I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

02 September 2012 ~ 7 Comments

What advice would you give a soon-to-be graduate?

Last week I got this note below from a college senior looking to explore development work, and wondering what the best and most responsible way to do that would be.

I wrote him back some thoughts, and asked him if it would be ok if I shared this with LessonsILearned readers to see what advice other people might give. He said ok, so here goes!

I’ll post a comment with the response I sent him next week, but in the meantime, I’d love to read YOUR thoughts! What advice would you give a soon-to-be graduate? What books would you recommend, etc? Hopefully this can help Bill (name changed) and others!

Thanks, Bill for such a thoughtful email and for making your impact decisions so careful! I am looking forward to reading what the rest of you advise!

Hi Daniela,

I hope all is well.

I know you must be very busy so I will try and make this quick.

My name is Bill Smith and I am going to be a senior at in college in California. As I enter into my final year of undergraduate study and begin the search for a job or post-college scholarship I was hoping to gain some of your insight.

At this point let me first explain why I am asking you specifically….

Over a year ago my university sponsored me to “intern” (ok volunteer) at a local education NGO in Siem Reap. Before traveling to Siem Reap I was really excited to travel abroad, help those in need…mostly things of a personal benefit. I held these views until I began to research a bit deeper into the troubles of current volunteer practices.

After reading a few articles and watching two Al Jazeera specials on voluntourism and orphanage tourism, I began to really question my decision to volunteer in Siem Reap. I contemplated canceling my internship in order to avoid contributing to the negative aspects of volunteering/development work…etc

Since I already booked my plane tickets, I decided to pursue volunteering in SR but with the intention of entering the process as an educational experience. More specifically, I treated my experience as if it was a course focusing on the issues surrounding international development organizations operating in Cambodia.

This is when you come into the picture.

During the week I worked as a before/after school tutor, however I made sure to spend some of my free time and several weekends meeting trying to learn more about both the good and bad practices occurring in Siem Reap and other areas of Cambodia. I gathered information from three main sources: through meeting with and researching other NGOs, by living in a guesthouse where the owners ran their own education NGO and through online scholarly journals or blogs such as your Lessons I learned. In fact I actually met with two people from PEPY and they helped share some very insightful information about some of the work and philosophies of your organization. I believe I was there a week or two after you decided to leave to pursue further studies.

Which brings me to the present time.

As I enter my final year of undergraduate education, I feel a little lost in terms of furthering my understanding of the development practices and changes needed to make it more effective. I have stumbled across provocative pieces such as an old speech from Ivan Illich (http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm) but really have failed to find a more experienced or learned adult to really offer additional insight to not only the failures of current development work, but also insight into the innovation and organization needed for new development models.

After watching and reading your most recent blog posts I felt motivated to finally contact you. For some reason the “learning” before “serving” talk really resonated with my experience from last summer.

I think what I am trying to ask is: what are some paths or experiences I should pursue that would develop my knowledge and skills in order to more effectively help social change in the future?

I know this is a very broad topic that will require a multi-faceted approach and experts across almost every field of study. In an attempt to try being more specific: I am interested in understanding more about the relationship between politics, economics, culture and the causes of current “problems”. In addition to understanding more about the causes of current problems, I am interested in learning more about the role/strategies both individual development organizations and groups of organizations have in finding solutions to these problems.

Are there certain books/articles, fields of study (economics? Psychology? Etc.) I should read? Hands on experience? Applying for Fulbright versus applying for other jobs that would provide great business and management practice such as consulting, teaching? Basically anything where I could develop a higher level skill? Follow something I’m passionate about?

Thank you for taking the time to read at least a part of this rant. I apologize I didn’t keep it as short as intended. Whether or not you respond, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts on your blog. I really think you are sharing amazing thoughts, and a lot of people can and will learn from your ideas and the discussions you raise.

Thanks again and keep up the fantastic work!

Bill Smith

P.S. I would appreciate the opportunity to get involved in the Educational Hotel! I think that is a fantastic concept. I recently spent the summer in Thailand through another scholarship and two weeks traveling in Burma, while there I really saw the need/niche for affordable and informational education hostels/hotels.

15 August 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Learning Service TEDx Talk

I recently gave at talk at TEDxOxbridge about “Learning Service” and why I think we shouldn’t be encouraging young people to go abroad to volunteer. (Lessons learned from my own actions.) If you want to check it out, you can do so here:

29 July 2012 ~ 2 Comments

Teacher Training in Cambodia (an idea)

Deciding what not to do is sometimes harder than deciding what to do, when you see many great possibilities for the future. I am surely having this problem with regards to post-gradschool life. And at PEPY, we reached many points where deciding how to move forward meant deciding which ideas NOT to do.

Here is an idea we decided not to pursue at PEPY, not because we didn’t feel like it would be a good path forward, but because we felt we didn’t have the bandwidth to take this on while pursuing other activities which fit more inline with our mission and skills.  I wanted to share it here in the hopes that it will help influence other organizations or people considering the problem of low impact paid training programs in Cambodia (and other places around the world), and maybe someone else will want to take ideas from this into their work moving forward.

