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Off the beaten track

Interview by Robbert van de Waerdt, policy advisor youth for Oxfam Novib. September 2017.

Carin Boersma does not shy away from controversies. She does not uncritically accept contemporary trends. Microfinance? Better be careful! Transferable skills? No, very focused practical training is much more effective! And instead of connecting to existing value chains, it is much better to determine your own path. An inspiring interview with Oxfam’s Global Learning Expert about getting away from the beaten track.

For over ten years, Carin has encouraged cross-cultural learning. As Global Learning Expert working for Oxfam, she is continuously looking for inspiration from outside. Most problems in today’s world have found an innovative solution somewhere on the planet; it is her mission to identify these and see how they can be implemented in a different context.

The most recent challenge given to Carin was how to encourage young women in rural areas in Bangladesh – with limited entrepreneurship possibilities and affected by climate change – to become entrepreneurial. Together with a team of experts, Carin identified 20 inspiring initiatives in India aimed at involving young women in rural entrepreneurship, out of which the team in Bangladesh chose three best practices they wanted to visit. Together with 10 carefully selected key actors from Bangladesh, she travelled to India to learn from these approaches.

Upon return, Carin can’t wait to share her ideas and lessons learned. She is so full of ideas, energy and enthusiasm that the best approach we saw was for me to interview her in order to write it all up and make some sense of it. So, first things first, Carin shares her main insights: more business thinking, more community ownership, and more practical training. Does this sound rather conventional, or may this be a revolution in the making?

While her first insight may not be groundbreaking, it may still be contentious in some development circles: much more business thinking is needed to solve developmental problems. Particularly in rural areas. Why should local problems be solved by development initiatives – by charity if you will – if they can be solved by local enterprises? Water management or solar energy are typical examples of local challenges in rural Bangladesh where innovative – and often very simple – approaches can be designed by local people and for which local people can be trained to roll out such ideas at larger scale, thereby creating jobs and profit. Indeed: social entrepreneurship. To give an example, Carin mentioned an Indian entrepreneur from the lower castes who, with just a blender and a packaging machine, managed to improve the quality of health by mixing 4 local herbs and selling these to the local population, simultaneously providing some information on the importance of these herbs for their health.

Skeptical as I am, to me it sounds a bit like a golden bullet. If people can make money by solving developmental problems, why do such problems still exist? Carin probably read my mind, which prompted her to come to her second insight. She agreed that too much market orientation – too exclusive a focus on business – does not work to solve social problems. Instead, Carin calls for community engagement: local problems within a community are best solved by the community, and by the community collectively. NGO people would call this a holistic approach – combining business with what is good for community, and not only involving them, but ensuring they lead the initiative, in a comprehensive way.

But it’s not only the NGO jargon that Carin disliked. Indeed, Carin was very wary of development projects actually being owned by NGOs, thereby limiting sustainability. A business that is not ‘owned’ by a community would not be good at developing and implementing a business model that solves local problems. However, a community is not a static entity: it is dynamic and power relations play a very important role. Access to local markets is not a given, you need to ‘hire’ authority, and involve local powers to ensure this. However Carin warned to take local governments as starting point, as they may prioritize their personal interests over the community interests. For the same reason, she recommended to stay away from existing value chains as starting point for social businesses: too much corruption. The same applies to banks and microfinance institutions: better look at community owned initiatives such as savings groups. The message: try to keep things in your own hands as much as possible.

The third insight that Carin had was to stop general training and instead support very practical technical trainings to create experts. Poor people do not need awareness training, they simply need to earn a living. In India, getting women to work was not a culturally sensitive issue at all; as long as women bring income to the household and child care is being arranged, their economic involvement is very much welcomed. And it is very practical training that brings such opportunities. In India, in six months' time young illiterate women became experts in solar engineering and subsequently earned a living.

Having been bombarded over the past years with the importance of supporting young people acquiring transferable skills, this was quite a surprising and thought-provoking insight for me. But why not? If we know that training people one particular vocation (such as car mechanic) does not work, you could indeed go two alternative routes: either more general, or more specific. In the process of going more specific, Carin urged me, diversity is obviously very important: train some people in specific computer skills, others in administration, yet others in technical support, and again others in marketing. Because responsibilities are thus shared collectively and no one can do anything without the support of others within the community, you create a collective social business within a community.

The place where such a social community business comes together – in fact where all of Carin’s insights come together – can be called a rural hub. A physical place or building within a community that offers facilities for all aspects related to running a social business. Not only material objects such as computers or machines, but also facilities for child care, night schools that offer training at various moments a day, dining rooms, and even party rooms to celebrate success.

So, if communities are running the show to solve their own problems, what then are the implications for development organizations, such as Oxfam?

Hands off!

At least, to some extent, Carin nuances. Initiating such a collective thinking is something that all of us can still help with. Not in a traditional or paternalistic way, but more as a coach or mentor to help communities setting up rural hubs and making the right connections. In the coming years, Carin and her team will test the concept of rural hubs in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In this context, she is always looking for best practices around job creation for rural youth. Let us know, and contact Carin to become part of a worldwide rural hub movement.

The methodology used by Carin is called E-Motive. It is currently implemented within the context of the global Empower Youth for Work project. See for more information.