On the 15th January at around 3pm local time there was an armed attack on the Dusit Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya.

At this time we can confirm that all our staff members are safe and accounted for. However, we are deeply saddened to hear that a number of colleagues have lost friends. Our thoughts are with them all at this difficult time.

There has been a public appeal to donate blood at local hospitals in Nairobi, we would encourage our employees and friends to do so where possible.

 

It’s 16 years to the day after the attacks on the twin towers and I’m sat in a chilly Nairobi café eating a limp croissant with Gaëlle Le Pottier and trying to work out what it really takes to provide leadership in the face of one of today’s pre-eminent complex problems – violent extremism.

After a decade of hard work, the foundations are in place for substantive progress within African food systems. New tangible partnerships are emerging that combine focussed intent, long-term commitment and significant ambition. For anyone asking when African agriculture will deliver its long-touted potential, these partnerships offer the best hope for change at scale.

There is no doubt that complex problems disproportionately affect the less powerful: hunger, drought, floods, and conflict all punish the poor and marginalised first. It is understandable that the less powerful feel angry at the more powerful. They may despair or rage against the injustice. “Why me?”

The powerful may be the winners in the system – wealth, health and power accrues to them/us. They/we may have power over the less powerful, and thereby be in a position to protect the status quo. This does not necessarily mean that the powerful have much effective power over the system itself. Indeed they/we are as much a product of the system as anyone else.

As Duncan Green describes in his excellent new book How Change Happens, much effort from principled activists goes in to “speaking truth to power.” This energy can feel like shouting in to the wind, because it is like shouting in to the wind. The system’s dynamics are more powerful than any individual leader. Like the monsters of old, you could chop off its head but the system will grow another back. We attribute too much power to leaders, and they/we are often obliged to perpetuate this myth to secure their/our position. Let’s see how effective Trump is at fulfilling all his promises to “Make America Great Again.”

System change requires a different kind of power – a collective power that Wasafiri terms “adaptive capacity”. This is the ability of actors in a system to know and act upon that system, so as to intentionally change it. Like other aspects of systems, the whole is not simply the sum of the parts. Collective power is not the aggregation of the power of individuals. It is a product of the social structures, behaviours and attitudes that allow collaboration and communication at a system level. The toughest “complex” problems are those where adaptive capacity is inadequate to the scale of the challenge – climate change, violent extremism, food security. A classic power analysis will not miraculously identify the individuals who can wield enough influence to solve these issues.

This does not diminish the responsibility of leaders. They/we often hold a privileged point of view from which to perceive the system more completely. They/we certainly have convening and decision-making power that can be the basis for greater adaptive capacity and effective interventions that drive system reform. But they/we are as much part of the system as anyone else, and can feel powerless to effect change.

A family is often described as the Complex Adaptive System that is easiest to relate to. As the Dad and primary breadwinner, a pure power analysis would suggest I have most individual power in my family. Do I feel powerful as one child has a tantrum, the other refuses to do his homework, and my wife fumes? Not very.

I recently described Wasafiri’s work on system change to an old friend, expecting the usual slightly blank look followed by, “So what exactly do you do?”. Instead she replied, “Oh that sounds just like my work as a family counsellor”. She helps whole families understand how they affect each other, and then collectively they make changes to the routines, norms and behaviours that define them. She helps increase the adaptive capacity of that family to evolve itself as a micro-system. That’s the help I need as a Dad. I’m not powerful to effect change on my own. I need my whole family to be working together.

Duncan Green would describe this approach to system change as “strategic activism”, in contrast to “principled activism”. Wasafiri uses the term “Systemcraft” to evoke the long-term effort of simultaneously strengthening adaptive capacity within system, whilst also coordinating interventions to address complex problems.

Ubuntu: why adaptive capacity has profound value?

A few years ago, the Wasafiri team attempted to articulate our values. Our North Star was a sense of purpose that we struggled to articulate. It was broader than poverty-alleviation, less benevolent than compassion, less “us vs them” than solidarity. It was a sense that the problems we worked on required people to work together in new ways that transcended boundaries; that their success was interconnected, even if they did not recognise it at first.

The African concept of Ubuntu was introduced and immediately resonated. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, says: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language… It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defined it as: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

This philosophy gives a value-base to why work on adaptive capacity is important. It emphasises the collective over the individual, or at least that the individual cannot understand or fulfil their humanity outside their relation to the collective. Our work is to evolve human systems in which we can all thrive. It is to increase human agency over structural constraints. This we can only do together, wielding collective power, not looking to mythically powerful leaders to resolve our problems as if they sat God-like above the systems.

Whether it is my family striving for a little more harmony, a village countering the rise of extremist ideologies, or the global community facing global warming; we must consider how to increase our adaptive capacity. That’s when power is no longer a zero-sum game, we are collectively fulfilling our humanity, and we might just counter some thorny problems along the way.

