How the scarcity mindset converged with the perfect storm to create a famine in 2020 and how to build hope.
From Scarcity to Abundance: The death of accountability and the rise of hope.
Girls married at age 13 or 14 because their parents’ don’t have enough.
Boys herding livestock at age 5 or 7 because they have no choice.
Entire villages in famine despite ______ fill in the blank.
There is actually enough food and water in Madagascar. There’s even money. It’s just not in the places that need it most.
When it comes to resources in Madagascar, natural resources are abundant. When it comes to international aid, it is also abundant. I’m not sure how many people we could feed with the fleet of Landrovers parked down the street, but I imagine it would be quite a few. Still, in Madagascar, if you start to watch, you see how rigorous accountability procedures can result in a bureaucratic system that seemingly holds meetings, writes reports, and buys 4x4s easier than distributing emergency aid.
There are kids dying of famine not because there isn’t food and water — it’s simply not accessible to their households. A huge reason it’s not accessible is that the analysts decided earlier this year that the situation wouldn’t deteriorate this quickly. And then the agencies in the region seem to be blocked by accountability systems.
In a report published in June, the guys and gals behind desks wrote:
“Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes exist and are anticipated to persist through October, after which food security will moderately deteriorate with the onset of the lean season.” Crisis stage is level 3 — Famine is level 5 — the south of Madagascar was predicted to be in crisis through September, peaking to Emergency Level 4 — October 2020 through January 2021.
And so, while there is abundant emergency aid — someone somewhere decided that financial resources and accountability — took precedent over actually investing in watching on the ground.
The Responsibility of Accountability and Analysts
Responsibility is generally accepted as a synonym for Accountability.
The problem is that an excessive focus on accountability can easily lead to a culture of scarcity and blame. And in the case of the kere (famine) here in Madagascar — I’d claim that, in fact, clumsy and rigid accountability systems are directly leading to the death of Malagasy children and elders.
You or I can find a zillion pages of other reports written about all that is wrong in southern Madagascar. Requirements for strict monitoring and evaluation (MEL) and top-heavy NGOs (USAID, WFP/PAM, Care, UNICEF) and other governmental organizations with huge budgets and excessively accountability structures bordering on ridiculous.
Indeed, as we can see with the FEWS (Famine Emergency Warning System) report referenced above that improved accountability systems can result in a false sense of security alongside a real loss in agility — if a large organization can ever be AGILE. You might say that the huge food stores in the south are there because of report s like this — and it’s the accountability systems that keep them guarded by Kalishinkovs. This loss of agility defeats the purpose of accountability because the point of accountability is to ensure that money helps those who need it most. No? Yes?
We actually create money (and energy) all the time, and yet when it comes to a place like Madagascar, there never seems to be a fear that there is not enough to go around. Meanwhile, the hoops that officials and private sector individuals must jump through to get their job done are increasingly challenging.
Clayton Christensen (the late) creator of the Innovation Theory of Disruption, defines corruption in the terms of “jobs to be done.” Yes, there is cronyism and cheating, but for the most part, most corruption — even the mafia — exists because humans are the opposite of lazy — they figure out the best way to get a job done and do it, regardless of what you or I say is right or wrong.
In all my analyses of what works and doesn’t work in the development sector, I’ve seen a few good reasons for increasing responsibility and implementing accounting systems.
- I’ve seen unskilled, but good-hearted people get in over their heads and sometimes miss-use or lose money. Or the money doesn’t have the impact they hoped because they didn't actually address a job to be done but instead imposed their vision on a group of strangers.
- I’ve seen people who do many good works get in trouble for corruption or misuse of funds because their partners or sponsors assume they can work for free, without considering that everyone may not have the same bank balance at home.
- I’ve seen large organizations that get so top-heavy that funds barely back it out the door to do the good works. This makes some people really mad — they blame the folks at the top for living high on other people’s suffering — and perhaps this is the case in some situations. Still, perhaps we should reconsider what we ask for those who work in charity organizations.
- On the flip-side — I see organizations go so thin that their people live in constant stress. I recently spoke to an ED of an organization that is only making 28,000 USD (in California) — sure, most of the program funds will send at-risk kids to college — but what about HIS kids? Shouldn’t a guy working 80 hours a week be able to send HIS kids to school?
Big or small NGOs that operate with limited resources, restricted funds, and or unskilled volunteers cannot effectively address their mission. Any organization that values accountability over impact is also in for a challenge. What happened to trust building? Their hearts are in the right spot, but their minds and actions are still missing out on crucial aspects of real success.
Accountability is important — to a point — but not so much that you lose faith in your partners and can no longer function. Or that you become so tight with your funds that you cannot invest in actual change.
Funders want to do more with less. They want lower operating costs and measurable results. They look at development projects as though they want to do more with less, but that results in unskilled labor and underpaying staff to do vitally important work.
