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In Malawi, problems as symptoms

When I started out in development I had no idea what I’d be able to do to help solve some of the huge, complex problems out there. But that lack of certainty – and an absence of obvious answers – turned out to be a far better starting point than I ever imagined. 

After a trip to Zambia in 1993 to help build a school, I knew immediately that my work in IT and finance in Jersey wasn’t the right career for me and that I wanted to spend the rest of my working life doing something more meaningful. But that was all I knew. At that stage I didn’t have a skill set that was particularly useful to international development, so there was no obvious quick and easy way in. Instead I set out on an extended period of learning, one where I spent as much time as I could living with, working with, and supporting the communities and causes I wanted to help – everything from a few weeks helping build a local hospital in Uganda to a year working in rural conservation in Nigeria.

The work was often hard and emotionally challenging, but in a way I was fortunate. That decade of learning turned out to be critical, and included a spell at university learning development and the art of social anthropology. The technology piece didn’t return until much later, and I’m grateful for that. If mobile phones and the Internet been around in 1993 I’d probably have jumped straight into ICT4D and bypassed all the context – and been far the poorer for it.

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I write this as I sit on a flight from Malawi where I’ve spent a week assessing a teacher absenteeism system as part of my work with CARE. What turned out as a trip to unpick a piece of software turned into one dominated by everything but. Food insecurity, climate change, economics and the politics of education were the real issues, teacher absenteeism just a symptom. The visit reminded me why I got into development – not because of technology, but because of the people, and the very real challenges they face in their lives.

From afar you’d be forgiven for thinking that teachers not showing up for work were just lazy and, although that might be the case for some, for the vast majority the reasons were far more complex than that. It was only after sitting down and speaking to many of them that you realise how teacher absenteeism isn’t the real problem after all, and a technology looking to solve a problem might be looking at totally the wrong thing.

Anyone hoping to make use of today’s vast toolbox of technologies to solve a problem in international development might be better off keeping it closed at first, and taking time to better understand the context of the problem they’re trying to solve. Unfortunately, the availability of technology makes it far too easy to skip that learning step (hence the high rate of failure) and I consider my wider knowledge of development issues to be a far greater asset to those I work with than my programming or technical skills. There’s a dedicated Students page on the kiwanja website promoting the merits of this very approach.

For the children: Food aid distribution at a school in Malawi

With 20% of the country facing severe food insecurity due to an excessive drought, the Malawian Government declared a state of emergency half-way through our trip. We saw piles of food aid at primary schools to feed the children, many of who had little chance of getting it anywhere else, and heard of classes with ratios of 250 students to one teacher, and others with little to no materials and even less hope of getting any any time soon. Many teachers felt undervalued, demotivated and underpaid, struggling as much as the students they were trying to teach. Somehow, the enormity of these challenges – and how they connected and intertwined – only seem real when you come face-to-face with them. Time in the field beats any amount of time in front of a computer screen.

This trip was a stark reminder of something I already knew – the value of local knowledge, local reality and local perspective on any development effort, regardless of what we assume the problem, or solution, to be.

Best practice begins in the classroom

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator and my more recent book, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I dedicate more than a few pages to emerging best practice in technology-for-development projects. While we certainly need as many bright minds as possible turning their skills, energy and attention to solving many of the problems in the world, their efforts should be respectful to the communities they seek to help, and properly guided in order for those efforts to have the greatest possible impact and chance of success.

But if you step back for a moment, it defies logic that someone should try to solve a problem they’ve never seen, or don’t fully understand, from tens of thousands of miles away. It’s hard to argue that they have the knowledge or qualifications – even the right – to attempt such an audacious feat. Yet that’s precisely what’s happening in many universities across much of the developed world multiple times each academic year. Students are being ‘skilled up’ in design thinking and global development issues, pointed to a few exciting new and emerging technologies, and told to fix something. Their primary purpose is to pass a course in most cases, which almost makes it worse.

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Speaking at schools, colleges and universities around the world has been a big part of my work over recent years, and I always make a point of sharing emerging best practice when I do. My inbox is always open to students wanting to share their ideas, or talk about how they might contribute to making the world a better place. A highlight was almost certainly a discussion in front of several hundred students with Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few years ago. I’m happy to connect, guide and mentor anyone with a good idea and even better intentions, and have even gone to the effort of editing two books to help share the stories of others who have gone about innovating in impactful and respectful ways.

At a time when we know we need to be building capacity among local innovators to start solving their own problems, it’s tough to see so many outsiders continuing to take charge – students and tech-focused international development organisations among them. The developing world becomes a sand pit where people take and play out their ideas. It rarely turns out well for a whole number of reasons.

To help students think through what they’re doing before they reach out for help, I’ve added a Students page to the kiwanja website. I hope it helps them think a little more about what they’re doing, and why. There they can download a PDF of a checklist – made up of the same questions in my Donors Charter – to help them think through what they’re doing and, more importantly why it’s them doing it. I also hope teachers and lecturers make use of it, too. After all, in many cases it’s them encouraging and supporting these students with their project ideas.

You can check out the new Student page here. And feel free to print, share, re-post and distribute the checklist PDF anywhere you think it might be helpful.

Let’s start to put this right, one classroom at a time.

A call for sanity – not innovation – in humanitarian tech.

If you’re a socially-focussed tech organisation working with refugees, it’s been a pretty tough few months. Not only have you had to deal with the ever-growing number of people fleeing conflict – now at record levels – but you’ve had to deal with the politics of the ‘humanitarian technology sector’.

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For those who have been working with refugees for years, often with proven, well-thought out solutions, it must be frustrating to see call after call – through Challenges and Innovation Competitions and the like – for ‘innovative new solutions’ to the crisis. Not only is it madness to imply that every solution already out there isn’t any good (which asking for new ones implicitly does), but it often sidelines the very organisations with the best background and experience – the ones best-placed to build the ‘desperately needed stuff that works’ that we need.

Can we agree to stop calling for ‘innovative and new’ solutions to every crisis, and commit to at least first looking at what currently exists? And, sure, if there is nothing then let’s reach out and built something new.

Deal?