Systematic Solutions Require Global Partnerships

Some business models work well and lead both fresh and tenured entrepreneurs to success. However, there are also business models that simply do not work despite time, effort, or commitment. Statistically, risks are much higher for startup companies. Harvard Business School professor, Shikhar Ghosh, says that 3 of 4 startup companies fail—that is 75 percent—and the reasons are often tied to leadership. Yet, when businesses succeed, it is also about leadership. Leaders of successful businesses replicate what has worked in the past—they replicate the system to replicate success.

In business, the marketplace model is the most prevalent model across the globe that engages systematic solutions as a response to high-priced hotels, taxis, or goods. Consider the success of companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Amazon who rely on the system of a share or peer economy where consumers trust their neighbors to provide the commodities they value. Additionally, these share economies are successful because they function alongside an innovative system that allows professionals to leverage new and developing technology. Consumers enjoy discounted prices and immediate availability, while producers or commodity holders enjoy the profit of an investment they already obtained—a spare room or entire property, a vehicle, or other goods.

These business systems prosper because they are tried and tested. Like franchises, businesses like Airbnb, Uber, and Amazon operate under a common system, only responsible for their day-to-day operations (Cubukcu 2016). They move along with environmental and societal shifts. They don’t resist the change that waits around the corner to make things easier, more ecologically friendly, or more cost effective for all of us. Instead, successful business models use those shifts to revise according to our most exigent needs. The adaptable business system is applicable to other sectors as well—agriculture, infrastructure, education, technology—each of these areas can benefit from a system that is aware of itself and aware of how it can change.  

Smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa face many challenges that need systematic resolutions. While problems range from poor quality seed and unhealthy soil to lack of fertilizer, herbicide, and/or pesticide; or unpredictable rainfall to unreliable transport and storage; a viable solution can encapsulate all of these key agricultural supports if a detailed system is established. The World Food Bank uncovers how creating a system, where each of these agricultural elements function together, can harness long-lasting solutions to the problems sub-Saharan farmers encounter.

Among farmers and consumers alike, the concern about sustainable solutions is a real one. These solutions should endure climate change or other environmental challenges, enhance the economy, and unite people in such a way that they are driven to actively participate in the solution, cultivating trust among all participants. In Uganda, a local Mukono farmer explains that his use of smart-farming methods has helped him “earn a solid income that he uses to support his whole family” (Lindrio 2017). Nevertheless, while this farmer prospers, his neighbors struggle. It is not a communal or collaborative achievement that has the potential to build on itself. His smart-farming methods include irrigation and seed variety, but these are the kinds of support his neighbors lack. They struggle because they are functioning outside of the system that integrates these valuable elements for productive farming. In turn, what this paper strives to prove is that a systematic approach welcomes the success of the community, so that many farmers can earn the kind of income that this Mukono farmer earns.

Ultimately, the goal in both systematic and programmatic solutions focuses on a better future; however, the largest difference between the two approaches is that systematic efforts seeks sustainability. The World Food Bank has previously analyzed the ways in which programmatic efforts fail to create broad and lasting economic change, and we again, uses this work to show how systems revolve around sustainable results. Gary Kleppel (2014) explains that focusing on sustainability can provide a way of thinking about how our present actions affect the future and how those actions can lead to environmentally, economically, and socially desirable outcomes. It is through these measures that we can confidently make decisions about what is best for all of us.  

Systemic efforts allow for more productivity, economic growth, increased interaction across industries and organizations, greater results in problem-solving, and sustainability. Sarah Morath (2015) suggests that the development of interrelationships, perspectives, and boundaries surrounding a given problem are a product of systems thinking. That, in fact, “thinking systematically requires participation from a greater number of stakeholders and employs a holistic approach,” which focuses on improvement rather than perfection (p. 390). The World Food Bank is committed to contributing to agricultural solutions through a holistic approach.

