Beginnings

I seem to be in love with new beginnings. After I lost steam on my previous blog (https://denno2016.wordpress.com), thanks to a tight schedule, I found it difficult to resume. 

Indeed, I was reminded of Samson’s question, as to whether I’d create a separate denno2017 blog site. I guess the answer is yes, except this will not be bound by time.

Unlike the previous blog, I have decided to adopt a personal tone this time. Telling stories from my perspective. From all areas of life. Observing the world.

Shared prosperity – a new paradigm for sustaining peace and security outcomes on the continent

Almost half of Africa is at war! Even a cursory look at conflict data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program reveals a common denominator for most of these conflicts, namely, inequalities in resource allocation or perceived discrimination by the people in power. Even in relatively peaceful countries, income disparities threaten peace at the micro level. Africa has been experiencing impressive economic growth in the past decade – an average of 5% for the 54 countries in the continent. However this growth has not resulted into equal benefits for everyone. In many countries, high levels of income inequality exists where you find a tiny but wealth elite, a small middle class and a huge low income population. These have contributed to a fragile peace which manifests itself in the proliferation of private security companies and houses built with high walls as fences, especially in my country Uganda.

In the World Development Report of 2011, citizens raised issues linked to individual economic welfare (poverty, unemployment) and injustice (including inequality and corruption) as the primary drivers of conflict. From this background, I propose an alternative approach to achieving and sustaining peace and security outcomes in Africa, one that is proactive rather than reactive and that addresses one of the major root-causes of the problem, namely, inequitable resource allocation. I call it shared prosperity, or if you will, sharing the cake.

If I were an African leader therefore, I would tackle this problem this problem from two fronts: first as a business leader by involving the poor in big business and secondly as a political leader by reducing disparity in access to high quality public services.

Rethinking business – from corporate social responsibility to social enterprise

Traditional business sees poor people just as consumers of final products, period! The problem with this model is that poor people end up contributing to corporate profits which are often repatriated outside the country and the big businesses then make up for the guilt by setting up corporate social responsibility schemes for the underprivileged, using part of their profits to implement small scale charitable acts which are usually unsustainable.

We have come to a point where businesses need to appreciate that apart from being just consumers of their products, poor people can play an active role in their value chains, thereby becoming partners helping them to take charge of their own lives. For example, beer companies need large quantities of cassava to be used in their production processes but prefer to obtain these from large scale farmers where the overhead costs are lower, thereby leaving out the small scale farmers. In the long run, the companies and large scale farmers get richer while the poor small scale farmers continue in the same state, hence perpetuating income inequality. What these companies instead need to do is to tackle head-on the challenge of playing in informal markets and/or organising the markets for the poor by putting in place the special infrastructure and measures that are often needed by large numbers of poor and vulnerable people to participate actively in these markets.

Thankfully, we are beginning to see this shift. From micro-franchising to last mile renewable energy distribution solutions such as Solar Now and Ready Pay Solar, poor people are being made part of delivery chains of global businesses. The businesses of the future and the businesses that Africa needs are those that consider poor people as part of their delivery infrastructure, not just recipients of corporate social responsibility.

Therefore, as a leader in the private sector arena, my role will be to change existing business models to incorporate the poor and under-privileged in the value chains. Specifically as an upcoming entrepreneur, I will prefer a social enterprise model that will place the needs of the poor and underprivileged at the centre of its business.

Social protection – increasing quality of shared public services

It was Mahatma Ghandi who said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”. African countries have enjoyed high levels of economic growth in the last decade but spending on social protection measures remains the lowest amongst all the regions in the world – according to World Bank Social Protection Atlas data. Positively, according to the IMF, Africa’s governments have sustained spending in basic social services like health and education over this time period. However, these have focussed on increasing access with little attention paid to the quality of these services.

If I was a public sector leader therefore, my role will be to put in place policies to increase social protection programs and safety nets and improve quality of public service delivery. Good quality public services will reduce the disparity between the rich and the poor and shield the poor from excessive out of pocket expenditure on services that should be provided by government such as health, education and safe water supply. High quality public education for example will enable individuals from poor backgrounds and marginalised communities compete favourably with their counterparts from rich families for limited jobs in the short run while eliminating regional disparities in the long run.

These two paradigms, namely rethinking business and social protection, will work complementarily to reduce disparities in resource allocation both within and between regions in a country and the reduced inequality will contribute to harmonious and peaceful coexistence.

Drawing from the above, one major takeaway is that public and private leaders will play different but complementary roles in ensuring shared prosperity. Public sector leaders will create policies that reduce the disparity between the rich and the poor by ensuring access to quality public services. Private sector leaders on the other hand will reengineer their business models to incorporate marginalised people in their sourcing and sales channels.

The theme of the Africa Leadership conference of 2017 hypothesizes that peace and security will contribute to ending poverty. I would like to submit that ending poverty will contribute to peace and security in the continent. Let’s prosper together.

