Joan Holmes, Challenges for the Future of The Hunger Project: Presentation at the Global Board of Directors Meeting

April 22, 2007

In this important transition year, I would like to devote our discussion today to what I see to be the challenge of the future.

As we’ve said before, this transition is happening at a good time. The Hunger Project is financially strong and programmatically effective. We’re producing results, and those results are increasingly recognized by policymakers.

We have seasoned staff who are an extraordinary asset and will be invaluable to the success and integrity of The Hunger Project as we move into the future.

Also, the work of The Hunger Project is now taking place in a worldwide climate – where ending hunger and abject poverty is a priority of the international community through the MDGs.

So – today – let’s first step back and define as clearly as possible what The Hunger Project is. Then let’s look at eight key challenges we will need to face in the coming months and years.

The strategic approach of The Hunger Project

From its inception, The Hunger Project has taken a different approach than that of most international organizations in development.

We do not look at the tragic situation of hunger and ask what we could do to relieve the suffering.

Instead, we stand in the future of a world free from hunger and look at the present to see what’s missing which – if provided – would enable people to achieve the end of hunger.

When you stand in the future of a world free from hunger, what you see are:

  • Women and men who are self-reliant – who are authors of their own lives and their own development.
  • People leading healthy and productive lives in harmony with nature.
  • Societies that have significantly more gender equality.

It is from this strategic analysis – that we derive all the principles of The Hunger Project and our strategies:

  • Self-reliance
  • Social Mobilization – transforming the deep sense of resignation, helplessness, hopelessness and dependency, and mobilizing people to take individual and collective action.
  • Interventions for Gender equality – identifying strategies that empower women and giving them voice in decisions that affect their lives.
  • We base all strategies on the fundamental recognition that every human being – women and men – have the right and responsibility to be the authors of their own development.

In contrast, a lot of other development appears to be based on historical analysis. For example: people analyze aid flows, try to determine what didn’t work and correct that for the future. And, still permeating in the international community are strategies based on the service-delivery model – where people provide services to the poor, and view people as beneficiaries for these services. The Hunger Project’s strategies are in sharp contrast to this thinking.

A perfect example is the appeal for people to spend $10 to buy bed nets to prevent malaria. In many cases it is for people who have no idea how to use it.

If we were standing in the future of a world free from malaria, the strategy would not be having people in the West sending bed nets to people in malaria-infested areas. But rather the strategy could be to effectively transfer the technology to Africa so that they can be self-reliant and make their own bed nets – which is what they are capable of and wanting to do.

Let’s look at another example – the phenomenon of jumping on the latest development fad.

For example – micro-credit. Micro-credit is a great thing, and – as Mohammed Yunus says – access to credit should be a basic human right. But it is not by itself a panacea! It does not always bring people out of poverty. It is a critical intervention, but one of several that may be required for people to emerge from conditions of hunger and abject poverty.

The Hunger Project uses micro-credit, but only in the context of a holistic strategy of empowerment. A strategy to empower rural women as economic players – and a strategy that provides them with literacy and numeracy – as well as access to healthcare and other key interventions.

A new kind of organization

The noted development expert David Korten analyzed types of organizations – relief organizations, development organizations and a new kind of organization he called a “strategic organization.” David identified The Hunger Project as a great example of a strategic organization.

In an important paper in 1984, he stated, “A strategic organization is able to look beyond merely responding to existing or predictable opportunities. A strategic organization creates new opportunities, which otherwise might not occur; that is, it engages in the creation of its own future." And for me, that is the name of the game. We need to continue to do this strategic work.

When we created the National Girl Child Day in Bangladesh, a whole new future was created for girl children and for Bangladesh.

The Sarojini Naidu Prize gives journalists the opportunity for national recognition and financial gain. It also provides the opportunity for the media to play a leadership role in the second liberation of India – empowerment of women.

The need to keep asking “what’s missing”

It is true that the programs of The Hunger Project are fully “created."

But I caution the organization against relying just on what has been created. We must continue to be guided by our approach of strategic analysis. We must continue to ask “what’s missing” that if provided now would make a significant contribution.

If not, we run the risk of having a bigger 2007 Hunger Project in 2015.

What has enabled us to be a strategic organization?

The Hunger Project is able to work strategically, and pioneer strategies based on empowering people to be authors of their own development because our investor body understands this way of thinking, and is bold enough, trusting enough and committed enough to fund this strategy.

Challenges of the future

We have stated in launching this transition that a primary goal is to grow the organization – that is, to increase our revenue to $30 million and beyond.

