model into the round holes of reality in a different place, time and cultural context without really understanding the nuisances of why it worked in a particular time and place.
Why do so many enterprise development programs fail to achieve their objectives in spite of their big budgets, careful planning and the assumed good intentions of the local and international “experts” who are charged with their implementation? International donors, and often local governments as well, go to great lengths to study the regulatory environment, identify priority areas for development given local factors of production and areas of comparative advantage, analyze market data, determine the areas in which aspiring entrepreneurs require “capacity enhancement” (that’s PC for training) align the steps that will have the greatest impact in terms of the goals they set for the business community, etc., etc..
The problem, in my experienced, if not so humble view, is that they do not really ask the people that are supposedly intended to benefit from the programs. Even more important is that they/we always seem, in our eternal if futile search for the magic button that will solve all of the world’s problems, look for generalized solutions to very individual problems. We want it to be about access to finance, or better market information, or an improved investment environment, renovated irrigation systems, more industry/farmer associations, etc., none of which necessarily make very much sense to individual entrepreneurs or small-scale farmers with their very individual problems. We want to move from the general to the specific. The individual problems will be solved if we can make the big changes effectively. I am as much in favor of leverage and multiplier effects as the next development cowboy but I believe that better results are achieved by reversing the order. If we begin by helping real individual business people and farmers overcome the immediate obstacles that are preventing them from reaching the next desired level in the development of their businesses, appropriate more generalized solutions will emerge. Then we can go get those multipliers. Examples abound – and a few of them will be expounded before this lesson draws to a close.
Real enterprises have real problems and real entrepreneurs spend their days knocking them down one by one. There is certainly more than occasional commonality in those problems but each arises in its own individual context of business and personal issues. In my experience every entrepreneur is pretty certain that nobody else has problems quite like his or hers. What’s more, I tend to agree with these feelings. That is because few problems are absolute. They are all defined by the context in which they arise. Every entrepreneur’s personal and business situation is a bit different thus their problems are unique as well. It is through conversation that these problems and their contexts can be defined and appropriate solutions devised.
The discerning reader will have deduced by now that I believe the key to successful enterprise development is to focus, first and foremost, on the enterprise – firm/farm level assistance. And the key to successful firm/farm level assistance is what I call the conversation. It is the art of the conversation that I try to impart, with varying degrees of success, to those individuals who find themselves members of development teams I have some role in leading.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the concept of the conversation. My dictionary provides the following definition of the term: “An informal exchange of thoughts and feelings” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.” Use of the word “exchange” implies that conversing is at least as much about listening as it is about speaking. It is the combination of listening and speaking that makes the conversation a valuable development tool. The fact that these exchanges are “informal” implies that this is not about classroom or top-down training. We each contribute our ideas and put them together to arrive at a better solution to our problem than either of us could alone.
An example from Armenia will help to illustrate the point. When the USAID ASME project team went to work in Armenia in late 2000, one of the sectors first examined was beekeeping because “everybody knows” that Armenian honey is the “best in the world.” This seemed like a logical place to begin looking for export opportunities. On closer examination, and after extended conversations with beekeepers throughout the country, we discovered that not only was Armenian honey the “best in the world,” but that beekeepers in every region were pretty sure that the honey from their particular region was the “best in Armenia.” Even more, individual beekeepers within each region knew that their own honey was better than their neighbors’ — and they would not even consider joint marketing of their honey because their neighbors could not be trusted not to adulterate their honey. It was doubtful that beekeepers in other regions were producing anything worthy of being called honey at all.
Besides all of those issues, our experts found that hive productivity was actually pretty low due to the outdated Soviet-era production practices being used and degeneration of the breeding stock quality. The average price for honey locally was more than double the prevailing world market price. And, beekeepers would prefer to store surplus honey in their basements indefinitely rather than sell it for a lower price. This was not a particularly solid foundation on which to build a successful export program. The day I told them the prices they might expect to be paid if they exported their product was not a happy one in terms of my personal standing with those beekeepers who considered it a personal insult. Several came around later to suggest that I was surely not referring to their, obviously superior, honey with those prices. We were thus faced with a situation of trying to develop an export market for what another, earlier team of outside experts had decided was a product with great potential but which did not, in fact, exist in exportable volumes at anything like prevailing world market prices. We faced a daunting development challenge at best.
