Voices from the Field Drive Solutions to Solvable Problems

Grounding Ideas from Global Leaders with Local Perspectives

“I brought my life experiences into the discussion. That helped people to visualize and contextualize what is happening on the ground so that they could make the best use of their knowledge. That’s what thrills me.” –Lekan Tobe, Deputy Project Director, YieldWise, Nigeria

Deirdre White’s mandate was clear: the 2017 Global Engagement Forum: Live would move beyond talking about and aligning activities to the Sustainable Development Goals (also known as the Global Goals) to solving specific solvable problems within them. PYXERA Global’s CEO further insisted that the only way this could be done meaningfully was to approach the problems in a way that would include diverse, experienced voices in effective collaboration.

The voices from the field were particularly important. So often at these types of convenings, the absence of local voices represents a missed opportunity to give context to a proposed intervention, expose cultural nuances that might influence a program’s outcome, or reveal the unintended consequences of good intentions. How could those voices be heard? By bringing experienced professionals from the field and actively engaging them as experts at the event.

So often at these types of convenings, the absence of local voices represents a missed opportunity to give context to a proposed intervention, expose cultural nuances that might influence a program’s outcome, or reveal the unintended consequences of good intentions.

As an intermediary organization in the world of Global Pro Bono engagements, PYXERA Global prides itself on the deft organization and management of cross-sector, cross-cultural engagements. However, this application of cross-border, skills-based volunteerism was a first. Normally, corporate clients rely on the intermediary to coordinate and deploy experienced employees from around the world to act as pro bono consultants to under-resourced global communities; in this case, due to their generosity, we were able to bring their practical expertise to Washington to provide much-needed context and perspective to the event.

Thanks to sponsors SAP, IBM, John Deere, PepsiCo, The Rockefeller Foundation, GSI, and the US Africa Development Foundation that made their participation possible, the event hosted a 10-person cohort comprising leaders from NGOs and social enterprises representing communities from around the globe. In their role as thematic experts, they would contribute their knowledge and direct experience from Ghana, India, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, and the United States to ground the discussion in the reality of the last mile.

The Forum convened more than 250 participants for a two-day, solutions-focused collaboration. Leaders and innovators from diverse backgrounds each played an active role, either as presenters in the plenary sessions, contributors in breakout sessions, or in one-on-one interactions in between. In spite of so many big names in the room from the private, public, and social sectors, the consensus was that the hosted international cohort made the deepest impact.

The conference focused on specific global challenges that PYXERA Global views as solvable, namely post-harvest loss, youth employability and the skills gap, and treatable and preventable non-communicable diseases. These three challenges alone encompass more than half of the 17 Global Goals. Deirdre White expanded on the Forum theme, entitled solving the solvable, by explaining, “Certain global challenges can be distinguished as solvable because the tools, practices, and resources exist to successfully resolve them.”

While existing solutions are being implemented at limited scales, it’s clear that to affect wholesale change, deep social ills cannot be addressed by a single sector. For this reason, the convening called on participants, who represented the public, private, and social sectors, to bring an open mind and to be prepared to share their resources, influence, perspective, and insights to create collective impact for systems-level change.

Voices from the Field
For their part, the 10 cohort members brought their local perspective and an enthusiasm to inspire action. The Forum dedicated considerable time toward ensuring collaborators had a baseline understanding of the nature of the challenge. The hosted cohort’s contextual understanding helped everyone conceptualize the key barriers from the local perspective, which then became the platform upon which solutions were developed. The hosted experts were able to guide Forum collaborators by offering instant feedback on the effectiveness of proposed solutions from the perspective of someone operating day-in and day-out in the environment.

After reflecting with the hosted cohort on the experience and two-day intensive collaboration, three lessons emerged.

1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Cohort member Marlon Thompson, whose work with The Next Big Thing in Canada deals with improving youth employability, was surprised to find common themes in disparate locations. “Thematically, I’m getting a lot of validation in terms of the work that we’re doing and some of the ideas that we’ve decided to run with, because we’re seeing that those same focuses and those same themes are popping up globally,” he said.

Francis Ahene-Affoh from DreamOval in Ghana stressed a key lesson he picked up from his work collaborating across sectors—let’s not reinvent the wheel. For a national education system with 170,000 teachers, many of whom are under resourced, Ghana’s DreamOval seeks to scale and sustain Information Communications Technology (ICT) training for educators. During the Forum, Francis pointed to DreamOval’s work with SAP, when they received three pro bono consultants in 2016 for a one-month engagement. Ahene-Affoh explained, “One key lesson that we got through the pro bono initiative was, don’t focus on just one teacher. Get trained teachers who will train other teachers. They call it the multiplier effect. We must share this platform.” They have since scaled an incentive-based strategy where trained teachers must each train three other teachers in order to unlock the next level of capacity-building offerings.

Successful collaboration does not start from scratch. It builds off existing solutions, knowledge, and structures.

2. Partnership is a Game-Changer
Given the Forum’s underpinning spirit of partnership, it was widely acknowledged that no one organization or sector can successfully solve any of the Global Goals alone. Kafui Prebbi, CEO of TECHAiDE, a social enterprise that focuses on ICT solutions for youth development in Ghana, had this to say about the IBM Corporate Service Corps consultants with whom TECHAiDE collaborated in 2016, “When we went into the field, they talked to the recipients of our ICT solutions. They came back and were able to do a very clear empathy map that helped us to design what would be most relevant to those people in rural areas going forward.”

Collaborations like this one, which also integrated public sector support from Peace Corps Response, present a model for what solutions look like.

3. Understand the Problem
Without a proper understanding of contextual dynamics, throwing money at a problem may only serve to mitigate its symptoms. For an issue as complex as youth employability, for instance, targeting its root causes requires a long-term investment and an acceptance of an extended time lag before outcomes are observable.

Maria MacDonald, Executive Director of Chester County Futures in Pennsylvania reminds us that the private sector has a larger role to play beyond funding. “As much as corporate America understands and identifies what the gaps are, I don’t know that they look at it so individually that they understand the rural experiences that brought this on, and the limitations and obstacles. I think that when you get more exposure to that, and a fuller understanding, that you can attack the problem in a better way.”

The Global Goals present a common platform from which to stage partnerships that can effectively address solvable problems. In order to implement proven solutions, the public sector can contribute by creating the enabling environment, the private sector can bring resources and influence, and the social sector can communicate local knowledge and ensure the solutions are finding their target.

As the Forum concluded, it was clear that the hosted cohort was imperative to the collective experience, both to dissuade inaccurate assumptions and to ground the participants’ creativity, passion, and enthusiasm in the realities facing communities that struggle with these problems. The insights the cohort shared guided the conversations and solutions, and shaped new perspectives on each solvable problem. The solutions exist. The conversation on how to scale and implement those solutions cannot stop here. Continuing to learn from and adjust solutions based on experts in the field is vital to scaling new and known solutions to solvable problems.

Are you Collaborating to Address These Solvable Problems?

Submit your ideas to be featured in the upcoming virtual event series.

This fall, PYXERA Global will continue the discussion of solvable problems through four online convenings to address post-harvest loss, youth employability and the skills gap, and non-communicable diseases. If you or your organization is taking part in an innovative collaborative effort to solve one of these problems, submit your work to [email protected] to be consider as a featured participant in the upcoming virtual event series.

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