A New Way of Seeing the Father: a Fathers Day Meditation

A friend narrated to me a rather sad childhood situation that involved his father. He had been sent by the father to pick something from the house. Though he didn’t clearly get what his father wanted, he feared to ask and clarify for fear of a violent response from him (the father). In general, around his father, there was always a climate of fear with everyone walking on tenterhooks. This is not an isolated incident and there are many other unique types of fathers behaviours, almost as unique as the number of families. Indeed for many the mention of the word “father” conjures positive memories and experiences. But for some, they bring up negative connotations: abusive fathers, absentee fathers, violent fathers, angry fathers and distant fathers. In a legal aid clinic in rural Bangladesh, I met about ten young girls all with the same case – their husbands had abandoned their homes to pursue selfish ambitions.

These childhood experiences powerfully shape the narratives of our adult lives and effectively define how we perceive the role of the father in the home, society. Each day, the fathers of this world are actively forming an image in the minds of their children of the role of the father. Another friend once told me, “when my wife will misbehave in future, I will not hesitate to beat her”. I asked him if his father beats his mother. He answered in the affirmative and I understood where the problem lay.

A poor relationship with your father will distort the way you view everything in your life: the way you view authority figures, the way you view all men, and your marriage. A father will either build up a child or tear him down. In addition for the christian, it also influences your relationship with the “heavenly Father”. There’s a relationship between our relationship with our earthly father and our heavenly Father. John Bishop’s book God Distorted: How Your Earthly Father Affects Your Perception of God and Why It Matters explores this into details. For instance, how do you communicate to such a person that God is “our Father” without conjuring up images of his earthly father, abusiveness and all. But what does the Bible about a father? In Isaiah 40, it says:
He tends his flock like a shepherd;
he gathers the lamb in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

So how does one respond. For any young adult going into fatherhood, the first step would be to identify which of his behaviours and perceptions of their fatherhood roles could have their roots in such childhood experiences, and compare this with the characters of God the Father as revealed in the Bible. You can then reflect these in his own family by being merciful (Luke 6:35-36), providing (Matthew 7:9-11), forgiving – even the prodigal sons (Luke 15:17) and most importantly, loving his children (John 16:27).

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1). May you experience and reflect this love in your families as you learn more of the truth about your ‘ABBA’.

On Heroes and a(n) Unlikely Hero: A National Heroes Day Meditation

jesus_super_hero.jpgToday, 9th June 2017, we celebrate the National Heroes Day in Uganda. A day set apart to celebrate men and women of valour who have done great exploits for the country, from bush war comrades (don’t miss the Animal Farm reference) to a school proprietor that has left behind a huge legacy (;-)). Over the last few years, tens of thousands of new heroes have been added to the list of national heroes. In fact, there are more heroes per Ugandan than doctors!

This fascination with heroes is not limited to Uganda only. Hollywood and marvel studios have made fortunes by creating stories around heroes, superheroes. These larger than life characters, always with special skills ranging from flying (superman), making spider nets (seriously?) to technological prowess (Tony Stark, Batman) often rise to defeat sinister characters, resist tyranny, fight bad guys and establish justice. In all their shapes and sizes, they all had one mission – to “save” us. It seems like there’s an ingrained human need for some kind of salvation.

2000 years ago, the earth received a savior so much unlike the heroes we often picture though he wrought the biggest magnitude of saving. Prophet Isaiah, >500 years before his birth wrote:
….. he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3  He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

In Him, we meet a hero whose vital qualities are not the technology of Tony Stark or the powers of the Dark Knight or the courage of John Connor but that He is “full of grace and truth” – John 1:14. This is because grace and truth are the exact weapons needed in this corrupted world. The Batman, Superman and Wonderwomans of this world offer nothing in comparision. So how do we respond? Like Peter of old, we can ask: “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Making a Bundle: the Way Forward for Scaling Impact at BRAC

One of the major objections to the work of development agencies, especially in Uganda, has been that their interventions are rarely sustainable and instead create a dependency syndrome in the beneficiaries. From my observations in the past three weeks, I’ve seen that BRAC overcomes this by using an empowerment approach where beneficiaries are facilitated to take charge of their futures instead of being ‘spoon-fed’ hence securing the sustainability of the programs. Secondly, and specifically for the targeting the ultra-poor (TUP) program, I observed that BRAC has taken cognizance of the multi-pronged nature of poverty and designed the program to tackle poverty from all these angles. That is, in addition to increasing household incomes, the program also targets to improve outcomes in, among others, health, nutrition, resilience and social capital.

In addition to these two elements of program design, another unique thing about BRAC is the efficiency with which operating models are replicated within the program. The fact that the daily, weekly and monthly activities for all branches across the country for any particular program tend to be similar points to a focus on perfecting an operating model at its simplest and replicating this, effectively, making a bundle out of it. This makes it easy to monitor, detect operational inefficiencies and this facilitates scaling of programs rapidly. I believe this, combined with the program design, have contributed to BRAC being the number one NGO in the world, worthy to be promoted globally.

