NGOs Can Learn Something Crucial from Coca Cola…

Coca Cola aerial

If sales data are an indication (and they are) Coca Cola and McDonalds executives probably listen to locals more carefully than your average NGO manager…

Western NGOs that try to work solo in the developing world almost always fail to achieve their aims. Strong local partners. Lots of trust. Lots of verification. Every Western marketer that’s tried to sell golf balls in Japan or burgers in France knows this.

We are, yet again, stating the obvious here.  NGOs don’t fly solo any more in the developing world. But this partnership trend has something in common with “social entrepreneurship.”  Everyone says they’re doing it on their website, but there are more claimants than practitioners.  We’ve noticed that while most Western companies and NGOs source local talent and seek local expertise on the ground, a lot of foreigners use their partnerships as cover.  They are still doing what they want.  Not listening.  Not heeding.

Coca Cola and McDonalds sell a lot of product in a lot of countries in part because they famously understand the necessity of adapting to local tastes. Their products are tailored perfectly, if global sales are an indication (they are). The tailoring isn’t done in Atlanta and suburban Chicago–it’s done on the ground, around the world. They do have an advantage: constant market feedback to tell them when their products aren’t wanted in a local market. For NGOs, the feedback is more complex, and harder to read. Hence, the acute need for local partnerships.

Successful multinational consumer products companies know how easy it is to get things wrong in someone else’s culture. Sometimes it’s the small lessons that serve as a wake up call that you’re not on your home turf.  Recently, in the East African cities of Kigali, Nairobi, and Kampala, we noticed something you’d never see in North America: unfenced outdoor nurseries, row after row of beautiful flowering plants for sale along busy roads, no guards in sight.  In East Africa, there are guards everywhere.  Labor is relatively inexpensive.  There are lots of poor people.  So, guards.  But these expensive roses and pelargoniums and cape honeysuckles are just sitting there, hardly watched over at all.

I asked our Ugandan colleague Victor Wasswa about this. He fixed me with a look of perplexity that slowly turned to slight pity.  “Why would someone guard flowers?  They’re of no use to the poor, and the rich wouldn’t risk stealing something so unprofitable.”

It’s so obvious.  But I didn’t see it.  As long as I’ve worked in the developing world, I’m still subject to a plethora of dangerous assumptions.  I’ll never, ever let go of them all.  And that makes me–if unmanaged– a threat to the projects I am here to support.  I need constant teaching and coaching and help from our local partners.  I need to listen, and more, to heed.

Our projects are succeeding for a number of reasons: we have the money to invest; we heed our local partners; we do our due diligence; we get out of the way and let our partners perform; we audit.  Maybe the rarest element of this success is the willingness to pay actual attention to the constant lessons in humility that come along–a willingness that is embedded in the Tiba Foundation from board to staffer.

“Are you saying,” asked Victor, “that in America these plants would be stolen?”

“Gone within 48 hours.”

Now it’s his turn for that moment of understanding.  “You have the basics taken care of.  That changes everything”




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