Liberia: How Can Sustainability Challenges Drive Innovation?

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Oxfam in Liberia experiments with a marketplace of ideas

Oxfam in Liberia

International development is big business. In 2020, official development assistance alone was valued at over $ 160 billion – and this figure does not include donations made to my individuals, foundations or businesses.

Often development aid can be the subject of intense debate. There are certainly a lot of problems with the aid system – it is partly rooted in a colonial or neo-colonial global system that has benefited Western global neoliberal and capitalist agendas, created dependency, and perpetuated social and economic inequalities. Another reason why development aid is so controversial is that aid effectiveness remains a huge problem.

As part of our journey to resolve this contradiction in the work we do to tackle inequality and overcome poverty, Oxfam has gone through a series of organizational changes – especially over the past five or six years. Oxfam is moving from a confederation where power was held by its members in the North who funded vital work in developing countries, to a global network of organizations working with allies to both end poverty and fight against its root causes such as conflict, climate change, and gender and economic inequalities.

In 2019 and early 2020, we began to redefine our new 10-year strategic vision that will transform Oxfam to become a key player and ally in tackling inequalities, unequal power and privilege where it thrives. . This will help us to have even more impact, to ensure safe programming with local actors and to be the best possible operator to respond to humanitarian crises.

We started to rethink where and how Oxfam should work, because a rapidly changing world demands that we evolve with it. Countries can no longer be clearly divided into developed or developing countries. And political power is no longer so concentrated in North America and Europe.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Like many charities and businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Oxfam’s finances and its ability to raise funds. While the coronavirus crisis means Oxfam’s work is needed more than ever, we now have less money to pay for it. So, in May of last year, Oxfam’s board made the difficult decision to reduce the number of countries in which Oxfam works.

We will gradually phase out our physical presence in 18 of our 66 country offices and change the way we work in others. Sadly, Liberia is one of 18 countries where we will be phasing out by the end of March 2022.

The challenge of sustainability is at the forefront now that Oxfam is gradually withdrawing from Liberia.

The challenge of sustainability

Some development projects, especially those involving infrastructure, are sometimes carried out with technology that is difficult to understand and materials that are not locally available or are difficult to repair, fail over time. Sometimes the local people are not invested in the success of the project and may even break it to use or sell the materials.

In other cases, infrastructure and services have been abandoned or left to deteriorate without funding to maintain them. We sometimes see that communities may not be interested in maintaining a project because they do not see the direct benefits for themselves or because they believe that development workers or others in the the community will take care of it.

Over the years, we have invested heavily in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), gender justice, education and active citizenship, and humanitarian interventions. However, the long-term impact of these interventions is unknown.

With so much money invested in development projects, we have to think about ways to do development differently. This includes promoting a localization program through social enterprise and national resource mobilization.

At Oxfam, we are proud of the things we have achieved and we do not want to see the results of the program disappear with the program. So, over the past year, as we work with our partners to try and improve sustainability, we’ve also launched an innovative process to get informal groups to come up with an idea and build in a way to support the effort. in the absence of donor funds. We know there is no shortage of diverse and creative Liberians who are up to the task.

The Innovate, Develop, Empower & Act for Sustainability (IDEAS) market is a process that Oxfam in Liberia and Oxfam IBIS (Denmark) launched with funding from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Danida, and in partnership with iCampus / Accountability Laboratory Liberia.

Three main stages of this process have just been completed. In April, a three-day ideation workshop hosted by iCampus brought together students, entrepreneurs, development workers and professional organizations in a space to reflect on and develop innovative and sustainable ideas and solutions around business-specific issues. Liberia; education, sexual and gender-based violence and capacity building of community organizations (CBOs) led by youth and women. The groups – which were created during the workshop – had an engaged discussion on social entrepreneurship and innovation with a view to finding sustainable solutions to some of Liberia’s development challenges.

Then, the iCampus team provided mentoring and coaching to the groups to develop their business plans. In May, an independent jury was established to review business plans and presentations. The judges scored the groups on the basis of 1) alignment with Oxfam’s vision for a just world without poverty; 2) Innovation or ingenuity (whether the approach is new or exciting in some way, interesting or exciting); 3) “the team” (if the group has the right skills or the right connections); 4) Viability (if concrete and realistic enough to be tested in 5-6 months); and 5) sustainability (if mechanisms are built into the plan, such as income generation or social enterprise, renewable energy, local ownership, etc.)

Based on the aggregated scores, Oxfam awarded seed funding to three groups in June. Impact X will establish a co-working and capacity building center for community organizations in Bong County that will function as a social enterprise. Similar to the iCampus model, the incubator lab will provide a modern coworking space and support organizational strengthening through event management and room catering services. iImpact Initiative will establish a piloted campus center in a school in the countryside of Montserrado; they will focus on after-school critical literacy and information technology programs. And Action Against SGBV will sell mosquito lamps and simultaneously run a campaign to shed light on SGBV issues.

Meanwhile, Hanson Blayon said: “We first express our gratitude to Oxfam Liberia and their supported partner iCampus / Accountability Lab for the opportunities to be selected as one of the teams receiving start-up funding from Danida. .

He continues: “Working as a team from the Ideation Workshop with different perspectives, educational levels and institutional beliefs was a challenge, but collectively we were able to reflect and come up with something incredible. We believe that our “I-impact initiative” project will prepare emerging leaders to be innovative and productive citizens. “

Now the challenge really begins – groups will need to refine their ideas further to be more concrete and better integrate sustainability mechanisms. The process is as much learning as it is innovative. We learn and adapt the approach as we go to respond to existing and changing realities in context, with groups and otherwise.

These groups will continue to be mentored and monitored by iCampus with support from Oxfam over the coming months as they test their ideas. In November, we will be hosting an external pitch event where groups will present their projects – and hopefully their proof of concept to support them – to donors, philanthropists, businessmen and others to gain future support that will help to propel groups forward.

We hope the groups rise to this sustainability challenge and perhaps, later, even find a way to grow largely independent of donor funds, in support of Oxfam’s localization agenda. But, even in the face of frustrations and setbacks, we hope to gain experience and knowledge about exit possibilities to use elsewhere.


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