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. 

One last throw of the dice.

I’ve always found the global development system frustrating. It was the 1980’s when it first got my attention, with suffering and extreme poverty dominating my daily news feed. The Ethiopian famine in 1985 was the turning point, forcing me to seriously question why a sector awash with money and resources could have so little visible impact (and when it does, how it struggles to effectively communicate the change). While I still don’t have all the answers I think I know a lot more about what needs to be fixed.

A depressing reality struck me the other week as I pulled together a collection of my most popular blog posts for a new eBook. It dawned on me that I’ve been writing about the same stuff for over a decade. Some of my posts from 2007 apply just as much today, if not more. And that’s depressing. Seriously depressing.

I’ve always been my biggest critic and I constantly question whether anything I’ve done, or currently do, has or is making any kind of meaningful difference out there. Sure, I’ve spent the best part of my working life trying to figure out how I can contribute to a solution to some of the social and environmental problems that deeply trouble me, but because I’ve spent so long doing it doesn’t mean I’ve achieved anything. I wrote about this recently, too.

Tonight I watched a TED talk, provocatively titled “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash“. It was wonderfully argued and delivered, and beautifully challenged many of the assumptions that underly global development policy and practice. In his talk, Rutger also highlighted a solution to a poverty reduction programme that actually worked but has since been largely ignored – the basic minimum income. (This is something I’ve seen time and time again in my work on the technology side of development (often called ICT4D), in that when ideas emerge that seem to actually work for unexplained reasons the wider sector decides not to adopt or support them. For a sector that constantly demands new and innovative solutions to everything, it’s perplexing.

With so much still to be done, I wonder whether I’m going to see the change that’s needed in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate in my career, and have had wonderful support throughout. But the question I’m beginning to ask myself now is this. If there was just one thing I could work on for the next ten years – one thing I could throw myself at and have the greatest impact – what would that be?

I wonder.