In my search for a holiday read last week, I picked up a copy of The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, a book about “why the West’s efforts to aid the Rest have done so much ill and so little good”. Reading this feels like a throw-back to my days at Sussex University where, during the Development Studies portion of my degree, I seemed to spend half my time reading books about how woefully inefficient international development-spending was. On the whole, most of the evidence then seemed to fit that view. So here I am, a decade later, reading much of the same in the form of an updated condemnation, reinforced by a further ten years of (generally-speaking) failure. The White Man’s Burden does a good job of unpicking much of what I – and many people – believe is wrong with the development industry (and yes, it is an industry, employing – it seems – as many people here as we’re trying to help there). And I find it particularly refreshing because, for once, small-scale efforts are appreciated for what they are, and not condemned as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unscalable’. The problem, as William Easterly puts it, is that donors and governments like big impact, and this leads many people to only think in terms of “Big Plans”. Few Big Plans work. Many more smaller ones do.
Much may be wrong with international development, but the industry is still blessed with talented people who deeply care, and are truly passionate, about their cause. Many work for the Big Planners, while others choose an alternative path. The two approaches could not be more different, and there are many reasons why people choose one over the other – job security, money, opportunity, ‘big is beautiful’ and status are perhaps just a few. After all, how could billions of dollars funnelled through massive aid projects not make a difference? One problem with the Big Plan approach is that no-one ever seems to be accountable. Wait for the next set of global health targets to be missed – better still, the Millennium Development Goals – and see who gets fired. Go it alone, however, and the situation is very different.
Planners prefer big budget big scope big impact plans designed to fix big problems, while Searchers look more closely at specific (smaller) problems and tailor a more appropriate response based on cost, local issues and understanding, need, relevance and opportunity. Microcredit began life this way. It was never meant to fix everything, although going by the number of Microfinance Institutions (MFI’s) around today you’d have thought it was. As William Easterly puts it:
Microcredit is not a panacea for poverty reduction that some made it out to be after Yunus’s discovery. Some disillusionment with microcredit has already come in response to these blown-up expectations. Microcredit didn’t solve everything – it just solved one particular problem under one particular set of circumstances – the poor’s lack of access to credit except at usorious rates from moneylenders
Although William Easterley’s book only occasionally touches on technology, ICT projects are far from exempt from the Planner/Searcher scenario. Mobile phones are regularly touted as “the device to close the digital divide”, a magic tool to help lift people out of poverty or a quick-fix solution for activists. As with microfinance, this is also only true in some instances, not all. Mohammad Yunus took a commodity as ‘available’ as money and improved people’s access to it. Mobile phones are now the new currency, and there are myriad examples of how this handy little device is empowering people the world over. But we need to be careful that the mobile doesn’t fall foul of the same trap. We need to realise, too, that many of the mobile-based solutions prevalent in the developing world are the result of local initiatives, local people identifying local needs and acting on them. These people had no Big Plan – they simply searched, found and did. As William Easterly puts it, “poor people have accomplished far more for themselves than the Planners have accomplished for them”.
So often we find that the answers lie with the people themselves, but all-too-often solutions are imposed from the outside – the West – or from above through a distant, centralised government. William Easterly continues: “The best chance for the poor is for them to be their own Searchers, borrowing ideas and technology from the West when it suits them to do so”.
A few months ago I gave an interview about my work, and FrontlineSMS, to the Corporate Council of Africa for their forthcoming Africa Journal. This interview more than any captures kiwanja’s work ethic, and ends with a quote which could have easily come from William Easterly’s book:
… But what excites Banks most about FrontlineSMS is the role he doesn’t play. “FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity”
Whether it’s measured in the uptake of FrontlineSMS, or interest in my latest nGOmobile initiative, it will be The Searchers in developing countries who ultimately determine whether my efforts succeed or fail. We all need to be accountable to someone. I’m happy to be accountable to them.