A CONVERSATION ABOUT nabuur.com
WITH SIEGFRIED WOLDHEK
For an illustrated and easily navigated version of this discussion click here
is the founder and CEO of nabuur.com
a new internet mechanism
for communities and individuals to work together for development
— 'Nabuur' is an Old Dutch word for 'neighbor'
Siegfried Woldhek was previously CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Netherlands,
Dennis: Siegfried, like many other Nabuur village 'facilitators', I discovered Nabuur by looking for opportunities at the UN volunteers web site. That is – I had gone to one organization, a big organization and learned about your new 'organization', Nabuur.
However, then I began to read that – while you believe 'organizations' do extraordinary work – you believe that organizations cannot deliver results on the scale required, that something new is needed. Can you explain this idea, please?
Siegfried: Thanks for asking this, Dennis. It is a very important issue and it is critical to my vision for Nabuur.
Let me first make this clear... After working for large Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) for 25 years I have great respect for what is achieved in the field. I am proud of the work that my colleagues and I have done. At the same time it is painfully clear that diseases, poverty, environmental destruction, and so on are more rampant than ever.
In terms of the scale of world issues and problems AND the workloads of international organizations, in the words of former US President Clinton, there is systemic crisis.
Businesses, NGOs and governments are all 'hierarchies' – organizations with management structure, controls and rank. A hierarchy is designed to carry out its own plans with its own people and its own funds. After 1000 or 1500 projects, most hierarchies are stressed to the limit. The effort needed to keep such a thing together – to manage the staff, to communicate internally and externally, to maintain proper bookkeeping procedures, etc, etc takes up nearly all the available energy.
All these organizations have drawers full of work that they would like to do — but they will never get it all done. This is not a matter of lack of time, lack of people or lack of funds. Working a bit harder or smarter will not be enough. The system is simply full. Now... at the same time... there is a huge reservoir of people — both in the north, in the developed world, and in the south, the less developed places... People who are eager to commit some time and energy directly to other people. This cannot be facilitated at the proper scale by hierarchical institutions.
In other words, there is no shortage in the knowledge, funds, manpower, contacts or other resources; what is lacking is a trusted, effective institutional format that allows many people to interact directly around local issues.
Dennis: So... your aim with Nabuur is to develop this new way of doing things, without an 'organization'?
Siegfried: Yes — by coupling the age-tested self-organizing social phenomenon of neighborhood to the internet. NABUUR is an old Dutch word for neighbor. The idea behind NABUUR is to give local communities access to people elsewhere in the world who care about that place, access to and connection with 'virtual' neighbors. Not through institutions, but directly, from person to person.
The virtual neighbors can be emigrants or their children. They can be people who worked in the village for some time and now live somewhere else again, frequent visitors, etc. They may also be strangers, who have not been there, but want to learn and connect. Most local communities in the world have such virtual neighbors. They present a formidable source of potential energy for the local communities, if there is a way to access them.
In short, NABUUR is an attempt to deal with the systemic problem, to develop a system that can deliver solutions to the many millions in need.
Neighbors usually are not experts or sources of money. They are the mediators between the people in need and the resources out there. The people in need don’t have the time, energy, skills or equipment to find those resources; that is where the neighbors come in. They find, select and deliver until the issue is dealt with.
With the arrival of the internet it becomes possible to give local communities around the world direct access to virtual neighbors, thus enlarging considerably the group of people looking for the necessary resources ‘out there’. By building the self-organizing nature of neighbors into the mechanism, it will be possible to do this at a very large scale, without an ever-increasing and soon imploding central organization.
Dennis: You began in 2002. Is it happening? This is ambitious. How do you measure success?
Siegfried: We have used the last several years to develop a basis, together with a few participating local communities. In the experimental phase Nabuur has established as fact that the principle works. It is important to realize that these particular results as such are not special; they could have been achieved by many other means. What is spectacular however is that the results have been achieved by volunteers from around the world, in their own time, guided directly by the local community and without control by a central organization.
I have also been pleased, watching this, to see that once the first identified problem has been dealt with, new issues are taken up in discussion. The virtual neighbors are in principle and in effect a continuous new work force for the local community.
Thanks to the preparatory work done, NABUUR can now quickly expand from the present number of participating communities (50) to more meaningful levels.
Dennis: I notice something in the way you approach this subject – in our earlier conversations as well. You present an idea, but then your wait for others to seize the initiative... In another conversation we spoke of a tension between, on the one hand, encouraging individual village communities to find their own solutions and on the other developing a collection of solutions to problems. I sense that your greatest concern is to ensure that individual village communities are themselves empowered and creative.
Can you address that issue? Where are the engines in Nabuur to be? Who is in charge?