The truth is – growing the organization isn’t the challenge. The challenge is growing The Hunger Project organization.

Let’s then look at the challenge we will face as we do this.

Challenge #1 – Stay focused on empowering women.

Gender inequality is the fundamental root cause of most of the remaining hunger in the world.

Creating high-leverage interventions for the empowerment of women has been hard fought in The Hunger Project – we need to go against the grain of world consciousness and structures throughout society that enforce patriarchy.

For example, we were willing to risk losing our entire program in India that we had built up in 11 states over 7 years for the sake of creating a program on the cutting edge of empowering women to meet the basic needs.

In 1997, we had good, bottom-up programs in 11 states. That year, UNICEF published the “Asian Enigma” in which experts concluded that “the high rates of malnutrition in South Asia are rooted deep in the soil of inequality between women and men.” Once we read that report we decided to re-source our programs in India. We made the decision to truly take on gender inequality. We lost nearly all the leadership and most of the partnerships built by us to that point. We lost these people’s participation without any acrimony, but we did lose them.

Yet I’d make the same decision today.

Under the leadership of country director, Rita Sarin, we currently have more than 90 partner organizations in 13 states – leadership truly aligned with our gender focus – and we have more agreement and influence than ever before. For example, this year the Government of India asked The Hunger Project-India to head its first ever observance of International Women’s Day. It asked The Hunger Project to train the state governments to strengthen women in local democracy.

Getting gender included in the report of the UN Millennium Project Hunger Task Force report was extraordinarily challenging. I believe it is true that if I were not on the Hunger Task Force, the importance of gender would not have been included in the final report.

We should all congratulate Dr. Tadesse, our Vice President for Africa Programs, for doing what it takes to find women country directors in Africa, and for holding the line again and again to insist that women have equal representation on all our councils throughout every epicenter in Africa.

I don’t know if we can truly appreciate what it takes on a daily basis for our leaders to hold the line on gender equality.

A courageous example is of our Board member, Mohini Giri – she has taken a stand for her rights as a widow, and for the rights of other widows to be full participating members of society, in the face of ancient cultural teachings that say that widows must be shunned and outcast.

Hunger Project leadership must always be unyielding on gender issues, in the face of enormous non-agreement. And our board needs to be knowledgeable, watchful and totally committed to this.

Eroding our gender focus would not be a conscious decision. As we’ve seen in top UN agencies, the rhetoric would remain the same and sound very good, but little by little, we would find ourselves operating consistent with the status quo rather than challenging and transforming it.

Even if we kept doing exactly what we are doing, we would fall away from the cutting edge, as the cutting edge of achieving gender equality keeps changing.

We will need to frequently and rigorously review the landscape in front of us for gender equality, and continue to refine our strategies to stay at the cutting edge.

For example – things are progressing in India. A few years ago, simple mobility – the right for women to travel outside their home without a male escort (even if that male was 7 years old) – was a huge issue for women. Now that’s becoming widely accepted and the cutting edge has shifted to tougher issues like domestic violence.

Having The Hunger Project keep on the cutting edge is essential to ending hunger, and it is a hallmark of The Hunger Project.

Challenge 2 – Keep our programs on the cutting edge by mobilizing and empowering people to be authors of their own development.

Like gender equality, this is an issue where many agencies have lofty rhetoric and no substance. If you read the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers mandated by the World Bank, you will see documents filled with empowerment-based introductory prose, but often disempowerment in the policy recommendation.

Right now, there is even less international policy attention to bottom-up empowerment than to gender issues. It will take something for The Hunger Project to get this issue more powerfully on the international agenda. Meeting that challenge will keep us on the cutting edge.

For example – while we made significant headway in including gender in the Hunger Task Force report, we totally failed at including the importance of mobilization and the true meaning of empowerment – and yet, if you stand in a future of a world free from hunger, it is immediately obvious that this is where one needs to start.

Challenge #3 – being prepared to receive large amounts of money.

From the time we launched our on-the-ground programs in 1990 – and despite the very low-cost of these strategies – our programs have always been out in front of our funding. We have needed to bring tremendous creativity to getting the most out of every dollar – and that, frankly, has been good for us.

This situation is now changing.

There is now enormous wealth in the hands of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, and – for the first time – a growing number of these individuals, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and George Soros – are investing in work to end world hunger and poverty.

I’ve been working with Sheree Stomberg, a top executive from Citigroup, who is creating numerous opportunities for me to meet with senior executives in the Wealth Management Group at Citigroup, with the goal of reaching ultra-high-net worth individuals.

