Ecuador. SEC. Team Oportunidad and Impacto. Frankly, I am not even sure how to begin this final post. I am speechless in the best sense of the word.
To keep this final blog post short(er) and (more) succinct, I will summarize the major lessons I gathered from my experiences. Some of these are obvious but were further clarified through my experiences. Others are entirely brand new to me. In any case, I hope that these lessons learned can be constructive or beneficial for all.
Discomfort is beautiful-
Sleeping underneath a mosquito net. Carrying a dog stick everywhere. Not drinking water from the tap. Wearing a headlamp (and four layers of shirts with two layers of pants) to bed. Packing toilet paper in my backpack every day. Speaking Spanish with host families when I didn’t have a fluent speaker with me. Removing slugs from the bed frame, wall, shelf, and our backpacks. Taking twenty second showers. Pulling a stubborn cow uphill for a kilometer. Not having wifi (oh, the horror!). Getting lost in a massive city entirely on my own. Learning Quechua. I never expected to do these things, but I will always cherish the experience. During moments (or days or weeks) of discomfort, I found myself noticing and being aware of differences like never before. For example, when I was lost, I was almost hyper-aware of my surroundings. The aroma of sweat, spices, and slow-cooked meat would waft through the stalls of the food market. The colorful assortment of fruits and vegetable stood high while women donning Chimborazo hats would harass pedestrians with their “low prices for high quality” of food. Moments of discomfort opened my senses to new sights, sounds, and smells. I also appreciate the comforts of Cuenca (and the US!) when in contrast to the “luxuries” of Pulingui (I was lucky to have six blankets). My struggle Spanish was met with laughs and words of encouragement. I enjoyed stepping out of my realm of comfort. It taught me more about myself and others.
International Development can be frustrating-
When it comes to colossal entities like the international community, change often comes slow. In contrast, the private sector or multinational enterprises are usually more agile and can respond to a changing landscape must faster. Working in the realm of international development can be frustrating because it takes time for initiatives to take effect and it takes even more time to establish and collect a metric system and subsequent data to measure the success of the initiative. Navigating between administrative obstacles can be tedious and often takes up a majority of the time. In the case of SEC and Ecuador, the staff spent most of their time dealing with logistics (such as, “how can I contact the community leader if he does not have a phone?”). Very little of their time was spent on the campaigns or empowerment. Additionally, the salary is not a good incentive; in Ecuador, the staff was making the Ecuadorian minimum wage, a measly $350 per month.
For the best outcome, focus on the client-
It is believed that there are more than ten thousand NGOs in the country of Haiti, a majority forming after the disastrous 2005 earthquakes. Even now, more than a decade later, aid, in the form of food and supplies, is shipped to Haiti from altruistic global citizens hoping to “alleviate the pain and suffering.” Starting a non-profit to help those less fortunate is laudable, but the maximum impact can only be achieved if the initiative is centered on delivering the greatest benefit to the clients. In my junior year of high school, many of my classmates started meaningless non-profits with grandiose visions of helping marginalized populations halfway around the world to demonstrate their get-up-and-go attitude to college admission officers. Within a month, the non-profits and business plans fell to the bottom of the trash bin. It is worthwhile to ask why. Is it because the marginalized were truly the target audience? Or is it because having one’s name on the philanthropy or non-profit is considered cool? In Haiti, many of the ten thousand NGOs essentially attempt to address the same problems: poverty, infrastructure, and health. Would it not be more impactful if they decided to collaborate and team up? Or what if instead of starting a new NGO, individuals who hoped to help contributed to existing NGOs? Haiti is now saturated with so many benefactor groups that they compete amongst themselves for both resources (funding, supplies, etc) and recipients (Haitian farmers, residents, etc). And is this aid actually benefitting the people of Haiti? According to Poverty Inc., not at all. In fact, it isperpetuating the poverty in Haiti because the volume of free food and supplies entering the country is preventing Haitian-produced goods and services from entering the Haitian market. If NGOs in Haiti were truly client-focused, they would have reeled back on the number of NGOs and rather focused on truly helping the people of Haiti through sustainable and empowering methods. Similarly, we want to avoid the tendency to become “voluntourists” (plenty of articles online about the dangers of voluntourism). Client-focused outcomes yield the greatest benefit.