You would never hire an intern to design a sanitation system in London or Tokyo or Los Angeles. Even spending a small amount of money on unskilled labor is a waste of money and often damaging in perpetuating white privilege (most of these unskilled volunteers are white Americans and Europeans).
Invest in your people. Invest in your projects. Take responsibility for the impact that you claim.
The scarcity mindset leads people to value money over lives or making a real impact.
If you withhold love — it doesn’t grow bigger.
If you withhold the sun or water — a plant will die.
I’d argue the same goes for money and sustainable development.
Believe in people, and they will do good.
Talk to people and engage them in the process.
Be part of building an inclusive solution, not applying a foreign band-aid.
An abundance mindset is hopeful that we will make an impact if we invest in our vision.
I’m not the first to think of this — there is actually a term called IMPACT INVESTING — individuals who invest in projects with a social, environmental, and financial impact.
A distinction to be made here is that of emergency aid versus longer development. Emergency aid does disappear — it’s hard to measure and trace outside of saying that no one died. Thus the problem arises when people are dying in the face of existing aid. The aid not being released right now in Madagascar is emergency aid; however, all that report writing and unskilled labor have been going towards what should be longer-term sustainable development with a built-in exit plan.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve had moments of hope as I watched the President and the Minister of Health, Madagascar’s government, act swiftly to tour and visit the region a few days after the famine’s public announcement’s first deaths hit the news.
The President spent nearly a week in the south, visiting the communities most directly affected. In cooperation with the World Food Program, the Ministry of Health is actively discussing malnutrition’s emergency aspect. Clinics have set up to treat the malnourished, soldiers trained with health workers to do a full and deep census of the afflicted rural population.
There have been distributions of cash (100,000 Ar or about 25 US per household) from the World Food Program in the towns. From social media and the news — it looks like the urgency of the moment is under control.
Unfortunately, the word on the ground is that food distribution is not fast enough or widespread enough. There is water in certain places, but not an effective/way or effort to get it where it is needed most. People are still on edge — a few more kids have died — not for lack of resources — but because of a lack of widespread rapid distribution.
With a community development background — I understand that this is not an issue that arose overnight or that can be solved overnight. But there is a lot that we can do differently, starting with how we work and with whom we work and open the dialogue.
My opinion is that the people in the south of Madagascar have zero political clout outside of Madagascar. Every day I sign on to my FB profile, I see an ad from the World Food Program requesting Yemen donations — a country with a political balance that matters. And yet, when I mention the famine in Madagascar to my friends overseas — no one has heard of it.
The world is not showing that it VALUES the people of Madagascar. If she did, we’d have a different kind of investment and responsibility showing up in the development projects here — right now, Madagascar is seen as an exotic home to lemurs — not home to a valuable group of humans who are stewards of their land.
Money and Lemurs
When I talk to people about Madagascar, I hear two refrains. One is people fascinated by lemurs and highly concerned about the environmental degradation that results in habitat destruction. I read posts of people starting nonprofits to end slash and burn agriculture — not to save the people — but to stop environmental destruction.
And so, I ask you, when you think of Madagascar, what is it that you value?
Stewards of the Land
The people in the south of Madagascar live there because it is their homeland. They honor their ancestors and their land with every birth and death, marriage, and celebration. When it comes to environmental impact, their footprint is pretty light compared to an American in an SUV with heating systems, AC, and a full set of household appliances.
What would investment in the south look like if the World put a real value on the people's lives?
What if we took responsibility for our complicity?
On Tuesday this week, I met with the mayor of one of the communes affected by the drought and famine. Speaking with him reconfirmed many of my judgments on how NGOs fail to function in this region.
One of our local NGOs built latrines in his community by only digging holes (no cement, no proper septic). Folks were understandably disappointed — anyone can dig a hole — they thought they would get proper toilets.
Another NGO swooped in from Germany last year to drill wells — he didn’t even know they were in the area until after a week they came to him for help.
They ended up building three wells when they’d had funding for eight — perhaps if they’d talked to him FIRST, they could have done eight. But even then — what was their long-term plan?
Where else in the world can an unskilled volunteer or recent graduate swoop in and suddenly manage an entire sanitation system?
If it’s not okay in LA or London or Tokyo, why should it be okay in Madagascar?
When I first saw the famine photos, I felt profound guilt that I’d not done more and faster here in Madagascar despite living here over two years. Instead of acting in urgency, I feel like I’ve been hiding behind my belief in the way things should be done and, in fact doing nothing.
You might call this unproductive procrastination.
Last week and into this week, I devoted hours researching everything I could online and talking to a handful of different people. For better or worse, my research reconfirmed what I already knew about the south.
Leaving me to ask — how can I move from commitment to action?
Then it hit me — more of an ah-ha than lighting — every single thing I’ve read or heard has been negative — even what I’ve been saying about certain NGOs is negative. My commitment has been wallowing in a loss of hope.
