Why we need more anthropologists

Today I’m back at the University of Edinburgh talking to anthropology students about how I’ve used my degree in my global technology/development career. I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to speak to a room not obsessed with technology, or scaling projects, or measuring impact. For me, it’s always started with the people and, for everyone in the room, it will be the same. I’ve long advised people interested in a career in global development to study anthropology (better still, anthropology with development studies, as I did at Sussex University).

It may sound crazy, but there aren’t enough people focused on understanding people in the technology-for-development world (one week field trips carrying out surveys don’t count). You see plenty of ‘Technology Advisor’ roles, but where are the ‘People Advisors’? There’s plenty of everything else, just not enough of that. I’m currently looking at work opportunities in the technology-for-development sector, and don’t think I’ve seen a single job description define a major requirement for time spent in the field, understanding the context of technology use in global development. And, of course, no mention of the word ‘anthropology’ anywhere. Everything else seems to matter more than that, and it’s something we have to put right. Anthropology has a huge amount to offer the sector – it just doesn’t seem to know it yet.

A question that I often get asked when people get over the shock that I have an anthropology degree, not something computer science-related, is “What on earth would anthropologists be doing playing with mobile phones?”. The answer may be a little more obvious than you think, but let’s start at the beginning.

Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It’s also a discipline shrouded in a certain mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is, or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better (but often incorrectly) ‘known’ for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones and other digital devices.

What anthropology isn’t

The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki dress poking around with ancient relics while they try to unpick ancient puzzles and mysteries, or a bearded old man working with a leather-bound notepad in a dusty, dimly lit inaccessible room at the back of a museum building. If people were to be believed, anthropologists would be studying everything from human remains to dinosaur bones, old pots and pans, ants and roads. Yes, some people even think anthropologists study roads.

Despite the mystery, in recent years anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do.

What anthropology is

So, if anthropology isn’t the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, anthropology is distinguished from other social sciences – such as sociology – by its emphasis on what’s called cultural relativity, the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context – the social and physical conditions under which different people live – and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. To you and me, that’s comparing one culture to another. In short, where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to try and understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from ‘within’.

Anthropology has a number of sub-fields and, yes, one of those does involve poking round with old bones and relics. But for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting sub-field because of the role it plays in the gobal development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970’s, making development anthropology as necessary today as it has ever been. Many academics – and practitioners, come to that – argue that anthropology should be a key component of the development process. In reality, in some projects it is, and in others it isn’t.

The importance of KYC (Know Your Customer)

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people go by a different name – customers.

Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $75 smartphones), but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets) and phones which hold multiple SIMs.

My anthropology journey

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one which looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there’s anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

Today, mobile devices are closing the digital divide in ways the PC never did. Industry bodies such as the GSM Association, who have previously run Bridging the Digital Divide initiatives, today remain extremely active in the mobile-for-development sector. International development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives centred around mobiles and mobile technology. Mobile phones today are almost as exciting as big data, 3D printers and drones.

I’m immensely proud of my anthropology roots, and the insights it has given me in my work. Without it, I’d not have successfully conceived and developed FrontlineSMS. I’m also very proud with my ongoing association with Sussex University in my capacity as Ambassador for International Development.

And I’m always happy to do my part to promote the discipline in the technology-for-development world because I think it needs more – many more – anthropologists walking the corridors if it’s to take full advantage of the wonderful digital opportunity it has been given. I just hope it starts paying attention before it’s too late.

A Six-Point Plan for Change

Late last year I was in South Africa attending Buntwani 2015. As always, it was great meeting new people and catching up with old friends. Sadly, some of those old ‘friends’ included many of the issues we seem to continually face in the development sector, issues which don’t seem to ever want to go away. I wrote about this in “Retweet, recycle, repeat” and “What to do when the yelling stops?” recently.

One of the sessions I proposed was aimed at kickstarting discussion around some of these historical issues. I quote from almost every technology-for-development conference of the past ten years:

  • We need to stop reinventing wheels
  • We need to share and learn from each other
  • We should collaborate more
  • We should work more closely with local people
  • We should avoid using tech for tech’s sake
  • We should break out of our silos
  • We need to put an end to ‘pilotitus’

As anyone who’s read my blog over the last few years will know, I’ve been writing about most of these issues for a long time. Sadly, it seems like we’re still as far away as ever to meaningfully solving many of them, despite the fact that they’re almost impossible to ignore. The fact that some people might be happy with the status quo is one of the reasons I called the current state of affairs ICT4D’s “inconvenient truth”.

fixingdevelopment

When I launched my Donors Charter back in 2014, I asked how we might break the cycle of “technology for development becoming a sector full of replication, failed pilots, poorly thought-out projects, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration”. I agree with those who say these are big, hard problems but, as JFK famously said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. We need to have the same attitude.

