Green and yellow lichen on a rock, symbiosis, team work.

Making the Dream Work

by Katja Holtz and Caroline Wanjiku Kihato

‘No one can solve the world’s “wicked” problems on their own.’

– Otto Scharmar: Theory U

There are more inane aphorisms about teamwork in the English language than I care to count. “Teamwork makes the dream work”, “there’s no I in team”, “many hands make light work”, “sticks in a bundle are unbreakable”, “chains are only as strong as their weakest link”. The list goes on and on.

Who doesn’t groan everytime one of them is trotted out at a teambuilding retreat or an all-hands meeting? Superficially, these sayings seem lazy, banal and meaningless. I am not here to refute these feelings. These kinds of platitudes are easily invoked but far, far harder to live up to.

If we want to transform our communities, we must embody the ideal only hinted at by the above aphorisms. We must draw out the best in everyone, nurture and encourage collaboration amongst equals as well as those of disparate rank, often across cultural and linguistic divides. When solutions to housing, health care and livelihoods depend on the relations between host communities, national and local governments, charities and NGO’s, migrants and refugees, finding the right approach, the right levers and entry points is essential. It’s not enough to have a team or to know about all the actors and stakeholders. Knowing where and when to apply pressure and how much, requires a delicate hand and an acute sensitivity to the context.

Let me explain by example: Refuge Point.

Refuge Point is a global non-profit organisation that has worked with refugees in 47 countries. Their Kenya program provides assistance to refugees in Nairobi and a few years ago they encountered a problem. One of their programs sought to provide medical care to refugees. As you might imagine, this was a program of potentially unmanageable scale. They realized that, alone, they could not meet the vast health needs of their clients. Many refugees and asylum-seekers need long term chronic care like dialysis or chemo, and Refuge Point simply did not have enough resources to support them.

The organisation started exploring a more sustainable route to providing refugee health care in Nairobi. Following a careful review of national health insurance legislation, it became clear that anybody who lived in Kenya and contributed to the NHIF (National Hospital Insurance Fund), was legally entitled to insurance. This meant that, at least in theory, paying refugees could be included in the NHIF and receive care in public hospitals. Rather than make this a national issue — a strategy that could have resulted in political backlash rendering refugees ineligible for coverage — the organisation found their lever.

There was, it turned out, a mid-level bureaucrat whose job it was to increase the number of enrolments. What better way to increase enrolment numbers than to sign-up hundreds of refugees in need of healthcare? They were able to secure care for hundreds of people at a fraction of the cost of providing direct care — all without political backlash. In aligning their incentives (health care for refugees) with the bureaucrat’s (enrolling as many people as possible), they achieved a double win.

Working with and around organisations of scale, national governments in particular, can feel overwhelming. There are so many potential levers, so many obstacles and apparently meaningless hurdles, with as many gatekeepers and keyholders. In these contexts, knowing how to mobilise horizontal relationships and foster solidarity to leverage against unwieldy institutional structures can be the difference between success and failure.

The notion of “teamwork” has been busy covering for everything from bad management to outright exploitation. It is an easy thing to ask individuals to give more than they can, more than they’re paid to, in the interest of “team spirit”. It is another thing entirely to be a team in more than just rhetoric.

What Refuge Point does is approach the single issue of health care for refugees with collaboration and inclusion at the forefront — teamwork exemplified. Identifying the right person with the right access at the right time; knowing the texture of their own limits and how they might be compensated/complimented by the freedoms of others; working across and between organisational limits to accomplish things beyond those limits.

That is the task of knowing, disentangling, and putting to work organisational ecosystems. Working together to solve the world’s “wicked” problems.