An experiment in giving

Last week I popped over to Paris to take part in a short UNESCO Working Group meeting. After arriving mid-evening on the Eurostar, I decided to walk the one hour or so to my hotel. There’s no better way of seeing a city. Among the usual sites I gradually became more and more aware of the number of young families – refugees – begging on the streets. Children no older than my own sitting out in the cold and dark with nothing as their childhoods drifted away. As a father myself I find dealing with this extremely difficult, something I spoke about at TEDxMunich last year.

I doubled back and gave one family the €5 note I had in my bag. A pathetic gesture given their position. But the hopelessness of the situation did get me thinking again about random acts of kindness, and the act of ‘giving out of kindness and nothing more’. I wrote about some of this a little while ago here.

With this fresh in my mind, the day after I got back I decided to try out a little experiment. I posted a Twitter poll to see if I could get the answer to a question that had been on my mind for a while. I had no idea what to expect and, although the sample size wasn’t fantastic, I was encouraged enough by the results to work a little more on the idea.

So, over the weekend I posted up a call on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn for contributors to do just that – donate an unconditional amount to a stranger each month. I upped the monthly payment a little, asking for monthly contributions of $15/£10, and capped the commitment at 12 months. By the time the weekend was out, over 30 people had pledged to help. Pledges have continued to come in.

Through a trusted, long-time contact in Nigeria we have already identified ten women and their families as recipients of the monthly donations. Assuming everyone goes through with their pledge, every family will receive approximately $50 each month which, based on our initial conversations with them will give an average of a 50% increase in disposable income.

There are two sets of wider questions I’ve been wanting to answer by doing this.

On the contributor side

  • Would people be happy to give money without knowing how it was going to be spent?
  • Would people be happy to give money without knowing anything about the recipient?
  • Would people be happy to give money without any guarantee of impact or results?
  • Are people happy giving ‘just’ to help make someones life easier, and to give them hope?
  • At what level of giving do these things not matter?
  • At what level of giving do these things matter?
  • Do people need ‘trusted intermediaries’ (i.e. charities) in order to feel comfortable giving?
  • How important is the feeling of a direct connection with the recipient?
  • How important is full transparency and honesty/openness in a project like this?
  • Is there a future for this kind of giving?

On the receiver side

  • What difference does it make in the lives of the recipients knowing that people are willing to help them?
  • Does giving them hope and the potential to improve their lives make any difference to them and their families?
  • What do they choose to spend the money on?
  • What impact does it have that the money is unconditional?
  • Is there any long term impact of receiving this help over a 12 month period?
  • Is there a future for this kind of receiving?

Long-time friend Marieme Jamme has already raised concerns about the notion of ‘experimenting’ with a group of women, drawing parallels with the many other development efforts and pilots that treat target African populations as guinea pigs for Western ideas. I have worked hard throughout my career to work closely with grassroots organisations, and to empower local actors. Although I appreciate her concerns, I believe making the gift unconditional, and over an extended period, genuinely gives these women and their families a chance to better their lives, and everyone involved in the project is doing it for the right reasons, and out of a desire to be part of something that might make a difference.

Image via https://qz.com/564513/a-not-so-brief-history-of-the-fall-and-fall-of-the-nigerian-naira/

The project also potentially answers some very interesting – and potentially disruptive – questions around the nature of personal, direct, unconditional giving. Charities spend huge amounts of time and money making the case for their projects, and collecting evidence to prove impact (which sometimes, if we’re honest, isn’t as accurate as we’d like it to be).

If enough people are willing to give a modest amount without worrying too much about the guarantees most charities think they need and want, how much more good can be done? How many more people might give? What might this mean for the future of personal, charitable giving?

The parameters of the project are still being decided with the contributors, but it is our intention to be as open and transparent as possible about what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it – so expect some kind of project website soon.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in what we’re doing feel free to comment or get in touch.


Further reading on some of the thinking behind the project can be found here

Doing good? Or do-gooder?

We all like to think our work makes a difference, even if we’re not really sure if it does. I’m well known for ‘doing good in the world’ yet even I question what that really means, or who precisely where might be better off in some way because of my chosen career path. For many people, feeling like they’re doing good is likely enough. For me, it’s not.

I’ve worked hard over the years to ground everything I do in some kind of reality. All those years working with grassroots NGOs across Africa, all that time trying to understand their problems and realities – being able to see, live, taste, smell and experience them – has given me great insight, but also made me incredibly impatient for change. In the technology-for-development sector, where donors always seem hungry for the ‘next big thing’, I like to drive home the point that we need to be solving problems today, for people suffering today, with tools available today. For some people there is no tomorrow. For others, no next year. Others may be living longer, but they’re living in poverty for longer. I see little worth celebrating in that.

Anyone that knows me will know I’m always challenging and questioning global development, and always challenging my own role within it. I feel I’ve been fortunate to have spent the vast majority of my career working independently, giving me the freedom to be open and honest, and to pursue the things that I see as important, not things which suit a particular trend or political agenda. Sadly too much of the wider work that goes on suffers because of the very reason that it does.

Susan, the subject of Pete’s post (photo courtesy Pete Vowles)

Earlier this week I read a post from Pete Vowles, Head of DFID in Kenya. Pete has been instrumental in the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement, and in his post he shares his experiences ‘living’ with a family in Kenya for 24 hours, a family living well below the poverty line. It’s a harrowing read, and something everyone working in global development should print off and stick above their desks as a reminder of what development was meant to be about.

One thing that struck me, and moved me most, was Susan’s lack of hope and how, in Pete’s words, she felt physically and mentally broken every night as she locked herself and her children in their huts. Dignity and hope, two things a healthy human spirit really can’t do without, have never appeared as key performance indicators in any development project I’ve worked on. What does it cost to give someone hope?

A photo I took in India a few years ago, and used recently in a talk about development and dignity

Pete’s post more than anything I’ve read recently has given me a real jolt, forcing me to be more critical than ever about the work I’m doing, and whether or not I’m really doing good, or just feeling good. For me, development has always been personal. It’s not about scale, metrics, KPIs or log frames, but about connecting with real people with real problems. I’m proud that I’m still in contact with, and friends with – and supporting – many FrontlineSMS users years after I stepped back from the project. Friendships outlast any development timeframe, as should our desire to be there for the people we seek to help. Perhaps this, more than anything, should be my own personal KPI, and how I judge whether my efforts have ultimately been worth it or not.

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.