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Scale and Sustainability

How integrated solutions and collective action can catalyze real change

You can’t travel around the developing world and still feel satisfied with the job that we international aid professionals have and are doing, despite our good intentions and undoubted local successes.

My first job at 21 was in Namibia (then part of South Africa) and my heart has ached for the continent ever since. In the last ten years or so I have been exploring better ways of getting more quality, long lasting social transformation for the money.

It started with the realization that we needed both scale and sustainability to really move the needle on any particular social challenge.

Often it felt like we had to choose one or the other.

Big INGOs or governments provide scale, but when a program is finished the staff move to the next employment opportunity or other circumstances intervene. So we focus on community leadership that will not migrate, but their capacity is limited and often cannot sustain the intensity and breadth of effort to really dent deep-seated social problems.

We needed integrated solutions that encompass both scale and sustainability.

There is a growing conversation within the philanthropic and international development community on the topic of creating integrated solutions designed to achieve both scale and sustainability. I was interested to read an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that featured projects in the United States that implemented a “collective impact” approach.

Those featured efforts closely correlate to the successes, lessons, and key requirements that we at Geneva Global have seen overseas in demanding both scale and sustainability from integrated programming over the last six years.

We’ve been thinking about and helping create integrated international development programs since 2006 through a model we refer to as Strategic Initiatives.

Strategic Initiatives typically seek to address a particular community development issue in a specified geographic area: for example, getting out-of-school children back into public schools in Mali, or significantly reducing the incidence of preventable blindness in a targeted province in Zambia.

In 2006, Geneva Global started 22 integrated clusters of local, community-led projects aimed at achieving both scale and sustainability for our client, the Legatum Foundation. Of the nearly two dozen programs, all but one provided remarkable results.

These integrated programs clustered several (sometimes more than a dozen) independent, in-country organizations all working within an integrated strategy. Facilitated by a Geneva Global Program Manager in the field, the organizations met regularly as a community of practice to collaboratively make strides against the given issue.

One cluster of projects, for example, focused on reducing trafficking of women and children across the India-Nepal border, while another Strategic Initiative in Burundi combined the efforts of 12 health-focused local organizations to reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Rutana Province.

The success of these programs has proved the theory behind the model:

By granting to multiple organizations working together to address a common issue, the sum is greater than the individual parts.

For a community health program in Bihar, for example, we saw infant and maternal mortality rates reduced by as much as 60%. Equally significant, local community members were equipped with the skills, knowledge and resources to ensure that infant and maternal mortality rates stayed low and continued to decline. Collaborative effort by local NGOs and community members resulted in increased access to life-saving vaccines and reestablishment of previously defunct local health centers. Resource and information sharing reduced costs and duplication of efforts.

But we have also realized that getting successful collective action on the part of local actors was only part of the solution.

So much of the delivery on the ground is piecemeal and thus less effective than it could be because donors do not collaborate. So in 2010, Legatum Foundation and Geneva Global created an integrated donor fund called the END Fund for strategic funding aimed at ridding the continent of Africa of the scourge of neglected tropical diseases. It’s quite a story, but one for another blog post.

Perhaps with the advent of intentionally collaborative, strategic intervention on behalf of private donors, local NGOs, government and the private sector, we’ll start to see the kind of transformational change that is long overdue in so many parts of the world. I look forward to the day that we can all celebrate that kind of success; it’s been too many decades in the making.