Lisa Smith

Wrapping Up the Best Ideas of 2010 Series: Redefining How We Collaborate

With any transition period, we are given an opportunity to re-evaluate our circumstances, incorporating solutions for past criticisms and building on successful habits.

One tangible example prime for reassessment comes from the recent turmoil and transition within the field of microfinance. An abundance of articles have surfaced on the topic debating the appropriateness of the different regulatory actions as well as examinations of the use of microfinance in general. All of these exercises are important and worthwhile in the process of alleviating poverty and creating opportunity within the Base of the Pyramid.

There is a spectrum of ways this issue can be analyzed and each perspective plays an important part in identifying appropriate solutions. One perspective that I feel deserves greater consideration moving forward is the idea of culturally viable business development approaches. While the field of business strategies for the Base of the Pyramid is built on the idea of community relevance and empowerment, there has been no standardized method for the development and implementation of approaches that strategically consider positionality and culture. One solution: community-based participatory research or CBPR.

Community-based participatory research is an action-oriented method for addressing social, structural and physical environmental inequities through the inclusion of community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research and implementation process. Current Base of the Pyramid work integrates similar elements of community empowerment. However, CBPR provides a framework for integrating BoP producers into all stages of poverty alleviation strategies. This type of collaboration begins in the early decision-making phase and continues throughout the evaluation and long-term implementation of such projects.

CBPR grew out of changes within the field of public health and the growth of participatory research (also referred to as participatory action research, empowerment evaluation, cooperative inquiry, action research, participation evaluation, etc. – please refer to this seminal report by Israel et al, 2000) within the field of social sciences. Initially, population health and social science focused on individual level intervention. More recently, research has shifted to an ecologic framework that considers individuals to be embedded within social, political and economic systems that shape behaviors and access to resources necessary to maintain health, or in the instance of development, move out of poverty. During the transition from individual level research to the ecological framework, CBPR became a method for maintaining partnerships across invested societal groups.

Each partner contributes expertise and shares in the responsibility of assessing and enhancing the project/program/venture. This involves active participation from community representatives, academic or field researchers, business organization members, CPBR experts and other important stakeholders based on the collaboration. One item to note is that CBPR partnerships are not akin to typical coalitions or business public and private sector partnerships, at least not as they are currently. CBPR partnerships require all interested parties to remain invested and embedded in the community long-term. Additionally, the development of ideas is typically formulated or refined within the collaborative group rather than a predetermined project, which is then described to community members. Needs are assessed as a group and priorities for work are decided upon based on everyone’s values and expertise.

Key Principles of this approach include (as taken from Israel et al “Community-Based Participatory Research: Engaging Communities as Partners in Health Research” in 2000):

1. Recognizes community as a unit of identity

2. Builds on strengths and resources within the community

3. Integrates knowledge and action for mutual benefit of all partners

4. Promotes a co-learning and empowering process that attends to social inequalities

5. Involves a cyclical and iterative process

6. Addresses issues from both positive and ecological perspectives

7. Disseminates findings and knowledge gained to all partners

8. Involves a long-term commitment by all partners

I recommend CBPR as part of the Best Ideas 2010 series not because it is a new approach, but rather because:

1. It is not a method used predominately in business strategies within the development field although similar themes are present

2. It has been proven to improve the sustainability and success of programs within communities because it increases sensitivity to and competency of diverse cultures and populations

3. It creates an opportunity to bridge disciplines of thought bringing public health, social science, social work, business, economic and policy professionals together in one approach

CBPR is a long-term commitment to community and social change but then again, so are social ventures, social entrepreneurs and BoP work in general. The difference here is in the active engagement with invested parties beyond the typical business transaction or even the typical BoP partnership. CBPR requires stability in working relationships and longevity in community development goals. It also requires mutual respect, valuing other’s expertise equal to your own and critical reflection of one’s position in relation to others. All of these elements are beneficial within the immediate collaboration’s relationships, but could also be valuable in transitioning the current aid model away from donor-led preconceived programs and ideas, toward cooperative agreements for programs and ventures decided on by all the individuals invested in a particular self-identified community.

Given our most recent and tangible example of microfinance changes in India, it appears we not only need to reconsider the way we evaluate and track social change but we also need a better, multi-perspective gauge for the cross-section of business and poverty alleviation approaches. CBPR is worthy of consideration in this improvement process.