This paper will present examples of systematic efforts—where they succeeded and where limitations presented themselves. It will highlight systematic efforts in agriculture, but will also examine the ways in which systems function in education. In addition, this work emphasizes how programs can act as a starting point in providing a solution, but also pinpoints where previous program initiatives failed, making it an unreliable solution. This paper will argue that while programmatic efforts deserve recognition for acknowledging and responding to global issues, systematic efforts are essential for long-lasting economic, social, and environmental change, and together the two approaches can unite under innovative platforms that are focused on global partnerships.

 

Successful Systems

Successful systems come in various forms, but what these proven systems have in common is their attention to the level of interaction between the participants (producers and consumers) and the product with which they interact. In agriculture, well-functioning systems take environmental factors, economic potential, and social growth into consideration. These aspects carry some weight, though maybe not equally, in other sectors as well. In this section, we analyze how successful systems develop in agriculture and education.

 

Agriculture

A thriving agro-ecosystem is a product of farmers who can make decisions confidently based on their own knowledge and the innovative ways in which they engage the environment. This kind of intimate relationship with the land and the way it is managed requires a kind of independence that is not available in program initiatives. Problems that arise in agriculture, especially as environmental and economic elements are constantly in flux, sometimes require unique systematic solutions. In this way, Daniel T.N. Rukazambuga argues that “top-down one-sided approach[es] cannot address sustainable land and agro-ecosystem management issues” because they do not consider specific and individual problems (FAO, 2017, p. 9). Systemic approaches include a checks-and-balances component that encourages constant improvement based on unpredictable conditions. With smart farmers who have sustainability at the forefront of their investment, producers and consumers involved in that system are bound to experience positive outcomes. A systematic approach, when considering the key agricultural elements that aid in productivity, can “create jobs, raise incomes, reduce malnutrition, and kick-start the economy on a path to middle-income growth” (Boettiger et al. 2017).

When sustainability takes precedence, concerns about soil, seed, fertilizer, harvest, and finance are no longer irreparable issues. Each of these key supports become an integral part of the cycle, eventually leading to sustainability. In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations began the farmer field school approach in Burundi through the Transboundary Agro-ecosystems Management Project for the Kagera Basin to improve farming experience. This approach functions as a system because it focuses on farmers’ interaction with their land and their ability to make decisions about how to improve their farms. Farmers, then, actively subvert problems which arise because of the knowledge they have acquired through the farmer field school system. Further, the success of the farmer field schools prompted plans to use it again across all of Burundi. Below, Charles Ntunguka’s results from his article in the FAO is summarized:

 

Social Impacts

Economic Impacts

Ecological Impacts

Social cohesion—people with a shared vision can plan and work together

Easier access to state-owned land—administrative authority granted land for 60 percent of farmer field school groups

Expansion and improvement of vegetation cover

Social mutual assistance—people agree to support one another

Access to innovations from research centers

Reduction in runoff and erosion

Reduction in social conflicts—as a result of continuous dialogue, spirit of equity, and the attitude of change brought about during the training

Access to community infrastructure—communities benefited from storage facilities to irrigation tools and motor pumps

Progressive restoration of soil fertility

Social esteem—people who did not participate look to those who did as models for successful farming and attempt to replicate their actions

 

Infrastructure for the management of marshland water and protection of buffer zones

(FAO 2017)

 

A successful system like the farmer field school approach encourages education, innovation, and interaction. Each of these components offers a stronger and longer-lasting solution to a variety of problems that penetrate farming experience in sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, integrating a model like this one into the larger agricultural value chain can allow participants to not only modify according to their own needs but also allow them to explore its full benefits.  