Siegfried: Ha, here’s a question that can be answered very simply: the local communities are the engines; they are in charge. How to achieve that is of course quite another matter, but there is no doubt that the local communities must be in charge, because it is their needs that will be addressed.
And yes, to a degree you’re right about presenting an idea and then waiting for others to join, but it may be a bit more complicated. The realization of these ideas can only be done in a combined effort of the different parties concerned. No single institution in Holland, Uganda or Australia can design the blueprint. Co-creation is needed.
Let me set out how a 'co-creation' process can work:
This way we create something that can correct itself, can react to the flow — instead of a fixed entity that can only deliver X under conditions Y and in time frame Z.
The key sentence that people hear me say ad nauseam is ‘the quality of the observation determines the quality of the movement’. Anybody who has learned how to play the piano or how to dance will recognize this. The better you are able to detect the movements in your body, the smoother and quicker you go. Similarly, we are jointly building a vehicle that can tune into the local needs.
Is this too vague?
Dennis: No, no, I get your drift. I think I follow you. But most of us in the 'North', in the developed world, are very accustomed to working in organizations, in a more structured environment. We have to come to terms with the genuine freedom, the opportunities for real creativity, in this 'co-creative' approach.
You are wanting the local 'villages' in the South to be full of initiative, and not just dependent on things brought to them. As well, though, there is a need for initiative in the North. We in the North seem increasingly to be passive consumers, choosing between lifestyle options.
Do we all need to be more inventive and self-reliant for Nabuur to work well?
Siegfried: Local communities in the South in most cases ARE full of initiative. They spent endless time and energy in solving all sorts of problems, often with great ingenuity and endurance. Neighbors all around the world ARE resourceful, if provided with a urgent and concrete issue. If NABUUR manages to provide a context in which local communities can present urgent and concrete issues to their virtual neighbors, initiative and inventiveness will abound.
Dennis: You speak of a plan to lift the number of Nabuur villages, now around 50, to 1000 in the next two years. How can you support such an expansion?
Siegfried: First of all it should be clear that 1000 villages is not the end goal.
If that’s all NABUUR can facilitate, than we have added just another nice organization to the existing array.
The number of local communities in need of assistance is at a much higher scale and NABUUR wants to create a mechanism that can work at that scale. And because the villages need help, we are in a hurry.
Secondly, the key to the needed quick growth is self-organization. We have spent a lot of time and effort creating systems and procedures that require minimal central effort. For example, checking the trustworthiness of a local community by travelling there would take a lot of central time and money. It may be quicker and easier, say, to have it checked by a local branch of a worldwide women’s network. The view of a nearby NABUUR village may also be required. The part of the nabuur.com web site – the 'wizard' - that allows new local communities to register themselves already contains some checks.
Dennis: When you were head of WWF Netherlands and then WWF's Action Plan, you had, in fact, a large established organization behind you, plus an image and a large number of people with shared visions to back you, to swell the numbers. The situation seems different here at Nabuur. This is a very fresh idea. Do you have particular ideas of how the new concept can attract followers?
Siegfried: The news media will be crucial to spread the word, both to the potential new local communities and to willing virtual neighbors. So far we have kept rather silent about NABUUR in the news media, because we needed to develop the concept further. Once the new website and procedures are ready, we will be ready to go to the press with stories about the work done and about some of the issues that need extra assistance. In my other jobs, I’ve always found that good true stories in the news media are the most effective way of attracting many interested people.
Dennis: You have expressed support for views about the world expressed by the founder of the Visa Card system, Dee Hock. One of the characteristics of that system is that it is in fact owned locally all over the place. Are you thinking about the same notion for Nabuur? Can you see lots of Nabuurs, differently managed, in different places?
Siegfried: My mind is drawn to similarities, much more than to differences. So notwithstanding all the differences between a straightforward payment with a credit card and the sort of interactions that NABUUR tries to facilitate, there are some stimulating similarities. The Visa card system is owned by banks all over the planet. Even though the one card is universally recognized, it is a system, a mechanism, highly adaptable to every country's or bank’s needs. Guarding the quality of the brand is clearly a central task. However, under this umbrella a lot of local differences can bloom. I see something similar in the case of NABUUR: a trusted name that is easy to access, has meaning globally and is known as a pathway to empowerment and mutual support. That's where I'd like us to be a few years from now.
Dennis: Aha! This sounds like a really exciting and challenging vision! I think we all have to think about that...
Perhaps this is a moment to break.
Siegfried, would you be happy to resume later? If people could send me comments and questions we can feed them into another round of discussion.
Siegfried: Yes, Dennis, let's do that. It is absolutely vital that everyone feels a sense of ownership and involvement. And that we shape Nabuur in terms that people find strengthening, liberating and neighborly.