You need to focus in one area.”  “Holistic Interventions simply don’t work…just ask the large, dinosaur NGOs that have tried them and failed over the last 40 years.”

“Integrated models waste resources, create dependency, and cannot become sustainable.”

You can’t be all things to all people.  All holistic models achieve is dilution of real impact across several weak initiatives that can never really be owned by the local people.”

These are just a few of the comments or words of advice that have been offered to me over the last three years as we have sought to design and build a holistic, integrated community development model that can actually scale in a way that is truly sustainable – from both a financial and human resources perspective.

These comments came from some really smart individuals who have been around this sector a heck of a lot longer than I have.  These words represent a fairly unified voice from the development sector consisting of both practitioners and funders alike.  The truth is that these words also have a lot of truth in them.  The Sub-Saharan landscape is absolutely littered with broken promises and broken holistic projects – multi-faceted interventions designed by well-meaning people in a Western laboratory and imposed on a population desperate for any intervention that could perhaps offer new opportunity and choices – any choices.

Despite these realties, Nuru has chosen to go the holistic route.  In an age where informed investors and brilliant social entrepreneurs avoid association with holistic interventions like the plague, Nuru is seeking to head directly back into the eye of the storm and embrace the concept of holistic, integrated community development.  Why?

Because holistic development just makes sense. It’s common sense that the sum of the whole is greater than its individual parts, and when you look at real examples from an actual community in extreme poverty, the evidence is even more apparent.

For instance, let’s say that an NGO offers a program to fight malaria. It trains people on malaria diagnosis and prevention, it sells bednets at a discount, and it trains people how to care for and treat their bednets. Perhaps you see a radical reduction in Malaria cases over the next 6 months, but oddly enough, the mortality rate for children under 5 does not go down.  Why?  Because even though malaria rates went down, children are still dying from waterborne illnesses and severe malnutrition.  The positive impact in decreasing malaria rates is diminished by the negative impact of the other poverty factors of the community, mainly poor water cleanliness and chronic hunger from low crop yields.  So why not just start a project that addresses a few factors simultaneously like water and sanitation, agriculture, and healthcare?  By addressing needs identified in all three areas, you can actually magnify the impact of each individual program and save more lives.

Sounds pretty simple right?  Wrong.  Today’s informed philanthropist community has an aversion to holistic models for very good reasons. Historically, holistic community development organizations a) waste resources by attempting to build solutions in each area of intervention from scratch (i.e. reinventing the wheel); b) create dangerous dependency upon outside funding and personnel because there is no clear exit strategy or attempt at financial sustainability, c) are exorbitantly expensive due to a heavy focus on infrastructure projects (roads, wells, schools, health clinics) that score big wins with investors and governments, d) propose complicated solutions that are impossible to scale – preventing investors from being able to leverage their capital to produce multiplicative impact, e) prioritize short-term over long-term strategic investment because donors demand immediate impact from their investments. These are only a few of the myriad of pitfalls of holistic development models.

But what if there were a different way to approach holistic development?  What if you could create a holistic model that leverages decades of lessons learned in a way that produces truly sustainable and scalable impact?  Well…then the multiplicative effect of magnified impact via an integrated approach would make a lot of sense.

Nuru is seeking to do just that.  Nuru is a sustainable, holistic, integrated community development model that serves as a general contractor of proven poverty solutions.  We scour the sector to find the very best models in all five areas of development that we focus in (agriculture, community economic development, healthcare, water & sanitation, and education) – models that incorporate proven, sustainable methods that are already working – and then we act as a general contractor to coordinate the implementation of these models under one umbrella.  We help unlock the latent potential of service-minded local leaders, and place these integrated proven solutions in their hands to empower communities to lift themselves out of extreme poverty permanently.  Revenue-generation models embedded within each of the five areas fuel the scale up of the project independent of Western funding to facilitate a complete exit of Western financial and human capital.

Do we think we’ve found the solution?  No but we think we’re on the right track. We’ve seen some exciting, early returns from our Kenyan pilot project. We have a solid prototype that we are iterating on and we’re eager to “fail early”  to learn from our many mistakes and from the successes of others who are already producing scalable impact via silo interventions.  2011 is a big year for Nuru with a heavy R&D focus.  We hope to come out the other side of this year with a unit of scale model that we will be able to grow not only into new districts in Kenya, but also into new countries where the model can further be tested and refined to produce greater and greater impact in the fight against extreme poverty.