Inspiring the local [by default]

I’m all for local solutions to local problems. Or even locally-inspired solutions to local (or national) problems. Or nationally-inspired solutions to local or national problems. I think you get the picture. But one thing I’m not quite so keen on is the default state of international solutions to local problems, or national problems in some cases. Sure, you can quite rightly argue that certain solutions need to be developed internationally to obtain economies of scale, particularly if your solution involves manufacturing, or if you’re working on the environment or in the health arena (after all, malaria is malaria, wherever you are). Just take the One Laptop Per Child Project, or OLPC, for example. For all it’s good and bad points – and I’m not going to go into any of those here – it troubles me on two interconnected fronts. Firstly, it’s international trying to solve local, and secondly, it really doesn’t need to be. Once again we’ve reverted to the ‘default state’ (one day I’ll draw up a diagram of how this should work. I keep getting asked what my ‘model’ is!).

(One point I’d like to quickly clarify here is my own belief in providing tools and not solutions wherever possible. Capacity-building is generally far more effective this way. This blog entry, however, deals with the issue of “solutions” because these are usually what’s offered. Hopefully one day this will also change).

With all the hype around the OLPC project you could have easily thought that it was the only computer-based ‘digital divide’ solution in town. Well, you’d be wrong. It’s quite possible that you may not have heard of some of the others, despite the big names behind them. How about the Eduwise laptop from Intel, or FonePlus by Microsoft? No? Maybe..? Okay, the Personal Internet Communicator from AMD, the chip maker? These are all being touted as THE solution to the digital divide problem (that’s providing internet connectivity/IT to the worlds’ poor, to you and me). A couple of these solutions use similar, but others distinctly different, technical approaches. But the one thing they have in common is they are all US-based responses to problems outside of the US.

Ever heard of NetTV, NETPC or Novatium? Well, soon you could be hearing a lot more. Ramesh Jain, one of the men behind Novatium, is an Indian. Not surprisingly he knows India, and he’s working on his own (not surprisingly, Indian) solution to India’s own digital divide. Luckily for Ramesh (if that’s the right word to use), his government rejected an offer of a million OLPC’s on the grounds that they were too expensive. His solution – a unit based on a cheap cell-phone chip, no hard drive, a keyboard, a screen and a couple of USB ports – comes in right on the $100 mark (OLPC is hovering around $140 these days). What’s more, Ramesh believes he can get the price down to nearer $70.

What’s so different about the two approaches – other than the obvious technical ones and the fact that one is a national and the other an international solution – is that Negroponte’s OLPC is based on heavy subsidies from private and public philanthropy. Ramesh is in it to make money. OLPC- and NetPC-style initiatives often lack sustainability, a ‘minor’ issue which often ends up totally spoiling the party. Look at the history books – the superhighway is scattered with the remains of initiatives forced to leave early with their USB cables dangling between their legs.

Now, a local or national approach to the problem, based on a socially-focussed business model? That could just work. It certainly ticks all the right boxes for me.

It’s capacity building, stupid..!

Most of us know the story about teaching a man to fish. It goes something like this. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and he can feed himself and his family forever, or at least a lot longer than one day. I have a similar story, but with a slightly different ending.

Benson in Zambia needs to dig a hole. The way most international aid works today, we’d fly a team over and dig the hole for him. We’d bring over the spades, use consultants to decide the hole’s parameters, and then return home with the spades. The hole might be the wrong shape, or the wrong depth, and in the wrong place, but it’s a hole, right? You may ask why we’re digging it. Benson knows where his hole needs to be, the optimum depth and shape. Why aren’t we giving him the spade, and letting him to do the rest? And, hey, with a spade he can then go and maybe dig holes for other people, and maybe make a little money along the way.

Okay, this may be a simplistic version of capacity building, but it’s so obviously the way we should be going it’s quite amazing that it’s still not standard – or even best – practice. Many ICT programs simply replicate these old models. The “West” holds the intellectual property over the systems, they’re developed in our capital cities, they give us jobs, they’re often big and grand and expensive, and we then let them loose in the developing world. Hey, some even work! But I still wonder why we don’t let developing nations develop their own solutions. As with Benson and his spade, all they need are the tools and a little help, and they’re well capable of doing the work themselves. They understand their predicament more than many of us could ever do.

While I was in Bangalore last December for the W3C Workshop, I had the pleasure to hear first-hand about an amazing project being run by Nathan Eagle, an MIT Research Scientist based at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The EPROM project (IT experts will get the irony!), or Entrepreneurial Programming and Research On Mobiles, aims to foster mobile phone-related research and entrepreneurship at Kenya’s leading university. Students are taught how to program mobile phones, and develop applications, for use within the university, within their communities, and nationally. Quite simply it’s a brilliant idea, and an example of capacity building at its finest.

If you dig around it’s still possible to find little gems like this, but it’s a shame we have to look so hard. Initiatives such as EPROM and Kiva (see the blog entry below) are setting the new standard. They’re breaking the mould for how we go about “helping” the developing world. As many of us may already know, it’s not really help they need. It’s the tools. There are some very bright people over in Africa too, you know.