June Newsletter: Building Partnerships Not Just Giving Charity

“Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure.” 

-William Saroyan

Webster’s defines charity as follows: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering, aid given to those in need, an institution, engaged in relief of the poor, public provision for the relief of the needy. 

All the major religious traditions emphasize the commandment to serve the poor or most needy. Zakat or the giving of charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, for the Jews it is Tzedakah. Charity is a major tenet of Christian faith as it is for the Hindu and the Buddhist. But you do not need to have a religious faith to value charity. Every year Americans give generously. In 2015, over 273 Billion dollars was donated and no one can deny that millions of people in need were served. 

And yet the typical ‘charity model’ has limitations which we ignore at our peril. Too often, especially in countries like Uganda, where Brick by Brick has been working since 2004, money is thrown at problems without the full engagement of the communities we are seeking to serve. 

All too often  “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Ten years ago, the ‘PlayPump’ was an innovative sensation, a playground merry-go-round for children, designed to pump water from wells in rural African communities. The World Bank was sold on the project, as was the CEO of AOL. The U.S. Government, with the support of First Lady Laura Bush, awarded a $16.4 million grant and other big donors started to line up behind this great idea, merging an urgent need for safe, clean water, with children’s need for play. Despite the millions raised and spent, no one had sufficiently engaged the communities who would be served by this intervention, and thus many practical aspects were overlooked. Simple things like the fact that children soon tired when pushing the PlayPump or that some were seriously injured or that the simpler hand pump provided five times the water with much less effort. The hand pumps were actually preferred by local women who found pushing the PlayPump exhausting and demeaning. 

We don’t have to look that far to see the folly that can come when the ‘power of  good ideas’ are given too much weight, overlooking the views of our partnering communities and disregarding the importance of culture in effectively addressing any problem.  We can look in the mirror! In 2010 we noted that 80% of our students did not eat lunch on a regular basis. As a small community-based non-profit we were looking for an innovative and sustainable solution to what was basically a lack of resources for a school lunch program at our five partnering schools. Partnering with industry leaders here in the U.S. and piloting the Egg Module, a comprehensive tool to support small-scale poultry enterprises in the developing world, we launched the Poultry Project. Our business model was well researched and sound, good enough to attract a major investor with a proven track record. We partnered with a successful poultry farmer, with a ten-year history of success locally. And yet, while all the pieces for success were in place, with a skilled management team on the ground, after two years, our promising project ended in failure. After an exhaustive and honest self-analysis, we had to face the fact that throughout this project, we had failed to fully empower our Ugandan partner. Misunderstandings and a profound lack of cultural intelligence led to critical mistakes that doomed the Poultry Project. 

 

 

 

 

While we do not covet failure at Brick by Brick, we have found that confronting our mistakes with honest humility can be an effective strategy for success. All of our programs now conform to a model built on open and consistent communication with our partners, who are also the beneficiaries of our programs. 

We always begin with the identification of a critical need by our Ugandan communities. Close monitoring and evaluation inform our program interventions. All of our successes to date have been a close collaboration with our partners. For example, we have completed or are currently engaged in the construction and renovation of nine free Universal Primary Education Schools serving over 3000 students. All of these schools have been re-built with a 25% contribution from the surrounding rural community. 

In 2012, after a survey of 139 girls and young women, we launched the My Pads Program, an innovative program that trains local teachers to share vital reproductive and sexual health knowledge with their students, while addressing the need for affordable menstrual hygiene products. Last year, the U.S. Government, with a DREAMS Innovation Challenge, recognized this program, allowing us to expand to sixteen local secondary schools and include the training of peer educators throughout our district. 

Maternal and Newborn mortality is a serious problem, recognized by both national and district-level health leadership. Our Babies and Mothers Alive (BAMA) Program is a vital partnership with the Rakai District Department of Health, to dramatically improve the health of mothers and their newborn babies in the Rakai District. Without the on-going support of local government, and the participation of our 24 partnering health facilities, we would not have shown significant reductions in life threatening complications after only one year of work. 

Success for Brick by Brick is two-fold. We measure the direct impacts of our programs that improve education, health and economic opportunity. But that is not enough.  Our model of building partnerships means that we are only successful if we are including the communities we serve in all aspects of our programming.  In the end, we are only as strong as the communities we serve; building their capacity is the true measure of our success. 

Coming in the July Newsletter: Being a Social-Investor: How are your dollars changing lives?