Global development R&D: Maintaining a balance

My first brush with technology-for-development, almost twenty years ago, wasn’t on the potential of the Internet, or how mobile phones were going to change, well, everything. To be honest, neither were really on the development radar in any meaningful way back then. It’s almost funny to imagine a time when that was the case.

No, my first contact with what was to become a career in ICT4D started off with an essay on the failure of plough and cook stove projects across Africa. I was struck by the beauty of simple, locally appropriate solutions and amazed at how development experts just didn’t seem (or want) to get it. Many of their failed initiatives seemed more like a reaction against them – that, as experts, they were expected to come out with something the opposite of simple, primitive, practical. This they did, but very little of it ever worked.

smallisbeautifulIt was around this time that I also came across the work of E. F. Schumacher and his brilliant 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. The lessons in his book apply just as much today in a world dominated by digital technologies – a world he would never have imagined back then. World Watch magazine interviewed me a few years ago on why his appropriate technology ethos was just as relevant today. It’s well worth a read.

Our obsession with the latest shiny technology hasn’t gone away, either. History repeats itself and, despite being armed with a range of tools and solutions that work, experts still appear to rebel against them because they’re digitally too simple, primitive or practical. And, again, many of their alternative ‘innovative’ solutions simply don’t work.

Sure, there needs to be a degree of emphasis on new tools, new solutions, new ways of tackling old problems. This – the R&D side of the development machine – is essential but it needs to be kept in balance. The average R&D spend among top UK companies in a recent survey was 5%. No company in its right mind would spend most of its money on research and development and ignore its bread and butter, namely its current products and services, and current customers.


How about the global development sector make a commitment to spend, say, 5% of its funding on blue sky, high tech, high risk forward-looking ideas, and commit the rest to funding the really simple, primitive, appropriate solutions we already have that are proven to work? 5% of global development spending is still a few billion dollars, more than enough to invest in the next big thing.

And how about it pool these funds and create a single Global Development R&D Fund? A better coordinated approach might result in better outcomes, and it could better manage its external communications. The amount available would compare quite favourably with R&D spends of the bigger tech companies (source: Atlas)


Right now, with an increasing big data, drones and wearables obsession (among others), you get the sense that global development R&D lacks coordination and spends too much of its time, energy, focus and resources on high-risk ideas. While it toys around with the next big thing people are going to bed hungry, dying of treatable diseases, at school with no pens or books, or drinking polluted water. All of these things can be put right with the technologies we possess today, but they’re not. I’ve never understood why. We should only allow ourselves the luxury of looking to the future once we’ve fixed the solvable problems of the present.

While the development community needs to naturally look ahead, it also needs to remember the people suffering today, those who might not be around to reap the benefits of any cool drone, big data or wearable solution of the future. Every life matters, after all. You get a sense that in the development space, R&D spending is way out of control as it feeds its obsession with cool, shiny and innovative.

So let’s keep that R&D budget in check, be more open with how much is being spent on speculative new ideas which may go nowhere, and make sure we don’t forget our bread and butter – our current (working) products and services, and our current customers – the poor, marginalised and vulnerable out there who, through no fault of their own, desperately need our help. Today.

Is ‘fixing development’ the real Grand Challenge for Development?

“Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives” – Bill Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

I’ve got an idea for a great new project if anyone out there is looking for one.

But we warned – it won’t be easy. It won’t even be sexy. And it won’t involve huge amounts of travel to exciting new places peddling the latest high-tech development solutions to impoverished, needy communities.

But if you took it on it could have a bigger impact than all the other project ideas you may have put together. And we’re all after impact, right?

So, what’s this project idea, then?

Well, the global development community has made it its life work to identify, unravel and solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity. How well it does at this varies wildly organisation by organisation. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and some approaches seem to work better than others. But on the whole, it’s widely accepted that it’s not doing well enough despite the vast amounts of money it continues to demand (and spend).


One solution? Well, how about the global development community turning some of its famous design-thinking, problem solving skills on itself? ‘Fixing the global development system’ becomes the project, in other words – rather than global health, agriculture, human rights, etc. Fix the system and  all those things – and more – benefit. The king of all knock-on effects.

During a recent email exchange I was asked how a forthcoming workshop could produce something tangible. White papers, reports, soundbites or yet another ‘community of practice’ didn’t quite cut it. Almost every other event produces one or more of those, and very little improves as a result.

At the end of our email exchange we ended up with this ‘four-step process to change':

1. Identify structural problems in global development
2. Propose solutions
3. Identify key decision makers/actors to get on board
4. Get them to sign up and commit to (2)

So, this is how it would work with my recent Donors Charter, for example:

1. Donors are funding too many poorly thought-out, planned or researched projects
2. Create a check-list for all potential projects to work through before applying for funding
3. For it to work, the majority of donors need to be on board
4. Mobilise donors and encourage them to sign up, and commit to, the Charter

After years of critique, failure and frustration in global development, (1) and (2) are known knowns. It’s (3) and (4) that we’re largely missing – acceptance from key players that change is needed, and then a willingness and commitment (in writing) to make that change. Enforcement, in other words. This could really work but it would be tough, requiring behaviour change on a massive scale. The grandest of all grand challenges for development, perhaps?


We seem to spend all of our time and resources focusing on other people’s problems, which on the surface might seem like the right thing to do. But for the global development movement to be most effective, it needs to have its own house in order first.

So, here’s my proposal. How about a “Grand Challenge for Development for Development”? Or an OpenIDEO Challenge for Development?

Any takers?

In global development, is the pen mightier than the sword?

I’m reading two books in parallel right now – Ben Ramalingam‘s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos‘ and Kentaro Toyama‘s ‘Geek Heresy‘. With both books I’m finding myself regularly pausing for a nod of approval or a wry smile. Both books are spot on in their identification of the issues – Ben in global development more broadly, and Kentaro in ICT4D, a sector/field/discipline/specialism of global development.

A while back when Bill Easterly published his ‘Tyranny of Experts‘ I started to wonder what impact his previous book – ‘The White Man’s Burden‘ – has had on the practice and policy of global development. I have the same question for Dambisa Moyo, too, whose ‘Dead Aid‘ is another classic development critique. Both provide strong arguments for a new aid world order (or, more to the point, no aid at all).


Suffice to say, if you’re not a fan or supporter of big development there are countless books out there to feed your anger, frustration and despair. But for all the hundreds of billions of words written over the past decade or two citing the challenges, problems and issues, have any forced any kind of change in how those hundreds of billions of Pounds, Dollars or Euros of development aid were spent? Almost everyone I meet who works in big development has at least one major frustration with it – many have several – but the one that drives me to despair the most is that no-one seems to be able to change anything.

I published ‘The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator‘ because I wanted to help steer young social innovators away from expensive university courses and encourage them to firstly get out into the world, meet the people they wanted to help, gain some empathy, and find their passion. I can’t speak for Ben or Kentaro, but they probably hope something might improve as a result of their writing efforts, too.

I spent the best part of three years as an undergraduate at Sussex University in the late 1990’s writing about how rubbish development was. That’s what undergraduates do. Of course, it’s not all bad, but many of the problems I studied 20 years ago persist. That’s my problem.

I thoroughly recommend all of the books Ben, Kentaro, Bill and Dambisa have written. Oh, and of course, mine. And if nothing changes, at least you’ll have had a good read.