Lessons in Vulnerability

Vulnerability is already an overused term in the development world – so often we talk of vulnerable children or those whose livelihoods are made vulnerable by disease or malnutrition. Yet I am discovering there is another form of vulnerability that I feel is equally important yet frequently overlooked – that of ‘organisational vulnerability’.

A little bit of context: I have spent my year with an organisation that employs over 30 full time employees and makes ‘motivational payments’ to a network of a further 550 individuals across the country. In the last year, it managed combined grants of something close to US$2 million – all of which makes it a medium sized NGO in Zambian terms.

When I first arrived, it struck me how much management time was devoted to handling crises or trying to respond quickly to tight and often conflicting deadlines. I must admit that, at first, I attributed some of this to a lack of management capacity – the organisation had just lost its Executive Director and was making the transition to becoming an independent national entity. As my year comes to an end, I now appreciate more and more the intrinsic vulnerability imposed upon the organisation by the environment within which it must operate.

Before I arrived, I recall being told that the organisation focussed only on ‘sustainable’ projects. “Wow!” I remember thinking “What kind of aid alchemy is this? Projects that not only do good but manage to finance themselves in the process!” Now I understand that when we talk of sustainability all it means is that we have found a donor with a budget and a time horizon of greater than one year.

As an organisation with a relatively low public profile, we are almost entirely dependent upon government and institutional grants. Our ability to attract and hold their support is critical to our long term survival. A cruel lesson in just how difficult a task this can be was delivered over the Christmas break.

With support from a large multi-lateral donor we run a major treatment support programme which has recruited a network of over 550 people living with HIV across Zambia. They receive motivational payments (not much more than $10 per month) to play the vital role of catalyst between the communities they come from and the HIV clinics in their surroundings – encouraging people to come forward for testing, motivating them to stay on treatment etc. The model has been recognised across the globe for the groundbreaking way it empowers those living with HIV to help others.

Towards the end of last year, a funding scandal emerged concerning one of this donor’s other major recipients resulting in a reduction in the amount of total aid released for Zambia – including by association the amount coming to us to run the programme. Though the fault lay far from our door, in short order we had to cease payments to the 550 individuals and tell the team of six highly skilled individuals who recruit and train them that they could no longer be compensated for their services.

True, we hope to revive the program if and when the funding comes back on stream, but I know of no private sector organisation that has to deal with such enormous swings in fortune from month to month. The high degree of uncertainty that the organisation confronts means that we are seldom able to offer contracts of more than one year to our staff even though most support large extended families and have few other prospects for work.

This issue of organisational vulnerability is all the more vivid to me as I finish a week long trip back to my corporate mothership for job interviews. I use the term mothership only half in jest as returning to its glass and chrome for a day left me feeling more like I was walking the decks of the Spaceship Enterprise than just my old office. The unbelievable contrast in terms physical, personal and technological resources at my employer’s disposal, heck even just the smooth tarred road leading up to the place were enough to make my jaw drop and appreciate in a whole new way the immense power private enterprise and for that matter all sectors of developed economies have at their disposal to effect the change they desire to see.

On Sunday I return to Zambia for the final six weeks of my assignment. It is a critical time as we once more urgently try to secure new funding to bolster the organisations long term sustainability (well its next five years of viability at any rate). I can only hope my contribution (however modest) can in some small way reduce the vulnerability that my colleagues and the organisation as a whole must contend with each and every day.

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