Sunday, August 1, 2010

Plans Are Not Achievements, Not Yet

Recently, Ribbon of Hope started assessing families for an orphan and vulnerable children program (OVC). The idea is that the families will bring up the children and Ribbon will support them. The kinds of support Ribbon will give will include advice on health and welfare, budgeting and household cost management and anything else we can advise on. We will also provide some financial support so the families can supplement household income by running a small business. The finance comes from private donors.

The assessments are difficult because there's no question of finding the most needy 22 children. It's unlikely that three or four Ribbon members could identify the most needy in any of the villages we work in, no matter how long we spent there. All we can do is identify as many as we can support and assess them to ensure that we really can succeed in helping each family to give the children what they need until they become independent.

The initial assessments were mostly encouraging, although some guardians are more in need of assistance than the children they are caring for. Some are probably even incapable of looking after another child, perhaps even incapable of looking after their own children. But other families are very capable and they should, with some help, also be able to set up and run some kind of income generation activity.

In retrospect, we were naive in thinking that asking each guardian or family to write a business plan would result in anything tangible that we could work on. We discussed with each person what they would like to do and how they would approach setting up their activity, if they had the finance. The discussions went well but the written business plans, at best, consisted of a list of goods and prices, at worst, one word and a cost. Most people can read and write a bit but many have rarely done so since they left school.

Feeling a bit stupid, I started to look up advice on writing business plans online. Some of what I found, I would be hard pressed to write myself. They are complex and use a lot of technical vocabulary which, having studied project management and related areas, I suspect is mainly bullshit. But thankfully, one site gave a simple list of the sorts of information you need to know before attempting to set up a business.

I am aware that starting up a business is not easy and that many businesses fail. Many of the income generation activities we have set up or helped to set up have failed or lapsed or bumped along, producing little benefit. But we are attempting small things, growing food crops, fruit and vegetables, keeping a cow or a goat or a few chickens. There's no reason why people should be made to jump through hoops that will have little or no bearing on whether they succeed or not.

Having said that, we need to know a handful of basic details from everyone, such as why they are starting the business, what they will sell and to whom, why people will buy from them and how much, how this will make them better off, how they will prepare for risks and cope with problems and how to run their finances, which is not always straightforward if you try to do it all in your head. We don't want to burden our clients with information that we need to collect. But we need them to answer these questions, so we have a solid foundation on which to build a small income generation activity.

No matter how dangerous it is to make assumptions, it's hard to get through a day without making some. I've made assumptions about people's working knowledge of English and even their level of education. English is an 'official' language but many have little opportunity to use it and even when they do, technical terms can be just sounds. Even those who have spent long enough at school and have done well enough there have few opportunities to use what they learned, and 'Standard 8', 'Form 4' or 'fluent' are also just sounds; grades are just numbers, often completely meaningless.

We are two thirds of the way towards the Millennium Development Goals, which developing countries are expected to have reached by 2015. But what will it mean if countries like Kenya achieve some or all of those goals? If lots of children enrol for school but hardly ever attend, perhaps never; if they get good grades but have learned nothing because the tests are just pages of multiple choice questions with tick boxes; if the teacher is absent most of the time, either because there is a shortage of teachers or because the teacher doesn't bother turning up most of the time? And similar remarks apply to other education indicators. Will these achievements be nothing but sounds or boxes ticked?

In countries where education has been failing for decades, it takes several generations for things to improve. The children we are hoping will grow up to be independent have siblings and parents who had little education. Even some of the teachers had a relatively poor education and some of the young people going to teacher training colleges now have managed to get through the system without learning much. I hope the aim of the Millennium goals is to make genuine improvements in people's economic circumstances, education, health, environment and infrastructure. But what I have seen is not encouraging.

Repeating 'good news' over and over again doesn't make it so. Saying people's lives have been transformed doesn't transform them. And writing things down doesn't make them any truer. Ribbon's work seems to involve creating some kind of bridge but sometimes I feel that we are attempting to translate the concrete into the amorphous, hoping that things like education and healthcare will become part of people's everyday lives. Somehow, these promises that have been made for so long seem to remain amorphous, things attained by the fortunate few who live far away, out of sight.

I guess the most important question for a simple business plan is how you intend to go from having very little to having a bit more and hopefully, enough. How does selling fish, keeping a cow or owning a motorbike ensure that each member of your family grows up to be able to have their own independent family? Perhaps writing it down oversimplifies things because running a business is about doing things, not just saying, writing or thinking them. We need written business plans but if we mistake them for the achievement of the goals of the business itself, we'll have nothing but bits of paper in a year's time! The business plan is so vital and yet completely useless if it remains just a plan. Bit like the Millennium Development Goals.



Joyful said...

This is a thought provoking article for me. I too have thought from time to time about trying micro-enterprise in villages around Kericho. I just don't know how best to go about it to get the best value for dollar or even how much is appropriate. I'm glad to see that others struggle with some of the same issues.

Simon said...

Thanks Joyful, I think everyone who has tried to do such things has struggled. Everyone wants their project to be sustainable and to flourish and not to do damage or to end up an embarrassment.

I used to work in IT policy and people would talk about 'expectation management' because tens or even thousands of pounds would be spent on a website and, in the end, all you get is a website.

People might expect something brilliant (while others just want their old website back!) but unless you are interested in websites for their own sake, it's just a website.

If you ever watch the film 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou', one of the first songs is called 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain' and humorless consultant might say it's a result of poor expectation management.