On June 8th, I’m giving a talk on poverty to the children, i.e. the young adults, of the ultra-rich clients at Citigroup.

Our ongoing participation with the Clinton Global Initiative is also intended to open doors for us to the ultra-rich and to top corporations and foundations.

And, our fundraising staff are meeting with people who are in a position to give millions to this work.

We need to prepare ourselves for receiving large amounts of money in the future. I’d like us to now look at both the upside and downside of money, so that we can meet this challenge with integrity and effectiveness.

The upside is obvious – we’ll be in a position to dramatically scale-up our programs to empower millions more people. And additional funds can greatly increase our influence with policy makers.

At the same time, it is vitally important to understand that scale-up is truly not just a matter of doing “more” – even though this will be enormously satisfying.

Scale up, at the heart of it, is a far-reaching commitment to transform the way the world does development.

We on the board need to recognize that fact and always be in the inquiry as to which way scale-up is influencing policies – not just doing the work to empower people. That would be insufficient.

On the downside – focusing on money can hide the real issue.

Money is too often seen as the solution – and certainly the consensus around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was – what’s missing is more money. That’s what we heard on the public airwaves.

We take issue with this.

Money can camouflage, disempower, corrupt and be counter-productive to ending abject poverty.

When money is seen as the solution this camouflages the entrenched social conditions that give rise to hunger.

The call for more aid to Africa – as important as that may be – carries the subliminal message that, because the West has the money, it is the West who will solve Africa’s problems.

It carries the subliminal message that the people of Africa lack the initiative, responsibility and creativity to solve their own problems.

All of us who have had the privilege to visit Africa know this is not true – yet the continued call for money, without hearing from Africa’s own spokespeople, holds back Africa’s development.

The World Bank reports that $650 billion in aid has been given to Africa since 1960, and yet the life of most African people has not improved. We need to do a better job.

Bangladesh is the classic example of the downside of too much money. For years and years, the world community allocated twice as much aid to Bangladesh as it could spend.

In both cases, this pattern of aid has been compromised with corruption.

The world’s largest and most richly funded nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Bangladesh took over almost all government responsibilities for meeting basic needs, letting the government off the hook – a government that is now one of the most dysfunctional governments on the planet.

As Badiul Majumdar, Country Director of The Hunger Project-Bangladesh has always said – money can be the spoiler.

I want to congratulate Badiul, who has the courage to go against the grain to inspire and empower women and men to depend on their own resources and be the authors of their own development.

We need to understand that big money often comes with strong requests to change our programs to spend available money – rather than financing the strategies that we know work.

For example, we discovered early on in the African Woman Food Farmer Initiative (AWFFI) that microfinance only works sustainably in the context of our epicenter strategy. In Benin, we’ve been offered $1 million to do micro-credit outside our epicenters. We refused to take this money until there was an agreement that it would only be used through our epicenters, and in ways which expand the capacity and reach of the epicenters. This is an example of not compromising and being on the cutting edge and working with integrity.

In addition to these fundamental issues, there are practical issues as well:

  • One fact of big money – as in the case of the Robertson Foundation grant – is that designated money funds one particular strategy – but not the core capacity of The Hunger Project – that makes that work possible.
  • We will always try to negotiate grants to provide core support, but more often than not this won’t happen.
  • In fact – large grants will require that we expand the core capacity of The Hunger Project to deal with the grant, yet will not fund that core capability expansion.
  • Another fact of big money is that it comes and goes. You get a grant for a five-year scale-up, and then it can disappear for three years.
  • We can deal with money that comes and goes – we can deal with it much better, because we invest it in the capacities of local people to solve their own problems, and that investment is lasting.
  • But we can do that only if the core capacity of The Hunger Project is funded by our global movement of committed investors.
  • It is my recommendation that we never put our core capacity at risk by funding it from grants, but continue to have our committed investors fund this very core of The Hunger Project.

Challenge #4 – How should our investors be held in the future?

We must never lose our grassroots investors – individuals whose financial investment is an expression of love, commitment, and heart

When someone gives us $10 million – the question is, how will $5,000 investors be held in The Hunger Project?

The truth is – our $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000 investors will be more important than ever.

Committed investors are the heart and soul of The Hunger Project. Investors are the living embodiment of the kind of the profound respect, solidarity and authentic partnership with hungry people that is central to our principles and therefore to our effectiveness. Our investors are profoundly committed that we stay true to our principles. And, we are profoundly committed to our investors.

