NOTE: I had a wonderful lunch when i was in Nairobi with some of the people from the Map Kibera project (you can read my previous blog on this here, or go to their website mapkibera.org). What fascinated me was the stage they were at in regards to the growth of their project and their concern about assuring that the project was sustainable. This got me thinking about sustainability and NGOs. Here are my musings on the subject …
Just as the coin for business is, well, coins, the coin for NGOs is change. Positive change. It is what every NGO assumes it will be able to achieve when they start, and what many fail to do. The challenge often for NGOs as with for-profit companies is achieving and sustaining their success.
To achieve success an agency agency needs to plan, to plan they must have a “business model” – guidelines to better understand where they stand in relation to their own development.
One traditional for-profit model is that of the “business cycle” or “S curve”.
This model is used to understand the growth of industries and organizations. However, the S curve does not recognize key components of a healthy system – specifically the phases of destruction and renewal. A healthy forest is one that has trees grow older, die, and then become the fertilizer for the new growth. The S curve is silent on these phases of destruction and renewal. Ironically, it is the paradox of having things dies that assures the longterm sustainability of a healthy system.
A model that i find much more realistic is the eco-cycle model, a business model that I found out about from 2 great profs of mine – Brenda Zimmerman and Frances Westley. This model, based on the work of ecologists (C.S. Hollings being the primary one) demonstrates the different stages of an organization or project as it relates to a forest ecology through a closed infinity loop.
The joy of the Ecocycle is that it is not premised on some fictitious belief that growth is inevitable and something that will always happen, but that there is a balance between the new and old, things live and die, and that is the natural and sustainable way. I find this model, though seemingly radical, much more practical. Let me explain in more detail.
Like all ventures, whether profit or not, the venture has a starting point – in the ecocycle this is the Exploitation phase. This phase is where the potential energy of a project is brought together and released – heady times, everyone is excited, there are no barriers that cannot be overcome. Following this is the Conservation phase – this is where lessons have been learned, successes are consolidated, yet the problems that were not as glaring in the first phase become so. This leads to the Creative Destruction phase – one of the scariest yet most important phases where things that didn’t work have to be fixed or ditched, resources are limited and there is a realization that not everything can be done. If failure is to happen, this is where it does. Yet, if this phase is navigated properly, sustainability is achieved, and the venture enters the Renewal Phase, and one begins all over again. A model which is simple yet elegant. (go here to download Brenda Zimmerman’s powerpoint on the concept)
So, this brings me to the Kibera Mapping project. This project is new (about a year old) and quite impressive … ok, its mind blowing. Kibera is known as Africa’s largest slum. As of little more than 6 months ago if you went to find Kibera on a map or in google earth you would find a big blank spot, and if you were to look at it from the air, you would be faced by endless tracts of corrugated tin roofing.
But actually under those roofs, and between the tightly packed in houses they cover, are up to 1,000,000 people (most of them children and youth) getting on with their day to day lives.
Through the Map Kibera project, youth from Kibera were trained in openstreetmaps – think google maps but with a lot more flexibility and owned and open to the youth and the community – and they were able to create the first public digital map of their own community. I posted these photos in my last blog on Nairobi, but they are worth showing to demonstrate their amazing work:
In talking with the coordinators of this program – Mikel, Jane, Erika and Josh to name a few – they talked about how through the making of the maps the youth were for the first time able to tell the story of their community, and how proud those youth were of their community.
Wow, that is impressive and quite a paradox. Youth having pride in their home, which is in one of the largest slums in Africa. Who would’a thunk it? And all through the use of a tool as simple as mapping – a tool which is getting simpler to use and access as the days move on through improvements in technology, access to the internet, etc.
Yet, no matter how good the project is now, we come back to the ecocycle above. Map Kibera is clearly in the exploitation phase – really, in relation to a forest, Kibera is literally an unmapped wilderness. As well, there are tons of resources to engage to make this project go, most obvious are the young people, but as well the community agencies, the community itself, the mappers, and the many many NGOs that wish to do good.
What was heartening in this was that the people in the project knew that they had to be looking towards how this was to be sustainable – they are thus smack dab in the middle of eco-cycle conservation phase. How to consolidate what they have built; who to invest in – looking for the good managers, and who to help move along. There is a satisfaction of success, yet a building anxiety about exploding demand and ability to meet it.
Yet, unlike many NGOs and businesses, with this group there is no desire for those that initiated it – who were for the most part not from Kibera – to stay on and grow with the project. It is there desire to hand it off, assure its sustainability, and effect positive change. This makes the next phase, Creative Destruction, both easier and more complex.
Easier in that they are not compromised by wanting their own jobs and having to sustain those; easier in that they are not falling into the trap that many NGOs fall into where they may effect change, but not sustainable change.
Harder in that, as the name connotes, there has to be some destruction – things cannot stay the same as the resources aren’t the same. Things will change – physical resources such as technology, space, money may not be there in abundance as before; people resources will as well change; and, how the project is run will clearly change with new people stepping in and old ones taking on new roles.
I don’t profess to know whether Map Kibera will be sustainable for years to come. In all honesty, even if it were to fold in the next while, the change they effected would be positive. I do know that whatever the project looks like now will be completely different in the future. But with the commitment of the mapping crew to find a sustainable path and pass the project on to the community the chances of its success are much increased.