What technology-for-conservation might learn from technology-for-development

Although the majority of my more recent work has sat in the ‘global development’ bucket, much of my early interest lay in conservation. Before I stumbled into the world of mobiles-for-development (m4d) I was helping with biodiversity surveys in Uganda and running primate sanctuaries in Nigeria, and focusing my academic studies on the role of anthropologists in the creation of national parks. My first m4d project looked at the potential of mobile technology in conservation, and it was my work around Kruger National Park over 2003 and 2004 that lead to the idea behind FrontlineSMS.

Conservation is still one of my biggest passions, and I returned to my roots a couple of years ago when I was asked to speak about the potential for, and use of, emerging technology in the global conservation effort at the 2013 WWF Kathryn Fuller Symposium. You can watch that talk below (it’s also available, along with other talks, in the Audio & Video section of this website).

The following year I was invited to an event at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and gave a similar talk at their inaugural Digital Conservation event on how the sector might draw lessons on technology use from global development. Following my talk, I was invited by the organisers to join them in co-authoring a paper for a forthcoming special edition of Ambio Journal focusing on “Digital conservation: Understanding the impacts of digital technology on nature conservation“. One element of the paper proposes a rework of kiwanja’s Donors Charter for the conservation community.

Late last month, that special edition hit the shelves. Here’s the summary of our paper, which was proudly co-authored with Georgina Maffey, Hilary Homans and Koen Arts:

The application of digital technology in conservation holds much potential for advancing the understanding of, and facilitating interaction with, the natural world. In other sectors, digital technology has long been used to engage communities and share information. Human development – which holds parallels with the nature conservation sector – has seen a proliferation of innovation in technological development. Throughout our paper, we consider what nature conservation can learn from the introduction of digital technology in human development. From this, we derive a Charter to be used before and throughout project development, in order to help reduce replication and failure of digital innovation in nature conservation projects. We argue that the proposed charter will promote collaboration with the development of digital tools and ensure that nature conservation projects progress appropriately with the development of new digital technologies.

You can download a full PDF of the paper from the kiwanja website here or via the Ambio website here.

The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website

Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website.

Liberian Health Workers receiving their  Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009. While almost everyone else at the time seemed to be aspiring to build complex tech solutions to often simple problems, the idea behind the Solar Suitcase was beautiful in its simplicity. It was based on a rather simple hypothesis: If the power (and therefore lighting) goes down in the middle of a difficult (or any) childbirth, and there’s no backup, people can die. This is not just true of maternity wards in the developing world, where Laura first witnessed this happening. Try plunging any operating theatre anywhere in the world into darkness and see how the surgeons cope.

I always found the idea compelling, and always did what I could to help. Laura was as committed to ending these unnecessary deaths as anyone could be, and her determination was at times a source of frustration to her. She gave it everything, and taking it on changed her life. The fact she got so little support early on, despite the compelling nature of her work, was an injustice in my eyes, and another reason I always did what I could. It was another reason why I wanted to include her story in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“. In celebration of their award yesterday, we’re offering Laura’s chapter here for free (PDF).

Why Laura was so committed was clear. From her Nigerian fieldwork (2008), quoted in the book:

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness. The dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone Caesarean sections and other life-saving procedures. When the maternity ward was in darkness, midwives were unable to provide emergency care and, on occasion, would turn patients away from the labour room door, despite their critical need for care.

The story of Laura’s response, the Solar Suitcase, is not the rosy tale of social innovation and overnight success that many people hearing about her work for the first time yesterday might think it to be. Today, things might be going well but, as Laura will remind us, there’s always more to be done, and women and children continue to die in the dark in wards the developing world over. It’s obviously great news that, as a result of yesterdays award, that number will continue to decrease, but that level of support hasn’t always been there, despite the compelling nature of what she was doing.

