Sea Changes for African Progress

Children Share a Mango in an African Village

Silo-busting, claims Gillian Tett, “has a nasty habit of upending the power structure” and “challenging traditional hierarchies”. In a recent Financial Times opinion column Miss Tett defined ‘silo-busting’ as pursuing “the great benefits that individuals or institutions can enjoy when they manage to jump across mental and intellectual silos”.  In continuing she notes several examples of silo-busting gone awry, and in particular the frustrating tendency of human beings to get in the way of real progress simply because it makes a poor fit in their daily routine.

It is ironic that her piece use African conservation as a prime example. Anyone familiar with anglophone Africa – a short flight from the gorillas her column mentions – can speak of what is commonly called the PhD Syndrome. Named not for personal academic excellence but rather for the dogged pursuit and destruction of others’ excellence, many argue that the “Pull Him Down” syndrome has thwarted decades of potential progress in Africa.

Also ironic then that Miss Tett – rightly – fingers NGOs and charitable organizations as guilty of backwards parochial thinking. In fact, Nuevva has its roots in this very problematic. In the late 1990s, Nuevva founders working in humanitarian organizations throughout the underdeveloped world noticed that their organizations tended to create rather than solve business problems and often eschewed what was considered common management practice in the private sector. Nuevva’s founders, silo busters themselves in seeking to apply modern business principles in humanitarian contexts, were aghast at examples of “charitable practice”. Relief NGOs setting up complex and inefficient international supply chains to import buckets from Europe to Africa instead of supporting the local business down the block. “Development” organizations conducting biannual reviews of their salary structure – and determining each time that their senior managers were too highly paid and that their salaries needed to be reduced. Or, in our most memorable example, getting shouted out of the World Wildlife Fund’s offices because the Program Officer for a national parks support project in Africa considered it against procurement regulations to listen to a technically-inclined colleague who – far from selling them anything – wanted to point out that the organization could save 1.3M USD in ten months, over eighty percent of its allotted budget, by changing the type of engine they purchased for their surveillance boats.

It is positive not only that Miss Tett loudly proclaims the merits of silo-busting endeavors, but also that she appropriately labels those who stand against it, particularly when their hard-headedness blocks charitable or development-orientated work. For anyone who has been there and reflected upon it afterwards it is easy to see and recognize. From time to time we can all be silo-busters if we have the courage to do so. Other times, when we are too comfortable, too ensconsed, or too blind in whatever we may be doing, we may also become the obstructionists. In those situations we must simply have the courage to step aside and let the silo-busters through.

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