Why we need more anthropologists

Today I’m back at the University of Edinburgh talking to anthropology students about how I’ve used my degree in my global technology/development career. I can’t overstate how refreshing it is to speak to a room not obsessed with technology, or scaling projects, or measuring impact. For me, it’s always started with the people and, for everyone in the room, it will be the same. I’ve long advised people interested in a career in global development to study anthropology (better still, anthropology with development studies, as I did at Sussex University).

It may sound crazy, but there aren’t enough people focused on understanding people in the technology-for-development world (one week field trips carrying out surveys don’t count). You see plenty of ‘Technology Advisor’ roles, but where are the ‘People Advisors’? There’s plenty of everything else, just not enough of that. I’m currently looking at work opportunities in the technology-for-development sector, and don’t think I’ve seen a single job description define a major requirement for time spent in the field, understanding the context of technology use in global development. And, of course, no mention of the word ‘anthropology’ anywhere. Everything else seems to matter more than that, and it’s something we have to put right. Anthropology has a huge amount to offer the sector – it just doesn’t seem to know it yet.

A question that I often get asked when people get over the shock that I have an anthropology degree, not something computer science-related, is “What on earth would anthropologists be doing playing with mobile phones?”. The answer may be a little more obvious than you think, but let’s start at the beginning.

Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It’s also a discipline shrouded in a certain mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is, or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better (but often incorrectly) ‘known’ for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones and other digital devices.

What anthropology isn’t

The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki dress poking around with ancient relics while they try to unpick ancient puzzles and mysteries, or a bearded old man working with a leather-bound notepad in a dusty, dimly lit inaccessible room at the back of a museum building. If people were to be believed, anthropologists would be studying everything from human remains to dinosaur bones, old pots and pans, ants and roads. Yes, some people even think anthropologists study roads.

Despite the mystery, in recent years anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do.

What anthropology is

So, if anthropology isn’t the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, anthropology is distinguished from other social sciences – such as sociology – by its emphasis on what’s called cultural relativity, the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context – the social and physical conditions under which different people live – and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. To you and me, that’s comparing one culture to another. In short, where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to try and understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from ‘within’.

Anthropology has a number of sub-fields and, yes, one of those does involve poking round with old bones and relics. But for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting sub-field because of the role it plays in the gobal development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970’s, making development anthropology as necessary today as it has ever been. Many academics – and practitioners, come to that – argue that anthropology should be a key component of the development process. In reality, in some projects it is, and in others it isn’t.

The importance of KYC (Know Your Customer)

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if 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 go by a different name – customers.

Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $75 smartphones), but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets) and phones which hold multiple SIMs.

My anthropology journey

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one which looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there’s anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

Today, mobile devices are closing the digital divide in ways the PC never did. Industry bodies such as the GSM Association, who have previously run Bridging the Digital Divide initiatives, today remain extremely active in the mobile-for-development sector. International development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives centred around mobiles and mobile technology. Mobile phones today are almost as exciting as big data, 3D printers and drones.

I’m immensely proud of my anthropology roots, and the insights it has given me in my work. Without it, I’d not have successfully conceived and developed FrontlineSMS. I’m also very proud with my ongoing association with Sussex University in my capacity as Ambassador for International Development.

And I’m always happy to do my part to promote the discipline in the technology-for-development world because I think it needs more – many more – anthropologists walking the corridors if it’s to take full advantage of the wonderful digital opportunity it has been given. I just hope it starts paying attention before it’s too late.

An experiment in giving: Part II

“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?”

From ‘An experiment in giving‘. September 2017

Three months ago, a group of 35 of us committed to giving £10/$15 a month to ten Nigerian families in need for a period of twelve months. You can read more on how it all came about here. It was an unashamedly unscientific approach to giving, focusing more on providing the recipients some hope as much as a clearly definable, measurable opportunity. None of us had met the families, and none of us knew of their aspirations or ambitions. What we did know – all that we did know – was that they were all experiencing hardship to varying degrees and that they needed a break in life.

A long-time, trusted Nigerian friend – who also happened to be behind this – did the ground work for us and helped identify the ten families. He also helped them open bank accounts so they could receive the funds (for most this was the first time they had ever had a bank account). He also provided some training in basic financial literacy. The families received their first payment – a double payment to help get them off to the best possible start – in October.

As we approached the three month mark in early December, all ten beneficiaries received visits to see how they were doing. They were all in high spirits and thankful for the financial support that the project was giving (which, in most cases, represented a 50% increase in monthly income). Initial feedback and assessments indicate a significant improvement in their lives, with the funds helping with everything from daily subsistence needs, school fees, the purchase of work tools, finance for their trade, clearing debts, healthcare and house building.

From the outset we promised to be open and transparent about what we were doing, and each of the recipients gave us permission to use their names and photos publicly. Indeed, they have been actively encouraging us to share their stories so that we may extend the reach of the programme (we have no plans to do this at the moment). Before we go much further, though, we recognise the need to carry out more robust research into the impact of the project, and whether small contributions such as these (small from the donors perspective, at least) over a period of time (12 months) have the potential to set the ground for lasting change at the family level.


