In celebration of an approach less travelled

I’m in San Francisco this week on a surprise trip to collect an award for a product I designed and built over a decade ago. The fact the early work of FrontlineSMS is still being recognised twelve years on speaks volumes to the approach, and the impact it had – not only in the hands of users themselves, but also in the minds of others looking to apply technology for social good. It struck a chord with an emerging narrative that said we should build appropriate tools that genuinely empowered the people closest to the problem, and that our job was, if anything, to build those tools, hand them over and then get the hell out of the way. If you look at the tweets from the many ICT4D and social innovation conferences today, this remains an approach popular within our sector.

But while tweeting and speaking are one thing, doing is another. Sure, for me this week should be about celebration, but I remain frustrated with a sector which claims to be hungry for learning, and hungry to scale ‘ what works’, yet very little of what made FrontlineSMS successful has been made use of in any meaningful way. This is not just disappointing on a professional level, but a personal one, too.

Nothing quite matches the energy and excitement of grassroots organisations building out their own ideas and solutions off the back of a platform you’ve created. The idea that you might stop what you’re doing and others will continue the work is something we should all aspire to. In the global development sector we call this ‘sustainability’. Yet, how often do we see it?

Nothing quite matches the organic growth that becomes possible when you build genuinely open, empowering platforms. I’m immensely proud of the way our users embraced it, and equally proud of the smart, young innovators such as Josh Nesbit and Ben Lyon who were drawn to our work, and whose early efforts with FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit lead to the creation of two incredibly exciting and innovative organisations in Medic Mobile and Kopo Kopo. Kevin Starr once told me that he was fascinated by how FrontlineSMS had become an incubator for so many other ideas and initiatives. Sadly I’m not sure what I can point to today that does anywhere near the same thing.

While we were clearly doing something right, funding remained a constant struggle, and the lessons we were learning and sharing were falling on deaf ears. Only two studies of note examined the impact and approach of FrontlineSMS – a paper by Medic Mobile, and a brilliant chapter in Bits and Atoms written by Sharath Srinivasan. For a project which had such a high profile, and one that powered grassroots interventions in over 170 countries, the lack of interest in trying to understand what truly made it succeed is a huge disappointment. After all, as a sector we’re hardly blessed with success stories of initiatives that scale. From what I can tell, the sector is just too busy chasing the next big thing at the expense of existing opportunities right under its nose.

When I look around today, I still see tools being built far away from the problem with little understanding of the users or their context (except for the odd trip some projects take so they can tick the ‘HCD’ box). Challenges and competitions are the new big thing, with entries voted up or down like a beauty competition by others with little idea of the problem or those effected by it. You don’t stop someone on the street and ask for medical advice, so why do the same with an idea to solve a medical problem in a developing country? I recently wrote about the madness of innovation challenges here.

So, as I attend the awards ceremony this coming weekend I’ll quietly thank all those unsung heroes who helped turn FrontlineSMS into the breakthrough story that it first became all those years ago. And I’ll continue to hope that we can be brave enough as a community to work through many of the problems hindering our ability to build yet more tools that genuinely put the power to change in the hands of those who need it most. Unfortunately, experience tells me to not hold out too much hope. 

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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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?


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.


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?

Best practice begins in the classroom

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator and my more recent book, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I dedicate more than a few pages to emerging best practice in technology-for-development projects. While we certainly need as many bright minds as possible turning their skills, energy and attention to solving many of the problems in the world, their efforts should be respectful to the communities they seek to help, and properly guided in order for those efforts to have the greatest possible impact and chance of success.

But if you step back for a moment, it defies logic that someone should try to solve a problem they’ve never seen, or don’t fully understand, from tens of thousands of miles away. It’s hard to argue that they have the knowledge or qualifications – even the right – to attempt such an audacious feat. Yet that’s precisely what’s happening in many universities across much of the developed world multiple times each academic year. Students are being ‘skilled up’ in design thinking and global development issues, pointed to a few exciting new and emerging technologies, and told to fix something. Their primary purpose is to pass a course in most cases, which almost makes it worse.


Speaking at schools, colleges and universities around the world has been a big part of my work over recent years, and I always make a point of sharing emerging best practice when I do. My inbox is always open to students wanting to share their ideas, or talk about how they might contribute to making the world a better place. A highlight was almost certainly a discussion in front of several hundred students with Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few years ago. I’m happy to connect, guide and mentor anyone with a good idea and even better intentions, and have even gone to the effort of editing two books to help share the stories of others who have gone about innovating in impactful and respectful ways.

At a time when we know we need to be building capacity among local innovators to start solving their own problems, it’s tough to see so many outsiders continuing to take charge – students and tech-focused international development organisations among them. The developing world becomes a sand pit where people take and play out their ideas. It rarely turns out well for a whole number of reasons.

To help students think through what they’re doing before they reach out for help, I’ve added a Students page to the kiwanja website. I hope it helps them think a little more about what they’re doing, and why. There they can download a PDF of a checklist – made up of the same questions in my Donors Charter – to help them think through what they’re doing and, more importantly why it’s them doing it. I also hope teachers and lecturers make use of it, too. After all, in many cases it’s them encouraging and supporting these students with their project ideas.

You can check out the new Student page here. And feel free to print, share, re-post and distribute the checklist PDF anywhere you think it might be helpful.

Let’s start to put this right, one classroom at a time.