Sunday, 29 April 2007

The Problems and Perils of Scaling

• By the time I got to the “Problems and Perils of Scaling” workshop I was suffering from information overload, or possibly even “hope fatigue”. This session was full to overflowing, and it was obvious that “scaling up” to achieve systemic impact was one of the main interests of the Oxford Forum. The workshop focussed on the personal stories and examples of how specific enterprises went from a local project ... to national and international success.

Workshop on the Problems and Perils of Scaling, with Asok Khosla, Mel Young and Mechai Viravaidya — photo Hutchinson

• The panel group included Ashok Khosla, one of the world’s leading experts on sustainable development, and a former director of the United Nations Environment Programme. He is the founder of Development Alternatives, a Delhi-based NGO which promotes commercially viable and environmentally friendly technologies that support livelihoods. He has spent decades developing and promoting innovations ranging from village power plants using agricultural waste as fuel to mini factories that recycle paper and local enterprises that make low-cost roofing tiles.

Mel Young was the co-founder of The Big Issue weekly magazine sold by homeless people throughout Britain, and helped set up the International Network of Street Papers which helps 100,000 homeless or long-term unemployed people every year. More recently, Mel set up the Homeless World Cup annual soccer tournament (this year’s competition in Copenhagen will see teams from 48 countries).

The competition isn’t just about soccer. It acts as a focus to encourage people to make fundamental changes in their lives. A survey in 2005 showed that 77% of the players in the Homeless World Cup have significantly improved their lives through employment, housing, education and/or drug/alcohol treatment programs. A dozen players went on to become semi professional or professional footballers or coaches.
“ Football is a great leveller, it connects people and is a universal sport for everyone. The Homeless World Cup is able to change the scenery, challenge stereotyping and people who have been spat at the week before are cheered by thousands and treated as soccer heroes during the tournament. The feeling of belonging, challenge of working in a team, regaining a health- oriented attitude towards life, self-esteem and last but not least the experience of fun is a powerful combination to change a person's life.” — Mel Young
Mechai Viravaidya, the third panelist, is the founder of the one of Thailand’s most successful development organisations which has done pioneering work in family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention. Mechai is popularly known as “Dr Condom” in Thailand for his public role of promoting family planning (condoms are apparently often referred to as “mechais” in Thai slang).

This social entrepreneur had many entertaining stories to share at the workshop ... including holding condom blowing contests for school children, encouraging taxi cab drivers to hand out condoms to their customers, and setting up a restaurant chain called “Cabbages and Condoms” where condoms rather than mints are served after the meal. This family planning campaign has been one of the most successful family planning programmes in the modern era. The annual population growth in Thailand has dropped from over 3% to 0.6%, and the average number of children per family has fallen from seven to under two.
“Ashok Khosla: Mini enterprise leads to macro change” on the Infochangeindia website
Homeless World Cup website
— Mechai Viravaidya profiled in Time magazine’s “Sixty Years of Asian Heroes”