Again, I’m calling on the Board to take a leadership role to ensure that our money continues to be spent with integrity and consistent with the strategic nature of our work.

Challenge #5: Hitting the wall of capacity.

The real issue in developing countries is capacity.

In fact – the whole issue of hunger and abject poverty is a capacity development issue – there are millions of people long denied the opportunity to develop the skills and leadership they need to succeed in their own development.

What all our programs do is develop people’s capacity. We are often referred to as the largest leadership development organization in the world.

It’s incumbent on us to know that this is our work – training people not only to be literate and better farmers, but to be empowered to have the courage to stand up against the forces of their own culture and – for example – send their daughters to school.

Our challenge is to find and train the country directors and senior staff who can successfully lead this process.

The challenge for every member of The Hunger Project staff is to stay centered in the commitment to end hunger and take actions that are often inconsistent with their culture.

Our country directors in Australia and Germany need to withstand the pull to create a German Hunger Project or an Australian Hunger Project – rather than stay with The Hunger Project in Germany or Australia.

The pull of the culture in the developing world is even more extreme. People in the developing world live in cultures where there is extreme gender discrimination.

As Badiul, who is one of our most enlightened country directors has said, “it’s not that we believe in gender inequality – we are it.

The Hunger Project asks people to act inconsistently with their upbringing and inherited belief systems to transform the very culture in which they live, in order to end the persistence of hunger and abject poverty.

Challenge 6: Keep The Hunger Project whole and not a constellation of parts.

As we just said - there is enormous political pressure from the governments and cultures of every country to have The Hunger Project be completely controlled nationally – for there to be an Australian Hunger Project, the Indian Hunger Project or a German Hunger Project – not a Global Hunger Project that is expressed in Australia, India, Germany, and other countries.

World Vision and Oxfam have caved to this pressure – and it has generated real chaos – you have two branches of Oxfam in Peru funding different – and sometimes conflicting – priorities.

Worse, you stop gaining the power and insight from working as a whole.

If you consider the United Nations (UN). It is one organization composed of parts. That structure of the UN system often impairs its ability to fulfill its charter.

A top organizational priority for The Hunger Project therefore needs to be to keep ourselves as one, global strategic organization and discover the practical ways to meet local requirements without violating this principle.

Challenge #7 – As we take on measurement, we must learn to measure what we do – and not get pulled into doing what we can measure.

The methodology for scientifically valid assessment in the international community is developed for top-down, service-delivery strategies. It uses words like “treatment groups vs. control groups” and identifies beneficiaries.

The Hunger Project is finding creative ways to do bottom-up research consistent with our bottom-up strategies. Some of our animators in Bangladesh have become facilitators for “barefoot researchers” – using methods of Participatory Action Research to empower people to investigate their own poverty, and evaluate the actions they are taking to alleviate it.

We have created a new system to use the Internet to bring data collection as close to the people as possible.

We are hiring additional staff in Africa and in the global office to fully implement our commitment to do high-quality measurement and evaluation.

We need to stay committed to measuring and evaluating what we do – instead of distorting our programs to do what we can measure.

In meeting this challenge, we will make cutting edge contributions to the entire development community.

Challenge # 8. We must develop respect and appreciation for the Power of Time. Through this medium The Hunger Project’s work will need to be done.

Reclaiming selfhood, building capacity, building people’s confidence – this takes time. And the clock moves – at best – at village time, not New York time.

Transforming age-old, deeply entrenched social conditions that even takes even more time – it takes generational time.

As we scale up – as we accept money from people accustomed to Internet time – we have a major obligation to educate people as to what lies at the heart of hunger and poverty, and the human process required to transform it.

Conclusion and recommendations

The bottom line of these eight challenges is that – during this transition – we need a higher level of responsibility in both the Board, the staff and investor body to fully understand the principles and strategies of The Hunger Project, and to be an unyielding stand that they continue to shape The Hunger Project of the future.

In order to facilitate a deeper understanding of each of our strategies and how they express our principles, I recommend that the Board consider that for our next four Board meetings, we devote time to examine each of our strategies in depth.

  • For the October 2007 meeting, we should look in-depth at our epicenter strategy in Africa.
  • In April 2008, review the Principles of The Hunger Project as well as our strategy in India.
  • In October 2008, our strategy in Bangladesh.
  • And April 2009, our strategy in Latin America.

I look forward to the discussion on these challenges.

Thank you.

Click here to read the written reports to the Global Board from Joan Holmes and the country directors.