When your best might not be good enough.

As most people working in global development will know, poverty isn’t a static state. It’s not ‘simply’ a case of helping lift people out and then moving on to other things. Poverty as a state is fluid, one which the majority of people repeatedly drift in and out of over time.

Problem-solving more broadly in international development follows a similar pattern. Some problems seem solved, only for them to return later. Others might be genuinely fixed, only to be replaced by others. One of the reasons the world continues to look and feel such a mess is precisely because of this – the fluid nature and complexity of the problems we’re trying  to solve.

Impact matters to me, so this is particularly problematic. And by impact, I don’t mean specifics. I’m not the sort of person who wants or needs to feel they’re changing the world for millions of people, but I would like to know whether or not some of my actions are helping some people in some way, however small. Positive change is positive change, regardless of the size of the box it comes in.

External forces impacting on people’s lives aren’t static, either. This year feels like a particularly bad one if you look at the number of wars, insurgencies, terrorist attacks, political crises, financial crashes and natural disasters contributing to that impact. Asking yourself what kind of a dent you’re making, given everything that’s working against you, seems a totally natural and reasonable question to ask.

During a panel discussion with Tori Hogan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu a couple of years ago, I said that it was easier to have a negative impact on the world than a positive one. After this year, where I’ve becoming increasingly angry and saddened by what I see, I stand by that comment more than ever. I don’t believe it when I read that now is the best time to be alive. For the minority, perhaps, but the minority never interest me. Far too many people are suffering day-in day-out for the world to feel even remotely balanced, something I spoke about in a recent TEDxMunich talk.

Crucially, though, my scepticism won’t stop me trying to do good. It will, however, force me to question more than ever whether or not my actions are in any way contributing positively towards any kind of solution anywhere. I owe it not only to myself, but more crucially to the people who pay me and support me to be clear in my own mind that my time, and their money, are being well spent – or spent as well as possible.

Taken to an extreme level, this means asking myself whether or not the world is any better because I’ve:

  • Spoken at a particular conference
    Does all the cost and effort of speaking ever change anything?
  • Published a book
    I can only try to share best practice as I see it, but does it influence change?
  • Let a researcher pick my brains
    Do research papers ever support or help any kind of action on the ground?
  • Taken a field trip somewhere
    Do so many people really need to fly to so many places, so often?
  • Become a consultant for a project
    Is this project any better because I’ve worked on it?
  • And, yes – written a blog post
    Has ten years of blogging achieved much?  Revisiting earlier posts, I remain unconvinced.

I think all this matters because in international development you can argue that everything is impact investing. Every penny or cent you take from a budget line should either have a direct impact, lead to an impact, or contribute to or support an impact somewhere. If it doesn’t then you have to question why you’re doing it. Sure, it’s quite hard to identify, measure or track pretty much any of this, but deep down many of us have a sense of our own contribution. We certainly have an understanding of our motives for doing it. Ethically and morally we should never stop asking ourselves what we’re doing, how well we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it for.

As I’ve got older I’ve become increasingly self-critical about my contribution. My career was kick started working with local communities, supporting local initiatives. I had a strong drive and desire to be on the front line, to witness and tackle challenges of poverty and environmental degradation head-on. Developing FrontlineSMS was a natural extension to that work, combining my passion for the field with the technology skills I’d picked up in the early part of my career. A few years later, as I became further and further detached from the things I was most passionate about, in frustration I stepped back.

With so much going wrong in the world, and with a clear and obvious lack of moral leadership anywhere, I feel another of those pivotal moments isn’t too far away. I’ll have a window of opportunity later next year to decide what to do next. Good friend Larry Diamond predicted what that might end up being in a tweet earlier today.

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As was the case when I first set out on my journey in 1993, it’s unclear what I’ll be able to do to contribute. That said, again as in 1993, I feel I need to try. My work began in development, shifted to conservation, then technology, and then took a turn to activism as FrontlineSMS became increasingly picked up by groups combating dictatorial regimes and those committing human rights abuses around the world. Things may end up turning full circle if I return to that kind of work, albeit civic action in general. As Larry says, a lot needs to be done, and for the foreseeable future things are unlikely to get much better.

Next year is lining up to be an exciting one, with some great new work with CARE International and my first major piece of work with DFID. I’ll also be entering my 15th year at kiwanja.net – something I never really expected when I set out rather opportunistically in 2003 – so this feels a good-a-time as any to re-evaluate where I am, and where I can be most helpful next. This is something of an extension to a few previous reflections earlier this year, which you can read about here.

I’m sure in the 1930’s people thought things were going a little crazy, but reassured themselves that everything was going to be alright. Just like then, there’s too much at stake to sit back and hope for the best.

4 thoughts on “When your best might not be good enough.

  1. Lee Schneider says:

    These are frustrating times. Things do seem to be going backward. But not all progress is measurable, especially internal progress. I can only presume to speak for myself, but I know no matter how effective my actions are in the world, the internal changes they bring are just as valuable, maybe more so, because they later result in a external actions of better qualitity. In other words, a positive cycle.
    Also, although it seems simplistic to complex thinkers, simple solutions, like FrontlineSMS, or certain kinds of water purification systems or rechargeable batteries, make a difference every day. Just about anything that brings on self-sufficiency, or peer-to-peer networked learning, is of great value, especially now that nearly all institutions are failing us. The solutions, I am coming to believe, are not in institutions, but in Swadeshi.

  2. kiwanja says:

    @Lee – Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I agree that all progress is not measurable which is why I’ve gone largely on instinct over the years. Things such as feedback after talks, or emails about the two books I’ve published, or messages from users when I was running FrontlineSMS, and even the awards at times. The challenges we’re facing right now, though, just feel as though they need a step-change in thinking, and action on a completely different scale.

  3. Jaume Fortuny says:

    We should ask ourselves if skepticism and frustration are really a consequence of our actions or our surroundings. I see that there are increasing obstacles in the large institutions to finance projects and more difficulties to justify the expenses incurred in the receiving societies, which operate differently from those societies donating funds. The bureaucracy in international aid distances us from the objective focus of what we should do effectively.

    When I evaluate the time invested in the administrative tasks of project formulation, writing, justification, evaluation, and so on and compare them with the time really dedicated to the object center of collaboration, I am also embarrassed by frustration and skepticism.

    Even so, I still think that small changes are powerful and make the difference that can improve people’s lives. When you cross your gaze and see eyes hungry for knowledge, minds open to new possibilities and people struggling to get ahead, you realize that somehow you are contributing positively. It seems as if our skepticism grows the further we move away from the focus of action and the higher we go up in the pyramid of projects.

    Perhaps the best way not to get caught up in the arduous path of development cooperation is to never stop touching feet on the ground. And try to make our work as closer as possible to the beneficiaries.

    Good luck in your new challenges for 2017. As always, it will be a pleasure to read from them.

  4. kiwanja says:

    @jaume – Thanks for this. Multiple perspectives are always helpful at these times, and I couldn’t agree more on your ‘feet on the ground’ point.

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