Begin with the end in mind-
Early in the SEC training process, Greg Van Kirk mentioned: “Our goal is to eventually run ourselves out of business.” In my opinion, this should be the long term goal of any social entrepreneurship. In the words of Chelsea Clinton, “always have an exit strategy when starting a social enterprise.” How will the social enterprise impact the target market and then how will it phase itself out so that the target population can be self-sustaining? Altruism isn’t good enough because it doesn’t change the system. In the case of CEMIS, we gave them over six hundred dollars through selling their products on Facebook. But that isn’t sustainable. If we don’t think about the exit strategy, CEMIs will become dependent on the efforts of the interns fundraising. Does CEMIS have more money now? Absolutely. Have they empowered themselves? Not unless they decide to invest in educating their women about online sales. I think this framework of thinking can be applied to much more than social enterprises. If we remember that our social enterprises must eventually come to an end, we can make better, more thoughtful decisions as to how our enterprise will impact others.
Maybe, just maybe, we don’t know everything-
It was clear that the 2016 SEC Ecuador interns were some of the most headstrong, ambitious, and critical groups that SEC had. Personally, I think it was because all twenty-four of us were accustomed to having our ideas implemented or validated. We typically were leaders in our own groups and clubs and were generally implementers. When a group of leaders and implementers is brought together, some conflict is inevitable. Most of us were used to having the best ideas in the room at our respective universities. This might have stoked egos and somewhat validated our desire to be the most impactful. But Ecuador was a new context and understanding context is important for making meaningful impact. So when one’s ideas was regarded as inappropriate or less than perfect, the result was hurt egos. Additionally, we were told that when SEC decided that a P1 project was not feasible or not within the capacity of the organization, students would often retaliate and claim that SEC was an organization that was blind and did not really know what it was doing. The SEC staff quietly referred to this as “the entitlement factor;” the self-selection process of applying to the SEC program made sure that all of the applicants were proactive students who wanted to do more. Typically, students who were often praised for having the best ideas in the room grew a sense of entitlement. They would then carry this entitlement with them and apply it to other scenarios, expecting that their ideas would always be the best. Additionally, with some of our clients, the cultural difference in business practices was overwhelming. For example, Fundacion Utopia did not care to be a profitable organization. They said that they would not mind if they went bankrupt because they already created the community which they hoped to establish. Everything else was simply bonus. Many of the interns had a fundamental objection to assisting a client such asFundacion Utopia. They claimed that they could not help the foundation if the foundation did not care to be profitable. These statements often turned into rude remarks and disheartened indifference.
Rather than being hurt or expressing contempt when a client or organization does not take solicited advice, I think a question ought to be asked: “is there a better way of serving the customer?” Could the project be made simpler in any way? Could it be more appropriate for the organization? Can it actually be implemented? Are there deeper reasons why the idea is not feasible?
CAGE distance analysis-
I can see now that my first version of the CAGE distance analysis was not thorough. I had gathered information about the cultural, administrative, geographic, and economic obstacles, but it could never be complete or accurate if I did not spend time in Ecuador. I have much more to add to the cultural and administrative sections. Before I left to Ecuador, I was told that a significant portion of the CAGE would be improved as I spent more time in the country. I sincerely believe that is true.
Never say no to a new experience-
This one is obvious. If I did not try salsa dancing, I would not have discovered that my hips move with the grace of Shakira’s.
Team Journey: Work is more fun with people we love-
I spent most of my working time with my P1 project team, “Team Journey.” From climbing Chimborazo to sipping on nutellaccinos together in Melatte to spending hours debating over the appropriateness of a survey question to taking long walks in the Pulingui countryside, I could not have asked for a better team to work with. During the final presentation, there was a moment where love for my team and for our project swelled inside of me and I was happy, regardless of what the staff decided to do with our project. Interestingly enough, I don’t think anyone of us were expecting that we would become so close by the end of the summer. We had seen each other in various settings: work, leisure, comfort, discomfort, happiness, sadness, health, sickness, annoyed, goofy. Yet I’m not sure if that team dynamic could be replicated. Regardless, I am happy that I had the experience of sharing such an amazing project with such an incredible group of people.