Seila's story: the unintended consequences of doing good

Unintended consequences are both ubiquitous and invisible when it comes to the business of doing good. Selia, a woman from Cambodia and intended 'beneficiary' of the Concern Worldwide microcredit programme brings the harsh reality of 'good intentions gone wrong' into view. A new book, The Business of Doing Good, by Anton Simanowitz and Katherine Knotts ventures to expolore and solve the problem.

‘Today is the day we feed the ghosts. The monks have been chanting in the temple all night, and by afternoon we’ll meet seven generations of our ancestors as they emerge from the other side. We’ll offer to them prayers and food to ease their suffering, before they disappear again. There are far too many ghosts now, too many gone from our families and villages since my mother’s time. Even those that remain today are somehow half-ghost – a foot or a leg taken – no longer complete humans.’

It is two hours before dawn, and Seila stands vigilant over the fire, tending the rice she is preparing for Pchum Ben — the festival of the ancestors. Her children sleep on inside their bamboo and thatch hut, unaware of the light breeze prising its welcome fingers through the walls. She adjusts the pot on the fire and considers the day ahead. Before making the long walk to the temple, she’ll need to go to market. If she can sell enough steamed coconut rice sweets before the festival, she might be able to come home with some fish for the children. She’ll send her daughter to the river to fetch the water; there’s no school for her to attend anyway. Not since the war.

The year is 2002. Nine years have passed since the UN left Cambodia, and the fragile peace is at least some consolation for the hardship that Seila and so many others face. Lots of things have changed for the better – landmines are less common now – but clean water, quality roads, functioning markets, and good healthcare are still beyond reach for most people living in rural areas.
Seila places the steaming pot on a straw mat beside the fire, and covers it with a board. When it is cool, she will start forming the rice into small balls: some to throw into the air for the spirits; some to feed the monks; and the rest for the community. The secret to making the balls sticky enough to hold their shape is to not stir the rice in the pot as it cooks. She knows this. She had always been proud of her rice.

‘This should have been my rice, the rice I grew with my own hands. Instead, I traded my last laying hen at market for a bag from the next village. Not the big- gest bag, but there should be enough left over to feed the children for a few days. A year ago my life was very hard. Today it is almost impossible. This is not what I had expected on that day when the strangers came to the village. I was surprised when that car rolled into our village last year – I wondered how long it took them to travel from the town. I’ve heard that it takes half a day or more – and that’s when the road is clear. You can never count on that.

When they came, we gathered under the tree outside the village chief’s fine wood- en house, with its tiled roof and different rooms. The strangers talked to us about money — how they would give us loans for our businesses, so we could earn more to buy the things we needed for our families. They were interested in our lives, and they wanted to help us. If we formed small groups, these people would give us each a loan for a year, and when we had used it to make more money we would pay it back, plus a little more. We didn’t need to give a physical security for the loan; instead we would be responsible for each other, and the group would work together to make sure we all repaid. I wanted to use my loan to buy fertilizer to improve my paddy field. Rice responds well to hard work: the more you feed it, the more you weed and control the water level – the better your harvest. I was excited that this would finally make my family’s life better.

‘I visited my neighbours and convinced them to join a group with me. We had known each other since we were little girls, and I trusted they were hard-working and honest enough to repay on time (I couldn’t say that about all the women in the village!). The people in the car, they visited each house and asked questions about our lives – how much land we have to farm, how many children we have, how often we eat. I think my neighbour Chhean failed the test: they said she wasn’t poor enough to join my group. I found another woman instead; although I didn’t know her as well, I had seen her at market and remembered that she made delicious fish soup.

‘It wasn’t as easy to get a loan as they said it would be. First we had to set aside our spare savings in a special box at the chief’s house. It seemed peculiar, but the idea was that when we had saved enough, we could get a loan. I was worried that I couldn’t do this: the floods the year before had been bad – my rice crop failed, and I had to rely on my hens and sewing work to get by. When there was no money at all, I traded my gold necklaces for food. Once I even almost sold my sewing needles. I didn’t understand how they could ask me to save, when every day I struggle to feed my children. But the promise of a loan gave me more hope than I’d had since my husband died. I decided to set aside what I could, when I had a little more, and also to dig up the money buried under the house for emergencies. It took time, but I was finally able to set aside enough to get a loan.

‘The day came – I remember the smell of the jasmine outside the chief’s house in the hot sun. The car arrived, dusty from the long journey; the staff emerged with solemn faces, and solemn news. There would be no money that day. Something about the organization not having enough to share with us. We must wait. I was anxious; if I didn’t buy fertilizer soon, it would be too late in the planting cycle to use it.