Systemic solutions are long-term, building resistance against challenges and creating spaces for greater opportunities. John Greber explains, “Agricultural system thinking can help leaders, advocates, and citizens: [D]iscover the root causes of our most perplexing agricultural problems, learn how to build resilience into food and farming systems, see how our linear thinking creates our problems, and ultimately how to manage complex systems for multiple objectives (economic, environmental AND social) and thus move us toward a more sustainable and truly successful agriculture” (as cited in Morath, 2015, p. 408). So, the success of a strong agricultural system is inclusive of factors that reach for sustainability. Sometimes systems are created with the financial reward in mind, and this can inadvertently lead to a better environment or a more advanced social structure. However, in agriculture, the community and its social progress are at the heart of its success.  To be sure, the way in which a community interacts can drive or plummet its development several areas. Kleppel (2014) clarifies the point here: “one’s community consists of the farm, neighboring farms, businesses and institutions that support the region’s agriculture, and the market—composed mostly of customers within the farm’s ‘reach’ who do regular business with the farm” (p. 84). The solution should include a web of connections. Contrastingly, programs offer a solution, but these solutions overlook this very important aspect that generate long-lasting results. Programs do not foster a sense of community. Instead, in many instances, they create divisiveness because select groups have access to the solution while others do not, or the solution require management that beneficiaries resist. Both responses reflect the nature of programmatic efforts to focus on temporary resolutions that cause members of the community to become reluctant to get involved not only with the solution but also with one another.

Systems see similar problems to those of programs. There are roadblocks—literal ones sometimes—that do not allow progress. However, with a systematic approach, these moments call for revision and critical thinking, not just among those implementing the solution but also among those who must interact with the problem regularly. Systems implement diversity of thought because they are not constrained by the framework of a program. The problems that one area experiences are not ones that resonate with neighboring areas despite similar agricultural conditions. To return to the Mukono farmer, it may be as simple as an irrigated area has the capacity to maintain several farms and, in addition to the well-irrigated land, the farmers have easy access to markets, so they are able to build relationships and create business. However, a neighboring area has little to no irrigation, and the farmers’ lack connection to markets because of poor road conditions, and this is what prohibits the same productivity (Boettiger et al. 2017). In areas where problems differ from farm to farm, participants require unique solutions. Programs have a one-size-fits-all approach, ineffectively responding to the variety of challenges farmers face.

 

Education

Systems are abundant in education around the world. They cultivate structure and optimize students’ learning experience. Some educational systems work well, and others need revision not only to benefit students but also to benefit faculty and staff. Most educational systems use a curriculum as the focal point for learning. Too, the word curriculum is rooted in course or career, which reflects the goal to guide a student from start to finish. The idea of a curriculum is in itself a kind of system. In Finland, where students scored among the highest on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), teachers are trusted to guide their students to success with the help of a curriculum. However, that is not the case in the United States where curriculums are often rigid, focusing on standardized testing, and often strip instructors of their authority to teach students effectively.

Curriculums act as a guide for new and tenured teachers. It provides a flexible strategy in the same way that a systematic solution in agriculture does—it identifies the problems or the current conditions, sets goals, outlines steps toward those goals, assesses progress, and then moves forward toward resolving new challenges when the initial problem is mastered. Curriculums are the crux of the educational system, but each country or region interacts with their curriculum differently. Some curriculums allow for improvisation. This is effective for both new and tenured instructors because it allows them to make executive decisions about how to get their students on the path to success. The curriculum sets the common goal, but in places like Finland and Canada, teachers have the advantage of deciding how to get there. Alison Board, a Canadian teacher based in Toronto, believes in inquiry-based teaching in which she uses broad questions to guide her classes through the curriculum and through the academic year. In the same way that successful agricultural systems develop through interaction, successful educational systems require interaction with the instructor, with other students, and with various materials. Board (2013) notes, “to implement [this] approach, brainstorm ways to connect the children to the curriculum using real-world problems or questions. Provide many, many ways to approach the inquiry, and allow for extended time periods where the children can explore their topics of interest at the computer, in an art studio, or using building materials” (p. 44). This exploration, or critical thinking, within a system is what leads to resolving real problems. Curriculums are designed in such a way that students should be able to master subjects that will eventually lead to resolving real-world issues.

Educational systems that emphasize community and contribution are strongest according to the PISA results charted below. Like the farmer field schools in Burundi that led the way in productive farming practices and built strong farm communities across the country, the highest scoring schools emphasize the importance of building relationships within the educational system. In South Korea, the teacher leads the class, but his or her goal is to foster peer relationships, while in America, the focus is on individuality (Choi 2014). And in Finland, where individual identity is important in school, schools provide “social services” in addition to educational services (Choi 2014). Though learning is at the forefront of every educational system, these high-scoring nations’ approaches lean on the interaction students have with one another and their communities to learn not only worldly skills but also core subjects like math, reading, and science. Their emphasis is on applicability and discovery and most systems—those of business, agriculture, or education—grow because of these attributes.

