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Management in Practice

Can local empowerment create lasting change?

Over the last 50 years, Western aid to the poorest countries has often failed to make tangible improvements in the lives of their citizens. Nadim Matta '89, president of the Rapid Results Institute, talks about the organization's approach to achieving incremental change by empowering frontline stakeholders.

  • Nadim Matta
    President, Rapid Results Institute; Senior Partner, Schaffer Consulting

In the last half century, Western governments and NGOs have spent roughly $2.3 trillion on foreign aid. Despite this massive outlay, seemingly modest goals for improving the lives of the world's poor have remained elusive.

Economist William Easterly argues that the Western aid project is fundamentally flawed by its top-down approach, in his book The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good and other writings. What poor countries need, he writes, is not "planners"—technocrats and politicians conceiving and carrying out a comprehensive "Big Plan" for ending world poverty—but "searchers" looking for local solutions by trial and error.

"A searcher," he writes, "admits he doesn't know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors."

Nadim Matta '89 cites Easterly and other "non-traditional development thinkers" in describing the the Rapid Results Initiative, which he helped found in 2006. Rapid Results is an offshoot of Schaffer Consulting, where Matta is a partner, and aims to bring Schaffer's approach to fast, team-driven, incremental change to international development efforts. The organization provides coaches who help local stakeholders set a goal, create a plan based on their own knowledge and experience, and carry it out in 60 to 120 days.

The system, Matta and Peter Morgan write in Stanford Social Innovation Review, is designed to empower frontline staff and local volunteers to take ownership of a project by creating a temporary "protected work space" where systems of hierarchy, corruption, and other barriers to accountability are neutralized.

In a conversation with Yale Insights, Matta says that a successful project with small but tangible results makes it possible to get commitments from political leaders and achieve more in the future. "There's something human about people wanting to associate themselves with results," he says.


Q: How are you able to adapt the Rapid Results model to different countries and cultures?

Nadim Matta: I wouldn’t say that we would— we rebuilt the model in each place, but I think there is, in this work, learning that happens continuously. So the things that—the direction of learning is slightly different in each of the places we’re describing.

So, for example, in Kenya, in the public sector, there’s a lot of learning that we need to internalize about how people interact within a strict hierarchical culture. In our work, Rapid Results work, is partly about empowerment. It’s about taking a break from the hierarchical culture, so that aspect of the work becomes both more challenging and more impactful, because you’re running against the grain of the established culture, but when you actually enable leaders to create the space in which people can operate that way, then the delta of impact can be phenomenal.

In the U.S., that’s less of an issue, but in the U,S,, for example, particularly in the work we’re doing on homelessness, in particular veteran homelessness, the big challenge is how you get members of different organizations, different agencies across several sectors, to come together and put aside each of their respective agendas and agree on a common goal that they’re going to pursue. Without necessarily having anybody being able to dictate that, not because there’s no hierarchy, but because there’s so many multiple hierarchies that it’s going to have emerge from the collective wisdom of a group of stakeholders from different entities.

The direction of the learning that happens around how we apply the model is going to be much more intentional around that particular issue. And these are not things necessarily that I can go and study the culture and say, “Here’s how we’re going to change how we apply this.” This is much—it’s kind of a rapid learning model. Let’s start with the basic model, but let’s be humble enough to know that we will learn a ton from the first experience and then we’re going to help the local sponsors integrate these learnings into how they take this work forward.

Q: How do you get so many different entities excited about each new project?

Matta: There’s something human, I think, about people wanting to associate themselves with results. In many places, and I think the U.S. as well, results are political. They are the currency of a politician, being able to say they delivered.

What we typically do is, again, rather than try and go through a big engagement and study for how do we pull the politicians or the leaders from institutions in, we try to get in, initially, with a small enough space that may not be noticeable in the beginning. Just enough protected space to help some people achieve results that they can really feel proud of and then advise them on how to create in turn the space for others to plant their flag.

And that’s how you—that’s a strategy to get the coalition built, if you will, as you go versus sort of starting by spending a year building the coalition before getting into action. So it’s a little bit of reversing the flow. You start the action in a small enough place and then use the currency of results to build the coalition.