Our history of aiding the poor and afflicted is mired in failure. Of course, there are many success stories, but if our donations and aid dollars were assessed according to their rates or degrees of success, most would yield abysmal returns on investment.
At the macro level, government-issued foreign aid is often filtered through highly inept local governments before landing in the pockets of corrupt government officials or reaching mediocre results. On a personal level, our individual and company donations are handed to nonprofits that all-too-often lack the capacity to adequately address the problem they exist to tackle.
Working to address local challenges in places like Guatemala, Rwanda and the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve heard the same stories echoed from issue to issue: People and organizations are stirred by stories and videos depicting the struggles of an afflicted community. They feel compelled to help with their resources, expertise and ideas. Yet most don’t have a clue about how to address the problem because they don’t understand the situation from the perspective of those most affected. Consequently, they propose deeply flawed solutions or hand money to an ill-equipped organizations before returning, in frustration, to other priorities.
In recent years, an emerging cadre of nonprofits, designers, social enterprises and multinational corporations re-imagines the paradigm for how we ought to address our world’s most menacing challenges. Operating more like businesses than nonprofits or governments, they carry out rigorous due diligence before proposing a solution to a local problem. As suggested by leading systems thinkers at Compost Modern 2013, due diligence, when directed toward social problems, begins not with report analysis or quantitative calculations, but with relationships.
At the center of this movement is a small company called Reos Partners. According to Cofounder, Jeff Barnum, “Reos exists to contribute a new way of thinking to the world,” by addressing local problems that are characterized by both high-stakes and a high degree of “generative complexity” – meaning the problem is unfamiliar and the solution undetermined.
Reos approaches a problem by assembling a diverse team of influencers (i.e. companies, governments, civil society organizations and institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations) and connecting them with individuals most affected by the problem. Together, the influencer and the affected collaborate around issues related to employment, health, food, energy, the environment, security and peace.
Rather than sitting down to talk strategy in a conference room, Reos takes its influencers right into the heart of the problem – on a “Learning Journey.” Illustrating the deep significance of one such journey into a struggling mango farm in rural Kenya, Barnum speaks in a quiet voice of poised enthusiasm that has navigated through uncharted quagmires with many ugly faces around the globe: “This proves to be effective 100 percent of the time in getting people away from the desk and out from behind the whiteboard and into the reality of the situation. There, relationships start. People meet those mango growers and connect with them. Because they’re in the business, they can think… mangos, transportation, costs, profits, investment…I’ve got an idea! This is what we can do!”
While it is key for developing a solution, the learning journey is just the beginning. Says Barnum, “The learning journey is not a prescriptive thing. We’re not looking for anything but to immerse ourselves in the reality of the situation…we learn our way into the solution.” Referred to as the U-Process, Reos applies a three-phase approach to innovation in situations of social complexity that involves sensing (observing the problem), presencing (connecting to your purpose and inner wisdom) and co-creating (putting this knowledge into meaningful action).
At the final – co-creating phase, Reos works with leaders to build physical models of these complex ideas which are then prototyped in the real world. For an example of a successful model, look no farther than the wildly popular Sustainable Food Lab. Co-initiated by Reos Partners and the Sustainability Institute back in 2002, the food lab is an ongoing, long-term, systemic intervention in an age-old system that addresses drastic inefficiencies in global food supply chains, and the resulting social and environmental implications. The Sustainable Food Lab embodies Reos’ multi-stakeholder approach by engaging food system actors from farm to fork, along with high-powered organizations like the Gates Foundation and Rainforest Alliance and companies like Unilever.
Three years ago, leaders from Sysco, Oxfam and CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) ventured out on a learning journey into farmlands in rural Honduras. As a result of this long-incubated project, partner communities in Guatemala are now planting several hectares of broccoli and peas to bring high-value markets to impoverished Mayan communities.
When asked how we can scale solutions to such highly complex problems, Barnum responds “On a systems level, there are no solutions to these problems, only interventions.” According to Jeff Barnum, “Solutions are really worked out locally with real people engaged with their problems and their situations.”
It is interventions like the Sustainable Food Lab that Reos aims to scale up in order to discover solutions to similar problems experienced by bean farmers in Ethiopia, cocoa farmers in Ghana and produce farmers in Kenya and Uganda. Peter Senge, systems-thinking guru and author of The Fifth Discipline, calls the Sustainable Food Lab “the largest and most promising systemic change initiative I know of.”
Through projects like the Sustainable Food Lab, Reos Partners proves that the key to sustainable solutions starts with listening. Should we be surprised that our greatest problems are best solved when we learn our way into a solution?