Many development models rush to answer the question “How can we eradicate poverty?” without first asking “Why does this poverty exist?” Focusing only on the first question has led to the common aid mishaps we hear about: villages with a brand new schools but no ability to employ teachers, broken water systems that none of the locals can fix, local economies wiped about because of free, imported alternatives, and so on. For example the 22 million failed Lake Turkana fish processing plant in Kenya or the 60 million project focused on eradicating malnutrition in Bangladesh.
A further challenge is that development aid is sometimes directed towards the government in order to maintain bureaucratic control instead of increasing livelihoods for individuals or enabling economic freedom. This can sometimes result in outright corruption; President Moise of Haiti’s embezzling development aid is but one example.
More successful development approaches identify the symptoms of poverty while treating the root causes while factoring in the local culture.
I recently had the opportunity to learn about World Centric, an organization founded in 2004 as a non-profit focused on reducing economic injustice and environmental degradation through hosting speakers, screening documentaries and building community networks. In 2005 World Centric sold Fair Trade and compostable products to avoid taking donations or grants. By 2009, innovating and selling compostable foodservice ware became the main focus which led them to convert to a for-profit social enterprise and in 2010 they certified as a B Corporation.
While not many organizations switch from non-profit to for-profit, Aseem Das, World Centric Founder and CEO tole me that “Conversion to a for-profit was relatively straightforward as we had not taken any public donations or grants while we were a non-profit. By late 2008, we were spending majority of our time in the sale of compostable products vs educational activities and had become mostly a business.”
But their social mission had remained — since the start World Centric has been committed to giving at least 25% of profits to grassroots social and environmental nonprofits. Das expressed to me the company’s mission: “We hope to create lasting change, for people and the planet, by partnering with nonprofits that are committed to community-based development; providing basic needs while addressing the system flaws that created those barriers to begin with.”
As part of my research on purpose-driven businesses, I had a chance to catch-up with Das, Shawn Cheung who is the Founder and CEO of Raising The Village, one of World Centric’s nonprofit partners and Janae Lloyd, Director of Impact at World Centric. Below is an edited excerpt of our on-line discussion.
Christopher Marquis: Can you introduce why World Centric was founded and your model of change?
Janae Lloyd: World Centric was created with a mission to be of service to both people and the planet. Each year we give at least 25% of our profits to organizations working to provide access to basic needs items such as food, water, healthcare, education and sanitation; not only providing assistance but helping create systems change at the root of these issues. This type of grant-making requires us to first identify the cycles creating a lack of these basic necessities, and then partner with organizations that have designed, developed, and verified evidence-based interventions to bend the arc.
Aseem Das: We live in a world of excess on one hand and on the other a world of extreme scarcity where millions of people die because they have no access to basic necessities. It is easy to forget these large disparities in income and resources and how they are linked. At World Centric we are using our profits to lessen these disparities and reduce our impact on the environment.
Can you please describe your focus on “systems change”? How does this affect how you develop and design projects?
Lloyd: Many scholars define systems change as implementing a process or intervention to shift the structure and status quo of a particular system. For World Centric, this means identifying the cyclical systems that are keeping people poor and funding the work of nonprofit partners to shift that trajectory.
What are some examples of these projects? Can you say more about the impact on these systems you expect from your work? How do you measure this?
Lloyd: World Centric has so many amazing partners demonstrating this work, but to answer the question I’d love to introduce you to one of them, Shawn Cheung, founder and CEO of Raising the Village (RTV). RTV works with last-mile rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa that experience multiple disadvantages.
Shawn Cheung: You cannot address poverty sustainably without a multi-dimensional approach, which is what we do through our model of change. We focus on removing immediate barriers to scarcity such as access to water and health; creating income-generation opportunities through agriculture, livestock and access to credit; and building local capacity for sustainability. The way we believe systems change is realized in how we operate as part of the ecosystem where we work.
In 2020, World Centric generously funded one of our projects in the Kabukanga cluster in Kagadi District in Western Uganda. The 10 villages had an average household income level of $0.43/day, way below the extreme poverty line of $1.90/day. They also had unsafe water sources leading to a high onset of water-borne diseases, distant health services, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities and practices, and other social issues stemming from ultra-poverty.
Based on the needs identified by the communities and assessed through our baseline studies, we developed our project focused on conducting WASH, Financial Literacy, Healthy Household & Agricultural trainings; constructing latrines; rehabilitating and protecting water sources; providing diverse crops and organics inputs to improve yield for income generation and consumption, supplying livestock inputs, and organizing health clinics with the government extension workers.
With this multi-dimensional approach, 447 of our partner villages have increased their household income & consumption from $0.95/day to $2.20/day within 24 months and reduced their Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI) to below the national average of 20 by year 4. Despite development shocks caused by the global pandemic, our partner households have been able to stay above the extreme poverty line of $1.90/day.
Lloyd: Metrics like these are a crucial piece of how World Centric determines funding. Our partners establish their expected outcomes and then report on them through the lifetime of the project. We track the projections against the actual results to determine if the intervention is working.
You mention that an important part of the system change approach is identifying the root causes of issues. Can you explain this in more detail?
Lloyd: Examples of root causes of economic inequality include lack of access to economic opportunity, government support and basic needs (water, education, sanitation, shelter). Climate change exacerbates cycles of poverty, especially in communities where resources aren’t available to mitigate the effects of this environmental degradation. This is a great example of how social and environmental issues are inextricably linked and require holistic solutions. Our non-profit partners are instrumental in deepening our understanding of the root causes of each issue that their work is addressing.
Das: Root causes may also be multi-layered. We work primarily with rural/agrarian communities where there is a lack of basic infrastructure for access to clean water, basic health care, education and sanitation. These communities rely on small land holdings for food production which is at the mercy of climate, drought, and floods, resulting in unstable crop production. Local food production and markets are also a source of income for many. When the production of crops is disrupted, entire communities are left looking for alternate work. Without a stable income communities are unable to obtain basic necessities, and oftentimes governments fail to fill in the gaps and provide those necessities to those that need them. We think that a community-led development model with a multi-dimensional integrated approach (as RTV is enabling) to address multiple areas of need is an effective paradigm to address the root causes which lead to the lack of basic needs.
World Centric is a B Corp. How does that affect your focus on systems change? Do B Corps fundamentally focus on systems change? Are there examples of how being a B Corp shaped your work in a significant way?
Lloyd: B Corps, as a collective movement, are working to shift the economy toward a more inclusive and sustainable future. Within that ecosystem, individual B Corps are doing systems change work. For example, consultancy B Corps like Hella Social Impact and Sweet Livity that are focused on racial justice and advancing social change; the CPG company Guayaki, using yerba mate production to drive rainforest regeneration and support the economic sovereignty of indigenous communities; and BLK & BOLD using coffee to engage in social impact and empower disadvantaged domestic youth.
Das: Work done by other B-Corps is inspiring and we learn from this work to improve and adjust how we look at our own impact work.