Friday, October 9, 2015

Poverty Alleviation…Put Your Sandals on the Streets…and Walk Humbly

International aid and development assistance has changed dramatically over the decades, yet individuals maintain the inherent desire to matter, to be in relationship with others and to grow. They hold their dreams close and hope for better lives for the children and the communities they serve with driving motivational force. As the international community looks for more efficient and effective methods of delivering scarce resources through international aid, a new dynamic, interactive methodology, immersion, is worth consideration. 

Immersion allows program managers, NGO’s and other aid organization staff to get out from behind their desks, set aside pre-determined strategic priorities, and humbly walk with their on-the-ground counterparts. Short-term immersion teams work collaboratively in context, to innovate and craft a new, more sustainable paradigm in the alleviation of poverty throughout the world resulting in hubs of capacity, relationships and resources all responding to locally inspired, community driven solutions.

Immersion teams: creating new innovations, increasing sustainable capacity and building relationships; transforming international aid into a network of thousands of hubs of peace and poverty alleviation. The benefits of short-term immersion teams are many, the outcomes significant and the impacts unlimited. This essay explores and defines 1) what an immersion team is, and what it is not, 2) the elements that produce successful immersion teams, 3) the benefits of immersion teams, 4) the potential impacts of the teams and finally, 5) why immersion teams are a critical component to add to the toolkit of international development.

IDEO in collaboration and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has developed a Human Centered Design Toolkit 1 which describes the importance and benefits of contextual immersion in understanding the realities and challenges faced by people living in poverty. Dr. John Crump and Dr. Jeremy Sugarman provided commentary in the Journal of American Medicine related to the efficacy and benefits of short-term experiences for medical professionals working or volunteering in countries with significant medical needs.2 Both sources list the significant benefits of short-term immersion experiences including;

1)      Immersion demonstrates commitment and staying power.
2)      Putting yourself in another’s shoes allows you to get beyond polite, superficial pleasantries, to what is meant, thought and felt.
3)      Immersion provides opportunities to clear up assumptions and misconceptions.
4)      Attracting global attention to global disparities.
5)      The immersion experience may form the foundation of a career for a participant to work in resource poor settings.
6)      Strengthen the position of an organization to recruit talented staff who are interested in working in global settings.
7)      Inform participants about culture and realities in context.
8)      Increase attention and support from philanthropists.
9)      Increase empathy and understanding of the realities of the people being served.
10)  Increase understanding of the challenges of traveling in a foreign country.

With these benefits so prolific, why are we not including short-term immersion teams in our toolkit of international development? This essay asserts that short-term cultural immersion teams comprised of the beneficiaries and recipients of international aid, who accept the new role and responsibility of shared learning, humility and a desire to listen will transform service delivery, build sustainable capacity and develop long-term relationships creating a network of thousands of points of peace and poverty alleviation with projects that are community identified and driven.

Putting sandals in the streets builds multiple short-term immersion teams that visit countries in which they plan to invest working in partnership with their on-the-ground counterparts. Collaboratively the immersion and on-the-ground teams develop shared learning opportunities, increasing capacity amongst all partners and building relationships creating long-term, sustainable change; impacting international aid. Can it work?

In an article written for The Rotarian Magazine, “Out of Chaos,” journalist Diana Schoberg3 describes her experiences as an embedded journalist in Ghana on a recent international development, capacity building immersion team. She highlights what sustainable capacity building looks like, “There’s nothing less glamorous than a process. The team isn’t building a school or drilling a well – just doing a lot of discussing and planning…they’ll help (the local NGO) capitalize on its upcoming 20th anniversary, strengthening the organization so its staff will have the skills, tools and confidence to succeed over the next 20 years.”

After interviewing the Executive Director of the NGO which deals with the 62,000 street children living, working and sleeping on the streets of Accra, Ghana, Ms. Schoberg reports, “Staff thought (the immersion team) would come in and give them a strategy, but what they got instead were the tools to create their own…” and the Director states, “These meetings help us grow,”…she (the Executive Director) now facilitates her own workshops and has shifted the programming at the center.” The Executive Director continues, “If you want to look into the future, you have to have the basics to plan.”3

During Acumen’s course, “Making Sense of Social Impact – Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis”4 participants were asked to re-frame how we design evaluation and measure progress of our work with people in poverty. The 3rd module of the four session class describes the importance of designing evaluation measures with the beneficiaries of service, asking these questions, “How will we all know that this intervention has been beneficial? What will your life look like? How will you be changed?

