This interview was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.
When I first met with Meike van Ginneken, we were both attending the Sustainable Energy Forum for All in Lisbon. Or should I say, I was attending the conference while she was running from meetings to panel discussions. Meike describes herself as “an optimist by nature” and a “healthily impatient by nature”. She started her career at Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in 1994, and has been contributing to the fight against poverty ever since.
Whether in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, India, Israel, Sudan or Tanzania, Meike has been working towards sustainable sanitation and hygiene, urban water supply services and improved cookstoves, solar home systems and climate smart agriculture. Today, Meike is the CEO of the SNV, a not-for-profit international development organisation that works on agriculture, water, sanitation, hygiene and energy. In 2017, SNV’s projects directly improved the lives of 6.4 million people. I talked to Meike about gender inequality, the role of the private sector in bringing sustainable change, and the main benefit of working with local stakeholders, amongst other things. Meike is one of the most inspiring women I’ve met. “Working on fighting poverty is no sacrifice. It is a fulfilling profession that gives you an opportunity to learn about the world,” she told me. Her passion is genuine and has become a source of inspiration for me.
“Only by listening can you determine the potential future success of a solution.”
Thanks a lot for your time Meike. First, I am curious: what is your story? And where does your commitment to fighting poverty come from?
From a young age, I have been curious about the world and to find out how people live in other countries. The first time I spent a considerable amount of time outside of Europe was when I was an intern for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Bangladesh. I discovered that people are very similar around the world — they celebrate when a baby is born or a friend marries. I also discovered is that where you are born defines your destiny. In that sense, I wanted to contribute to change what this means. Since then, I have lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America working for think-tanks, NGOs, and for the World Bank. Over the years, my conviction that each of us can and should make a difference has only strengthened. But let me be clear in saying that working on fighting poverty is no sacrifice. It is a fulfilling profession that gives you an opportunity to learn about the world. Working with colleagues and partners to contribute to progress gives me enormous pride and joy.
SNV’s main mission is to contribute to finding and developing local solutions to fight poverty. This might sound like an impossible question to answer, but what would you say are the main criteria for evaluating the success of a sustainable solution?
Development solutions are not gadgets — not just technologies or ready-made recipes or conceptual ideas that work in a vacuum. Indeed, fighting poverty is messy and often incremental. You often need to adapt the solution you thought would work along the way, looking for second or third best solutions. We have learned a lot about what is likely to work. SNV has over 1250 staff around the world who speak the local language — both literally and figuratively. Most of our staff are nationals of the countries we work in. We know how governments work, we live the culture, and we understand the written and unwritten rules. We use this local knowhow to adapt our global expertise in agriculture, energy and WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) to local contexts. For me, the main predictor that a solution might work in a given country is the enthusiasm with which our staff and partners embrace it — there is a clear different between polite nodding for yet another development fad and genuine interest in an experience that has worked in a similar context. Only by listening can you determine the potential future success of a solution.
SNV doesn’t offer funding, but rather specialises in supporting the resourcefulness of development actors. Can you explain the benefits of this approach?
We are doers, not thinkers or donors. We are financed by bilateral donors and other financiers and translate the money we are entrusted into results on the ground.
Working with local actors is second nature for us and have been in some countries for decades. We are not superheroes flying in with a cape. I still see that romantic myth sometimes explicitly or implicitly portrayed in the marketing materials of NGOs that raise funding through private donations. It is not only untrue and outdated, but frankly also immoral to depict some Western specialist sweeping in to help.
As external actors, we need to respect and support local networks, not destroy them. Cute NGO-led pilots might help solicit donations but they are neither replicable nor cost-efficient. A Mozambican official, who himself was instrumental in getting clean water to millions of people, calls pilots ‘Asterix villages’. Of course, isolated expensive intervention create opposition. How would you react if somebody from overseas comes to the city or village where you live and starts a pilot?
In February 2018, I visited Quang Binh province in Vietnam. We met with the Vice Chair of Provincial People’s Committee. He told us how the provincial authorities have scaled up a microfinance scheme for female entrepreneurs, originally set up by SNV in the early 2000s. When the project closed in 2005, it had benefited 11,500 women entrepreneurs. Since them, a multitude of that number have benefitted from the scheme. This is the kind of change we want to achieve. This was one of those moments of pride and joy that I mentioned earlier.