The problem and proposed solution are all included in this presentation from the PEPY communications team (made about 1.5 years ago – thanks Elise & Jen!).

If you feel like passing the slideshare on, here is a short link for it:



27 July 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Learning Service Guidelines

At PEPY Tours, we transformed our organization from a “voluntourism” company, offering people the chance to “help” while they traveled, to a “learning service” company, where we invite people to come learn about the issues surrounding international development, and then they will be better equipped  to do the “serving” later. The biggest lessons we came to understand in Cambodia is that you have to learn before you can help. Our goal is that people who travel with us will learn about development work, engage with the complexity of aid, and rather than feel that they have come and “helped”, we want them to get angry, get interested, LEARN, and then they can help the other 355 days of the year, or the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, we realize that volunteer travel is continuing to grow in popularity, and just because we have moved away from it, does not mean the rest of the world has. As such, we wanted to share tips that could help those people who are looking to volunteer to benefit from the “learning first” concept, and to give those who are already out volunteering abroad the tools they might need to improve the impact of their experience, on their own lives, and on those they interact with on their travels.

PEPY has recently release “Learning Service: Tips for Learning Before Helping”, a toolkit for the traveler interested in traveling to learn or to serve, and “Learning Service: Volunteer’s Charter”, for those who are already on a volunteer placement. Check them out below, give us tips on how to improve them, share them with people you think could use them, and let us know your thoughts!

Many thanks to Claire Bennett, Anna Baranova, and Sarah Brown for their efforts in writing/editing these and to Wei Peng for the design!

13 July 2012 ~ 1 Comment

The emerging market problem: should we aim for higher profit margins or better business strategies?

The post below is a comment written in response to a Harvard Business Review article “Businesses Serving the Poor Need to Get Over Their Unease About Profit” by Erik Simanis. The article uses examples of products designed for high-volumes low-margin sales strategies which failed and counters that with micro-finance as an example of high margin BoP offerings, coming up with the conclusion that we need to aim for higher margins in our emerging market business models. While I agree with aspects of the premise of his argument, I don’t agree with how he has set out to prove it or the examples he has used, hence, my thoughts below:

I’m afraid I can’t agree with the logic used in your cause and effect analysis, and I think it’s unfortunate that the same examples continue to be used to highlight “price/positioning” failures, when they are often “management decisions making/design/business offering” failures.

To be clear, I agree with you that we need to “get over the unease about profit” when it comes to emerging markets – the lessons I learned during six years in Cambodia highlighted to me that sustainable long-term solutions to many of the problems we see in the world are not going to come from aid organizations giving things away or companies selling inferior products at a loss. I agree with you that many of the solutions will come through business, and using smart business practices. But I disagree that the differentiator of success is target profit margin, and I disagree that high profit margin goals in the micro-finance sector has led to a higher net impact for people living in emerging markets. Yes, it has led to higher investment potential, but like many situations attracting a high volume of investors, it is also leading us into higher bubble-bursting potential.

From my perspective, Pur did not fail because they tried to price a product too low. They failed because they offered a product people aren’t intrinsically interested in using making the cost to educate people on their product perhaps too high, and the fact that their competition is a more sustainable option (ie. an in-home water filter costing a few dollars which lasts for a few years vs having to buy 10 cent packets every day to clean your water).

Have you seen Pur work? When I was at one of their demonstrations, I was mesmerized by the “magic” of it all, but certainly was not interested in drinking the water. It’s not the only product of its kind. There is a natural salty rock-like substance that does a similar thing, has been around longer, and has equally failed to be adopted by large numbers of people looking to clean their water. The people I know who were using it 5+ years ago in Cambodia were all foreigners or foreign educated Cambodians trying to “teach poor people” to use the product, like P&G was trying to do. The thing is, “the poor people” are still PEOPLE, and many people, like me, when they see the product, want nothing to do with putting some powder or rock into their water and then drink it. So to achieve sales, they not only had to offer a product at a competitive price, but they had to educate consumers about why it was safe, etc – and I assume many people tried it once for the fun factor but then realized they’d need to purchase it every day, worked out the math, and decided it wasn’t worth the money.

The product was designed to be a low margin, high volume product that P&G could sell to increase their reach across the BoP but was clearly not designed based on user input towards solving a complex problem. I argue that if they had taken the latter route, they would have found a different and more sustainable product that added greater benefit and then would have been able to make money off of the solution – but then again the ideal water filtration product would not fit into P&G’s FMCG model. So they offered something that was less than ideal, and they failed, just like thousands of other businesses that offer products that fail to meet consumer needs.

And the same goes for the snack food. There are other snack foods that DO reach every corner of specific BoP markets. Why? Because people want them, they taste good, the health benefits are well understood, or they are a known brand, etc. The same reason snack foods reach every corner of the “developed” world. Do we lament the thousands of snack foods that must fail each year in the USA as they seek to generate enough demand or income? If the manufacturer got their business plan wrong: in terms of pricing, break even, or in many cases, product offering or branding, then they fall into the same fate. Most new businesses fail. It’s not any different if we are trying to pat ourselves on the back for doing good for “poor” people than if we are trying to exploit the lack of will power of Twinkies eating Americans.

