Many ideas get tossed out, not because they are bad ideas, but because they're not scalable. Of course, donors investors want the most bang bang for their buck that they can get. But is there an inherent contradiction between providing scalable solutions and engaging communities in charting their own paths? There might also be a trade-off between scale and effectiveness.
Two years ago, I spent Thanksgiving leading a discussion in Costa Rica at a forum that brought together women microentrepreneurs and donors. I showed the ladies two studies both financed by the IDB both aiming to support women small businesses with technical assistance on financial management. One program involved only about 100 women, and face-to-face classroom lessons. It showed some net gains to business profitability (David McKensie recently looked at a similar program in Kenya and found similar results). The other was an SMS based training, which showed almost no change to business performance. I then asked the microentrepreneurs to chose which they would prefer to receive.
The women overwhelmingly chose the face-to-face more in-depth training. They wanted results! I explained that because it is more costly, only a fraction of them would benefit. Would that be effective, or fair? What kind of impact would be achieved?
One woman rose from her seat and shouted, "we can teach each other what we learn!"
Over and over I hear comments like this from the constituents that we are trying to support. In East Brooklyn one of the poorest areas in our city, I asked a similar question about replicating costly group financial training when participants asked for more. "How could we replicate this cheaply?", I asked. "Each one, teach one!" Said of one the ladies in my group.
It is not easy to build community engagement, and it puts some of us out of work, but the collateral benefits can be huge. We are focusing only on solutions that isolate low income households by removing personal contact from the interaction in the name of scale. But we know that when a community is stricken with problems, social cohesion and community ties are critical coping strategies. For societies to flourish, cohesion needs to exist. A cohesive self replicating group of teachers sounds like scale to me, but it's a different kind of scale. It doesn't involve as much technology (some for sure) or too many outsiders...and it's a lot of work. It is something that public and non-profit should support! Let's start asking people what they need and supporting their efforts to work within their own communities!