What do you call smart development?
Smart development is development that is locally owned. It adapts what we have learned about development over the years to local circumstances. It adapts interventions during implementation as circumstances change. It is practical. ‘Smart’ also means efficiently using scarce public resources and being accountable for creating the biggest bang for the buck, so we can support as many people as possible.
Smart development creates direct results but it also changes the underlying systems that trap people into poverty. Development aid is structured in projects, boxes in time and space. This is a convenient way to administer activities. However, communities do not live in a box. Breaking the poverty trap requires a focus on systems change beyond the time and space boundaries of the project box.
What are the main benefits of working with local governments, enterprises, and civil society when working in the least developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America?
How can you not work with local government, enterprises and civil society? Working with local actors is the only way to get sustainable results.
SNV helps to kickstart markets by supporting businesses to grow and to innovate. We create consumer demand and help governments to improve the enabling environment. In Rwanda, we were instrumental in kick-starting a market for bio-digesters. Over 50 private companies now serve schools, prisons and homes.
“It is not only untrue and outdated, but frankly also immoral to depict some Western specialist sweeping in to help.”
Government — and the service providers they own — provide the majority of water, sanitation and energy services around the world. We build capacity through training and technical assistance in an effort to modernise institutions. For instance, our rural sanitation programme has helped local governments to reach 10 million people in 15 countries.
Informed people can hold leaders accountable. Our Voices for Change programme helps to generate credible local data and builds civil society capacity to use this data to hold officials and businesses accountable. Informed citizens can sanction politicians at the ballot box. Informed customers can pressure private enterprises and public service providers or take their business elsewhere in case services are bad or overpriced. New information technologies are a game changer.
SNV is working towards sustainable agriculture and resilient food production systems. Could you give us a couple of examples of successful agricultural projects that SNV has recently supported?
Our Cambodia Horticulture Advancing Income and Nutrition (CHAIN) project reached 6,800 farmers in 2017. Household income increased US$50 per year for homestead gardeners, US$300 per year for semi-commercial farmers, and up to US$500 per year for commercial farmers. 70% of the farmers reached were women. These results were created through introducing new technologies and improving market access. In addition to these direct results, the CHAIN project built the capacity of firms, government and civil society. The improved business models will help sustain and expand the impact of the project.
We are also increasingly working on nutrition. Our Sustainable Nutrition for All project in Uganda and Zambia closed in 2017. The project helped increase dietary diversity for women of reproductive age in its four target districts. The number of women of reproductive age who consumed an inadequate diet dropped from 75% to 30%, while the number of children consuming an inadequate diet dropped from 55% to 15%. We saw a two- to three-fold increase in the variety of crops from different food groups per household.
According to your expertise, how essential is the role of the private sector, and especially local private entrepreneurs, in bringing sustainable change?
The private sector, and especially local private entrepreneurs, have a key role in bringing about sustainable change. Market-based approaches are at the core of what we do. We support small- and medium-sized enterprises to grow their businesses, avoid subsidised services wherever possible as they are hard to target and to sustain over time, and we facilitate access to finance so users can pay for services in smaller installments. This not only boosts a sense of ownership, but it also creates healthy accountability between users and service providers — firms serve paying customers better than those depending on handouts.
Matching finance can help individual companies to innovate and expand. For instance, I visited women cooperatives in Ghana where early adopters received a 30% subsidy to purchase industrial-size fish smoking stoves through our Sustainable Fisheries Management Project. The project helps several firms — not only the women fishing cooperatives but also stove construction companies. This is a typical example of our value chain approach in which markets will sustain themselves and grow over time.
However, I would like to caution against being too optimistic about the role of the private sector, and especially private financing. Foreign direct investment in developing countries has risen dramatically and now dwarfs overseas development aid. But it is no panacea. I too often hear that the financing gap between the investment needed to reach the SDGs and the public funding available must ‘thus’ be bridged by the private sector. There is no ‘thus’ here. A private entrepreneur or financier will look for a return on investment. The role of governments and of international cooperation cannot be ‘just’ ignored. Market failure remains a root causes of poverty and inequality.
“Working with local actors is the only way to get sustainable results.”