To highlight your argument, you use micro-finance as your “good” case, using what, in my opinion, is the entirely incorrect measurement of success.  The growth is the micro-finance sector has been donor/investor/speculator driven. There had been so much money going into this space, with investors and NGOs crawling over each other to start yet another MFI, and you act as if investment interest is a measurement of business model success, or an even further stretch, as if investment interest equates to high impact on the ground for BoP borrowers.  Were you just as keen on the growth of the mortgage sector when investors were tripping over themselves in the housing debt market? We all know how that turned out.

During the time I lived in Cambodia, I watched the number of micro-finance institutions in the area where we worked grow from 1 to 8, with many reporting to their investors or donors, as the case may be, their 95% or higher repayment rates. The thing is, without legitimate credit bureaus, they have many of the same borrowers, who borrow from one, then the next, then the next bank until they end up with the same loan shark who was there before these world-saving institutions showed up, only now they owe more than they ever would have without the MFIs. And yet, we call this progress and this is the model you want us to copy?

I was on a panel last year with the founder of Compartamos, the Mexican MFI which had an IPO highlighted above, and he talked about many of the practices that made their business successful, such as investing in staff training, etc. I am sure he too would agree that good business practices can not be boiled down to high profit margins, and that other MFIs with similar profit margin targets have failed to meet their business or social impact measurements, not because they didn’t aim to make enough profit, but instead because they aimed to make too much but forgot that running a good business takes a lot more than a good financial model.

Micro-finance CAN be great business: for the investors and for the world. So can water purifications systems. So can highly nutritious snack foods. And some of each of these will fail or succeed. The “moral of the story IS clear” I believe, but I don’t draw the same conclusions you do. Like in all business around the world cracking profitability requires not only thinking about the financial plan, but also making sure your product fills consumer needs and is demanded. The MFIs, the snack foods, and the water systems – just like the banks, the Smart Water, and the Twinkies – which are most successful from the consumers eyes and which will continue to sustain demand in the future, are the ones that are actually taking the user’s needs and desires into account. They are including consumer input in their design process, are providing something which doesn’t seem like “magic” but is instead understood as a real solution to people’s needs, and for those gaining accesses to lower interest capital due to their “social impact mission”, they should also be tracking their impact financially as well as socially.

As with all business, the proper profit margins will be different for each company, based on their overhead costs, riskiness, cost of capital, competition, social impact goals, etc.  I think it misconstrues the argument to highlight companies that failed to innovate and build trust & demand in emerging markets as if doing so in our “emerged” ones would have led to different results.  If we fail to highlight that good business practices overall are essential for success in emerging markets we’re continuing to promote failures based on sympathetic and uninformed business models where people walk away stamping their feet that “they tried to help the poor and the poor didn’t want it.” What we need is empathy – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and co-create a solution that people will demand and pay for. That’s good business, no matter where you are in the world.

If you want to read the HBR article, click here.

13 June 2012 ~ 2 Comments

Ashoka Guest Post & a TEDx Talk, oh my!

This was as lucky week! This past weekend, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak at TEDxOxbridge – the second annual TEDx event being split between the two universities. My talk on voluntourism focused on the need to promote and support our youth in selecting educational travel opportunities over volunteering as my experience has taught me that (ready for the soundbite I keep repeating), we have to learn before we can help. It will be up on video at some point in the coming months.  In the meantime, a piece I’ve written for Ashoka’s new #StartEmpathy site just launched today, which shares similar thoughts. Check it out if you like:

Sympathy: Simply Ineffective or Actually Harmful?

Back to wrapping up final papers for school, where most of my writing time is going these days!

30 May 2012 ~ 5 Comments

Educational Hotels

I see the future of travel for the discerning traveler as moving more into the educational travel space.  Imagine hotels with professors-in-residence, curated happy hour discussions on current issues and ethical debates, in-room learning opportunities through iPads or touch screens linking to unique learning tours, nightly guest lectures, hands-on workshops, a co-working space where local innovators and thought-leaders mix with traveling intellectuals, and communal eating areas where local produce fuels the system. I believe these types of spaces will drive collaboration and be the basis of future networks and businesses.

Through our years with PEPY Tours, moving it from a “voluntourism” organization to a development educational company, we have been able to offer bespoke educational experiences for travelers (which is where a lot of the ideas above came from). Our team has seen the power and appeal of educational travel first hand and have talked about the idea of an educational hotel chain for a number of years now. PEPY Tours own digital superhero, Wei Peng, and other wonderful friends, helped put this idea on “paper” as we entered it into a design contest.  If you like the idea too, please rate it high (click on the image above or click here).  If you like this concept and want to be involved in making more of these educational hotel spaces and learning centers, drop a note!