The First Domino: where to start with complex global challenges?

complex global challenges the first domino.jpg

It Starts With a Girl…

I was at the Impact Circle I chair last night, a group of smart young things working in fields like impact investing and international development, interested in tackling global challenges. Our guest was an agribusiness social entrepreneur working in West Africa and the conversation, as ever, was fascinating.

He started his story with why he’d first gone to Sierra Leone (no real reason beyond a girl and a large helping of randomness), the people he’d met and how they’d influenced him — a retired headmistress who’d been instrumental in inspiring him to open a primary school, 350 pupils registered the day they opened. 

He talked about the ‘challenges’ he encountered: the high-risk economic situation, the post-conflict social fragility, the political power concentrated in the trading elite, currency fluctuations, health shocks like Ebola, the (literal) hunger that adults and children lived with every day.

If You Could Change One Thing, What Would It Be?

I found myself formulating a question: 

If he could change one thing that might create a shift in other parts of the system in Sierra Leone, what would he choose to change? What in his opinion, was a ‘first domino’?

I kept my question to myself while he continued his story, taking us through the first cooperative farms he’d established to fund the school. How they’d failed to make money on rice, failed to make money on cereal crops, and were now experimenting with tree crops.

And yet he was still there, still in agriculture, eleven years later.

There’s something about growing stuff, he said, connecting with the land, that feels real.

I could see his face light up.

End, Or Means?

He went on to describe how the farms had become the mainstay of what he was doing. The schools still functioned but he saw that social impact was created every day on the farms — providing jobs, a stable, if low, income, with some kind of job security, and skills training. The agribusiness that had started as a means to an end had become the end.

Not that there was any end in sight, and certainly not an all-singing all-dancing end; their margins were low, the risk was high, currency fluctuations threatened to take them out of business almost weekly. 

And yet, after eleven years, he was still there.

I realised he’d answered my question. 

There is No ‘First Domino’

We do what occurs to us — as he’d done. 

If I’d asked my question he might have tried to answer it. He might think that changing something about corruption, or about government, or about aid, or about trade agreements, or education, or something else, was the place to start, but we always start where we are. 

We do what’s in front of us while trying not to lose sight of what it’s all for.  

It reminded me of being a parent. It sometimes feels like I’m a very underpaid taxi-driver, or cook, or personal assistant. It’s all true, I have all of those roles and more, but the pieces I move around are unimportant relative to them being a means of sharing an experience of life with my children. 

Just like my entrepreneur had chosen to play in the field of agribusiness with choices about whether to pay the labourers for lunch, or provide lunch in the plantations (or not to do anything about lunch!), so my son’s choices for his study abroad year were all part of the greater game of life. 

It’s That We Play…

At the Impact Circle last night, we talked about immersing ourselves in the game of business, sometimes being overwhelmed by the need to win at that game, and also seeing that the game has no end, that there are no winners and no losers, and that, at some point, we simply run out of time. 

If this statement is true then we don’t need to worry about which domino to move first, we should simply do what occurs to us to do.

The paradox of his situation (and yours, and mine) is that it looks as if the objective of what he does is to create a business that can be profitable and competitive internationally, but this is his equivalent of me becoming a very good personal assistant. My child might need some help navigating application forms for Danish universities, and being better at filling in forms will help with that, but it isn’t the point of being a parent. 

The question that underpins of all this, that we threw back and forth yesterday evening is this,

...for the sake of what…?

And, for our invited guest, it was the same as if you’d asked any of the members of the Circle. 

The impact is in the everyday. 

It’s for the sake of love. 

He didn’t say that but I could see it in his eyes, I could see that the connection with the people he surrounded himself with was what drove him; it’s what drives all of us. 

The way we treat someone, the way we design the work that we do, the love we pour into the food we cook for our children, are simply how we engage with life. What we do in life is unimportant — there is no end-game, we’re not playing to win, we’re playing to play.

And, sometimes, we get distracted by selling palm oil in 40 degree heat, or filling in forms for Danish universities and we think we have complex problems to solve. Oh well!

What Do We Do When the Challenges are Real?

And, yes, I realise that, in a sector like international development, as with any global, or large-scale problem, it can look as if the challenges are complex, connected, and fundamentally insoluble.

It feels important that fewer children go to bed hungry, fewer people die of preventable diseases, more people have sustainable livelihoods, security, access to education…

The paradox is that we are playing to win, even in an imaginary game. And, in our imaginary game, if all the dominoes are interconnected, and it doesn’t matter which one we move first, then we may as well start with what inspires us. Because who knows where the shift will come from that changes everything.

In answer to my question, ‘what would you choose to change?’ the first domino is always the one we just played.

With love,

Cathy