Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development
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Posts from — February 2006

To try or not to try – is that the question?

Something I really liked from an article by Ariel Leve in the Sunday Times last week:

People love to say: “It’s better to have tried and failed”. But what’s wrong with not trying? Not trying means you don’t have to live with the bitterness and frustration of failing. Even better, not trying means that trying is always in the future – something to look forward to.

When I think about all the things I haven’t tried, I’m grateful. I haven’t tried crack cocaine or bungee jumping or firing an AK-47. I haven’t tried kissing in a gondola or eating a blueberry bagel. I haven’t tried having the mumps, either.

Why would I want to try new things when I’m having more than enough trouble getting by with what I’ve got?

Quite.

February 25, 2006   No Comments

Customer? Care!

At a recent ‘Technologies for Conservation and Development’ (t4cd) Conference I attended in Cambridge, I asked the delegates what I thought was an important yet often under-asked question – where and who were our ‘customers’? The conference was concentrating on the use of technology in global conservation and development work, and there was an interesting mix of technical and conservation people. Having them all in the same room for a couple of days was certainly a unique experience, and something which most of us agreed should happen more often.

For those who don’t know the focus of my work, my key area of interest is making technology work for the NGO community, mainly those working on the ground in places such as Africa. The reasoning for this is simple – although I can hardly class myself as a conservationist or a development practitioner, I have spent a bit of time working on various projects on the continent and take a keen personal as well as professional interest. Not only seeing, but experiencing over the years the wide range of basic problems that ICTs could easily help solve out there has got me wondering why more isn’t being done, and if it is why we don’t hear that much about it.

I have always believed that I’m never going to save a species from extinction, or a tropical forest from becoming a palm oil plantation. But what I can do is support someone who can. It is the same with technology. Alone it won’t achieve much, but if applied appropriately it has absolute potential to positively assist worthy conservation and development causes. It is its ability to empower individuals and groups at all levels – international, national and local – that makes the potential impact so exciting. Hearing of a small NGO in South America using simple text messaging to mobilise local communities against illegal logging is no less inspiring than hearing about the international effort to create complex early warning systems, and may in fact be more so. The problem, as far as I see it, is that too much focus is put at the top-level. As a good friend Simon Hicks once put it, we mustn’t forget the foot soldiers, the guys on the ground eating and breathing conservation day after day.

Here’s an interesting one for you: While much of the international donor community commit to helping those in extreme poverty – defined (by someone – always wondered who) as having an income of less than $1 a day – significant numbers of local people employed through internationally-funded community projects get somewhere around just that – $1 a day, or its equivalent. If anyone can explain this, please let me know. (Okay, I know it’s a complex subject – point me to the debate).

When you look at the philanthropic actions of many of the bigger technology companies, most of the focus remains at the higher end of the spectrum, the larger, expensive, complex, sexy stuff that looks good in the Corporate Social Responsibility Yearbook. You could point to many reasons for this, including prestige (bigger project means bigger headlines). The fact of the matter is that much more can be done with your dollar if you spend it on the ground. There’s nothing new there. But that’s not to say the global monitoring systems, big fat databases and biodiversity analytical tools aren’t useful – they are – but useful to different sets of people.

There are, it goes without saying, problems when you start spending your money on the ground – accountability is one – but this also applies when you give millions of dollars to third world governments. It can still vanish, and it often does. Just in much larger quantities.

When small, tightly run local NGOs struggle to raise a few hundred pounds to equip their rangers with HF radios, or mobile phones, you can see the problem. We managed to re-build an education centre in Nigeria during my time there. The impact was immense – no more cancelled lessons in the rainy season (leaking raffia roof, muddy floor), no more re-doing posters which were regularly blown away or trashed in flash storms, a place to have meetings, for the staff to go, proper electrically wired plugs and lights (done by me, so maybe not so proper). And the cost? A mere £200 (or $300 if you want to talk ‘real’ money).

So, who are we doing what we’re doing for? And why? Even worse – are we doing it for ourselves? Who is the ‘customer’? Who will benefit most from the work we do, the systems we create, the hardware we build? I notice a slighly worrying trend of projects being run for projects-sake, of people doing things because ‘they’ want to, or because ‘it will be interesting’ or because they want to be first to something. Where does the need lie in these scenario’s?

A lot of current talk is of broadband- server-intensive applications, ones which would only serve the top of the conservation practitioner pyramid. Don’t get me wrong, many other people have the same view. But what do we do about it? How do we shift the mindset?

Finding out what the real conservation need is, and where it is, is absolutely vital. How we join the dots, and help make this happen, is the challenge. Thankfully there are enough people out there trying. As for the success stories, since we’re often talking small-scale, very little news gets out except on a local level. “Hey, Wayas has got a camera phone and can collect actual evidence of illegal logging activities. What if we could give our tiger patrol teams one?”.

This lack of news isn’t necessarily a problem – it’s still a success story and, after all, some of the foot soldiers will have slightly easier lives because of it. But, by knowing about it we could maybe replicate it and help our entire army?

Then you’d be talking…

February 23, 2006   No Comments

Untitled

what i’d like to see
is that table where you once sat
covered in beautiful flowers.

it would remind me
of you.

February 21, 2006   No Comments

Whatever happened to all the white wristbands?

Let’s hope that recent reports of the demise of the Make Poverty History campaign are unfounded. Mobilising the masses last summer (okay, via the biggest free pop concerts ever staged, but does that matter?) was certainly a remarkable achievement. But people – and perhaps more to the point, the press – have very short memories.

