Designs on Development

A special approach to development creates a unique response to catastrophe

by Robert O’Neill

When Cyclone Nargis tore into Burma in May 2008, laying waste to a large part of the country and killing more than 150,000 people, relief workers mobilized to help the survivors.

At regular township coordination meetings, NGO workers from Yangon city, as well as experts flown in by major international relief agencies, hammered out the logistics of getting aid into the flooded Irrawaddy Delta region. As they talked of trucks, boats, tons of food, distribution points, some local Burmese men sat quietly at the back of the room. They worked for International Development Enterprises (IDE), a nonprofit whose Burma operation is run by two social entrepreneurs, Jim Taylor and Debbie Aung Din Taylor, both MC/MPA 1990.

The men were a little more rustic than the typical relief worker. “Most of our staff are former rice farmers — regular rural folks,” says Jim Taylor. “One visiting donor called them ‘salty’ in comparison to the urban-based staff of most groups.” They didn’t get that much attention until the extent of IDE’s reach and effectiveness became apparent.

The agency had been moving tens of thousands of temporary shelters and improvised water storage tanks into the worst hit areas. They had been reaching the victims of the storm directly, not leaving the supplies at regional hubs and leaving the local government to organize the distribution. And they had the supplies people needed most because they had spoken directly, and listened intently, to the survivors.

By the end of relief operations, the Taylors estimate their agency had reached more than a million people (out of the more than 2 million affected by the storm), supplying more than 73,000 family shelters, 58,000 farm recovery kits, 4,200 large-capacity water tanks, and 110,000 landless families with food rice.

It was one of the most effective relief efforts of the first few months. Perhaps most surprising of all, IDE was not a relief agency.

Jim and Debbie Taylor started the Burma program in 2004. They had met doing development work in the Mississippi Delta in 1978, right out of college.

“We are both motivated by a desire to improve the lives of people living in poverty,” says Jim Taylor. “We’ve been given a lot by our families and our education and always felt a desire to use those skills to serve others.”

The Taylors were interested in working abroad. They went to Cambodia as the country was lurching toward peace following the devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge. They worked rebuilding large-scale irrigation and in rural health care and learned important lessons about direct knowledge of the people they were trying to help.

“The relationships we formed there were some of the deepest we have ever formed in our lives,” recalls Jim.

It was there that they also met Thomas Vallely MC/MPA 1983, director of the Kennedy School’s Vietnam Program. The Taylors felt that they needed more economics training if they were going to make development their lives’ work, and Vallely encouraged them to attend the Kennedy School.

Arriving in 1989, the couple immersed themselves in development economics and policy analysis. As soon as they graduated, they returned to international work, moving to Indonesia for seven years before eventually returning to the United States and settling in California in 1997.

Jim got an MBA, worked for an agribusiness multinational, and then a dotcom start-up. Debbie had been spending more and more time in her native Burma, (her father had been the country’s head forester, and though she had grown up largely outside Burma, she had retained deep ties to the country). Soon the desire to work overseas took over again.

But when they decided to move to Burma, with their two school-age children, they knew they did not want to work in traditional aid.

They wanted to affect broad change using the private sector, allowing the people they wanted to help to define value for themselves.

In Burma, the Taylors quickly set about finding out what smallholder farmers needed the most to jump-start their productivity, and then how to make that product as low-cost as possible and sell it to the farmer. It’s a concept dubbed “discover, design, deliver.”

In Burma, what the farmers needed most was water for irrigation, and the cheapest way to get them that water, and extend their growing season after the rains had passed, was a foot-powered water pump. They designed a model that could be made cheaply locally and that worked best in local conditions. Today they can sell the pump for as low as $12 through a network of more than 200 agro-dealer shops and delivery agents at the village level, dealing directly with the users and helping them set the pumps up and troubleshoot any problems. The $12 investment profits the average Burmese farmer about $200 in additional crop sales. That’s money that is used on things like education and food for the family. In just a few years, almost 40,000 families have purchased pumps. The Taylors estimate that during the past four years they have helped 175,000 people, spread across 10,000 villages lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

Their close relationship with rural households allows them to constantly work on new products. Setting up a local design lab with help from Stanford’s graduate-level Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course, the Taylors and their product design team have developed or redesigned a number of simple but productive products, such as low-cost water storage bags and a rechargeable solar light, and they are developing others, including a human-powered rice thresher and a line of fuel-efficient cooking stoves.