After determining that increasing the income of beekeepers could be an important contribution to helping the rural poor improve the quality of their lives, my colleagues decided that the first logical step would be to increase honey production by helping beekeepers to improve their production techniques. We undertook a training of trainers (ToT) program aimed at teaching modern beekeeping techniques to a few beekeepers who were willing to acknowledge that they might still have something to learn on the subject. Once they had seen the success of these lessons, we sponsored their transfer of the new skills to their neighbors as well as to beekeepers in other regions.
As a result of these exchanges, and to the surprise of many, the isolation of the beekeepers began to break down. They started to talk together about the new systems they were learning and the benefits they were seeing as a result. Regional unions of beekeepers began to spring up, some with our assistance and some without, but all aimed at improving the status and income of their beekeeper members by improving production and increasing their marketing networks. After some time, several of the unions approached us together to ask for technical assistance in the formation of a national federation.
This federation, by 2007 when our project was over, represented several thousand beekeepers. It was promoting the interests of its members to government, actively marketing Armenian honey abroad, seeking out innovative technologies to control disease and improve productivity and developing a queen bee breeding program that will generate a steadily degrading gene pool. Besides that, branded Armenian honey, which was seldom, if ever, marketed in local retails stores was pushing imported honey off the shelves.
These results were neither cheap nor quick but they are replicable as improved technologies continue to spread by means of the new organizations and other industry groups are seeing the benefits of cooperating in areas of common interest. The benefits will continue to grow as will the return on our original investment in the development process.
It is worth noting that all of this might fall into the category of results perhaps generously referred to as “unintended consequences.” This whole stream of events and outcomes was not specifically foreseen by the team of professionals that designed the project, wise as they were in setting out the types of mechanisms that would be most likely to be useful in this particular place at this particular time. The specific results were the product of applying these tools to a situation that only became clear over time, as a result of extended conversations between beekeepers and development experts.
I would not buy into the thesis of the idealistic and/or disenchanted development “experts” who say that the beekeepers would have been able to do it all on their own if we had just given the “vast” sums that were spent in keeping our local adviser team in place to provide the assistance. Such a transfer of funds to those communities may have led to the accomplishment of other objectives important to the local folks (schools, water, health centers, etc.), or it could have all gone to building a new house in town for the mayor. I am pretty confident in suggesting that it is not likely to have gone to bringing together the combination of production and marketing expertise necessary to coach Armenian beekeepers into 21st century production techniques and international markets.
Neither would it be correct to think that our team, with the accumulated wisdom of the ages available at our finger tips could have mapped out a plan in advance that would have specified all of the steps along the way and that they could have been accomplished by the pre-budgeted allocation of funds to the implementation of those steps. The original expert team, the project designers, did not even come up with the right problem in this case.
It was the ongoing conversation between beekeepers and our team that led to the identification and implementation of the “right” steps at the “right” time. There are undoubtedly other courses that would have been at least as effective but they would have been the result of a different conversation among a different set of conversation participants. The point is that there is a creative synergy in the give and take, the sharing of knowledge, experience and opinions among the participants with different but complementary strengths and weaknesses and even the constant tug-of-war between the need for time and a clear process and the donors constant need for immediate results.
Another example of a case where a good conversation led to a positive outcome is the micro-finance program in Guinea Bissau that will be discussed in more detail in another post. In this case the conversation was much more intentional – a part of the purposeful design of a new component for an on-going multi-factor program including health care, education and infrastructure development as well as economic development in one of the least developed areas I have ever worked in.
As the outside ‘expert” hired in to suggest a design for a new activity that would kick start the pretty much non-existent local money economy, my task was to first of all find a basis on which a money economy could begin to be built and then to puzzle out what the logical first steps should be. As a newcomer to the area, extensive conversation with many people was required before I could feel comfortable that I had sufficient understanding of the area and it people to proceed.