Building Hope and Responsibility
Successful development projects, such as the work of Partners In Health (PIH) or the Albert Sweitzer Hospital, and Gretchen & the late Warren Bergen in Haiti, have used appreciative inquiry and positive deviance.
They focus on the positive. They look for pockets of joy. They’ve looked at what is working. Who is surviving? What are they doing differently? What traditional practices that worked have been lost? What positive habits or skills could we leverage to create positive change?
How can one turn from a loss of hope to taking responsibility and creating that new vision?
Fliping our Mindset
Young girls are not married off at age 14 because it brings anyone joy, but it is a survival mechanism. At one point, this practice worked. Young girls fear disobeying their parents because they’ve grown up in a culture that weighs filial responsibility heavily. And this close-knit family system works — married into a Malagasy family — I’ve seen it in action first hand.
If the current practice doesn’t fully work any longer, there needs to be a dialogue about what might work instead. If young girls don’t marry — what can they do to survive and even thrive?
You might say — go to school — but then what? What happens after school?
Not everyone can move to Paris. Even the nearest major towns, such as Fort Dauphin, lack access to adequate work where I live.
So what else might be done?
Looking to my own history — I am inspired by the story of Emily Griffith, who started “The Opportunity School” in Denver, CO. Emily faced similar challenges to these young women who wish not to marry (or not just yet).
Without a high school education and within an abandoned school building, Emily built a thriving school for adults — a school that has evolved and adapted with the times — running strong nearly 100 years later.
If we start with what worked before and what still works — if we assume that there is a job to be done — we start to uncover opportunities.
What if there was a community center? A girls’ school? What if these young women could be supported in learning a trade or creating a business? What if they could share money with their parents so that their younger brothers could go to school?
Well, we already know that works because the most successful nonprofit that I’ve come across in the south is called Nofy Androy, and they do just that. They board girls from the villages and help them finish their studies and find work.
It’s run by a grandmother-mother/sister and daughter team.
There is hope.
Another Malagasy woman is working in the south right now too. Her name is Talike — her day job is that of musician and professional singer — but her passion project is feeding people and supporting the preservation and beautification of the Malagasy culture through her association Soa Kanto. Talike and her brother may be successful musicians today, but they too grew up in extreme poverty (this song is by her brother and about their grandmother).
Normally Talike’s focus is on development, not emergency aid; however, she is agile. Today, she is in the heart of the famine — collecting donations by hand (or phone and wire) and then directly leading the provisioning and delivering of food to villages not yet accessed by the WFP.
Speaking with Talike earlier this week, I found a sister-in-mindset— she wonders why those who drill wells or set up water projects don’t start talking to the elders who know where the water used to be. She wonders why they send untrained volunteers and place more weight on accountability than responsibility.
She suggested that solar panels that run water pumps wouldn’t be stolen if you hired the local boys to guard them.
In her experience — even the dhalo (Malagasy bandits) — at least the young ones can be reconverted back to the good side with a job offer. She’s done it herself by paying them to plant trees and paying them to ensure they stay alive.
We do that too where I am from — Boulder Mountain Parks — my very first job was that of a junior ranger. I got paid to maintain hiking trails and provide erosion control. I learned more about hard work and caring for the environment that summer than I ever did from listening to someone talk at me.
Hope is the ability to articulate a vision for the future and then to lay out the plan to get there.
That is what I tell my career coaching clients. It’s what I tell my life coaching and life crafting clients. It can work here in Madagascar too.
In Madagascar’s south, from Anosy to Androy, there are several million people, with about 35,000 affected by famine.
One person, let alone 1,000 is TOO MANY; however, working with women, providing opportunities for both young men and women to earn a fair living while consulting with their elders to open a dialogue of hope is starting to take responsibility to build a new vision.
Positive deviance. Using appreciative inquiry to understand what is already going right and leverage that to empower communities to lead their change.
And so, while today, in my gut, I may want to raise enough money to fill a semi-truck with rice and oil and peanuts and drive it to the south myself, that is not the work that I choose to be responsible for (see below). Instead, my ideas are coalescing together into a 5-year development plan for a community center and technical school in collaboration with one of the communes touched by the famine. I’d share my ideas here fully; however, in honor of the words I’ve shared above, my ideas still need to be developed in direct dialogue with the community.
We will move slowly today, to move fast tomorrow.
If you would like to donate for direct famine relief, you may do so here or connect with Nofy Androy (a registered 501c(3) in the USA) or Soa Kanto. Or reach out to me, and I’ll put you in touch with the right person. If you’ve got a vision for the future and would like to sponsor my community development project (think of Emily Griffiths’ Opportunity School — plans coming soon) you can do so here. If you’d like to hire me to help you with career or life crafting, the investment in your future will be recycled into my work here in Madagascar.