Today’s blog post comes from Andrea Burniske, reflecting on her Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer assignment in Bangladesh:
It seems unreal that [almost a month ago] I arrived for the first time in Bangladesh. I had similar assignments with two hosts: provide training on proposal writing (for development projects) and project management, oriented towards agriculture and agribusiness, but flexible enough to develop opportunities for other areas as well. One training, the first, was for a Bangladeshi conglomerate Advanced Chemical Industries (ACI) Limited, a Bangladeshi conglomerate with four major business divisions, including Health Care, Consumer Brands, Agribusinesses and Retail Chains. ACI follows International Standards on Quality Management Systems; complies with current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP); and is a Founding Member of the Community of Global Growth Companies of the World Economic Forum. I was impressed before meeting the staff, and even more impressed after working with them. My participants were mostly young, highly professional, inquisitive and innovative. Some had significant proposal writing experience already, but most had never written proposals. After spending the first day mostly making recommendations, clarifying terms, and presenting cases and examples, it was clear that the best way to serve both groups was to spend most of the time working on an actual grant solicitation. The second day was devoted to identifying the root cause (not the symptom) of problems; seeking impactful solutions for these problems; creating logical frameworks; and other critical thinking-stimulating activities. Budget formats were presented and explained, and restrictions addressed. My goal was to help my group understand the concepts behind all the bewildering terms – especially as different donors (and sometimes the same donors, under different initiatives) use different terms to refer to the same concepts.
I have high hopes for ACI. Like Grameen Bank, BRAC, and others, they have a very logical and far-reaching social agenda that goes beyond social responsibility. In the West we call what they do ‘Shared Value.’ It is a hot new topic, and one that very few businesses actually undertake. As Michael Porter says: “Companies must take the lead in bringing business and society back together … The solution lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success.” (http://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value). In Bangladesh NGOs create social businesses, and businesses fund and create social development initiatives. This makes sense when business considers that it must grow its domestic market. And all sectors understand that the way out of poverty is to help the poor become involved in higher ends of the value chains.
The second assignment was quite different in context. The host was the International University of Business, Agriculture, and Technology (IUBAT). This university seeks to promote knowledge and skills to lead to socio-agro-economic development in Bangladesh and beyond. A tall order, but judging from the faculty I worked with, one towards which this institution is fully capable of making a significant contribution. I have worked with faculty in other developing countries, and it can be a challenge. Sometimes faculty are not open to learning new skills. In some socio-cultural contexts, once a person has a PhD or its equivalent, he or she is considered ‘an expert’ – no need to learn anything more. But at IUBAT, the President and Founder insists on life-long learning among his faculty. Once you stop learning, you are dead, he says. His encouragement provides an enabling environment for innovative faculty, and they in term provide him with ideas and talent. ‘My’ group of 25 faculty members was enthusiastic, gracious and flexible. Most had lived abroad – in the US, UK, Japan, and other places, for substantial parts of their career. Most had never worked on development proposals. But almost all had great ability to think of how they could work together to design cross-sectoral projects. Agriculture with engineering and IT, and with health, to address food security issues for example. Just as with the first group, I gave this larger group actual solicitations – all from USAID. I squeezed every second I could out of this time. The group divided into smaller groups and worked on the various proposal components. One participant says he ‘lost 3 kilos, but gained this in knowledge and skills.’ Sadly, I did not lose 3 kilos and in fact, with constant offers of fried things, rice, and sweets, it was probably the opposite for me. But I certainly did also learn every bit as much as my participants did.
What do we volunteers learn by undertaking these assignments? Much more than I can possibly relate. Of course there is the opportunity to learn a new culture, some words of a new language, to see how people survive and even thrive in difficult situations, and the creative solutions they discover to do this. I see practices I can use in my projects in other parts of the world. I discover fast friends – the kind you feel at home with though you have only just met. I make connections for future project work. And I hone my professional skills in ways that people who do these assignments will relate to: We learn to be very flexible in our training material, to constantly think of how we can express our concepts and terms in other ways, so that it is more understandable. So that participants have a deeper rather than cursory understanding. We learn to communicate better, to address different kinds of audiences with appropriate-level messages, greetings, and information. We learn to write last-minute speeches on the corners of napkins as we sit listening the speaker before us. We learn to listen not just to respond, but to understand. At the end of these assignments, you will, like me, reflect: “I can’t believe I pulled that off!” Because with dedication and hard work, empathy and listening skills, we do pull it off. And more. We thrive from the experience. Creating connections between people is like creating new neurons in the brain. It leads to ‘actions potential’ – to possibilities that weren’t there before. Eternal possibilities. The promise of a better life for us all.