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Welcome to the Financial Times live web chat with Caroline Harper who features in our Ten Questions Q&A.

Caroline Harper is CEO of Sightsavers and one of the judges of our FT Sightsavers MBA Challenge. She will answer your questions on Thursday 2nd February, between 13.00-14.00 GMT.

Post your questions to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day on this page.


I was in attendance at the London convention on eliminating neglected tropical diseases and I was wondering what you thought the role of smaller non-governmental organisations and micro-charities were in eliminating blindness and tropical disease? Would it be beneficial for larger NGOs, such as Sightsavers, to work with and equip smaller charities better so that they have the maximum impact in the small regions that they work within?

School based feeding programme’s are excellent and will reach 90 per cent of neglected people however smaller charities will reach the 10 per cent that in the most remote rural regions and are missed by these projects.

Nicholas Ashton, CEO of Malawi Eye Surgery Fund

Caroline: I think it is important to look at what the relevant organisations actually do. I don’t think you can just say ‘small is better’ – in fact I think it can lead to inefficiencies if you encourage lots and lots of small organisations, all with their own overheads (CEOs, fundraisers, accountants etc) to multiply, with the larger NGOs just feeding the smaller ones. There really is an economy of scale here, especially as we are now expected to do so much more in monitoring and evaluation, audit, fraud checking etc. I have been impressed with Lesley Anne Alexander, of RNIB and her drive to consolidate the blindness sector in the UK, where there are so many organisations.

It is all about whether the organisation itself has a particularly strong niche – whether it be specific expertise or a relationship with a partner in a country that others do not have. In those instances, we would be happy to work with a smaller NGO that brought something to the table that we could not.

I don’t agree that you have to be small to reach remote rural areas. We do that in NTDs via community directed treatments – including some in incredibly remote areas that require long hikes and river crossings to reach. Community members are trained to distribute drugs. School feeding / health programmes are indeed excellent, but they are only part of the story and I think we need to bring together this implementation approach with others, such as the community directed ones.

One area where we do support some small organisations is in community-based organisations in the countries where we work (i.e local NGOs rather than international NGOs), and some of these are absolutely incredible in the work they can do, especially in our social inclusion work.

I would like to enter the FT Sightsavers MBA Challenge but the application criteria states my team must include one person from Asia, one from Europe and one from the Americas. I am based in Europe but I don’t really know anyone in Asia or the Americas. How do you recommend I go about recruiting team members from these places?

Caroline: We are encouraging people to use social media platforms to connect with people from other areas. This is a great opportunity for shared learning and different perspectives will be brought by people from different continents. Business schools will have global networks so please use them along with your personal networks.

What would you say makes a good business plan?

Caroline: There isn’t really one size fits all, but there are some key things to remember.

First, who is the audience? If there is a specific one you are writing it for (eg a potential investor), it is sensible to find out what you can about their interests and needs and make sure they are covered.

Otherwise – there are basics. You need to have something in there about the sector in which your business will operate. What is it’s core proposition? Who are the competitors? Why is your product / service compelling? What is the size of the market? What will you do to capture customers? (and how much will it cost?) How will you manufacture / distribute product or provide the services? At what cost? And why that cost?

You need some financial projections and you need to have realistic assumptions about where they come from. You need a section on what the risks are and how you intend to mitigate them. Finally, you need to be positive but not wildly optimistic. Never base a case on ‘I only have to get one out of every ten people to buy this and we are away’ type arguments. Or base a market entry on a tax loophole…

What has been your most memorable experience working at Sightsavers so far?

Caroline: A few stand out: being in Mozambique, in Nampula and seeing the dire conditions where a truly marvellous man was doing eye operations. A little boy there who had half his face eaten away by TB, including his eye - we are now building a new eye unit that will really help. A ten year old blind girl singing ‘Amazing Grace’ at a school we supported and not being able to keep the tears at bay when she got to the part about ‘I was blind but now I see’. And finding out that we had got a department for international development partnership agreement worth millions of pounds, when just a few years before a key DFID person had said ‘Sightsavers – who are they then?’

What made you decide to apply to do a PhD?

Caroline: I didn’t really know what to do when I finished my physics degree. I went for a few job interviews during the milkround but nothing really appealed. A friend got the prospectus from Cambridge for PhDs and I read about a department of energy studies there, which was part economics, part computer modelling. I visited the department and fell in love with it – really energetic people working on something very relevant to the world (and Cambridge was beautiful). I have to say the idea of spending three years in that environment, working on that type of thing was deeply appealing. And it was the best few years of my life, in many ways.

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