Over the years I’ve gradually pulled together a number of ideas and arguments for how we might begin to solve some of these issues and begin the shift from repetitive dialogue to constructive action. For the first time in one place, here’s the beginnings of my manifesto, or Six-Point Plan for Change. These will form the first ever strategy for The kiwanja Foundation – but more on that later.

1. FULLY DEVELOP AND DEPLOY A Donors Charter

Under pressure to support ‘innovative’ ideas, and often under pressure to spend their large budgets, donors often resort to funding projects they shouldn’t. What we end up with is a sector full of replication, failed pilots, secrecy and near-zero levels of collaboration.

donorscharter

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 the hundreds of 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.

Donors can fix this by agreeing to ask potential grantees a dozen very simple (mostly yes/no) questions, answers which will determine whether or not the project was ready for funding.

You can download a checklist of the questions, and read more, on the Donors Charter website.

2. CREATE A SHARED FOUNDATION TO ABSORB UNDER-SPENT FUNDS

Of course, if donors ceased funding badly thought-out projects they’d either have to give more to those which were worthy of support, or they’d have a surplus. Giving more to the most promising projects isn’t a bad idea, but any surplus would still be a major problem for any donor. At the moment, many of the larger government development agencies would likely pump anything left over into the World Bank, or another large institution that could absorb it, which in most cases isn’t particularly strategic. Many smaller Foundations also have funds left to spend, leading to a scramble to disburse them before the end of the financial year in order to protect their donor/non-profit/501c3 status. Smart fundraising teams often know this, meaning easy pickings for any that can get short concept papers together within a matter of hours. Again, a situation not too strategic for the donor.

Instead of this, could donors create a shared Foundation which could absorb some of these underspends, and then for those funds to be used for some other (perhaps bolder) strategic programmes, such as those outlined here? Or commit to giving them to NGOs in the global south?

3. A PROGRAMME OF InvestMENT in people

We hear it all the time. Investors invest in people, not products or ideas. Marty Zwilling, a veteran start-up mentor, describes people as the great competitive advantage. I wonder what the non-profit world might learn from people like him?

The vast majority, if not all, non-profit foundations and donors are project-focused. In contrast to many angel and traditional investors, they’re primarily interested in the products and ideas. It doesn’t matter too much who has them, as the hundreds of online development competitions and challenges testify. These investments in products and ideas, however helpful and generous they may be, almost always miss one key thing – investment in the person.

gic-disrupters

I can’t help but wonder what the non-profit sector might achieve with a VC-style approach. Imagine if each year a large, private Foundation picked half-a-dozen or so people working in global development – people with a track record of vision, thought-leadership and execution working and living anywhere in the world – and supported them in a similar way? Imagine being able to free up some of the greatest minds – conventional and unconventional – to imagine and deliver their own vision of development into the future? Freeing them up financially would, in the same way as the MacArthur Fellowship, allow them to be bold and brave with their ideas, and in the same way “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society”. Isn’t benefiting human society, in essence, what the non-profit world is all about?

More on my thoughts on funding people not projects can be found in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article.

4. Create an independent M&E body

Knowing what works and what doesn’t, and to what extent, is crucial if we’re to continually improve global development efforts. Grand programmes such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – and the new Social Development Goals (SDGs) – only make sense if we’re able to track progress. In a recent Guardian article, Bjorn Lomborg asks if we met the MDGs, and which targets were closest. If we’re honest we don’t really know the answers yet (and we may not for some time). According to Bjorn:

“There were 18 simple goals. Data collection for these targets was patchy, with many gaps, and much of the information collected was of dubious quality. However, Jerven collates the information we have about survey costs and estimates that properly monitoring all 18 targets and 48 indicators would have cost $27 billion”

We have consensus in global development that M&E is critical, and while there are plenty of people, projects and organisations proposing and working on their own solutions, there is seemingly little co-ordination. Given that donors, more than anyone, ought to want to know if their money is being spent well, why not create and fund an independent M&E body to once and for all agree on standards, approaches and tools? Each donor could provide a small percentage of funding to cover operating costs, which would likely be no more than a few million dollars each year, and then make it a condition of all the grants they provide that the M&E body is consulted by the grantee and a sensible, effective plan put in place to get baseline data for a project, and then have some kind of evaluation carried out at the end. This information could then be published online, furthering our understanding and strengthening best practice. In the same way that donors often insist that technology projects are open sourced (a debate for another day), they could insist all projects subject themselves to a certain agreed standard of monitoring and evaluation.

