On July 30, I embarked upon a mental journey at the headquarters of the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) in Waterloo, Canada. It was only two short months ago that I had accepted an offer to work in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with MEDA. Before departure, interns are required to undergo training at head office. I was thrilled with the opportunity, and had been waiting in quiet anticipation.
During the training, I was forced to face my beliefs and assumptions head on. Envisioning myself in Ethiopia: my hopes and fears were magnified. How was I, an ambitious recent business grad at the naive age of 22, supposed to contribute to a project in a country with $US 800 GDP per capita1? 2.19 dollars a day. Who did I think I was?
Asking these types of questions helped me define my expectations coming into the project. And even now as I prepare for departure, I have recognized that this is an ongoing process of self-awareness, assessment and change. The MEDA training emphasized the significance of reflection. I also gained remarkable relationships, complex insight, and what I believe to be a more sensible and realistic perspective on economic development.
1 At PPP 2008. Statistics vary widely, in part due to differing population estimates – estimates range from 76 – 91 million people.
Dedicated to market-oriented approaches to international economic development, MEDA aims to establish sustainable enterprises for the benefit of the poor.
But what exactly does that mean?
In my limited experience exploring debates in international development, there are many different ways to see an issue. The key question – how do we develop? Especially least developed countries (LDCs2)? – is hotly contested. Some believe that the “west’s” interventions have poorly served LDCs. Fosturing dependence, destroying local industry, perpetuating civil warfare, and so often projecting our idea of development on their communities and governments. The international development world is pretty daunting, which makes it all the more interesting to be involved in!
2 According to the United Nations, LDCs are “low-income countries suffering from the most severe structural impediments to sustainable development”
Pathways to Pursestrings : Market Access Project for Women Producers in Pakistan
For MEDA, a project should…
Benefit the poorest workers [who are economically active]
Address an existing market need [demand-driven]
Continue long after MEDA has left [sustainability]
Reach a significant number of people [scalability]
Create innovative models [replicability]
Work alongside locals [participation]
Partner with local institutions [collaboration]
Invest (typically 10%) directly in the project [shared risk]
Using these core principles allows MEDA to get impact. Each goal speaks to MEDA’s underlying belief in the entrepreneur. If we can unlock the potential of entrepreneurs, we can facilitate community growth. It’s initiated by the locals, for the locals.
MEDA is divided into 3 interrelated branches:
– Market Linkages: using business strategies to strengthen supply chains, support health services, and enable female financial empowerment
– Financial Services: develop financial institutions
– Investment: Sarona Asset Management
I heard many powerful messages during my training:
1) Be humble
“I came as an intern to save the world, and left hoping I didn’t make it worse.”
2) Be analytic
“Measuring performance against initial donor objectives is critical”
3) Be balanced
In development, some people accuse advanced economies of taking a disproportionate share of the profits generated from the poor. However, “without profit, there is no social outcome.”
4) Be positive & adaptive
“Attitude and flexibility are critical to overseas effectiveness”
Fellow interns after training, sampling some Ethiopian cuisine.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of the training was realizing how strongly my values aligned with MEDAs. Their approach to development is serious, sober and no-nonsense market-oriented. At the center of MEDA’s development approach is the belief that everyone deserves to have choice. And many would agree: without money we do not have choice.
I sincerely look forward to my placement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I will observe first-hand if the inspiring mission of MEDA is merely wishful thinking or a reality.