Arit is a widow in her sixties. She had seven children when she was younger, but only four survived into adulthood – one of whom lives with her in her dilapidated hut. Unfortunately her other children had to move 30 kilometres away to the nearest city to find work.

Arit has used part of her first payment to restart her local snacks business. Shelter is her major challenge and she is saving her monthly income towards building a small concrete house for herself.


Mary has just turned 45, and is a mother of five children. Her husband abandoned her seven years ago when he couldn’t provide for the family, so she now lives with her entire family in a single rented room.

Mary’s financial status has greatly improved in the last three months. She has moved from just hawking sachet water to owning a cooler and securing her own location where she sells her products. She is now able to make more income because her cooler keeps her water cold and people buy more when they are thirsty in the hot and humid weather. The funds have also helped with her children’s school fees. She’s also  happy to have a bank account – which has helped her develop a culture of saving.


Emem is a 44 year old widow with six children. She has managed to send four of these children to school through her own hard work, but her daily work is arduous and she is struggling to keep up with the school fees. She lives 45 km from the state capital.

Since receiving her funds, Emem has expanded her vegetable farming. She has been able to lease about an acre of land beside the village stream to grow more vegetables (waterleaf, pumpkin leaf and sweet corn) for the nearby town food market and is confident she can now make more money to improve the livelihood of her family.


Nsikan is a widow in her fifties. She lives 65 km away from the state capital. This area, which can only be accessed on two wheels or by foot, has seen a lot of hardship. Her husband passed away seven years ago so Nsikan now must provide for five children. When she told her new husband that he couldn’t marry a second wife, he abandoned her.

Since Nsikan started receiving her monthly payment her palm processing business has started to grow. She is able to support her family better than before and has been able to restart a building project which she previously had to put on hold.


Ema is a 39 year old widow with four children. She lives about 25 km from the nearest city. Her eldest child has finished secondary school and is learning a vocation, but the training has been cut short for the time being. Ema has outstanding fees to pay, and her other three children are in primary school.

Thanks to her additional income Ema now buys the food items she trades with her own money, not on credit, and as a result makes a better profit. She also used to suffer from severe pains from a botched surgery but could not afford to go back to the hospital for further treatment. The first thing that she did when she collected her first payment was to seek medical attention and she is now feeling better and fitter than she has for a long time.


Ottobong is 36 years old and married with six children. He lives about 57 km from the nearest city. He is trained as a welder, but he can’t find enough money to invest in the tools he needs.

So far Ottobong has been using his new funds to buy and process palm fruit to sell. He has started purchasing work tools (including an oxygen gas cylinder and metal sheet cuttings) for his welding work and has been able to pay his children’s latest school fees more easily. He hopes to be able to purchase all the basic equipment for his welding business by the end of the program and to then start a full welding service to support his family.


Victoria is a 47 year old widow with six children who lives in a remote village. Two of her children are in primary school, but the other four dropped out of secondary school because she could not afford to pay their school fees.

Thanks to the injection of cash, Victoria’s palm processing and crayfish business is now a profitable venture. She now buys greater quantities of the goods she needs to process and sell. Because she now makes more profit she is able to better support her family. Crucially, she is now able to purchase her crayfish at a good rate because she does not require credit.


Josephine is a widow in her fifties with three surviving children. One of her daughters went missing two years ago. She now lives with her small family in a remote village a few dozen kilometres from the state capital.

Josephine is now gradually putting her life back together after the recent collapse of her house. She is back in business making her local snacks to sell. She has also started moulding concrete blocks to begin the process of rebuilding her house, and believes that with the progress she is making so far she will be able to have a roof over her head soon.


Bessie is a widow and grandmother. She lost her husband three years after she was married. Following this, three of her children passed away. She now lives with her daughter and grandchild.

In the short term, Bessie plans to use her new funds to complete concrete work on her house so that she can have a permanent and safe place for her and her family to live. So far she has used the money to mould concrete blocks for the building. In addition, the funds have helped her meet her daily needs, which she says has been a huge help and a big weight off her mind.


Imeobong is 41 years of age and is married with five children. She lives in two rooms with her children in a village located 27 km from the closest city. She faces a huge challenge to take care of her children after her husband abandoned the family.

Thanks to her increased income Imeobong has been able to put hers and her family’s lives back on track. She saved her pay-out for two months and started trading sweet potatoes. All was going well until the last week of November when her daughter was robbed and assaulted taking funds from the cash machine. It was a major setback for the family but she has been able to keep going, and used her most recent pay-out to start trading again.


Further reading on some of the thinking behind the project can be found here. If you’re interested in what we’re doing, or can help with our research needs, feel free to comment or get in touch.

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. There’s also a December update on how the project is going here