Friday, October 15, 2010

SDM helps student take on global development challenges - SDM Pulse Fall 2010

By Alex Shih, SDM ’09

Alex Shih, SDM ’09, far left, and Jennifer Woodfin,
MBA ’10, far right, gather with patients and
family members in Uganda with whom they
worked on a project to combat AIDS.
When I joined SDM in January 2009, I expected to get a top-tier education in engineering strategies and management principles that would further my career working on large-scale, complex solutions at Raytheon. I also expected systems thinking to provide a powerful approach to combating problems related to domestic poverty—a personal passion of mine.
I was right on both counts—but I have also gained much more.
Thanks to SDM and the connections I’ve made through the program’s unique position in both the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT School of Engineering, I have not only learned about management, leadership, and the importance of systems thinking. I’ve also expanded my personal interests, developing a passion for tackling larger, global challenges containing multiple dimensions such as technology, business, and policy.
SDM has provided me with opportunities to take on projects in India, Uganda, and Israel, and led to my decision to pursue a dual master’s with MIT’s Technology and Policy Program—all of which, I hope, will further my efforts to address sustainable, international development and social justice in the future.
Tackling illiteracy in India
India has an illiterate population of approximately 300 million, a majority of which live in rural areas. At the same time, the country boasts a mobile phone penetration of about one third of the overall population, a figure that is expected to grow to about two-thirds within the next couple years. It seemed reasonable to consider whether this prevalent technology might be used to address a common social ill.
During the summer of 2009, I took an MIT class called NextLab, which focuses on using mobile technologies to address global challenges. A class assignment soon brought me to Jhansi, India, a rural area south of Delhi, where I co-led a project called Celedu (Cellular + Education) that aimed to spread literacy in the developing world using cell phone applications.
Our team of SDMs, MBAs, and computer science students developed and deployed a pilot study to assess the effectiveness of an interactive game application to address illiteracy. While technology was crucial to our application, we built our business model around the culturally relevant theme of community-based learning. It was designed to be interactive in order to leverage India’s existing social system and to encourage community involvement and accountability.
Considering cultural context as the broader system for our application allowed us to build a more successful model. We used technology that required very few behavioral changes from users, and that decision contributed to the results showing quick adaptation. Ultimately, we were able to demonstrate receptiveness from our target users to an unfamiliar technology, and we found that our application dramatically quickened short-term learning relative to the current book- and even computer-based method.
In SDM’s system architecture class the following fall, we retroactively identified areas for improvement. We mapped out the system architecture of Celedu’s model and identified gaps between the function of different subcomponents and the form they should have taken. For example, while we were sponsored by Development Alternatives (a nongovernmental organization) and partnered with Nokia for our pilot, we needed to better understand the stakeholder network and the value flow among them in order to align the incentives of each contributor. I am currently in the process of further developing the software and establishing a long-term partnership through courses at MIT and government agencies.
While researching sustainable household income in Uganda, Alex Shih, SDM ’09, found that raising
chickens was often a good business prospect for AIDS patients. Chickens (left) were fed feed containing
vitamins and other nutrients (center) and their eggs were packaged and transported to market (right).
Fighting AIDS in Uganda
The project management, business analytics, and systems thinking skills I’ve learned at SDM also proved useful for the project I undertook last fall for the Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab), a premiere international internship course at Sloan. In G-Lab, my team worked with a project partner in Africa to address business and operational issues related to health-care delivery.
The Sustainable Household Income Project (SHIP) I worked on was developed to help HIV/AIDS patients in Uganda to increase their individual income generation. Prior research and collaborations with patients had demonstrated that an increase in household income improved treatment adherence, a critical factor in health-care outcomes. While many patients of the clinic we worked with were able to obtain free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, they often had difficulty funding the associated costs, such as transportation to the clinic, opportunity costs for the time and labor spent getting care, and additional food required. Many patients in rural Uganda were actually spending 30 percent to 50 percent of their income on transportation alone to pick up monthly refills.
SHIP set out to fund income-generating activities (IGAs) with a central income generator, a lemongrass distillery. My team was tasked with assessing and analyzing the profitability of the distillery, determining the feasibility of independent household IGAs, recommending an optimal governance structure, and identifying major project risks.
We discovered that the estimated profits generated by the central lemongrass distillery would only sustain SHIP operations for about three years due to the high capital expenditures and operating losses of the distillery. Ways to augment distillery profits included building a visitor center and marketing products using an organic/fair-trade brand. SHIP could also cut operating costs by running a leaner organization, scaling up more gradually, or creating strategic partnerships with other nonprofits that may fill in gaps in competencies/expertise.
More significantly, when we examined the distillery plan within the larger system of individual households, we found that lemongrass growing at that level required substantially more land than other IGAs and carried more risk as a cash crop. In contrast, other IGAs—such as chicken coops and fruit growing—were more suitable for many patients. Best practices advised that each participant should draft a custom business plan considering resource availability and costs specific to his or her household.
Our home visits, subject expert and faculty interviews, and secondary research further demonstrated that each household’s characteristics and resources uniquely affected the feasibility and profitability of any given IGA. What could be an outstanding success for one household is likely to be a disastrous failure for another. Furthermore, many households took on a variety of IGAs simultaneously, ranging from crops to animal rearing to clothing products, adding further layers of complexity to the already unique system of each household.
Overall, we determined that the distillery project would only be feasible with better governance and project management, compelling SHIP to proceed with caution. This experience helped to cement for me the importance of risk transparency so that all project stakeholders and participants can better mitigate internal risks and plan for external risks. Plainly, any effort to relieve a social ill must examine and consider the whole social system involved.
In his paper “Doctors Without Orders,” Josh Ruxin writes that the failure to construct viable public health systems in the developing world has helped create the conditions for the pandemics of today. He emphasizes that these health institutions and infrastructure in developing landscapes cannot be treated as independent silos and disconnected projects. There are too many projects only focused on water, education, or specific diseases. Instead, integrated approaches—those that take into account water, sanitation, economic opportunity, education, and infrastructure along with health—have a better chance to address public health needs both sustainably and adequately.
Both Ruxin and the World Health Organization contend that the “complex matrix of development” requires systems thinking, financial knowledge, and management. We must bring together perspectives from economists, sociologists, management consultants, and politicians, and create solutions that focus on every aspect of life that contributes to health, from the management of care programs to agricultural productivity to telecommunications improvement and the provision of clean water. This means that we must not only recognize that Uganda’s economy can affect the country’s national health-care system and vice-versa, but embrace its interconnected-ness and integrate all the current initiatives out there that are still largely in siloed operations.
I am now in my third and final year at MIT. I returned from a summer in Jerusalem working for a nonprofit educational organization called Middle East Education through Technology (MEET), whose vision is to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together through the language of education. There, I taught business and entrepreneurship to high-school students, while gaining a glimpse of the complex challenges engendered by prolonged conflict.
It is the beginning of a new academic year, and I hope to continue internalizing classroom teaching and perspectives gained from global experiences into my courses and eventual thesis. I am convinced that society’s problems must be dealt with holistically and owned by the beneficiaries in order for solutions to be sustainable.

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