Youth make up 40% of the world’s unemployed — with 74.2 million young people seeking work — and women in developing countries often earn and profit less from their efforts than men. Gender inequality and youth unemployment are accountable for the slowness of social and economic progress. Can you tell us a little bit about SNV’s mission to promote and support opportunities for women and young people?
Supporting women and supporting youth overlaps — as half of the world’s youth are indeed women. However, gender and youth requires different approaches so let me take them in turn.
We already have a strong track record on gender and social inclusion in our WASH projects. A recent independent evaluation of our rural sanitation projects in 11 countries showed that our projects helped to close some of the sanitation gaps between vulnerable and non-vulnerable groups. For instance, we did better at reaching female-headed households (a 54% increase in the prevalence of improved sanitation in four years) than in other households (a 52% increase). This sounds like a small difference, but historically many projects have not reached female-headed households at all.
In agriculture and energy we use a women’s economic empowerment approach called Balancing Benefits. I was lucky to see the strength of this approach first-hand in Vietnam. I think the key here is to link gender empowerment to increased income generation. When a household has an increase in income, women and men often see the immediate benefits of changing their behaviour. In other words, it is easier to divide the pie more equitably if the pie is growing.
We just closed a flagship project which created sustainable jobs for 16,000 youth in Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania. This is an example of our Push-Match-Pull Model. We created concrete employment opportunities (pull). We provided basic skills training (push). And we supported market placement and enterprise development (match). Integrating youth employment in our agriculture, energy and WASH projects creates the pull. This distinguishes our approach from many other youth employment programmes that focus mostly on push approaches such as training.
The off-grid electricity program that SNV has run in East Africa is getting attention. Can you introduce us to your program and its impacts?
We recently concluded our Tanzania Rural Pico-Solar Market Development project. SNV paid an incentive to local entrepreneurs for each solar lantern, phone charger and solar home system sold in the Lake province in Northern Tanzania. The project helped 320,000 people to gain energy access. The project also established a market for solar products in a hard to reach part of Tanzania. To date, 14 solar companies have introduced over two dozen new, high-quality, affordable solar products to the market. We expect this market will serve millions more over the coming years. In the terms I used earlier, we reached 320,000 people within the ‘project box’ and changed the local systems to have a scaled up impact over time and space — outside the box.
“What worries me most going forward is that as we make progress it becomes more and more difficult to reach those left behind.”
What would you say are the main barriers and challenges to the development of clean cooking technologies in the developing world? And how can we overcome these barriers?
Clean cooking is urgent and important. Household air pollution is a killer. Making stoves available is not enough. Clean cooking also requires behaviour change. In field visits, I am always impressed by how cooking practices have been transferred across generations. Longstanding habits are hard to change, even if the shift to cleaner and efficient stoves seems obvious to an outsider like myself. The good news is that we have learned a lot about how behaviours can be influenced. Many of the social marketing developed in health are now used for clean cooking. Our SNV teams exchange lessons on behaviour change in sanitation, cooking and nutrition. We also provide technical assistance and matching grants for local entrepreneurs. One lessons I have learned in the past decade is that you can only be successful if you are clear what problem you are trying to tackle: indoor air pollution, greenhouse gas emission or deforestation.
How optimistic are you about the achievement of the sustainable development goals? Are we doing enough, and are we doing it fast enough?
I am an optimist by nature. I am also healthily impatient by nature. On days that my impatience wins it from my optimism, I focus on how far we have come in the past decades. When I lived and worked in Bangladesh in 1993, life expectancy was 61 years and GDP was just above US$1,400 per capita. Now, in 2018 life expectancy is 73 years and GDP has increased by 150% (adjusted for inflation). That is a great achievement.
Similarly, when I lived and worked in Tanzania in 1999, 99 children out of 1,000 died before the age of five. Now that number has more than halved (the infant mortality rate was 40,3 deaths per 1,000 in 2016). We still have a long way to go but we can celebrate progress made.
What worries me most going forward is that as we make progress it becomes more and more difficult to reach those left behind. Especially the projection that half of people living in absolute poverty will live in fragile states by 2030 frightens me. I encourage you to review the data at gapminder.org. Hans Rosling, who started this fantastic data visualisation site, said it right when he said: “the world can be both better and bad at the same time.”
This interview was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.