Apparently there were 8,000,000 white bands in 2005. With Africa once again off the international agenda – no surprise there, then – now is the time for some of those eight million to show that it’s not off theirs.

February 20, 2006   1 Comment

Standing up for the small guy (part 1)

Picture this: The writer of a zulu tune written in 1939 dies in poverty 20 years later. His song goes on to become one of the most popular tunes in Africa, and is recognised the world over. Ownership of the copyright ends up in American hands, and finds its way into a film which becomes a worldwide hit. The film makes tens of millions of dollars, and is then turned into a successful stage musical – a few more million in the bank and counting. The song reportedly makes $15 million but the family of the writer get $15,000. As Rolf Harris would say, can you guess what it is yet?

Now, I’m no expert in copyright law, although apparently it should have reverted back to the family of the deceased 25 years after his death, so that would be 1987. Something somewhere seems to have been overlooked, but the family eventually sued and won an ‘undisclosed’ out-of-court settlement. Another case of the multinational/big corporate beating the small guy with a stick?

Ethics are a wonderful thing, and many people don’t argue against them particularly. Unless they get in the way of making a few quid, that is. Ask a hundred people on the street what they think and I bet most would side with the small guy, but they don’t have their finger in this particular financial pie. Ask a hundred shareholders – of Disney in this case, if you were wondering – and I suspect you’ll get slightly different results. The trouble is that exploitation of this kind is probably taking place all the time, but we never get to hear about it. I bet there are a lot of really pissed-off people out there…

But what happens when one of the stars of a film, or book, or song can’t speak for itself? I’m thinking wildlife – whales, dolphins, gorillas, lions and all manner of worldly creatures. There’s also a very compelling ethical/financial issue here. It’s ironic that most of the ‘wildlife stars’ in these productions happen to either sit on, or uncomfortably near, the ‘critically endangered’ or ‘critically threatened’ list. How much of the hundreds of millions (even billions?) of dollars made from films such as The Lion King, King Kong and Free Willy been donated to the conservation of these very species? I’d like to do a little more research on that one.

Musically speaking, Michael Jackson’s epic ‘Earth Song’ from 1996 – “What have we done to the world, Look what we’ve done” – takes us through almost everyone’s top 10 favourite animals (“What about elephants, What about crying whales” and so on) and drives home their destruction and death. Not knowing how much money was made globally by this massive hit, again it would be a very interesting exercise to find out how much was donated to causes trying to save those very elephants and whales. I’ll happily stand corrected, but again would be very surprised if it were much, if anything at all.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a law which made it compulsory to donate a certain percentage of income (and not just a token amount, either) to the preservation of any species which take a central role in your song, film, photograph or book? After all if lions, gorillas, whales, ants and so on didn’t exist then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy watching films about them, whether they’re turned into rampaging 30 foot monsters with attitude, changed into cartoon figures or kept in their natural form.

Unless something gives the only place future generations will be able to see these magnificent creatures will be in dusty film archives – or at best a zoo – and that would not only be a real shame but an ecological and environmental disaster.

February 19, 2006   No Comments

Phones4All?

According to a GSM Association spokesman quoted on the BBC Online website today, “The mobile phone is the only viable technology that can bridge the digital divide”. This is quite a bold statement in a debate which has been running for a fair old time. It goes along the lines that by putting something digital – a mobile phone in this case – into the hands of the worlds poor you can economically empower them, among other things. If it were only this simple.

It goes without saying that the mobile phone is revolutionising the way Africans talk to each other. Often described as a “leapfrogging technology” the mobile is bringing communications to areas which have never seen, and in many cases would never be likely to see, traditional landlines. And once these phones are unleashed on a population it’s true that quite amazing things happen. Budding entrepreneurs quickly spring up providing battery charging services, others sell carry cases, chunks of call time, car chargers, replacement covers and top-up cards (a huge percentage of third world customers use the ‘Pay-as-you-go’ service due to a lack of credit history, a bank account or even an address). One of the more remarkable examples of entrepreneurship is the building of tall wooden towers which users climb, for a fee of course, before making their call in areas with a bad signal. Who’d have thought of that?

During field-based research for a report I co-authored a couple of years ago, we called this “organic growth”, the secondary effect of the mobile revolution. At that time the knock-on effect of providing mobile coverage to a population wasn’t really appreciated, but sometime later Vodafone showed they had their eye on the ball when they published a comprehensive study of the socio-economic impact of mobile phones. It’s well worth a look.

As far as economic empowerment goes, it is true that some will benefit. But many others will be left behind. Being able to send a text or make a phone call alone isn’t going to drag everyone out of poverty. The mobile phone as a political empowerment tool though? Well, that’s another matter. Voting in elections with your mobile? Being done. Spreading a political message? Being done. Campaigning? Being done. Political activism? Being done. Quite clearly the more phones out there equals more opportunity.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that many developing countries are struggling with the democratic model, and perhaps no coincidence that in a fair few dictatorial regimes reign ‘supreme’. (Is Thabo Mbeki the only African leader not trying to change his country’s Constitution to stand for a third term?!). In places where free speech can land you in a whole load of trouble, mobile technology can give people a voice (or text, as the case may be). And an anonymous one at that. And this should not be underestimated.

The GSM Association can certainly do their bit. But let’s not get carried away. Unleashing 12 million $30 handsets into developing countries may grab the headlines, but a handset alone isn’t going to solve the complex problems that many of these people face on a daily basis.

February 16, 2006   1 Comment