Category Archives: Regional Issues

Another hidden gem: The BRAC Rural Studies

I’ve found several gems in searching for great resources to understand how to have impact in social enterprise. Previously I wrote about the Ashoka Video Series, and now I’ve found another great resource:  The BRAC Rural Study Series, mostly published in the 90’s.

The preamble to the first study describes the creation of the series:

In the course of its activities over the last seven years BRAC  has developed certain capacities within the organisation and gained some perceptions of the rural scene through experience at the grassroots. It was, however, felt that more systematic investigation and analysis of the structure and dynamics of society was essential for formulating appropriate development strategies. Moreover, insights gained through experience needed to be analysed and documented if they were to be of use to others.

In typical BRAC style the preamble humbly understates the significance of these studies in beginning to understand key on-the-ground dynamics in rural poverty situations.

I have thus far had a chance to read the first two studies, and was impressed by the care taken to give a holistic, neutral view of what was observed, and to describe the history that preceded the observations.

While nothing is quite like going on site and experiencing with your own senses, my sense is that this series can bring one’s awareness and attention to many of the key underlying dynamics of poverty in the developing world, and efforts to reduce poverty.

The series covers a range of topics and is available as a series of free PDF downloads from BRAC Research and Evaluation (RED) website. Highly recommended for students of poverty alleviation.

Study 1: Who Gets What and Why—Resource Allocation in a Bangladesh Village

Study 2: The Net—Power Structure in 10 Villages

Study 3: Peasant Perceptions—Famine, Credit Needs, Sanitation

Study 4: Peasant Perceptions—Law

Study 5: Ashram Village: An analysis of resource flows

Study 6: A Tale of Two Wings—Health and Family Planning Programmes in an

Upazila in Northern Bangladesh

Study 7: Rural Women in Poverty Alleviation—Six Case Studies

Study 8: Continuation of Education of BRAC’s Non-Formal Primary School Graduates in Formal Schools

Study 9: Evaluation of Community Participation in a Maternal and Child Health Programme Setting in Rural Bangladesh

Study 10: Antenatal Care Service Coverage Through Village Based Centres—A Close Observation

In 1998 the series changed to be called the “Research Monograph Series,” including this intriguing title:

Series No. 11: Women, workload and the women’s health and development programme: are women overburdened?

To find the rest of the series, which by now numbers into the 40s, search for the keyword “series” at http://www.bracresearch.org/

The Magic of BRAC—Amazing Social Impact

Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC

Fazle Abed of BRAC

Many people have heard of Grameen and Muhammad Yunus, but who knows about BRAC and Fazle Abed? Outside of the development world, hardly anyone, and it’s a shame because BRAC does amazing, transformative, unique work. I just finished reading a fantastic book about BRAC, Freedom from Want, which gives an engaging overview of how several of BRAC’s major initiatives have developed through the years.

What strikes me as particularly interesting about BRAC isn’t so much the areas that they have entered, such as primary education, tuberculosis treatment, and poultry farming, but rather the organizational habits that allowed them to experiment, learn, adjust and ultimately succeed in these areas.

A good idea and the initiative to enter is a good start, but to actually succeed it takes the ability to adapt, and from “Freedom from Want” I’ve learned that BRAC is excellent at adapting. Not surprisingly, this core strength at adaptation has enabled BRAC to enter several other countries such as Afghanistan and Tanzania, and have an unusual degree of success.

So what is the magic of BRAC, and how do they do it? It’s hard to know from reading a book, but here are my guesses at some of the key factors:

Leadership

Mr. Abed started BRAC in his late 30’s, well into his career. If you watch him in action on video, he comes across as extremely grounded while at the same time being very intellectually nimble. Combine this with humility and a deep desire to find solutions, and you get the key ingredients to seed the DNA of an organization with the ability to learn.

