Friday, July 4, 2008

Spotlight: Terracycle

Terracycle Gardening Products (source: Terracycle)

I love Terracycle. Its great for many reasons:
  1. it takes waste and makes money on it
  2. its eco-friendly
  3. (a critical piece that few talk about) it shows us what our trash looks like.
Terracycle is a great model for developing countries that have long been the dumping grounds of the wealthier countries trying to push off their trash problems (eg. U.S.A). Often the ones left to bear the brunt of this dumping are the poorest of the poor. But if the BoP can "embrace the trash," see the value in it as Terracycle does, they could turn their biggest enemy into a cash mine. Here's where outsourcing could actually work extremely well (i.e. Terracycle outsourcing to countries like India, China, and name very few).

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Another model aid story?? -- Defining a metric of success

photo source: Candace Thecoco

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells the story of Beatrice Biira who credits her against-the-odds life story to a goat appropriately named Luck.

Beatrice’s story helps address two of the most commonly asked questions about foreign assistance: “Does aid work?” and “What can I do?”

The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born and raised. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents were peasants who couldn’t afford to send her to school. [...]

If I'm trying to extract the lessons from this extremely brief story (I'm still not sure how the dots connect, i.e. how the book helped get Beatrice into a prep school and then college), it would revolve around defining the success of "aid." What is a reliable measurable metric of success, particularly in aid??

I once asked a group of inner-city school teachers how they kept themselves motivated. Surrounded by children in drug and crime infested neighborhoods, and goaded down by disruptive, delinquent parents, I wondered how these women and men stayed positive. They said it started with redefining their metrics of success. Many of them admitted that they had started their jobs with idealistic viewpoints - they would "save" all their students from the streets. This soon downsized to half a class, then to a dozen students, then to two, and one... "and just as you are about to give up, one makes it through...he/she becomes your beacon of hope, your reason for being, your success metric...and you go on until the next one happens." This must be exhausting, I reasoned. " get used to it...its all about how you define your success metric. Success to me is just getting a kid to start thinking of a future that doesn't involve this life [of drugs and crime]. If even for a second they can experience that freedom, I know I've succeeded!"

In Heifer's million donations, there have been only a few Beatrices...just as there have been only a few seconds of freedom for the students in this particular inner-city school district. So do we just focus on these few success stories?? Can more be done?? Do you think we are being too hard on "aid"? Should we downsize our metrics of success??

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A model aid story

Does "aid" work? I don't know.

This question often makes me want to define "aid." What is "aid"? Is it charity? Does it mean giving away large sums of money, or materials, or time?? I don't know. I don't think so. I think that's a really narrow definition of the word "aid." And within that definition, I know LOTS of "aid" projects that don't work. "What works" has rarely been studied. So I do my own studies. When I come across a good story, I run over it several times and try to come up with my own conclusions of what made something work.

This morning, I came across this story on TED. And I'd define it as a model "aid" story. There is giving, there is receiving, there is development. There is even the white man's burden portion of the "west" giving to the "east." Better still is that there is success, happiness, joy, humility, beauty, lessons on both sides, and a great story.

There shouldn't be one "aid" model. Not everyone can go out and do work in the field. Not everyone can give millions of dollars. The best "aid" stories are organic, and are customized around the giver and the receiver (hence the success of the Secret Millionaire). The receiver gets what he/she most needs; the giver gives exactly what the receiver needs (ideally suited to the giver's strengths); and ultimately both the giver and receiver exchange roles. Both learn, both are connected, both are humbled.

Watch this. Tell me what you think.