Their approach, dealing directly with the end users of their products, has allowed them to develop deep relationships at the local level. The openness with which they approach their work — “We’re very transparent about what we do,” Jim Taylor says — has allowed them to conduct their work without interference from the government.

When Nargis struck, all these factors allowed the Taylors to respond in a unique way.

Initially they moved quickly to locate about 20 staff members who had been caught in the path of the storm. While an operations center was set up in the former capital, Yangon, staff from all over the country began to scour the disaster zone. They found their colleagues, alive and well. But they also found an area more devastated than they could have imagined: tens of thousands dead, villages annihilated, livestock and crops destroyed.

Reacting to the emergency, the Taylors mobilized all their organization’s resources for the relief effort. Their staff in the area were able to assess the most immediate needs of the survivors: first, shelter and drinking water.

Using rapid prototyping techniques, the Taylors determined the optimal size of the plastic tarp shelter needed (3 meters by 4 meters). They repurposed water tanks they had been developing for drip irrigation systems. The products were literally designed, built, and shipped into the needed areas within days.

Staff members traveled over flooded roads and down muddy canals infested with leeches and snakes. In areas where roads had been destroyed, they used boats, battling torrential rains and high winds to gain access directly to those who needed the supplies.

“They have been the true heroes of this crisis,” Debbie Taylor says of the staff, who endured long weeks without a break.

But the work was far from over. After relief came rebuilding.

“By mid-June farmers were telling us they were desperate to plant their rice crop in time for the rainy season,” Debbie Taylor says.

Funds came in from Western governments, including the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the United States, as well as individuals, all impressed with the efficiency of their operation. Donations totaled $10 million.

The Taylors worked quickly to engineer a recovery package for small farmers: hand tillers to replace the draft animals lost in the cyclone; rice seed that could grow in the soils altered by the flood of sea water; diesel to power farm equipment; and fertilizer to boost rice yields.

More than 58,000 kits were distributed in time for the planting deadline in late July. And one month’s supply of rice was delivered to more than 110,000 landless families.

Villagers in the delta, Debbie Taylor says, were not just appreciative of what their staff had done, but also of how they had done it.

“We came directly to their village, despite the distance and difficulty, to deliver assistance into their hands,” she says. “We were able to model good governance and transparency.”

Goods were distributed directly, not through intermediaries, and transparently, so everyone knew what everyone else was getting. The actual process of distribution was helpful to farmers too. “Being called out by name and being recognized as individuals also affirmed the dignity of survivors,” Debbie Taylor says.

It will take years for the Delta to return to normal, the Taylors predict. But they will continue their social entrepreneurship work. Currently they are in the process of spinning off from IDE into a new organization called Proximity.

They also continue to build on their ties with the Kennedy School. Vallely, the man who first urged them to study at HKS, visited them in January to help assess the nation’s agriculture needs. The Taylors’ work may be used as a case study. And they plan to offer internship opportunities to several Kennedy School students this summer.

And they know their work has made a real difference in people’s lives.

“We’ve lost our homes, our belongings, our rice seed, our food, animals, and everything, and it is difficult,” a farmer from the Delta told them last summer. “But we have to say that one good thing that has come out of this disaster is we’ve come to know we have friends from the outside world who care about us.”

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Jim and Debbie Taylor

Jim and Debbie Taylor, both MC/MPA 1990.

“We’ve lost our homes, our belongings, our rice seed, our food, animals, and everything, and it is difficult,” a farmer from the Delta told Jim and Debbie Taylor last summer. “But we have to say that one good thing that has come out of this disaster is we’ve come to know we have friends from the outside world who care about us.”

Villager receiving rice.

More than 16,000 landless families each received a 50kg supply of rice.