Persistence

Related to this ability to learn is having the stamina to stick with a challenging idea, and be able to see it through. For example BRAC over 10 years to start its bank, and the idea for the bank inevitably changed over time as BRAC dealt with the bureaucratic challenges in Bangladesh. But the organization seems to have had a powerful enough vision for the bank that they stuck with it, resulting in what today is a bank that helps a tremendous number of people start small enterprises.

Humility

The flip side of persistence is knowing when to pull out. BRAC has had its share of areas, such as silk cultivation, where it spent many years trying to get in, but ultimately determined that it couldn’t make it work. For an organization that emphasizes impact and learning, and means it, an unsuccessful venture can be canceled without it needing to “mean anything” about the organization itself. But for an organization that “is never wrong” and “can never fail”, an unsuccessful venture can become a black hole that pulls in more and more resources.

If you don’t know anything about Fazle Abed, I highly recommend watching one of the Ashoka videos about BRAC, which reveals much about Mr. Abed as a person, and about the ways of BRAC.

Whatever the reasons for BRAC’s success, the point is that this is an organization to watch. BRAC’s organizational culture has created an amazing track record of success, and looks poised to continue presenting and refining new ways of having scalable social impact.

How Understanding Market Power Can Multiply Social Impact

How can we prepare workers in social enterprises to continue to get good wages going forward, when they enter the open job market? To me, skills-based market power is the way to go.

So just what is this market power? It could come from a coordinated group action to limit competition and maintain higher wages. Or it could come from skill, where the workers have an uncommon ability to deliver value to the market.

Let’s consider this case of worker-based market power more carefully. If the worker’s skill is uncommon and valuable, then there’s truly a negotiation to be had with the employer. The employer needs the worker to deliver the product or service, and it isn’t easy to find enough qualified workers, thus workers are able to demand higher salaries, and the employers know that finding replacements will be tough, and so they value the working relationship more highly.

Now look at the case of employer market power. If the worker’s skill is easy to find then the employer will have a lot of people to draw on, and this will drive down the wage. To make matters worse, if the skill is not particularly valuable, the employer will tend to invest even less in the working relationship, and be more likely to engage in short-term employment arrangements. In other words, workers get the short end of the stick.

Consider the case of Friends International, that among other things trains disadvantaged youths to be cooks in restaurants. Being a savvy organization, they are acutely aware of the challenges that their employees face when they look to find their next job after working for Friends. And thus they strongly encourage their cooks to stay with Friends long enough to master both Cambodian cuisine, as well as Western cuisine, because they know that cooks who are competent at both are in much higher demand in the market. Rather than simply flooding the market with more “run of the mill” cooks who will lack market power, they create much greater social impact by training employees to that higher, harder to achieve level of skill.

Thus I propose that smart social enterprises must be aware of the dynamics of market power. They should consider how to orient their training and job opportunities towards professions where hard-working people who invest the time and effort can develop market power, and enjoy the benefits.

There’s hidden talent in those rice fields

Given the chance, what might he be capable of?

I recently wrote about DDD Battambang which is bringing IT jobs to rural Cambodia, a place traditionally known for farming. In response to this business, one could reasonably raise a concern about the talent pool. Will the people really be there to make such a business work, and furthermore will they have had sufficient experience and education to get up to speed?

These are certainly valid questions, and they bring to mind an important but relatively unknown book about talent written by a gentleman named Elliott Jacques. In his book Human Capability, Jacques makes a point which is of great interest to social enterprise. He states that one’s talent trajectory, for instance how far ability-wise one can get as a manager, is as intrinsic as one’s eventual height. That as long as a person isn’t malnourished or abused, their leadership talent will develop as they age, whether or not they have had education or leadership opportunities.

Thus in disadvantaged areas, we can expect that there are a number of undiscovered, under-leveraged people who could be doing great work on the global business stage, if they just had the opportunity. That even though they may not have had great education or work opportunities, their innate talent lies ready and waiting for action. This is great news for social enterprise, which faces a variety of challenges in competing with a normal for-profit company. The ready availability of such a talent pool can really make a social enterprise competitive in the market place.

