Kevin Jenkins

20 October, 2015

Overhauling a Running Engine

Kevin Jenkins and Sri Lanka girl

This is the first post in a four-week series of guest blogs by influencers in the civil society sector, reflecting on ideas and topics brought up in the book The Hedgehog and the Beetle – Disruption and Innovation in the Civil Society Sector by Burkhard Gnärig. The below blog by Kevin J. Jenkins, President and Chief Executive Officer of World Vision International, draws inspiration from the Beetle in the book’s title.

Photo: Kevin Jenkins gets to grips with the mechanics of development, with Sheyara, a young friend in Sri Lanka.

Every few years, a book comes along that captures the mood of the aid sector. Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents, Collier’s Bottom Billion, Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics – each gave us something to think about, provoked debate about issues of real concern, and even dared to propose solutions knowing that the prescriptions would be controversial.

Whether The Hedgehog and the Beetle will have the same sector-focusing impact remains to be seen. It may be too much of an ‘insider story’ for mass appeal – but that could also be an advantage. Burkhard gets ‘under the hood’ with his toolkit and exposes the hidden parts which aren’t working the way we’d like. He wants us to think about adjustments we must make – and the cost of the labour and parts.

This is not a routine service. We need to do a major overhaul … while the engine is running.

In a speech to World Vision’s national board members and global senior leadership team about two years ago, I opened with this provocative question: “Will international NGOs largely be extinct in 20 years?” It’s important to ask the question out loud that many quietly ponder in the back of their minds.

Changes pile up on one another. The location of the poor whom we seek to serve is shifting – has shifted – to urban areas, fragile states, conflict-affected regions, vulnerable minorities. The focus on poor nations has been replaced by a nuanced view of inequality within nations. Big data and technology get more powerful, while political power is weaker than ever. Civil society’s room to dance is narrower, and our toes are trodden on by newcomers. Donors are tempted to cynicism (largely unwarranted, given 20 years of progress) while reasonable calls for accountability risk devaluing the intangible human element in every developmental interaction.

In the midst of such change, we must have the courage to pick a path – a bias for action – even on the basis of imperfect information. The adaptation has to be constant and innovative, with all the messiness that implies.

At World Vision, we have emphasised some important components that require change:

New fuel system – we currently operate with the support of an approach to child sponsorship that hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years. Technology offers multiple opportunities to upgrade this in the 21st century and we are experimenting with ways to build a closer connection between a donor and a sponsored child’s community. Similar work is under way to connect donors to our expanding work in urban and fragile contexts.

New gears and drive shaft – we are introducing multiple innovations to our programme models that are better suited to the conditions in which poverty is increasingly found. Some relate to technology like mobile phones, others to emerging thinking in the science of child development, the needs in urban landscapes and the difficulty of work in conflicted areas. We are also thinking differently about the sectors in which we work – for example, World Vision is one of the largest providers of drinkable water in development contexts, and we plan to shift up a gear with best practices and innovation in this area and others.

New steering – the starting point for transformational change will be exceptional leadership. We are making a significant investment in leadership development and succession planning, with a particular emphasis on providing broad experience to leaders from the global South.

Changing key components while the vehicle is moving is bound to make us uncomfortable but we don’t have the luxury of a product recall to fix things piece by piece. If I’m not feeling a bit on edge, we’re probably not moving fast enough. There’s still room for acceleration!


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