PISA, first administered in 2000, covers 15-year-old students’ literacy levels in primarily three disciplines: reading, mathematics, and science. In addition to these core subjects, testing in areas such as financial literacy, collaborative problem solving, and individual problem solving are also administered. The test is given every three years and is scored on a scale of 0-1,000, with an average of 500 and a standard deviation of 100; however, the true range of values lies between the 300s and the 600s (Serino 2017). Finland, Japan, and South Korea are listed at the top among other educational ranking systems as well.

 

Country

Mandatory Testing

Homework

School Day Length

Curriculum

PISA Mathematics Score (2015)

PISA Reading Score (2015)

PISA Science Score (2015)

PISA Problem Solving Score (2015)

Finland

One test at age 16

no more than 3 hours/wk

4 hours a day in the classroom

More learning outside of classroom; foreign language

511

526

531

534

Germany

Tested in grades 3 and 8, but no penalty for low scores

Almost 5 hours/wk

5 hours a day in the classroom

Core and foreign language

506

509

509

525

Japan

Testing begins at age 12

3.8 hours/wk

4 hours a day in the classroom plus juku (or cram school)

Core; native language, and morals

532

516

538

552

South Korea

College Scholastic Aptitude Test

Just over 2.5 hours/wk

8am – 4pm

and 6pm – 9pm; totaling 11 hours a day

Emphasis on memorization, but more interaction among students

524

517

516

538

United Kingdom

Testing from age 5 to 14

Almost 5 hours/wk

9am – 4pm

Core

492

498

509

519

United States

Testing begins in 3rd grade

Nearly 7.5 hours/wk

Over 6 hours a day in the classroom

“teach to the test”

470

497

496

520

PISA SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2015 Reading, Mathematics and Science Assessment.

OTHER SOURCES: Finnish National Agency for Education; OECD; National Center for Education Statistics; The Atlantic; Telegraph

 

PISA scores are generated every three years, with the most recent data provided in 2015 and the upcoming scores due in 2018. While this chart provides some of the most successful countries and the components of their educational systems, some countries’ scores reflect the need to revise their system to create more well-prepared students. According to these results, Japan, Finland and South Korea produce students who excel in mathematics, reading, science, and problem solving because of their attention to applicability and discovery.

 

Programmatic Efforts: A Possible Starting Point

The most common misconception among both speakers and audiences, when making an argument or providing a comparison, is that one option is quintessentially more effective than the other. Government and NGO programs do an incredible service of acknowledging and responding to large, on-going problems around the world, and programs can offer an essential starting place for long-lasting systematic solutions.

An incessant issue in developing nations is the availability of consumable water. Several improved water supply programs focus on providing a source (i.e. borehole or dug well) or implementing sanitation or filtration options. The purpose in these approaches is not only to provide clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, but also to actively prevent the spread of diseases—diarrhea presenting the greatest threat. Miguel and Gugerty (2005) emphasize the importance of safe drinking water from water wells instead of nearby streams or lakes to avoid water-borne diseases. However, they also explain that most of the wells constructed by KEFINCO, the Kenya-Finland Development Cooperation, between 1982 and 1991 were no longer functioning by 2000. Most successful wells required constant regulation and “user fees charged at the point of service” (Miguel and Gugerty, 2005, p. 2346). This, then, becomes the trap of a program. Instead of solving the problem, the solution creates more problems than the original source issue, illuminating the potential programmatic efforts provide but highlighting the need for a more substantial framework that can build on itself.

While a program can initiate a solution, it cannot maintain itself. In the Kenyan water well program, failure occurred because of the lack of maintenance. The need for constant regulation among citizens, who also had to pay to maintain those wells, removed any desire to contribute to the cause. Collective effort is more apparent when there are economic benefits tied to the solution. In this example, many Kenyans in need of well water did not want to pay fees for using the well and/or the added responsibility of maintaining well functionality. Systems avoid this kind of neglect because each participant has something to gain.