When I was in Cambodia, I had the pleasure of meeting several people like this, who are talented, who hadn’t had good work opportunities before DDD, and who are very happy to have the opportunity to do global work in a rural setting near their families.

I believe there is great potential for a variety of other service delivery businesses to base in rural locations. It will take dedication, problem solving, and knowledge sharing to help move these efforts forward.

btw If you’re interested in learning more about the book “Human Capability,” check out my Amazon review that describes his unique way of identifying leadership talent.

From farmers to information workers: DDD Battambang brings IT jobs to the heartland

Rice farming in Cambodia

Potential information workers?

Last November I was in Battambang, Cambodia facilitating public speaking workshops for the local management staff of the local Digital Divide Data (DDD) office. Although DDD has several other offices, the Battambang office is the only one located in the countryside, and as such is very interesting from a development point of view.

Much of staff comes from the countryside, either around Battambang or from neighboring provinces, and thus grew up in a farming family. People from these backgrounds typically have limited employment options. They are faced with either continuing the family business in farming, finding a factory job, or moving away from family in search of employment. But for high achieving people these aren’t great options.

Furthermore my informal conversations revealed that farming just “ain’t what it used to be” in terms of its predictability and profitability as a business. Say what you will about climate change—the farmers are noticing changes that are directly impacting them, making farming a riskier and more complicated venture. Plus I have to wonder how lucrative small-scale, small investment farming can be on a sustainable basis, with farm products being sold more and more as a global market.

As I was travelling between Phnom Penh and Battambang I noticed a few factories along the way in rural areas. And yes, while factories are a way to employ a large number of people, they aren’t going to properly tap into the latent talent that is in the community, looking for an outlet.

And moving to the big city, while it may sound promising, is a decidedly mixed bag for many people. Consider that in a family oriented culture such as Cambodia, it’s particularly tough to leave family behind and move away to a big city where accommodation is expensive and where the traditional family safety net isn’t there. Nonetheless your smartest folks, who would be natural community and family leaders, will be that much more likely to move away from the countryside to the big city in search of employment opportunities. The result is a brain drain.

Now in this day and age of technology and remote working arrangements, in theory it ought to be possible to locate outsourcing centers in rural areas. There should be an opportunity to tap into attractive cost structures and a smart, motivated, untapped workforce.

But there are barriers to overcome. How would one jump-start the talent pool, in order to get such an organization off on the right foot? What special challenges would come up from training a rural workforce? And would international clients be comfortable trusting work to a location that was difficult to visit?

And yet one way or another, DDD Battambang has managed to overcome these hurdles and create a thriving rural BPO office in the countryside of Cambodia. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, there’s fresh air. It’s a pleasant place to live.

I think this is just the beginning—rural BPO could have a big impact for many other places, and other services as well.

 

From farmers to information workers: DDD Battambang brings IT jobs to the heartland

Last November I was in Battambang, Cambodia facilitating public speaking workshops for the local management staff of the local Digital Divide Data (DDD) office. Although DDD has several other offices, the Battambang office is the only one located in the countryside, and as such is very interesting from a development point of view.

Much of staff comes from the countryside, either around Battambang or from neighboring provinces, and thus grew up in a farming family. People from these backgrounds typically have limited employment options. They are faced with either continuing the family business in farming, finding a factory job, or moving away from family in search of employment. But for high achieving people these aren’t great options.

Furthermore my informal conversations revealed that farming just “ain’t what it used to be” in terms of its predictability and profitability as a business. Say what you will about climate change—the farmers are noticing changes that are directly impacting them, making farming a riskier and more complicated venture. Plus I have to wonder how lucrative small scale, small investment farming can be on a sustainable basis, with farm products being sold more and more as a global market.

As I was travelling between Phnom Penh and Battambang I noticed a few factories along the way in rural areas. And yes, while factories are a way to employ a large number of people, they aren’t going to properly tap into the latent talent that is in the community, looking for an outlet.

