OK, so the final day of the Development Dialogue was a few weeks ago, and even though I've been pretty busy since then, the experiences and the main messages still ring clear, so I thought I'd share and reflect. You can refresh your memory about this event reading my earlier posts from Days one and two.
That final Thursday featured pretty much the highlight of the Dialogue, which was the discussion led by several Ashoka Fellows from Kenya, Spain, Colombia and Peru. Ashoka finds people doing incredible things in their respective countries and provides them with the resources they need to bring their work to even larger audiences. It has long been a partner with the Deshpande Foundation, helping them identify several of their local partner NGOs (including the one for which I work, the Water Literacy Foundation).
Lisa Nitze from Ashoka's Washington, DC office introduced the Ashoka segment by complimenting Deshpande's work in the area, stating "What Deshpande is doing now is a new model in social entrepreneurship [...] a shining light in the world of development." She went on to stress the importance that Ashoka places on social entrepreneurship and the power that people have to make an impact: "Social entrepreneurs [supported by Ashoka] are entrepreneurs who define their success by their social impact...The problems are starting to outstrip our ability to solve them, but nor our resources to stop them. The problem is that the resources are all locked up in silos. Tapping into those silos is a critical aspect of their success."
The four entrepreneurs whom Ashoka brought to share their stories and experiences were Adrian Wekulo Mukhebi, who utilized mobile phones to communicate market prices to farmers in rural Kenya, Vicky Colbert, who revolutionized public schools in Colombia (and who's model is now being replicated in other countries around the world), Jean Claude Rodriguez-Fererra, who brought microfinance to underprivileged immigrant communities in Spain, and Albina Ruiz, who brought improved solid waste management to Peru.
Although their work spans continents, several themes were pervasive.
Adrian emphasized the importance of trial and error-the first few methods he tried for communicating prices to farmers were failures, but he continued on until he found one that worked. Vicky repeatedly noted the necessity of private and public partnership, remarking that she had to create an institution to sustain the approach-first she created the approach, then had to get the government to institutionalize it, then formed an NGO to keep it going (which required the private sector for funding). Albina mentioned the importance of community participation for making any endeavor sustainable. These pieces of advice are universal.
In the same way that their challenges crossed borders, so did the stories of their failures. Vicky advised people to ensure that the quality of their model is expanded properly. Jean Claude noted that talking more than listening was one of his biggest failures. In addition, he also reflected that another such failure was "thinking that you alone can change things. You need to look outside to see who else is doing the right things. Some politicians are corrupt, but some are great. Some NGOs are fantastic and have great resources. It's a big mistake to work too much alone."
The collected experience of the four Ashoka fellows was one of the most inspiring moments of the Dialogue. From there, participants moved into small group sessions with the Ashoka fellows, and after lunch the participants divided along sector lines (agriculture, education, health and livelihoods) to share experiences and brainstorm potential synergies and avenues of collaboration.
In total, I think the Dialogue was a great way to elicit ideas from people who work within or care about the Sandbox. The array of participants, from Hubli to the US to Singapore and Europe, allowed for people to really see what their ideas look like from another perspective. The people who attended not only care about what happens within the Sandbox but now have fresh ideas on how they can contribute to the experiment. Hopefully next years' Dialogue will have a greater international as well as non-Sandbox Indian contingency.
The day closed with remarks from the Deshpande Foundation's Executive Director, Nishith Acharya. Themes that he noted having been prevalent over the past several days included the importance of community and a sense of place, having a global perspective, and that collaboration allows us to stretch our limited resources. "So when I leave here [and return to Boston]," Nishith noted, "there are three main points I'll be taking away." Those three points included an acknowledgment that "the Sandbox is a living, breathing experiment that will be drastically different come Developmet Dialogue 2010, just like 2009 [this years'] was different from 2008."
Another takeaway point was the idea that our [the participants'] collective goal is to provide services to people who aren't getting them. Finally, Nishith reflected on the unique nature of the Sandbox, insisting that "you have to be here to get it."
Tickets to Hubli, anyone?