Although this was discussed in the context of defining impact through the eyes of the benefiting local individual, community and on-the-ground NGO; cultural immersion teams become recipients too, answering those same questions. “As a result of our time together, our work, our relationships, our shared experiences….how will each of us be different…through our shared learning experience, what can I bring back to my work setting and apply for a more innovative impact?” When you engage in relationship building with others in context you will be changed. The shared learning if engaged in humbly, as student learners, in collaboration and with uncertainty, will create innovations and strategies that one group or one person alone would not have imagined.

Cultural immersion teams are small groups of people who travel to another country to be in context with the intention of building relationships, engaging in shared learning with on-the-ground counterparts, and capacity building through listening, skills training and resource development. These short-term, multi-disciplinary immersion teams use strength-based, human centered design, adult education and appreciative inquiry principles and concepts which are developed through team training prior to departure.

The comprehensive goals of immersion teams are many and include the following;

1    1)      Build long-term sustainable relationships.
2)      Increase international understanding.
3)      Improve service delivery.
4)      Develop deeper understanding of strengths and resources of all.
5)      Develop comprehensive understanding of needs, barriers and constraints.
6)      Create stronger partnerships.
7)      Increase financial fidelity and efficacy of evaluation.
8)      Gain confidence in competence.
9)      Generate relevant measures of outcomes and expectations.
10)  Identify innovation related to poverty alleviation.

Rather than program staff of foundations and aid organizations, donors and funders sitting in their offices in Seattle, New York, Washington D.C, or London trying to innovate ways to be more efficient and productive with groups in other countries, or trying to figure out ways to change others, this methodology suggests creating short-term immersion teams that humbly, and collaboratively walk with their counterparts and experts on the ground (the beneficiaries and NGOs on the ground) to develop new innovations using resources and skills that already exist and by building capacity where skills or resources may be needed that will create outcomes, connections and relationships that will be collectively unlimited.

During TEDxHoracePark, March 2014, one presentation, “The Power and Responsibility of One Person”5 included a quote from a young mother in poverty in the United States, the young mom stated, “Just because I am poor does not mean I’m stupid.” That is a lesson that we need to keep in mind when working in the field of poverty alleviation worldwide; the people with whom we engage may be in poverty, but they are certainly not stupid and in fact, often have significant resources management skills, unidentified, unacknowledged strengths and reliance that needs to be drawn out, celebrated, and leveraged. It is one of the three goals of an immersion team to create opportunities to identify the strengths, and resources that their counterpart team has access to and create the connections necessary to utilize those available strengths and resources.

The immersion teams have three primary goals or functions while in the field:
1)      Working with their on-the-ground counterparts to identify strengths, assets and resources that are currently available for the local community and assisting in creating connections to leverage and strengthen those resources and assets.
2)      Increase capacity and resource development through skills training; and increasing confidence in the competence of those new skills.
3)      Developing long-term relationships.
Most international development models begin with assessment, looking for gaps and weaknesses and even in the IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit, we are encouraged to observe and hear, looking for weaknesses and gaps and needs. Including all of those impacted by international development into the innovation process implies that all of the participants have something to bring to the table. All of the recipients, all of the beneficiaries have something to offer, strengths, resources, skills and tools and it is critical to walk humbly when working to identify those strengths.

In an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, author Dr. Andrew Oxman 6 takes the medical community to task for not working more collaboratively and asks his peers to be willing to be more humble and involve patients in their care decisions, to be more uncertain and willing to look outside of themselves for resources and answers and finally, to stop wasting scarce resources and begin working more collaboratively for better health impact. The title of his article says it all, “Improving the Health of Patients and Populations Requires Humility, Uncertainty, and Collaboration.” The international development community can benefit from that charge.

Without working together to identify those strengths and resources, we fall into the trap of imposing our own strategic priorities upon others and jeopardize opportunities for innovative and shared creation of sustainable strategies for the alleviation of poverty. To avoid the risks of imposing external strategic priorities the cultural immersion teams must use the following guiding principles during the time spent in-the-field with their counterparts:

1)      Team members are student learners.
2)      Everyone in the room is an expert and brings resources and skills to the table.
3)      A willingness to walk humbly.
4)      Commit to all trainings and experiences – to be present and engaged.
5)      Participate in all assignments.
6)      A willingness to develop and use new listening skills.
7)      Find comfort in uncertainty and ambiguity.
8)      Maintain a belief that anything can happen, and will happen.
9)      A willingness to let the magic happen and walk away from the process when the time is finished.

