I recently read an article about how Sean Parker (an American entrepreneur and philanthropist) had been trying to help a friend beat breast cancer. Parker traveled the world searching for a cure.
He visited the most advanced hospitals, universities, and researchers, but was dismayed to discover that very few of them were sharing their research with one another.
This is because, surprisingly, unless the research is tax-payer funded, there is no legal requirement to publish your research or findings publicly.
So, because they didn’t have access to each other’s information, the researchers were not able to work collaboratively and efficiently towards a cure.
I had encountered a similar theme a few weeks earlier while watching the documentary, Poverty, Inc. The documentary explained how non-profits were notorious for working in isolated silos, since there is very little incentive to operate as a network to find solutions.
It’s not hard to understand why: some organizations have deep expertise in digging wells and providing access to clean water, while others have specialties in the legal system or in healthcare—effective collaboration takes time and effort.
The world, in reality, is far from compartmentalized. Every ecosystem is made up of a multitude of complex and intertwined variables that all need to be considered together in order to create change and move the needle on a particular issue.
Sharing information and collaborating is critical to fully addressing problems within a complex ecosystem, and a requirement for philanthropists to achieve systems-level change.
This holistic and integrative approach is what’s needed when it comes to international development.
When looking to address poverty, it is crucial to understand that many interdependent variables work together to keep people in poverty. At a basic level, though, if we want to catalyze prosperity, we need an approach that simultaneously addresses health, education, and economic empowerment, and understands how these variables interface with each other.
Poor health keeps people from being educated, a lack of education keeps people from jobs, and no jobs leave otherwise healthy and educated people under- or unemployed.
We must consider an integrated approach to international development in order to fully help people move out of poverty and thrive.
What Creates the Silo Problem?
We need to understand the problem so that we can understand why an integrated approach to development is so vital. Why exactly are isolated programs such a problem? If we break down the issue, what does it actually look like on the ground?
Having witnessed this kind of disjointedness numerous times in over a decade of experience in this field, I’ve identified three key consequences of program silos that limit progress in international development:
1. Lack of on-the-ground coordination
There is frequently a lack of coordination on the ground between numerous players (governments, nonprofits, community organizers, etc.) all trying to solve the same problem. As multiple organizations evolve to address a given issue (which may intuitively seem like a good thing), a lack of communication and coordination between them can result in inefficient work.
Organizations do not coordinate in order to carve out their piece of a solution. But that means they may replicate each other’s work, or all concentrate their efforts around a similar kind of approach and leave some variables unaddressed. This may also make it difficult for the organizations to secure donor funding, as donors are confused about an organization’s unique and necessary contribution to a sector.
2. INGOs operating without enough information
Often, well-meaning international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) attempt to aid developing countries without having all the information about the communities in which they work. Solutions that don’t incorporate knowledge of the local community can be not only ineffective, but also counterproductive, creating more development challenges.
One example from Poverty, Inc. is the negative impact of clothing donations from well-meaning western-based INGOs in Ghana. Clothing donations might initially seem like a great thing. After all, clothing is listed right alongside food in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What the INGO failed to take into account, however, was the devastating impact that the free clothing would have on cotton farmers in the area. The INGO clearly failed to talk to other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the agricultural sector—or even the farmers themselves—who would have been able to play a role in developing a solution that protected and even strengthened the local economy.
3. Too little funding for community-based organizations
The incentive for silo-type programs is often to address the priorities of international donors over the needs of the communities being served. This occurs because accessing these kinds of complex, international funding streams often requires the infrastructure of an INGO, which is often removed from the context on the ground. This situation creates problems for community-based organizations (CBOs, or “grassroots organizations”)—NGOs that work at the local level, tend to be governed by community members, and work for the benefit of the community.
The problem is two-fold. First, programs designed by INGOs are often not as rooted in community need as CBO programming is—resulting in the information deficit described above. Second, CBOs don’t receive all the funding they should. Less than 2% of humanitarian aid worldwide goes to CBOs, even though from a return on investment (ROI) perspective, CBOs tend to be a better philanthropic investment.
The Red Cross scandal in Haiti is a sobering example of the problems that can occur when only INGOs receive funding to solve development crises. It surely seemed simpler and safer to western-based donors to give one large check to the well-known and US-based Red Cross. However, because this organization had minimal interaction with the local Haitian community and government, it spent half a billion dollars without being able to show significant impact or account for the majority of those funds. If that funding had been channeled towards the local resource-strapped Haitian organizations, post-earthquake recovery in Haiti might have been a different story.