 

Shortcomings of Programmatic Efforts and Systemic Solutions

Programmatic efforts can often require regulations that are not anticipated by those participating in the program. In fact, times in which programs failed were a result of unclear or unexpected regulations that derailed the program’s progress and effectiveness. In Kenya, the DrumNet program transitioned farmers from growing for themselves to growing to export. However, one year after implementing the program, “the firm that had been buying the ‘export crops’ stopped due to European regulations,” which ultimately lead to “the collapse of DrumNet, as farmers were forced to undersell to middlemen, leaving sometimes a harvest of unsellable crops and thus [farmers] defaulting on their loans” (“Failure” 2009). Programs like this perpetuate a fear of unreliable relationships because failure only significantly impacts one half of the partnership. In a system, each component, each participant plays a vital role for the success of the community.

In the same vein, if a problem arises within the boundaries of the program, there is no room for modification. Relying on government aid and donors to transfer programs or allocate needs can halt progress or prolong addressing the needs of those who face the same problem within neighboring areas. Programs that depend on government funding have its benefits and its detriments.  While programs usually allow for stable budgets and predictable spending, annual budget approvals by government and NGO aids are sometimes influenced by “the nature of the activities of the sponsoring NGO,” hindering “how flexible they are in moving from one area to the next according to need” (Jayne et al., 2002, p. 255). So, waiting for funding through program intervention can create additional setbacks, especially when government funding is on the decline in sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, in 1981, $1.9 billion was dedicated to government aid for African agriculture and decreased to $1 billion by 2001 (World Bank). While the intervention is necessary, programmatic efforts provide temporary and sometimes unreliable solutions.

Systems allow for both stability and improvisation, but when compared to programs, a systematic approach simply costs much more. Programs are less expensive, and as a result, there is room for more of them, more frequently. Systems are not rigid and make room for the connection of parts and interaction of participants in a way that fosters growth, but this growth, undoubtedly will require significant financial backing. Morath (2015) cites Donella H. Meadow’s explanation of a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (p. 404). This achievement is the goal. Systems identify where changes can be most impactful to the environment, the economy, and the community. In his Making Aid Work, Abhijit Banerjee (2017) explains that computer kiosks were provided in a program in Madhya Pradesh, India; however, this program was unsuccessful because the area lacked proper electricity and connectivity, completely disregarding local conditions. The implementation of computer kiosks can only be successful when all parts and participants are taken into consideration, when they are organized in a way that can actually achieve the goal. The kiosks cannot function on their own—they need electricity, effective connectivity, and people who are willing to use them to benefit one another and not just themselves. A system paired with these programmatic efforts would have considered the whole—the kiosks, electricity, connectivity, users, and the area in which the kiosks are placed. Together, programs and systems can work.

 

Innovative Platforms are Focused on Global Partnerships

With food security averaging between $800 million to $1.2 trillion across the globe, we must consider collaboration between the public and private sectors, government organizations and NGOs, and for-profit and non-profit agencies. Collaboration ensures that we eliminate risk, but also guarantees that we achieve the goals we continue to seek on our own.

The kiosk example is just one of many that illustrates the ways in which programs and systems can function together. It is essential that government organizations and NGOs, public and private, non-profit and for-profit, come together through innovative platforms to produce and uphold strong global partnerships that can take on the world’s challenges. The challenges we face seem endless. Food security, water access, and sustainable farming practices are just a few of the investments to which the World Food Bank is tethered in response to some of the global difficulties we all want to overcome. We recognize our role in contributing to a system that can benefit all of us. To be sure, we underscore the FAO’s (2018) explanation of an agricultural system as one that includes “components which are united by some form of interaction and interdependence,” “operat[ing] within a prescribed boundary to achieve a specified agricultural objective on behalf of the beneficiaries of the system.” We stand ready to unite with farmers, partners, consumers, government organizations, and non-government organizations in an effort to bring these issues to an end through effective solutions.