Of these nine guiding principles, the last may be the most difficult, yet it is the component that reduces the cycle of dependency on the team and drives a sense of urgency, increasing efficacy, relevance and buy-in from the local community.

Incorporating the nine guiding principles and using skills developed during the team trainings in preparation for the immersion experience, the team focuses on an intentional and meaningful process incorporating strength-based and affirmative inquiry concepts to work together with the on-the-ground teams to discover and explore strengths, opportunities and resources.

Shared learning experiences in-the-field are the most efficient method of creating a framework for innovation around a common language and shared vision. Delivering shared learning experiences requires an understanding that there is not equal access to skills training amongst partners. No skill is too basic when creating capacity. Examples of useful skills training that may be delivered on the ground, in-situ include the following:

1)      Consensus development
2)      Team building
3)      Planning
4)      Visioning
5)      Facilitation
6)      Messaging
7)      Communication
8)      Other workshops requested in advance by the on-the-ground team.

These sessions may be delivered by a specified trainer from the immersion team or local, or team members (from either team) who have become subject matter experts in the identified skill set.  Creating confidence in competence is a sustainable method of decreasing the cycle of dependency and begins when delivering skills training in context. Skills training sessions must be delivered in a comprehensive, hands-on manner incorporating each of these elements;

1)      Train
2)      Demonstrate
3)      Practice
4)      Debrief
5)      Repeating the cycle until the skill can be replicated in-the-field, modifying for “reality-checks”, relevancy, and in-situ experiences.
6)      To further instill confidence in new skills, tools and resources required to deliver the training must be brought with the immersion team, including computers, paper, facilitation supplies (any item required to successfully apply the new skill), and left in-the-field, establishing a resource bank or library for increased resource development.

Both the immersion team and the on-the-ground counterpart team must engage in these skill set trainings together to enhance the relationship, create a common language and increase team building. Using the newly developed skills to build the vision, plan the interventions and create a new framework of delivering international aid will further strengthen the teams and create sustainable capacity that will both stay behind on-the-ground and return with the immersion team. Developing relationships takes time, creating new innovations requires the space in which ideas formulate, however, if the immersion team follows the nine guiding principles and focuses on the three goals of the immersion experiences, the possibilities are limitless.

The individual make-up of teams vary depending on the specific on-the-ground initiatives, but it is important to ensure that they are multi-disciplinary immersion teams to minimize “group think” and enhance comprehensive problem-solving. Multi-disciplinary teams create opportunities of synergy and cross-training, bringing a variety of perspectives and skills to the table. An additional component that is important to consider when selecting team members for the immersion experience is to select people who have demonstrated passion for engaging with people from other countries and considering those whose positions may not have previously afforded them the opportunity to work collaboratively in another country. The identification, selection, and training of immersion team members presents the greatest opportunity for impact within this methodology.

When world leaders and CEO’s of companies and aid organizations travel to other countries, to the countries in which their generosity and resources are valued and critical, the travel is typically handled in two manners; as a “red-carpet” event, or as an opportunity to demonstrate the best, as if being evaluated and needing to put “the best foot forward.” And, while valuable to increase awareness of issues, emerging trends, or to strengthen a relationship amongst large systems, governments, or groups, these types of trips are not immersion experiences. Because of the stature and power of the people involved, it is extremely difficult to create the setting and framework of an immersion experience. Immersion teams give all participants the opportunity to engage on an equal playing field, roll up their sleeves and get to the work of collaborating and innovating from the community’s perspective, ground-up.

Selecting individuals who can demonstrate the nine guiding principles, have a passion for interacting with all people, and who may not usually have this kind of experience presented to them will ensure that the benefits of the immersion experience will be returned to their home community in unanticipated and exponential ways.

Donors, foundation staff, non-profits, contractors working in the global setting, non-governmental organizations, individuals, and businesses benefit from international development and poverty eradication. Whether the benefit is financial, social or intrinsic, there is a benefit derived from the opportunities that are created through international development and thus, all those receiving benefits are recipients regardless of their inputs of funding, resources or time. Collaboration and innovation occur in this model through many short bursts of intentional, focused teams of recipients/beneficiaries coming together to develop relationships, build capacity and engage in shared learning experiences. The impact of immersion teams include significant opportunities for innovation which can include financial impact, social impact and intrinsic impact.

Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer at Acumen, describes methods of quantifying the impact of investing in international development through Theories of Change4 and in several articles and posts that he has written. Components of those theories of change that are relevant to this essay include measuring the impact of the outcomes that are created when groups of people come together to collaborate innovatively, creating shared learning, utilizing all inputs including identified resources, and skills. Crosswalks and attribution can help connect the quantitative impact of financial, social and intrinsic benefits to articulate a compelling case and demonstrate clear benefits for all recipients of international aid.

Financial impacts are easily identifiable and can include increases in productivity as a result of improved health, reduced time acquiring resources or increased capital as a result of enterprise or entrepreneurial successes. Financial impacts have a number of tools and methods of quantifying the overall impact to determine the benefit of the investment.

Social impacts increase capacity, increase skills and access to resources, increase resources, increase numbers of student/intern exchanges, professional exchanges, and can be quantified into financial benefit, although it is far more difficult to capture than a direct financial impact. In many cases a social impact will result in several additional attributed benefits that do have relative financial impact.
For example, a manager in a decision-making role innovates a new method of reporting after walking with their counterpart in another country. Armed with a new understanding of the realities of no electricity, nor reliable computer access, demanding a report which is neither possible to deliver, nor useful. Together, on the ground, the individuals explore new means of communicating to share relevant results and exploring resources that are available. After working together they choose to develop skills training in on-line communication, together discovering connections for reliable internet access so that updates and reports can be communicated and recorded live, through virtual mechanisms during times of sufficient access. The live reports are relevant and tell such a compelling story that they are used to increase the donor base for the project, increasing the financial impact. 

Additionally, because the donors know that they will be receiving the intrinsic benefit that they desire, they become engaged in the long-term support of the project, developing relationships and receiving the benefit of knowing that they are making a difference, and can see the impact.
Social impact occurs when a connection, capacity or relationship has been made stronger and create the foundation upon which intrinsic benefit is gained. Most of the participants of immersion team experiences will be impacted either socially or intrinsically. Socially impacted by bringing back to their workplaces new ideas, innovations, confidence and skills, and intrinsically having pride, loyalty, respect, support, understanding, and empathy. It is the intrinsic impacts that make the immersions teams so unique and so successful.

Much has been written about the value and benefits of short-term volunteer trips as well as professionals undertaking paid international work experiences and those values and benefits have been attributed and matched to the benefits and values of short-term professional immersion teams in this essay. Likewise, the risks and perils of those same kind of experiences have also been debated in similar articles. In Crump and Sugarman’s article “Ethical Considerations for Short-term Experiences by Trainees in Global Health”2 numerous risks were identified with short-term volunteer experiences, this model mitigates those risks and others in the following manner:
1.      To mitigate the risk of placing an undue burden on the on-the-ground recipients/partners the following guidelines must be observed: 1) Maximum time spent between partner groups per day is 3-4 hours, 2) Maximum time spent on-site working together each week is 4 days/week, 3) Stipend compensation for on-the-ground team (paid to host organization), 4) Must deliver relevant/useful skills, tools, resources, 5) Time spent must be respectful.

2.      The on-the-ground team will no doubt be pulled away from their regular daily activities and the mitigation of this burden includes: 1) all partners walking together – the immersion team along-side the on-the ground team, 2) Orientation and logistics must be managed by the immersion team, 3) the groups must work in short bursts of time, as opposed to long days of work, 4) all of the immersion teams must be useful, 5) stipend compensation for professional services rendered by both the immersion team and the on-the-ground teams as well as trainers.

3.      Remunerating the teams. Most will end up working overtime or over the weekends just to catch up with their work responsibilities. Paid to their host organization, it is a token of respect and thanks that each participant was so generous with their valuable time. The stipend is a professional acknowledgement paying for services rendered.

4.      Mitigating the health and safety risks of the immersion team falls squarely on the shoulders of the immersion team or logistics leader. The time spent in a short-term immersion experience is fast and intense and maximizing every moment of all of the recipients/participants time will best be accomplished with a team that is safe and healthy.