The common theme through all these factors is a lack of communication, coordination, and collaboration between all the relevant players. Without an integrated approach, organizations get in each other’s way, work inefficiently, and propose solutions that neglect crucial variables.
An integrated model is necessary in order to achieve the kind of large scale, systems-changing impact that international development has the potential to create.
But what does an integrated approach actually look like in international development?
An Integrated Solution
Although many organizations still exist in silos, some have adopted an integrated approach to development, realizing the tremendous impact that this approach can have. The Integrated Fund is one of those entities.
Geneva Global created the Integrated Fund to catalyze change in communities by simultaneously supporting the development of the intimately intertwined health, education, and economic sectors.
The fund pools capital from multiple donors, and then invests in CBOs doing on-the-ground work. In order to work with all sectors and bring together market-based and non-profit solutions, it uses blended capital—the coordinated use of grants and loans.
What makes the Integrated Fund different is that it thinks holistically and in a coordinated manner about the solutions it supports.
Unlike siloed organizations or funders, the Integrated Fund doesn’t exclusively support a single sector, like healthcare or education. Instead, it partners with organizations that are doing important work in all different fields, because it understands that communities cannot be rebuilt by addressing only health, education, or economic empowerment.
In addition, as the common granting partner, the fund acts as a facilitator between CBOs to help them communicate and collaborate. It is even building a platform to encourage and facilitate this communication.
With this model, the Integrated Fund successfully avoids the traditional pitfalls of international development organizations identified above: it supports local organizations that have better information and ecosystem awareness than the fund can, and it facilitates coordination between its CBO partners.
To provide an example of how the Integrated Fund works on the ground, we can look at its work in Uganda. The first iteration of the fund’s model is a 10-year program that focuses on the Gulu region of northern Uganda, with the goal of helping communities rebuild and thrive as they recover from thirty years of conflict caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army. The program is currently in its pilot phase, but is already seeing success with the CBOs it is initially partnering with: Hope for Humans, New Foundation Community Ministry, and The Northern Uganda Education Program.
Hope for Humans provides programming, therapy, and healthcare access for children with Nodding Syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy thought to be triggered by extreme stress. Nodding Syndrome is mostly found in communities in northern Uganda and Sudan, and children with Nodding Syndrome are often rejected from their communities. Through music and dance therapy, nutritional programs, and education, Hope for Humans has seen significant seizure reduction in the children they aid and an increase in inclusion in the community.
To aid economic development, New Foundation Community Ministry (NFCM) teaches farmers how to farm beyond the subsistence level, loaning them necessary resources like seeds and fertilizer and providing access to banking systems. As farmers learn and inevitably encounter the setbacks that come with a new craft—such as planting too late, experiencing bad weather, and putting produce on the market at the same time as other farmers—NFCM provides coaching and helps restructure loans for the next growing season.
In the education sector, The Northern Uganda Education Program (NUEP) provides accelerated schooling for out-of-school children in order to enable them to rejoin the formal school system. The program uses the unique Speed School model, which compresses three years of curriculum into 10 months to get children up to the speed of the formal school system.
The program also includes teacher training, a school readiness program for pre-school children, and literacy and finance classes for parents. In only the few months since the program was launched in March 2016, the NUEP has already served over 5,700 children through the creation of 180 Speed Schools and 5 community schools, and the training of over 200 teachers.
The key to the Integrated Fund’s success, however, is not the impact of any individual organization—it’s the way that the fund’s simultaneous support of multiple sectors in a concentrated location enables the program to impact all areas of people’s lives for comprehensive community development.
A Gulu child, who is now healthy enough to be enrolled in a Speed School, comes home to a household of increasing prosperity because of their parents’ improved business. Ultimately, that child will graduate and become a productive member of a community that is economically thriving. By supporting all of these organizations together, the Integrated Fund helps all facets of a community develop simultaneously—a necessity for successful community rebuilding.
Tackling extreme poverty requires a holistic, integrated approach that responds to the needs of the whole community, and my bet is that the Integrated Fund will change not only the lives of those in northern Uganda, but also the way international development is implemented in the future.