5. FUTURE SCENARIO PLANNING

In a recent interview for a paper on the Principles for Digital Development, I suggested that the best way forward for our sector would be to paint a picture of what we see the future of ICT4D to be, and then to put policies and practice in place to enable us to meaningfully work towards that future. For arguments sake, we could pick 2030 as our date, which would neatly tie in with the SDGs. From the opening final chapter of that paper:

Future-Vision

If we analysed social media to pick out the main themes and opinions – this might be the quickest way to get an early sense of the kind of future people are talking about (or perhaps the most honest one) – then I’d hazard a guess that keywords and phrases would include things like: local empowerment, building local capacity, people solving their own problems, bottom-up development, appropriate technology, etc. Using this, we might say:

“The future of ICT4D is a strong local civil society tech sector, realistically funded and supported, carrying out its own research, evaluation and prioritisation of local problems, using its own talent to build, pilot and test those solutions, built using the kind of appropriate technologies available in their own contexts, and then managing the scaling and replication of solutions which best solve theirs and their communities needs. We would see an end to current uncoordinated practice of outsiders using those same communities as sandpits and testing grounds for their own remotely designed and built solutions, and for those outside organisations to be required to work through local partners to determine the appropriateness, usefulness and potential of those tools”.

From here we could agree a timetable of how we achieve this over a 14 year period – how we build local capacity and institutions, gradually increasing levels of funding to local organisations (which currently amounts to only a couple of percent of all humanitarian aid spending), support initiatives that build engineering capacity in-country, slowly wean Western institutions (NGOs, academia, etc) off the practice of trying to save the developing world with fancy new technologies, and work towards a better balance where outsiders take on a new, more back-seat role in this new future.

How about (for starters) an event, or a conference, to agree on this future? And then wider collaboration and consultations to decide how we might get to a future we all agree on? And then for all parties to commit to owning it, and executing on it?

6. TOWARDS AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF INNOVATION

I’ve always maintained that my chance encounter, and subsequent training, in social anthropology has had a huge influence in the way I go about my work. The concept of participant observation – simply watching and learning from a distance, without attempting to directly impact or directly ask specific questions – should be an essential step in gaining local understanding, and empathy, before any attempt to solve anything.

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology (one of many branches of anthropology) is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the commercial ICT sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of high-tech companies. Intel and Nokia are two such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if aid agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people simply go by a different name – customers.

anthropology-quiz

With the need for empathy and local understanding key pillars in today’s ‘user centred design’ approach to social innovation, there is much we can learn from anthropology. Yet the discipline remains largely on the sidelines. In my recent Twitter poll, the need for anthropologists came top. One thing we need to do is figure out how to mainstream the discipline in all aspects of ICT4D and global development projects – to the point where they’re not the exception, but the rule. No team should be complete without an anthropologist, or the input of an anthropologist.

Back in 2007, during my time at Stanford University, I incorporated The kiwanja Foundation (the original home of FrontlineSMS, and now remodelled into SIMLab) and almost ten years on I think I finally have something closely resembling a launch strategy for the Foundation. The majority of these ideas are well formed, and some (such as the Donors Charter) have been ‘launched’, although resources to fully promote them have been somewhat limited. With a little seed funding I one day hope to continue with those I’ve started, and execute on the others.

The 10th anniversary would be a great time to do this. That’s just under one year and counting. There’s nothing quite like setting yourself a challenge. Any adventurous funders out there with a little cash left over at the end of their financial year?

Indigenous and ingenious: The roots of mobile banking in Africa

In Ghana, it’s popularly known as susu. In Cameroon, tontines or chilembe. And in South Africa, stokfel. Today, you’d most likely call it plain-old microfinance, the nearest term we have for it. Age-old indigenous credit schemes have run perfectly well without much outside intervention for generations. Although, in our excitement to implement new technologies and solutions, we sometimes fail to recognise them. Innovations such as mobile banking – great as they may be – are hailed as revolutionary without much consideration for what may have come before, or who the original innovators may have been.

The image of traditional African societies as predominantly “simple hunter-gatherer” is more myth than truth. The belief that Africa had little by way of economic institutions and processes before the arrival of the Europeans is another. As Niti Bhan pointed out during a fascinating “Life is Hard” presentation at the Better World By Design Conference a couple of years ago, many rural communities today are familiar with concepts such as loans, barter, swap, trade, credit and interest rates, yet the majority remain excluded from the mainstream modern banking system and have never heard of things like ATMs, banks, mortgages or credit cards. It’s not that people don’t understand banking concepts – it’s just that, for them, things go by a different name.