Scott Hinkle recently joined Wasafiri as our Team Leader for the Regional Countering Violent Extremism Research Unit (RRU).  He started his work with Wasafiri with a quick trip to Washington to attend the CVE Symposium (April 6-7, 2016) and did a great summary write-up for the rest of us left at home. We thought it would be worth sharing more generally, so here it is:

On April 6-7, 2016 I attended a two-day CVE Symposium hosted by the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI) and Creative Associates in Washington DC. There were around 200-225 CVE analysts, practitioners, and leaders in attendance. It was a very impressive, well-organised and participatory conference with multiple break-out and small group sessions. Here are some of the key themes that resonated for me:

  • Conflict prevention is key. Some of the key speakers were Special Operations Commander of SOCOM, US Senator and Cory Booker, the Secretary General for the US Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson and an introduction presented by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. All emphasised the need to increase violence prevention measures and capacities of vulnerable communities to address VE.
  • CVE is largely undefined, misunderstood and underfunded.Resources are the fundamental expression of priorities.” Conflict prevention has been advocated in the VE arena for some time, but only recently has it gained funding traction in the US. Still, compared to Counter Terrorism, CVE is a tiny drop in the bucket of the billions spent per year on the military and intelligence sectors. CVE also suffers from the growing pains of a burgeoning and newly funded field. Lastly, there was little discussion on overarching definitions of VE, or even CVE. Recognition was given to the difficulties in defining both, but that all programmes should operate around what VE/CVE mean at the micro-level.
  • Working in and on the local context was the most prominent point of the conference. Trust is the strategic and operational capital for CVE programmes.” Understanding the micro, or community-level, environments is the only way CVE is effective. Literally every speaker and discussion mentioned that the local perception of the push factors and, importantly, the “how” of the pull factors, is unique to every area and vulnerable population. Thus, CVE programmes must be community-led, targeted and intentional.
  • Well-thought-out framing of CVE programmes is key to local and international acceptance. Never use CVE to frame a programme.” “All CVE efforts should be integrated into other community-led programmes.” I completely agree with the first quote, as labelling a programme CVE increases the risk to the community and CVE practitioners. Framing a programme as CVE also has many unintended negative connotations linked to militarisation, oppression and even neo-colonialism that limit community, government, NGO and international cooperation. It is important to bring in broader development and humanitarian coalitions and a CVE label will instantly isolate the programme.
  • CVE programmes must be agile. The flexibility and adaptability of CVE programmes was consistently and boldly emphasised. In VE and fragile contexts, change is the norm. CVE programmes will always be operating with a deficit of information. Thus, programmes must have systems for local contextual analysis and organisational learning that consistently integrate new understanding and contextual changes. 
  • Difficulty of M&E in CVE. Obtaining specific metrics for local-level context and conflict prevention is essential for success and future funding of CVE. However, everyone recognised that utilising tangible and quantifiable indicators expressing “prevention” was often (but not always) difficult to achieve. Avenues to explore, and that donors seemed amenable to, were “plausible correlations” of precursors to violence and the USAID Learning Lab indicator free M&E approaches, such as outcome harvesting and most significant change.

https://usaidlearninglab.org/sites/default/files/resource/files/Complexity%20Aware%20Monitoring%202013-12-11%20FINAL.pdf 

  • Complex systems thinking is the logical approach for CVE but difficult to implement. The intent is to learn and improve activities by learning with the community. The overall question should be, “how does change take place in that community/system?” Once that is understood, then CVE programmes would be effective at integrating into, and thus influencing, the system of change. Below are some bulleted thoughts on this subject:
    • Investigate geographic-focused pull factor systems.
    • Use real-time operational research to identify gaps between project designs and outcomes and inform a learning-by-doing approach.
    • Focus on listening and learning over solutions to problems. The goal of CVE projects should not be to meet predetermined benchmarks, but to learn which elements of one’s initial understanding of the system were right and which were wrong.
    • Use systems thinking and visualisation to demonstrate the multiple and parallel entry/focal points for interventions in a targeted community.
    • Use a continually evolving portfolio of interventions.
    • Answer the questions: 1) How do we gather data to represent the complex environment?; 2) How do we programme better in a complex environment?; 3) How are we going to get quick wins using complex theory?
    • Use mixed methodologies/theories besides and with complex systems.
  • Linear or “problem then solution” Theories of Change (ToCs) are difficult to utilise in the complex and ever-changing VE environments. Thus, the following concepts enhance the effectiveness of ToCs in the CVE arena.
    • The ToC needs to be presented as an overarching framework that explains how the programme intends to work, but without detailing the specific mechanisms of change (i.e. interventions).
    • The first version of ToC should still be fairly general since we cannot yet know much about the intricacies of how change happens. It essentially is the representation of our knowledge and hypotheses we start off with.
    • There should be a ToC that is specifically centered on the flexibility, adaptability and learning of CVE programmes.
  • Use technology to capture local and national context, sentiment and narratives. What’s in people’s minds becomes actions.” The importance of social media analysis as a component to any CVE programme cannot be understated. The tech analysts expressed over and over that there are so many inexpensive and open-source (free) software programmes that are under-utilised. E.g.
    • Agolo: Summarises large amounts of text in seconds, plug in news sources and subjects and it creates daily/weekly news letters, performs social media analysis. http://www.agolo.com This is one that I have already started the process for.
    • Symantica Pro: network and link analysis, quite complicated.
    • Recorded Future: Sentiment and social media analysis.
    • Open Situation Room Exchange: hashtags that are driving in social media.
    • ICCM Project: collects multiple sources and identifies overlaps.