Another month passed, and still no money. Perhaps I could have bought a little fertilizer with my savings, but these were locked up in a box in the chief’s house. A third month passed, and finally the loans came. Should I take it? The chance to use it for my farming had passed, but I reasoned I would buy more hens, and maybe a hand-powered sewing machine to do more mending work. Those things wouldn’t bring in much money, but enough to get by when the crop failed, as it so often did. More importantly, if I didn’t take the loan, I was afraid that I would have to leave my group and this chance would pass me by. So I took the loan.

‘Perhaps it all would have worked out fine. Perhaps I could have used the money to do more trading as I had planned. But my son soon fell ill with fever, and I had to use the money to buy medicine and special food for him. We weren’t supposed to use the loan for such things, so when they came by to check on my business I made sure my son was out of sight. With a poor harvest, and no extra money to help my work, I couldn’t repay my loan. Worse, being part of the group meant that I had to keep saving every month as well. Where was all this money supposed to come from? And how was it supposed to make my life better to have less money than I did before? At least my son got better, and the fever never spread to my other children.

‘Finally, I felt I had no other choice. I sold most of my hens (except my best one) to repay the loan. I thought I could use my savings at the chief’s house to get by until it was time for the next loan. I thought that as long as it came on time (surely it would, this time?) I could buy fertilizer and my harvest would be better this year. But when I went to the chief’s house to collect my savings, I found that they could offer me sweet tea, but not my savings. My money was gone. Without telling us, the chief had lent everyone’s savings to his brother-in-law, so he could add to his already considerable herd of cattle. I complained to the client officer, but he said he couldn’t help me. He said we need to look after our own savings, and our vil- lage committee got to decide how to use them. I was confused. But more than that, I was scared. And so it was a few days ago that I made another decision: I sold my last hen. Rice for the children, rice for the festival. Hopefully things will be better soon. If not, I don’t know what I’ll do.’

Seila’s story is not the archetypal ‘client success’ narrative that development organisations feature on their websites and annual reports – the kind that show the smiling faces of poor people whose lives have been changed for the better by the organization in question. Neither is it untrue. This particular story involves a so-called ‘beneficiary’ of the Concern Worldwide microcredit programme, which operated in Cambodia between 1993 and 2003 (and which was the pre-cursor to AMK, the organization at the heart of this book). More worryingly, Seila’s experience is not uncommon. Her tale features a number of stock elements we can easily identify: poor people living in desperate conditions, a charity programme committed to improving their lives, and a negative result that no one had anticipated.

So what went wrong? How did this charity programme, with the best intentions in the world, fail to stand by those good intentions; fail to deliver the loan at the time it was so urgently needed; fail to protect Seila from fraud by her fellow villagers? And why is this such a common story? How is it that so many organisations, seeking to do good in the world, often miss opportunities to do so — and in fact exacerbate the very problem they seek to address?

This is the fundamental question that drove us to write this book – and we recognise that coming to grips with the answer is of increasing importance.

Countless organisations of every shape, size and orientation are in the business of going good – working with poor and vulnerable communities around the world, delivering potentially life-changing services to address a range of pressing social needs. Some are doing excellent work; and this book examines what it is that they do that makes the difference.

But at the same time, a common theme has emerged in our work over the past 20 years: we see organisations missing opportunities to do things better; and organisations getting things wrong, again and again. Seila’s story is one of many we have come across, and no doubt countless remain untold elsewhere. Stories about poor families using their charity-distributed, insecticide-treated bed net to dry fish in the sun. Stories of Dallits (so-called ‘untouchables’) shut out from community development projects when village leaders don’t even think to mention that they exist. Stories of microfinance providers that over- indebt their clients and then strip them of the few assets they have when they fail to repay their loans. And we’re not talking about the unscrupulous private moneylenders charging exorbitant interest rates to the poorest of the poor – we’re talking about the organisations that are actually trying to help people. Shouldn’t we be doing better than not quite good enough?

When we survey the landscape of missed opportunities, it might be tempting to simply accept these types of stories as the inevitable result of organisations trying their best: ‘sometimes they get it wrong, and there’s nothing to be done about that’.

However, when organisations enter the lives of poor and vulnerable people, there is a moral and ethical imperative to make good on good intentions, and not to make people’s lives worse as a result. Recognizing this is perhaps easier than admitting that despite those good intentions, we as organisations have too often failed to create lasting and positive change in the world. It was hearing the experiences of Seila (and women and men just like her), that led Concern Worldwide to turn shortcomings into a success story, through its vision and support for AMK. For other organisations to make the same journey, we need to learn the lessons from those who are doing good well.

This is an excerpt from The Business of Doing Good, a new book by Anton Simonawitz and Katherine Knotts, which offers vital lessons to businesses seeking to learn from the mistakes of others and avoid causing harm through the business of doing good. You can pre-order The Business of Doing Good, to published in January 2015, here.