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.

Back in the game

Yes, I’m back looking for my next big opportunity. For context start below, for the details head to the bottom of this post.

Five years ago I sat on the Unreasonable at Sea ship, docked in Ho Chi Minh City, planning next steps in a life and career that’s taken me from programming Commodore PET computers, running primate sanctuaries and developing messaging tools to mentoring tech startups and students on a ship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If it’s all about the journey, then I think I’ve done pretty well.

Ken-Desmond-Tutu-Panel-Marc

Despite all of that, as time passes the destination inevitably becomes just as important. After almost 30 years working in technology – 25 years of those in conservation and international development – I’ve been rewarded with some amazing friendships, many wonderful experiences and more than my fair share of (unexpected) recognition and awards. But now feels like the right time to once again see what might be next.

My last attempt to find it was halted by some great opportunities to work with a bunch of other people on their projects, and to publish “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”. In between the paid work I’ve continued the trend of doing a bunch of talks and guest writing, and helping mentor students and early stage socially-focused technology startups, usually in my own time. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.

When it comes to change I could, of course, continue as I have done for the past twenty-odd years and see where my journey takes me. But that now feels a little too risky, not to mention the uncertainty of having to cobble together a salary year-on-year (even though I’ve done pretty well at it for well for fifteen years). I now have responsibilities, and a journey which has largely been just about me is now about others, too. I’m no longer travelling alone.

Henry-Maddie-Ollie-Ice-Cream-2015

kiwanja.net now has passengers

I often highlight in my many talks that back in the beginning my ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. My passion for technology, anthropology, conservation and development are enshrined in everything I’ve done with kiwanja.net for the past fifteen years, largely based on my experiences over the previous decade or so. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t change a thing.

But now it feels like time to make better use of what I’ve learnt, and take it forward somewhere else. I’m not entirely sure what or where that ‘somewhere else’ might be, but I have a little while to find out.

What might I offer that ‘somewhere else’?

  • Over twenty-five years experience working in emerging markets, mostly across Africa
  • Thirty years experience in the IT sector
  • Fifteen years at the forefront of mobile-for-development (m4d)
  • A wide variety of multi-industry and non-profit contacts
  • Deep understanding of innovation and (social) entrepreneurship
  • A track record of speaking at international conferences
  • A track record in blogging and writing for websites, books and magazines
  • Mentoring
  • A solid understanding of appropriate technologies
  • A track record in the successful development and roll-out of FrontlineSMS
  • Various competition judging and Advisory roles
  • Experience from Entrepreneurship in Residence roles at CARE and DFID
  • An inherent belief that technology, designed and implemented appropriately and sensitively, can have a profoundly positive impact in the world
  • Ridiculous amounts of enthusiasm and a ‘can do’ attitude
  • (Click here for full bio and list of achievements)

What does the ideal opportunity look like?

  • It can be in the corporate or social sectors – I don’t mind
  • It has a mission I can believe in
  • It gives me freedom to think
  • And a little freedom to write
  • But importantly, freedom to be creative
  • And opportunities to share and learn with others
  • With colleagues who also believe in what they do

Where might there be a fit?

  • You’re a charitable foundation looking for someone to drive your technology-themed grant giving
  • You’re a large technology company needing someone to manage your CSR programme
  • You’re a design company working on developing or implementing technologies or services for emerging markets
  • You’re an education establishment in need of someone who’s spent a lot of time getting stuck in on the ground, with a strong interest and understanding of technology and development
  • You’re a startup in need of a helping hand to get your technology or service off-the-ground
  • You’re looking for an Entrepreneur in Residence
  • Or you may just like what I’ve been doing over the years and have the resources to financially support kiwanja.net so it can carry on doing it, and build on it. I continue to do a lot for free.

There are no doubt many other options. I’ve always quite fancied politics, too. Or a career in documentary film making (anyone want to make a film about technology and social innovation?). So anything and anywhere are on the table right now.

new-beginning-quoteFor the time being I’ll be finishing off some work with the Disasters Emergency Committee, working on a series of social innovation books for children and catching up on some reading. I’m in no immediate hurry for the page to turn, and think the right next step is out there somewhere. It just might take a while to find it.

If you have any ideas, would like to chat, or know anyone else who might be interested in talking feel free to share this post with them, or drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you. My LinkedIn profile is 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.