In Kenya, as few as one in 10 people may have a bank account, but that doesn’t stop many of them from using a number of trading instruments or running successful businesses. Technology can certainly help strengthen traditional trading practices, and we know this because when technology is made available, the users are often the first to figure out how to best make it work for them. Mobile technology is today showcasing African grassroots innovation at its finest.

Africans are not the passive recipients of technology many people seem to think they are. Indeed, some of the more exciting and innovative mobile services around today have emerged as a result of ingenious indigenous use of the technology. Services such as “Call Me” – where customers on many African networks can send a fixed number of free messages per day when they’re out of credit requesting someone to call them – came about as a result of people “flashing” or “beeping” their friends (in other words, calling their phones and hanging up to indicate that they wanted to talk). A lot of interesting research on this phenomenon has been carried out by Jonathan Donner, an anthropologist working at Microsoft Research. Today’s more formal and official “Call Me”-style services have come about as a direct result of this entrepreneurial behavior.

The concept of mobile payments did, too.

Researchers have for some time been observing the behavior of users in developing countries, seeking to identify the next big thing. As Jo Best recently put it, many of these ideas spring from “the fertile mind of some user who wanted to do something with a mobile that their operator hadn’t provided yet.”

Tapping into these fertile minds is a fascinating business, something that Jan Chipchase (formerly of Nokia, now with Frog Design) is famous for. Some of Jan’s earlier observations identified emerging mobile payment-style services long before the mobile operators, or even the ICT4D community, had even thought of them. The mantra “build it and they will come” seems alive and well in the African mobile context.

Whilst many traditional development approaches generally introduce alien ideologies and concepts into developing countries – sometimes for the better, often for the worst – today’s emerging mobile services are very much based on a model of indigenous innovation. Take M-Pesa, the much-touted Kenyan mobile money transfer service developed by Vodafone and the U.K. Department for International Development, as an example. Increasing numbers of African users were already carrying out their own form of money transfers through their mobiles long before any official service came into being. SENTE, from Uganda, is one of the better known indigenous systems (M-Sente is now the name of Uganda Telecom’s official mobile money service).

What M-Pesa has done is formalise and scale this kind of activity and bring it fully to market. Its impact has been spectacular, with around 17 million subscribers now using the service, and 50% of Kenya’s entire GDP expected to pass through the platform over the next twelve months. But what services such as these, rolling out in increasing numbers of African countries, have done to earlier “indigenous” systems – mobile-based, such as SENTE, or more traditional microfinance solutions, such as susu, tontines or chilembe – is not so clear, although the latter were most likely well on the decline long before mobile phones came on the scene.

Many indigenous economic systems still exist today where they haven’t been wholly replaced by modern financial structures or technologies. In “Africa Unchained,” George Ayittey states his belief that future African economic prosperity lies in traditional systems and practices:

“Women traders can still be found at most markets in Africa. They still trade their wares for profit. And in virtually all traditional markets today, bargaining over prices is still the norm — an ancient tradition. Traditional African chiefs do not fix prices. And it is this indigenous economic system, characterised by free village markets, free trade and free enterprise that Africa must turn to for its economic rejuvenation.”

It’s likely that many people would argue strongly against Ayittey on this, believing that progress across the African continent is based on embracing change and the new world economic and technological order. It’s an active and fascinating debate. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, all of this does raise one important question.

Should technology solutions aimed at the developing world, and mobile solutions in particular, seek to build on and enhance indigenous, traditional activities – economic or otherwise – or, where necessary, is it okay just to replace and lose them?

That isn’t the only question, either. How does the introduction of emerging mobile services shift the balance of power in traditional African societies? Will women, for example, remain as economically active participants in the new mobile-powered world, or will men take more control? Do mobiles narrow or widen gender inequalities? Is technology exacerbating the gap between the haves and have-nots, or is it truly proving as transformational as we all believe or hope?

Very few businesses would willingly throw out all of their processes and procedures in order to implement a new IT system, however good it may be. The more astute ICT solutions providers know this and, wherever possible, aim to allow seamless integration of any new technology into their clients’ workplaces and working practices. Doesn’t it make sense that we should take the same approach with indigenous societies and seek to build on existing procedures and traditions, and not just assume that a new, modern solution is better and replace everything that went before?

It’s a fine balancing act and one people are still trying to figure out. The irony could be that while growing numbers of social scientists are turning to technology to help preserve and document disappearing cultures, the same technologies may be contributing to their ultimate decline.