In BRAC’s new strategy, there is a shift from grant to fee-based services in many of its programs. This brings with it opportunities as well as challenges. A fee-based model will ensure that BRAC is able to extend services to a larger number of people which will contribute to ensuring that no one is left behind as the world seeks to achieve the sustainable development goals. Secondly, beneficiaries will have increased ownership of the products and services.

A key risk in this strategy is getting the delicate balance between charging fees that will enable the organization to operate sustainably while at the same time making sure that poor people are not being deterred by the cost of accessing these services. Lower fees might not fully cover the operating expenses while higher fees might exclude potential beneficiaries and lead to loss of goodwill.

A unique characteristic of BRAC’s operations is that the services are taken to the people themselves. As one beneficiary remarked, “the [legal aid] clinic comes to us”. This is even more pronounced with the TUP program where each beneficiary receives a bimonthly home visit. Such a model by its nature is expensive.

In light of these challenges, it is necessary for BRAC to re-engineer its operational processes to achieve the efficiency that is required to operate as a business. A specific example of the opportunity for this is experimenting with reducing the frequency of home visits in the TUP program over time, as the hand-holding needs of program beneficiaries reduce. From the field visits, I observed that the beneficiaries that had been in the program longer were more confident than those that had been in the program for a short period of time.

Lastly, as BRAC looks to scale its impact, technology will play a key role in providing opportunities for implementing its programs more efficiently and effectively, especially in digital (and faster) data collection, analysis, reporting and decision support as the digital collection of installments in the micro-finance program has demonstrated.

The Equality Promise

As an avid social media user, I can confidently say that Twitter offers the best opportunities for connection. Through my four years of tweeting, one can only imagine the variety of people (and accounts) that I have interacted. One of my favorite pastimes has been looking out for irrational 140-character soundbytes related to feminism and women rights and seeking to dismantle these. And yeah, I’ve had my share of tweefs and blocks.

So when someone familiar with my Twitter timeline will watch a video of myself and a dozen colleagues taking the promise for gender equality, it will be understandable if they take it with a dose of skepticism. But no, this post is no sarcasm.

Earlier last month, I attended my first training in gender issues as they  relate with development (during which the video above was shot). At the start of the training, a careful discussion of the differences in the roles of men and women in four sectors of the economy revealed that inequalities still exist in many areas despite gains made. Following the course, I can confidently say I have a clearer understanding of the gender issues and can contribute in an informed manner to gender debates and advancing equality of access to opportunities for both men and women.

At the end of the training, I committed to the cause of gender equality through spreading awareness, writing on the status of CEDAW implementation in Uganda and being gender sensitive in all aspects of my work. Obviously there’ll be people with a flawed understanding of gender equality and feminism and obviously I will not tolerate this on my timeline, so I’ll debate these but with empathy and from an informed standpoint.

Taking on the Development Challenge: Reflections on the first week of #YPP2017

The first week of the BRAC Young Professionals Programme promised (and delivered) an unforgettable experience with a packed line up of top management from both BRAC Bangladesh and BRAC International. The program provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet seasoned development experts and career professionals at the helm of the world’s biggest development organisation. It was inspiring to interact with the founder members of BRAC from the early years of the organisation who shared with us the original philosophy of the organisation.

The gains that BRAC Bangladesh has made in tackling nationwide challenges across all sectors are impressive if not mind-blowing. A major example is the Integrated Development Programme which was able to achieve better outcomes in hard-to-reach areas especially in Water and Sanitation, Health and Legal Aid sub-sectors than most of Uganda in record time. However, while the challenges might be similar, I realise that the differences in country conditions, culture and population characteristics require customising the approaches and solutions here to the individual country contexts.

Realising that ‘we can’t do all this on our own’ necessitates evidence based advocacy for governments to abandon development approaches that do not work for low cost innovative interventions that can be scaled sustainably. Specifically, one area where governments can learn from BRAC’s experience is the quality of services delivered. A case in point is infant mortality, which stands at 37.7/1000[1] live births for Uganda with institutional delivery at 58% (2011) compared to 30.7/1000 for Bangladesh with a low institutional delivery of 39% (2011), thanks, in part, to the BRAC health programme.

In summary, the three key lessons learnt from the orientation session were: the need for scalable low-cost innovations, continuous learning and the need for evidence based decision making and advocacy. As the organisation starts to implement its new strategy 2016-2020, it remains true to the BRAC spirit of learning and innovation by focussing on new models of service delivery across its programmes.

The first week has taught me to be committed to the cause of development, adopt a can-do mindset, learn from the field and reflect on the lessons learnt for improvement. This was the perfect recipe to get myself ready for the challenge which was best put in words by the Director of Asia Region, Mr. Jalal Udin Ahmed: “There is a lot you can do in your country. Learn from here and apply in your country.”

My country has great challenges. I have seen that it can be done. I have realised my potential. Now it’s time to get to work.

“Don’t bring up a problem without thinking about the solution” – Dr. Kaosar Afsana, Director BRAC Health Programme

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.IMRT.IN?view=map