And moving to the big city, while it may sound promising, is a decidedly mixed bag for many people. Consider that in a family-oriented culture such as Cambodia, it’s particularly tough to leave family behind and move away to a big city where accommodation is expensive and where the traditional family safety net isn’t there. Nonetheless your smartest folks, who would be natural community and family leaders, will be that much more likely to move away from the countryside to the big city in search of employment opportunities. The result is a brain drain.

Now in this day and age of technology and remote working arrangements, in theory it ought to be possible to locate outsourcing centers in rural areas. There should be an opportunity to tap into attractive cost structures and a smart, motivated, untapped workforce.

But there are barriers to overcome. How would one jump start the talent pool, in order to get such an organization off on the right foot? What special challenges would come up from training a rural workforce? And would international clients be comfortable trusting work to a location that was difficult to visit?

And yet one way or another, DDD Battambang has managed to overcome these hurdles and create a thriving rural BPO office in the countryside of Cambodia. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, there’s fresh air. It’s a pleasant place to live.

I think this is just the beginning—rural BPO could have a big impact for many other places, and other services as well.

 

More tech in more countries means more competition

At the SOCAP 10 conference in October I heard Leila Janah presenting her thoughts on where BPO (business process outsourcing) is headed when it comes to social enterprise. Although I’m not quite as confident as she is on the ease with which complex BPO projects can be reliably broken into small pieces, farmed out to different vendors in different parts of the world, and then sewn them back together with high quality, I do see the writing on the wall when it comes to BPO.

As the cost of Internet connectivity and computers continues to go down, there will be a larger and larger potential pool of people in the developing world to do BPO work. Furthermore it’s not unreasonable at all to assume that there are many “untapped” people in these countries who are extremely talented and who can do great work in the BPO space as operators or more. Thus it seems very reasonable to assume that the price points that customers will pay for the low end work is going to be driven down.

The one fly in the ointment would be on the service and reliability end. It’s one thing to be able to *technically* do the work, but what about being able to understand what the client wants? And how about being able to flex on the fly as requirements and needs change?

Yet I bet that even at the low-end, this interface will be figured out. It could be that a middle layer player develops (if it’s not there already) that handles all of the client facing communication and negotiation, and is able to efficiently farm out the hands-on work. As a former program manager, I really believe that the proof is in the pudding–I’ve seen too many “that ought to work” ideas not actually work. So we’ll see how well this one works.

OK so the vendor supply for low-end BPO will grow, and that will mean lower prices paid for the work. But what does that mean for an existing BPO player–what should they do?

Any ideas? Post your comments below.

The social enterprise end game must be outplacement

Phnom Penh is home to several social enterprises. I’m very much enjoying visiting them, meeting people who work there, and thinking about how this handful of enterprises fits into the bigger picture of business in Phnom Penh.

It seems to me that the “start game” for social enterprise is much easier than the “end game.” In the start game we can hire people, train them, treat them well, pay them well—possibly out of line with general market pricing. We do this because we can, because we  believe it’s a good idea and more “profitable” for the society as a whole.

However assuming that the whole economy isn’t going to turn into a “social benefit economy,” but will continue to largely be driven by  bottom line profit, we need to consider a few things:

  • There will never be enough of these special opportunities to be trained by and work for social enterprises–demand will outstrip supply.
  • The end game for a social enterprise needs to basically be about outplacement. Although yes, there is some room in a social enterprise for internally developed management and leadership, that ought to be relative small compared to the much larger number of people moving through the organization.

But consider: if said employee couldn’t get a fair wage before going through a social enterprise’s program, what’s to say that they are going to be able to get a livable wage after? Thus smart social enterprises need to consider how they will set people up to have market power, to get a good wage, especially in a developing country where that can be hard to achieve.

I think that skills based market power is the way to go. Thus to the extent that these social enterprises in Cambodia can set up their workers to gain market power,their “outplacement” will be that much more successful for them.

What do you think? What else must a social enterprise consider in how it fits into the bigger picture of the broad world of business?