If you were there then please feel free to share any thoughts, comments and reflections below. These notes are just Scott’s initial reflections and we will share more of our thinking and current work over the coming weeks. As ever, feel free to get in touch if there is anything you’d like to discuss further with us

We are excited this week to welcome Candida to the Wasafiri team. She will be based in East Africa and working as our new Operations & Commercial Manager, helping us to grow the organisation and look after the delivery of much of our work in the region. Candida is a chemical engineer by training and has applied her skills to big corporates in the USA and start-up social enterprises in Kenya and India; and somewhere in between all that has found the time to compete in Ironman triathlons. She brings to Wasafiri a spirit of adventure, well honed professional skills and a love of excel spreadsheets.

We are looking for someone excited to take a lead in growing our business; someone with a strong commitment to delivering change in Africa; a proven track record of leadership; an entrepreneurial spirit; and excellent people management skills. Ideally you will be based in Nairobi. Click HERE for more information and if you want to know more then please get in touch.

No time to watch all those interesting TED talks? Well we’ve watched (some) of them and here is our 1 minute summary of three of the most interesting and recent with something to say on change in Africa.

For Africa it is all about jobs, leaders and building strong institutions. In countries with weak institution you need good leaders – who can build the strong institutions to protect the country from bad leaders. And Africa needs jobs, lots of jobs – by 2030 the continent will have a bigger workforce than China and that means a  924 million people. Ultimately these jobs need to come predominantly from the private sector and so you need entrepreneurs – and lots of them. Fred is hoping that the African Leadership Academy and the African Leadership Network will be a part of creating these leaders and entrepreneurs that the continent needs.

Who are the biggest senders of money to developing world countries? Migrants are. Remittance payments from international migrants amount to  413 Billion US Dollars per year, or three times as much as ALL the development aid money given by governments. This money tends to move in small amounts and go directly to poor people – it has a direct, measurable, positive impact on development indicators such as birth weight, school attendance and GDP. Yet there are significant barriers and costs to getting this money moving. Diip Ratha’s call for action is to make this money easier and cheaper to send – and he has a plan for donors, social entrprenures and businesses alike on just how to do that.

 

Not the hopeless but the hopeful continent – Charles Robertson argues  (with some stats and some economist talk) that, as a continent, things in Africa are just getting better and  better.  From economic growth, to the quality of leadership, to reduced corruption, increased education levels and even reduced malaria, he paints a positive and optimistic picture of Africa and calls for the 21st Century to be the century of Africa. While his talk is sweeping and generalist – and his argument disguises huge variety and variation across the continent – it’s still a welcome and useful antidote to the stories of negativity that often dominate talk of Africa.

And if all that is a bit too serious, here is a satirical look at a particular African Stereotype. This one is much better to watch than to read about (and its only 3 mins long).

http://www.ted.com/watch/ads-worth-spreading/lets-save-africa

 

Complex, interconnected challenges demand new forms of collaboration and innovation between diverse partners. And yet, the many meetings and conferences that are supposed to create this collaboration continue to be managed in didactic formats, with a few dominant voices holding court whilst everyone else though present in body, is absent in mind,  awaiting the short coffee break to have the conversations that they really need to have. New ways of working need to turn this on its head. We need to create spaces that accelerate the number of connections and conversations, and get people energised, aligned and committed to action.

In October I participated in the World Economic Forum’s “Transformation Leaders Workshop” for leaders working on the challenge of boosting agricultural production around the world. This event was bold and innovative about creating the context for transformational leadership. The video below captures the spirit of these highly productive few days. Key ingredients included:

  • Inviting diverse people, united by a common overall challenge and a spirit of entrepreneurial hunger to make change happen.
  • Never, ever, having a keynote speech, formal presentation, or even a stage.
  • Creating as many conversations as possible, but each with a level of clarity and focus about the topic, and with participants free to chose which conversations to participate in.
  • Fostering community by making the event fun, playful even, with dancing and creative construction activities.
  • Focussing minds on what actions they will undertake upon leaving.

Refreshments were always available, and we never took any scheduled breaks, because essentially the event was the ultimate coffee break – two days packed full of people and conversations that were inspiring and pioneering.