How can Sustainability Challenges Drive Innovation? Oxfam in Liberia Experiments with an Ideas Marketplace

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International development is big business. In 2020, Official Development Assistance alone was valued at over $160 billion – and that figure doesn’t include donations given my individuals, foundations, or corporations.

Often, development aid can be a topic of intense debate. There are definitely a lot of problems with the aid system – it is rooted in part in a colonial or neo-colonial world system which has benefitted Western neoliberal and global capitalist agendas, created dependency and perpetuated social and economic inequalities. Another reason that development aid is so contentious is that aid effectiveness remains a huge problem.

As part of our journey to address this contradiction in the work that we do to fight inequalities and beat poverty, Oxfam has gone through a series of organizational changes – especially over the last five or six years. Oxfam is on a journey from a confederation where power was held by its northern members who funded lifesaving work in developing countries, to a global network of organizations working together with allies both to beat poverty and fight its root causes such as conflict, climate change, and gender and economic inequalities.

In 2019 and early 2020, we began redefining our 10-year new strategic vision that will transform Oxfam to become a key actor and ally to fight inequalities, and unequal power and privilege where it grows. It will help us to make even more impact, ensure safe programming with local actors, and be the best operator we can in responding to humanitarian crises.

We began to rethink where and how Oxfam should work because a rapidly changing world demanded that we change with it. Countries can no longer be neatly divided as either developed or developing. And political power is no longer so concentrated in North America and Europe.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

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

We will gradually be phasing out our physical presence in 18 of our 66 country offices and changing how we work in others. Unfortunately, Liberia is one of the 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 phasing out of Liberia.

The challenge of sustainability

Some development projects, especially those involving infrastructure, are sometimes made with technology that is hard to understand and materials that aren’t locally available or are difficult to repair, result in failure over time. Sometimes, the local population is not invested in seeing the project succeed and may even break it down to use or sell the materials.

In other cases, have seen infrastructure and services turned over to be abandoned or allowed to deteriorate where there is no funding to maintain them. We see sometimes that communities may not be interested in maintaining a project because they don’t see the direct benefit for themselves or they believe development workers or others in the community will deal with it.

Over the years, we have invested a lot 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 must think about ways to do development differently. This includes promoting a localization agenda through social enterprise and domestic resource mobilization.

We at Oxfam are proud of the things we’ve accomplished and we don’t want to see the program outcomes to disappear with the program. So, in this final year, as we work with our partners to try to improve sustainability, we also initiated an innovative process to challenge informal groups to come up with an idea and integrate a means to sustain the effort in the absence of donor funds. We know there is no shortage of diverse and creative Liberians who are up to this task.

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

Three major steps in this process have just ended. In April, a three days ideation workshop organized by iCampus brought together students, entrepreneurs, development workers, and business organizations in a space to brainstorm and develop innovative and sustainable ideas and solutions around specific issues in Liberia; education, sexual and gender-based violence, and capacity development for youth and women-led community-based organizations (CBOs). The groups – who were created at the workshop – had an engaged discussion about social entrepreneurship and innovation towards finding sustainable solutions to some of Liberia’s development problems.

Then, the iCampus team provided mentorship and coaching for the groups to get their business plans together. In May, an independent panel of judges was established to review the business plans and the pitches. The judges scored the groups on the basis of 1) Alignment with Oxfam vision for a just world free from poverty; 2) Innovation or ingenuity (whether the approach was new or exciting in some way, interesting or exciting); 3) The ‘team’ (whether the group has the right competencies or connections); 4) Viability (whether it is concrete and realistic enough to test in 5-6 months); and 5) Sustainability (whether mechanisms are built into the plan, such as income generation or social enterprise, renewable energy, local ownership, etc.)

On the basis of the aggregated scores, Oxfam awarded seed funding to three groups in June. Impact X will establish a co-working and capacity development hub for community based organizations in Bong County that will run as a social enterprise. Similar to iCampus’s own model, the incubator lab will offer a modern co-working space, and support organizational strengthening through event management, hall catering services. iImpact Initiative will establish a campus hub piloted in a school in rural Montserrado; they will focus on critical literacy and information technology extracurricular programs. And Action Against SGBV will sell mosquito killer lamps and simultaneously carry out a campaign to shed light on SGBV issues.

Meanwhile, Hanson Blayon said  “We firstly extend gratitude to Oxfam Liberia and their supported partner iCampus/Accountability Lab for the opportunities to be selected as one of the teams receiving the seed funding from Danida.

He continues, “Working as a team from the ideation workshop with different perspectives, levels of educations, and institutional belief was challenging but collectively we were able to brainstorm and come up with something amazing. We believe our project “I-impact initiative” will prepare emerging leaders to be an innovative and productive citizens.”

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

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

We hope that the groups will meet this challenge of sustainability and perhaps, down the road, even find a way to scale up largely independent of donor funds, in support of Oxfam’s localization agenda. But, even in the face of frustrations and failures, we hope to build experience and knowledge about possibilities for exit to be used elsewhere.

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