Dear reader might reasonably suggest that the donor involved, an NGO this time (Africare), with only the most noble of intentions, would have done better to have hired an expert with more local experience. The sad fact was, however, that in the mid-1990s, there just weren’t that many development specialists with micro-finance experience in the south western corner of Guinea Bissau. They opted for me instead. Maybe that was because they had a great insight into the special contribution I could make to their project. Maybe it was just because I was available at the right time and affordable – and had a friend on the inside who was confident I could do the job. Whatever the reason, it was I who wound up there doing the best I could.
My conversations started with the local and expatriate members of the NGO team, continued with local officials, traders and banks (in the capital) and then to the villagers of the region – chiefs, elders and peasants (male and female) – where I probably should have started in the first place.
So what were the wonderful insights provided by this extensive and intense conversation with so many people? What did I learn that would not have been clear had I been doing my designing from a comfortable hotel room in the capital or my Washington office?
First, and probably foremost, I saw first hand how people live in the area. I met them in their villages and in their homes, often meeting under the central mango tree in the village. I saw what they had to do to feed themselves and their families and how the rules were all stacked against them in terms of profiting from the very few opportunities they did have to participate in the cash economy outside of their own village.
It is easy to enumerate what I learned from them. Did they also learn something from our conversation? Presumptuous as some may feel it to be for me to speak for the rural poor, I will do so anyway. I think they probably did gain something from our conversation. They learned that there might just be ways they had not considered before to gain some greater control over their own economic welfare and that people living in similar conditions in other countries had been successful in applying some of them. They learned to move their thinking far enough outside the “box” history and their political economic environment had placed them in to be willing to try something new, something that was still within the limits of their understanding and ability to manage. They learned that they too had a contribution to make to the design and development of an activity that, if done correctly, just might be the first step in the direction of a better future.
It was quickly clear that there was only the weakest of bases in the area for the development of any kind of significant agro-processing or manufacturing activity. There was no history of this kind of work experience in the area or of the management skills that would be required to run such an operation. There was also no production base sufficient to provide raw materials for a significant processing or marketing operation. The fumbling efforts of two other attempts (soap and palm oil production) to start such activities made the difficulties clear for all to see.
On the other hand, it was also clear that people in this area had a strong tradition of working together as well as great respect for credit, thanks at least in part, I suppose, to their Islamic heritage. They also had agriculture products they either harvested in the forest or produced on small pieces of land hacked from the jungle. Some of these crops were highly perishable (e.g. bananas, papaya and mangoes). Those were almost entirely consumed locally. Others like rice, cashew nuts and traditionally prepared palm oil could be stored longer and transported to urban markets for sale at higher prices at the best times if the people could afford to do it.
The value of the conversation is not just in promoting discussions between “us” and “them”. There is also often great value left behind resulting from conversations among themselves. In this case our role is often to create the environment within which the conversation can take place. It has not been unusual at all for me to find that local people, in whatever country, are more open to talking about their business with me, or other foreign experts, than they are with their colleagues in the same business. Often, though imperfectly and not always, the quality of “foreignness” is extended to local professionals on our project teams. Even in post-Soviet Armenia and Moldova, where trust levels are low and transparency is hard to find, entrepreneurs would confide in my local colleagues, even when they knew that we were also working with their competitors. To be honest, I never quite figured that out but I have been able to use it to good effect by “planting” a conversation that can be carried on informally by my local colleagues working directly with their clients.
It is perfectly understandable that business people have a felt need to protect their competitive position and are therefore reluctant to share their “secrets” with others in the same business. This becomes a problem when they actually all have pretty much the same “secrets” and, more importantly, the same problems. For SMEs, these problems can often be addressed most effectively by the business people working together. They can hardly be expected to work together if they won’t even talk together. Our challenge is to create a framework and a setting in which they can begin talking together using us, in the beginning, as an interlocutor. Sometimes it is important just to put people together and give them a chance to interact in a non-threatening environment.
One technique I tried with some success in Armenia a few years ago was to run a series of what I called, “CEO Seminars” to which only the leaders of client firms were invited. They represented a number of different sectors ranging from milk processing, to canning to fish farming and several were in direct competition with each other. The topics were carefully selected to be of common interest and were the result of my own conversations with those participants over time. This small group of about 15 managers did begin to communicate more openly and productively with each other and to recognize important areas of common interest as a result.
Please use the Comments box below to share your own experiences in using, or not using, the conversation as a key development tool.