Rethinking livelihoods.

This post appeared on the PopTech blog and has been republished with permission. You can read the original post here.

This post is co-authored by PopTech president Leetha Filderman, and Ken Banks, founder of and FrontlineSMS. Together they are co-facilitators of the 2014 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program. 

We are pleased to announce the 2014 class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, a diverse group of designers, social innovators, technologists and writers with expertise in technology, global health, poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability and informal sector economics.

Sean Blagsvedt, Alexice Tô-Camier, Dominic Muren, Robtel Neajai Pailey, Solomon Prakash

This year’s program is focused on rethinking livelihoods. Now more than ever, the world’s population is contending with a multitude of challenges: demographic shifts, environmental stressors, unrestrained financial capital flow, shifting political landscapes, emerging technologies, and changing economic growth patterns and labor markets – all of which are shaping the notion of what livelihoods look like today and may look like in the future.

For two weeks this August the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows will convene at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. We will collaboratively work to define the notion of livelihood in the 21st century, while simultaneously exploring the challenges, opportunities and complex interdependencies that will impact sustainable livelihood achievement in the coming decades.

Our goal is to initiate a conversation designed to inform and inspire global, national and local efforts to improve livelihoods. Conversations will be complemented and challenged by an incredible group of catalysts, which bring a diverse and unique set of insights to the table.

Areas of exploration will include an examination of the central tenets of livelihoods strategy, the interplay between livelihood productivity at national and individual level, and the opportunities offered by the often-opposing formal and informal sectors. We’ll look at the positive and negative impacts of technology on livelihoods, and how both global security (and insecurity) and the geopolitical landscape impact sustainable development goals. It would be impossible to have this kind of discussion without recognition of the environmental challenges facing the planet, so we’ll be looking at how climate change and other threats could impact livelihoods development now and into the future.

Members of the 2013 class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows presenting at PopTech 2013

Following their immersion at the Bellagio Center, the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows will reunite in Camden, Maine at PopTech 2014: Rebellion, where they will present their work and explore opportunities for collaboration with the global PopTech network.

About the Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program:
In 2012, PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation created a joint Fellows program that brings together small, interdisciplinary groups for a two-week immersion program at the Foundation’s renowned Bellagio Center in Lake Como, Italy. Learn more about the inaugural class.

The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program is designed to be a unique incubator of unconventional collaboration around critical topics relevant to the lives of poor and vulnerable populations, and also serves as a laboratory to study the nature of collaboration itself as a profound tool for creative problem solving and solution development.

Time for a Donor Funding Charter?

Innovation isn’t about green bean bags and whacky idea sessions. It is a long term business development strategy
Lucy Gower

Behind almost every good social entrepreneur you’ll find a donor. These donors come in all shapes and sizes – family members, friends, companies, CSR departments and sponsors are the most typical, increasingly followed by the crowd funders among us. While plenty of great things get funded, pretty crazy stuff does, too. Zack Danger Brown just raised $55,000 on Kickstarter to make a potato salad, for example.

More often than not, the really big bucks come from government and philanthropic foundations. The UK’s Department for International Development will hand out £10.765 billion this financial year, funding all manner of projects that help those in greatest need. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest private foundation in the world, gave $3.6 billion last year. The world has plenty of problems – big problems – and these budgets reflect that. Donors get to choose which ones they fix, too. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, currently focuses on resilient cities, digital jobs in Africa, food security, gender equality and universal health coverage, among a few others.

Donors also pay attention to what other donors do, and to what and who they fund. They love, for example, the idea of matched funding where two or more will put in an equal share of funds for a project. It spreads the risk, and gives them all comfort that they’ve not made a silly decision. If the project is good enough for someone else’s money, it’s good enough for theirs. Getting funded by one of the bigger foundations often makes it easier to get money from the others – a sort of shared due diligence, if you like.

Despite all the money and resources – and attempts to apply them to all manner of projects and initiatives – problems remain. During my “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” book talks, I draw on some of the bigger challenges and failures of international development. Yes, a lot of good work has been done, but I often wonder if we’re getting value for money. Over the past 60 years, we’ve sure spent a huge amount of it.

Plenty of things have been tried, and continue to be tried. Much of the failure is put down to the people and projects (who in turn often blame the target communities), but in many cases responsibility also needs to fall on the people who backed them. Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ (often crazy) ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, Programme Officers often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t be going anywhere near.

What we end up with is a sector full of replication, small-scale (failed) pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration. This negatively impacts not only other poorly-planned initiatives, but it also complicates things for the better ones. On top of all that, it confuses the end user who is expected to make sense of all 75 mobile data collection tools that end up on offer. The policy of funding many in the hope that the odd one shines through – the so-called “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario – belongs to an earlier era. Today, we know enough about what works and what doesn’t to be far more targeted in what is funded and supported.

Given the vast majority of projects would never get started without some form of funding, donors are the ideal position to put this right. So here’s my proposal.

All major philanthropic foundations – and, where appropriate, government development/aid agencies – sign up to a Funding Charter which encourages much greater scrutiny of the technology projects they’re considering funding. This Charter will be available online, offering considerably more transparency for projects looking for money.

In the first instance, project owners will need to answer the following questions before their grant application is considered:

Preliminary questions

  1. Do you understand the problem? Have you seen, experienced or witnessed the problem? Why are you the one fixing it?
  2. Does anything else exist that might solve the problem? Have you searched for existing solutions?
  3. Could anything that you found be adapted to solve the problem?
  4. Have you spoken to anyone working on the same problem? Is collaboration possible? If not, why not?
  5. Is your solution economically, technically and culturally appropriate?

Implementation questions

  1. Have you carried out base research to understand the scale of the problem before you start?
  2. Will you be working with locally-based people and organisations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  3. Are you making full use of the skills and experience of these local partners? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation questions

  1. How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project was a success or not?
  2. Do you plan to scale up or scale out that impact? If not, why not? If yes, how?
  3. What is your business/sustainability model?

Transparency questions

  1. Are you willing to have your summary project proposal, and any future summary progress reports, posted on the Donors Charter website for the benefit of transparency and more open sharing?

Not being able to answer these questions fully and reasonably needn’t be the difference between funding or no funding – donors would be allowed wildcards – but it would serve two purposes. First, it would force implementers to consider key issues before reaching out for support, resulting in a reinforcement of best practice. And second, it will help the donors themselves by focusing their resources and dollars on projects which are better thought out and less likely to fail.

The simple adoption of this kind of Charter might do more to solve many of the niggling problems we regularly write, talk, complain and moan about in the ICT4D sector. Any takers?

A more concise version of the proposal is available on the dedicated Donors Charter website.