5.      While it is difficult to plan for everything and even more problematic to anticipate how individuals will respond to different situations and environments, there are a few precautions over and above the standard safe travel expectations listed on the State Department’s site, or travel clinic advisories that can be taken to maintain the integrity of the team: 1) Stay in “western hotels” – sleep, safe food and water are essential to the team’s well-being and will also reduce the burden of your on-the-ground team to house and feed the team, 2) Hire drivers and 4x4’s, one vehicle for every four people, hire the drivers for the entire duration of the visit, 3) It is not the responsibility of the on-the-ground team to take care of the immersion team, 4) Secure local cell phones for every team member. There are other precautions that the immersion team will prepare for, however, these are some of the mitigating factors to alleviate the burden on the on-the-ground team.

6.      The difference between and risks of sightseeing vs. culture immersion includes the following considerations; 1) The primary goal of immersion experiences are to develop relationships and therefore it is to be encouraged to engage in cultural activities, or risk disrespect your hosts, 2) The immersion team must take every weekend off, to recharge, see the country in which you are immersed and to let the on-the-ground team recharge as well, 3) If the immersion team is successful in developing relationships, they can expect to be invited to cultural festivals, ceremonies, etc., 4) One of the requirements of the immersion team members is that they commit to returning at least one additional time. In addition to building relationships, demonstrating staying power and commitment, it also takes the pressure off of having to see everything at one time.

While there are certainly other risks associated with short-term experiences, many of those are reduced greatly by both the benefits and the team training which emphasizes walking with humility, uncertainty and collaboration. A well-trained short-term cultural immersion team can accomplish huge impacts, financially, socially and intrinsically and leave behind sustainable development, strong ties and a network of capacity and resources ready to demonstrate their confidence in their competence.

As the international community looks for more efficient and effective methods of delivering scarce resources through international aid, engaging short-term, immersion teams will help to create a new, more sustainable paradigm in the alleviation of poverty throughout the world.
Walking humbly, with uncertainty and in collaboration where all of the participants are recipients of the shared learning experience, innovation, creative and meaningful outcomes and sustainable development will occur. The skills training opportunities will leave behind skills that can be shared with others, the recipients of the benefit of the development will creatively and intentionally develop new solutions and ideas that just cannot be developed when we sit on our offices and wonder what we should be doing to change someone else – we must be engaged in a new way, each of these immersion teams meeting in relationship with the on-the-ground teams will create sustainable innovations that will have financial, social and intrinsic impact – both in the United States and abroad.

The great news is that this model of developing capacity, relationships and increased resources involving all recipients and beneficiaries of international aid does not require the international community to start over, in fact, the infrastructure is already established, the people are in place and there is a strong desire, or demonstrated willingness, to create new opportunities for sustainable international development. In the 2014 Gates Annual Letter by Bill and Melinda Gates 7, the authors describe hopefulness and excitement in the progress made in the alleviation of poverty over the past several decades stating in the opening paragraph, “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been..,,,Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.” And their charge to us includes the following statement, “We all have the chance to create a world where extreme poverty is the exception rather than the rule…” 7

We are close to having exponential impact in the world, redefining the role of the actual recipient, acknowledging that it is all of us who benefit from the kind of international aid which will have life-lasting and sustainable impact, we are all recipients and when we give our time to walk humbly, with uncertainty and with openness for shared learning experiences, we can leverage an international aid network and create thousands of points of connection, capacity and peace throughout the world.

To learn more about capacity building, community and international development or to add immersion teams to your poverty reduction toolkit, contact Ms. Stutzman by clicking on the contact button or e-mail her at

Ms. Stutzman has just published a book that recognizes the impact of relationships and capacity building on street children. Stories From The Streets is available on Amazon. Proceeds from the book support the Street Girls Aid Legacy Fund.

References and Citations

1.      IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit, p.46-49.
2.      John A. Crump, MB, ChB, DTM&H & Jeremy Sugarman, MD, MPH, MA, “Ethical Considerations for Short-term Experiences by Trainees in Global Health.” JAMA, September 24, 2008 – Vol 300, No 12 (reprinted) p1456 – 1458.
3.      Diana Schoberg, “Out of Chaos” The Rotarian Magazine, August 2014 p. 42-53.
4.      Acumen’s course, “Making Sense of Social Impact – Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis, June 2014.
5.      TEDxHoracePark, March 2014, “The Power and Responsibility of One Person”
6.      Andrew D. Oxman, MD, “Improving the Health of Patients and Populations Requires Humility, Uncertainty, and Collaboration.” JAMA, October 24/31, 2012 – Vol 308, No.16.p1691-1692.

7.      Bill and Melinda Gates, “3 Myths that Block Progress For The Poor,” 2014 Gates Annual Letter.

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