Full disclosure: I like GOOD, and I enjoy engaging online with Alex. This post is neither an attack nor an attempt to start a blog war.
Read the full article (the bit.ly link), entitled “Should Fighting Hunger Be a Franchise Business?” He’s basically looking at the so-called “franchise” model being piloted by Nutriset (the company that brought us Plumpy’nut) and wondering aloud if this isn’t, perhaps, maybe, the wave of the future of aid.
When we look at something like franchising as a way forward for our industry, I think it’s important to separate in our heads the model under consideration (franchising) from the product (in this case Plumpy’nut).
I’m sure we could go on and on about Plumpy’nut, all of the positives and negatives, spin hypothetical scenarios in which it would be appropriate or not appropriate, share stories of how we’ve all seen it fail or succeed in the field. That’s not the point here, but this excerpt is telling:
As TOMS Shoes‘ buy-one-give-one model rose in prominence, aid worker have protested the idea of giving things away to the poor when there’s a way for those products to be produced locally. Why not do the same with food aid, Nutriset says?
Hunger of the sort which calls for massive food aid programmes is a situation quite distinct from acute malnutrition of the sort which warrants emergency therapeutic feeding with a product like Plumpy’nut. Plumpy’nut may be food, and it may be aid, but it is not food aid in the common aid world sense of the term. And by a similar token, you simply cannot compare food with shoes. TOMS Shoes giving away shoes to communities that may or may not want them is a universe apart from giving away basic food staples in communities where we know objectively that people will become malnourished (or worse) if they don’t get something and soon.
Not to wail away at Mr. Goldmark or at the execs of Nutriset, but these mistakes of nuance are important. They give way to a generalized lack of understanding of how the aid world works. I expect my neighbor across the street to mistake emergency therapeutic feeding for general food distribution. I would expect more from the CEO of a company trying to position itself as a leader in that particular wonky little corner of the aid world.
Similarly, while the term “franchise” is not one that we commonly encounter in relief and development work, the concept as described in the article is not particularly new: Identify local stakeholders with the capacity and vision to be “positive deviants” or “promoters” or “community facilitators”, build the capacity of “local partners” to carry out programmatic interventions on our behalf, and make the case that in so doing we’re “creating local jobs.” Although they (or at least Alex) use different words to describe Nutriset’s paradigm, this is essentially what they’re doing. So on that front, I think we can all nod a silent, aid worker’s “yes.” We think franchising generally works as a programmatic model. We’ve been doing it some way, shape or form for many years already.
The bigger and more vexing question, for me at least, is not touched on at all in the article. It’s something I’ve debated many times in different places both online and in person. Namely, “What is the appropriate role, or roles of for-profit sector entities and values in the humanitarian world?”
Plumpy’nut may be an amazing product which, when used correctly, saves lives. Franchising (sometimes called other things) is a proven means of delivering interventions of many kinds down to the grassroots. But can and should fighting hunger be a franchise business? As a declarative statement, I think that assertion needs closer examination and debate.