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Albina Ruiz was last night awarded the Albert Medal for a life-times worth of work in environmental management. With her help, her organisation Ciudad Saludable has grown out of its humble origins in Lima, Peru to become what is now an international force for improving waste management and sanitation. So successful is their approach that they are now making headway as far afield as India.

In a nutshell, Ciudad Saludable helps turn local people into self-reliant micro-entrepreneurs, enabling them to earn a tidy profit from collecting and processing urban waste where they live. According to Albina, these are often unemployed women who go door-to-door collecting waste, while at the same time educating people about how they can take better care of their environment. The real strength of their model lies not only in addressing the growing issue of waste disposal, but also in its ability to create jobs and empower those working within the schemes. Albina often retells her conversations with the women working with Ciudad, highlighting the personal transformation that many appear to go through as part of their work. As she has said previously:

“One time, we invited 59 women to join this project . . . and 700 women responded! Some of them were already working with garbage and other informal activities. The first day, we asked them how they were feeling about their lives. The overall response was that they were feeling badly, and they didn’t even make eye contact while speaking because they were ashamed of their situation.

One year later, we asked them the same question, and the responses included: “I am an enterprising woman,” “I am business woman,” “I am happy,” and “I feel I am a good mother.” In addition, they not only looked us in the eye, but they also smiled and hugged us.  The fact is that this change also brings dignity at the family level, because similarly, when children are asked about their mother’s job, they answer: “She is a micro entrepreneur.””

As we witnessed last night, Albina seems to have that rare ability to turn what is ostensibly a dry and unromantic topic into something warm and thoughtful. How many people, for instance, can pepper a talk about waste management with phrases such as “from the heart” and “together we can really change”?

That said, it didn’t stop her from offering some interesting and practical insights for us to take away. These included:

  • Many people harbour an entrepreneurial mind-set which needs only a small amount of encouragement to emerge – while many in the developed world idealise entrepreneurs as having an in-built capacity to run a business successfully, the model run by the likes of Ciudad Saludable illustrate that with a little encouragement and collective willpower nearly everybody can make a go of running their own enterprise.
    • Financial incentives are critical in persuading people to take up pro-social behaviours – in her lecture Albina told the story of how residents in Lima were reluctant to play a part in putting out and separating their waste for collection until it was explained that they would receive a tax-break. The notion that financial incentives are one of the most powerful weapons in changing behaviour is echoed in other stories emerging from across the developing world. For instance, Brazil has a cash transfer scheme, Bolsa Familia, which pays a nominal fee to families on the condition that children stay in school until 17. Is there a back-to-basics lesson here for the UK’s approach to welfare and behaviour change?
      • Vested interests are often very nuanced – Albina mentioned in yesterday's Q&A session that while paying for Ciudad Saludable’s waste management services is very cost-effective, the 10 per cent commission which local officials take from investing in new infrastructure means they are more likely to want to buy large and expensive garbage trucks than the tools which her waste pickers use. This is despite them being a huge drain on resources in both the short and long term. While the UK enjoys relatively low levels of corruption, perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere for us around paying closer attention to vested interests, as opposed to simply citing a lack of willingness, funds or skills as key barriers to achieving positive change.
        • Changing the law is half the battle – related to a discussion of vested interests is that of legal matters. Albina mentioned that they had to campaign and persuade politicians to change the law so that it allowed for the kind of micro-enterprise model which Ciudad Saludable is based on. The UK Government has taken what is sees as radical steps towards reducing the bureaucratic burden for small organisations, yet for many this is still too much (see Luke Johnson’s critic of the Coalition’s new company law as a case in point). There is also perhaps a lesson here for foundations and other agencies funding charities and social enterprises – could they also assist organisations that have innovative new models to change the law? It takes a funder with a really long-term vision to support a drawn out campaign for a change in the law, but without being able to do so the likes of Ciudad Saludable may not be around today.
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