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

After that Nigerian trip in 2008, Laura and her partner, Hal, sketched out the early plans for the Solar Suitcase. That done, they needed money to build a prototype. A $12,500 competition at UC Berkeley looked like the perfect place to get it, but out of twelve finalists they didn’t win. In her own words, Laura felt dejected and, worse, felt she’d let down colleagues in Nigeria who she had promised to help. But someone there believed in them. Thomas Kalil, a campus official who had been at the competition, called Laura up and told her they should have won. He committed to helping. Within three weeks he had pulled together $25,000 from The Blum Center for Developing Economies and Berkeley Big Ideas, and We Care Solar was born. Considerable challenges remained as the work progressed, and on numerous occasions anyone with less determination would have quit. There’s nothing more deflating that having huge belief in what you’re doing, only to find so few others who share it. If you want the real story behind what it means to innovate, read Laura’s chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The story of We Care Solar is littered with opportunities for the official development sector to come on board. But on so many occasions it didn’t. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the technology wasn’t clever enough? Maybe donors didn’t see the potential in what Laura was doing? Maybe they were too busy looking for the next big thing? Maybe all of the above?

Yesterday’s award is proof that Laura was right sticking to her belief in the Solar Suitcase, despite the immense personal sacrifices that involved. And we should be grateful that she did. We talk a lot in the development sector about ‘picking winners’ and the ‘need to support things that work’. But that clearly didn’t happen here. Until now. How many Laura’s are out there who don’t battle through, who call it a day on potentially life-changing ideas because they can’t get the support they need? Or, worse, because they are constantly rejected?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what’s not compelling about giving light to maternity wards in the developing world? What’s not compelling about wanting to stop women and babies dying in the dark? And why did it take so long to help someone fix it?

Halting the push-push of global development

“On 29th August 1965, an article was published in The Observer entitled “How to help them help themselves”, written by Fritz Schumacher the distinguished economist with support from his close friend Observer editor, David Astor. In it, Schumacher pointed out the inadequacies of aid based on the transfer of large scale, capital-intensive technologies and argued for a shift towards “intermediate technologies”, based on the needs and skills possessed by poor people themselves. This article helped shape the future of development.”Simon Trace, CEO, Practical Action

"Small is Beautiful"I came across Schmacher’s writing almost 20 years ago during my time at Sussex University. I was only three years into my global development journey, having spent a decade working in the technology sector until everything changed after a trip to Zambia in 1993. Shumacher’s call for appropriate technologies resonated on so many levels, and seemed to sit in stark contrast to many of the active – and failed – policies of the development system. Sadly, despite the rhetoric, little has really changed, and many ICT4D projects simply follow big brother’s bad practice. This is why, for the best part of the last 13 years, I’ve been relentlessly focused on development ‘outside the system’, and how we might support the grassroots response to many of the problems out there. In 2005, FrontlineSMS was specifically built with this – and Shumacher’s vision – in mind.

(For more on how Schumacher’s work has influenced my own, check out this excellent article and interview in World Watch Magazine from 2010).

My sense has always been that we need to support the people closest to the problem. Not only do they often have a better understanding, but they also get the local context (cultural, geographic, economic and so on). As outsiders, we often do not. As Ahmed Djoghlaf pointed out during the current climate talks, “It’s difficult for someone living up on the 38th floor to know what is going on in the basement”. The same applies in global development, where many of the organisations that drive the agenda are based far away from the problems they’re trying to solve.

Until local actors drive more of the development agenda there will inevitably be a disconnect. And whenever there’s a disconnect, there should be caution. We may have the money, and what we believe to be the better technology and expertise, but history tells us that we often struggle to apply them in ways that result in meaningful change, or any change at all.


This quote from William Macaskill’s new book, “Doing Good Better“, should be printed off and pinned on the wall of every development agency working overseas. It should be the starting point, and opening question, to anything and everything we do.

It’s time to vacate those offices on the 38th floor and move our thinking a little closer to the basement. We still might not get everything right, but it’s almost certainly a better starting point. Just ask Schumacher. He’s been saying it for 50 years.