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Ditch the Plan


They say that to err is human, but to really screw up you need a computer. To which I silently add “and a business plan.” I relearn this lesson at least once a year, since the whole world of international development—my chosen field—is addicted to planning. Those of us on the implementation side of things (as opposed to research, policy, advocacy, or capacity building) all too often find ourselves confronted with circumstances we couldn’t possibly have predicted at the drawing board. We end up either deviating from the plan or, much worse, passing up fabulous opportunities because they’re not in the plan.

In searching for examples to illustrate concepts in development, I always think back to my Peace Corps experience. It provides such a rich mine of boneheaded mistakes to draw on.

So there I am, hanging around in a peaceful village of ex-slave farmers (Harratin) on the banks of the Senegal River in Mauritania, trying to talk them into growing vegetables. It’s what I was trained for and what I was sent into the Sahel to do. Never mind that Western vegetables are not part of the traditional diet and that no local farmer had any idea how to grow them. And forget that small gardens are women’s work—men won’t touch them. We had any number of funny and useless conversations, until one day my fed (the group of young men my age in the village) pulled me aside and set me straight.

Rice was what they wanted to grow, because rice offered the largest volume of calories per farmed hectare of land. And not just any rice. They wanted the latest high-yield Asian varieties. I, being educated in the finest liberal traditions, had an ingrained bias against Green Revolution crops because of their requirements for chemical inputs and their connection to agribusiness. Not knowing how to explain all this in Pulaar, I figured I’d better help these stalwart farmers grow some rice. Which we did, successfully. Later on, I snuck a small vegetable garden into the big rice field so I could at least tell the Peace Corps director with a straight face that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Fast-forward a few decades, and I find myself working for an organization, the East Meets West Foundation, that is deeply immersed in primary education and basic literacy in Vietnam. Lots of international NGOs are doing similar things, from building schools to training teachers to creating new libraries and computer centers. As I get to know the country and East Meets West’s programs, I’m struck by how good it feels to be part of improving education for primary school kids—the families are so grateful, the kids are so cute, and the need is so obvious. Who could be against helping kids from low-income families achieve literacy?

That was the plan. Here’s the reality. Literacy is not what Vietnam and other high-growth middle-income countries (India, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil) need right now. Or rather, it’s not something with which they need help from the international community; they can handle it themselves. What these countries desperately need is a steady source of college graduates and skilled high school graduates. Their economies are growing, with a torrent of foreign capital, international business, tourists, and remittances pouring in. The new enterprises arising from this wealth need good managers, engineers, service providers, English speakers, technicians, skilled line workers, and other high-level help, and they are coming up short. International NGOs should be helping them figure out creative ways to keep kids in school through high school and on into college.

In much of the world, being extremely smart, having great grades, and doing well on your entrance exams is no guarantee you will get into college. In Vietnam, for example, there are only 300,000 open slots for about 1.8 million applicants every year. Such countries need to develop community colleges and other accessible higher-education facilities. It is hard work, takes a long time, and lacks the cute factor. But this field is one of huge opportunity, with endless demand.

Seizing the opportunity will require ditching the plan. International investment will have to be shifted away from primary education and basic literacy. Literacy is great, but let’s not forget—it’s something you achieve in second grade. Literacy doesn’t help your family get out of poverty. Education does.

At East Meets West, we are gradually but firmly moving out of the business of primary education, and focusing our efforts on high school and beyond. After years of learning what works in the field, we have found that it is possible to line up the incentives and remove the barriers so that even kids from very poor families can get a decent education. We didn’t follow any plan to get to this place. We saw what worked, what people really wanted, and adjusted our program accordingly. And as yet another piece of evidence that it is better to be lucky than smart, a generous donor came up with the idea of helping the brightest of the eight thousand high school students in our program attend college on a four-year scholarship. This year those scholarships will fund forty-five students.

Of course, it’s hard to admit to decision-makers and money providers that your best programs are based on trial and error and luck. But it’s even harder to admit that your programs, despite being well funded, seamlessly planned, and exquisitely detailed, lack the essential ingredient of being what is really needed, in the right place, at the right time.

JOHN ANNER, A82, is president of the East Meets West Foundation, where he frequently reminds himself that despite thirty years’ work in the field, he still doesn’t know much about how the world really works.

  © 2012 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155